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  • The Tupperware Lady

    March 20, 2009

    I sat at my mother-in-law’s dining room table and looked through a box of her old photographs.

    Each picture, a tiny serving of frozen time.  Smiling faces peer out of a black and white world,  telling stories of the past and explaining something of the present.

    At the bottom of the box I find a large brown envelope. Inside is a photograph of my mother-in-law. She is young, tall and thin, pretty. She is standing on a stage with her husband and two other official looking people in some sort of ceremony. In a manner slightly exaggerated for the camera, she is reaching for a set of keys.  Everyone is smiling and looking into the camera.

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    It is the late 60s in southern California.  She is a housewife in her mid-30s.  Her children are in middle school, high school and off to college.  When her husband encouraged her to sell Tupperware to make a little mad money, she discovered that she liked it.  And she was good at it — so good that she won a car and quickly rose through the ranks to become a sales director.

    It wasn’t long after the picture was taken that her husband was thrown from a horse and suffered a serious head injury. He lingered between life and death for two days before he died.  And then the world that she knew spun completely off  its axis and crashed into a million pieces.

    When all was said and done, she packed up the Tupperware car with two of her boys and what was left of her life and drove back home to Texas to find healing among her family and to try to figure out how to be a single mom.

    It wasn’t easy, but she carried on.  She supported herself and her three boys selling Tupperware.

    I’ve always admired that about her.

    Aunt Geraldine And The Mystery Box

    March 6, 2009

    Aunt Geraldine was actually my mother’s aunt which I suppose would make her my great aunt.  She’s always been one of those relatives I was never clear exactly how she fit into the family tree.

    I believe Aunt Geraldine’s older sister mother, Aunt Fay, raised my mother’s baby sister after their mother died. And somehow they are related through Aunt Fay’s husband, who was a blood relative. Or not.  I’m not sure. I’m sure my mother the genealogist will send me an email shortly and straighten me out. For the 146th time.

    I bring all this up because recently I was going through a box of old childhood treasures and I came across a fragile little antique book I have had since I was 9-years-old.

    The book was a gift to a young girl named Julia from her Sunday school teacher, Addie F. Simpson and it is dated December 25th, 1875.  It is inscribed in that delicate old-fashioned cursive handwriting in sepia colored ink.  This little book is one of the very few things I own that I really care about, although I’m not certain why.   One summer, I spent a few days with Aunt Geraldine and she took me to a farm house auction where I bid on a wooden mystery box of assorted things and I won.   Inside that box was this little brown book.

    Aunt Geraldine and her husband, Uncle Mario were of retirement age. They had no children of their own and therefore free to indulge their eccentricities.  They lived a tiny town in central Illinois with a population of about 200, most of which was related to my mother in one way or another.

    Aunt Geraldine was a small-framed woman with soft but exacting speech. She had long gray hair that she kept in a bun, not in a severe school marm bun, but one that was always coming loose in messy wispy tendrils.  She wore wire-rimmed glasses and no make up and I don’t think I ever saw her in a pair of pants.  She had sparkling brown eyes and an especially tender heart for animals.

    Her home was unkempt and not especially clean, but she had a dazzling collection of small jewel colored cut glass Cinderella slippers that she kept in her picture window that sparkled in the sunlight and her bathroom was usually occupied by an injured bird of some sort that she was nursing back to health or a litter of motherless kittens.  Her husband, Uncle Mario, was a tall and skinny Italian, also soft spoken and kindhearted and together they were a charming and delightful pair.

    Aunt Geraldine had a deep and abiding love for antiques and Uncle Mario had a deep and abiding love for Aunt Geraldine.  Her hobby was going to flea markets and auctions to buy antiques and his hobby was accommodating her every whim and desire.

    They bought so many antiques over the years that they eventually had to start buying houses to store them in.  They always imagined that they would refinish and restore them and maybe sell them, but they never did because they never got around to refinishing them and restoring them and moreover, because she could never bear to part with any of them.

    When Aunt Geraldine died several years ago, she had a number of houses, sheds and barns that were stacked floor to ceiling with antiques, all at the mercy of the years and the  mice and all waiting for a second chance that never came.

    I remember quite clearly the summer day we went to the auction.  I rode in the backseat of their car with the windows rolled down.  My hair whipped me in the face as we bumped down dusty gravel farm roads that zigged and zagged through a maze of cornfields. The air smelled sweet of hot earth and scorched corn.

    When we got to the auction, we parked in a sea of cars and trucks on the lawn of a big white farm house with a wrap around front porch.  We went through the house and looked at all that was for sale.  Even though the house was filled with furnishings and all the stuff of living, it felt empty.  The farmhouse and all of its contents was to be disposed of that day, auctioned off to the highest bidder.

    When the bidding started, the cadence of the auctioneer’s song was confusing to my ears. I wasn’t sure when to raise my hand.  I was timid and afraid I would buy a chair or a sofa or a tractor by mistake. Aunt Geraldine stood behind me and nudged my elbow.  I lost the first few things I bid on when they went for more than the $2 I had in my pocket.  No one but me wanted the mystery box and with the help of Aunt Geraldine, I won.

    The book is now 134 years old. I’ve had it for the past 40 years.  I hope that long after I’m gone, Sean will treasure it as much as I do and keep it for his children.

    But it could be that at some point, no one will care and all my stuff will be disposed of at auction and it will end up in a mystery box and in the hands of another little girl.

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    * * * *

    Do you have a treasure with a story?

    Update – The Broker

    August 18, 2008

    You may or may not remember, but last year Papa George saved the local park in Tuna from a big faceless corporation who wanted to install a cell tower right in the middle of the park amongst oak trees that are hundreds of years old. A cell tower would have destroyed the visual beauty of the park and made it not that much of a park, really.

    Because Papa George is who he is, he was able to work out a deal for a small nearby church to rent a portion of their unused parking lot to house the cell tower thus providing the cell tower a more suitable home and the small church some much needed funding for their food pantry.

    George reports that the cell tower was finally installed and that the church is now able to provide groceries for 50 families every Monday. This is a congregation of about 50 people feeding 50 families every Monday. I think that is amazing. And I’m so proud of my Papa George and they way he goes about quietly ministering to people behind the scenes.

    Here’s a picture of Sean in the park (without a cell tower in the background) enjoying some retro space age playground equipment.

    And for your reading convenience, here’s the whole story from last March.

    The Broker

    My father-in-law George is a sweet and gentle man with a heart as big as the ocean. He never raises his voice. If he’s really really mad, he might say “damn”. That’s the only way you know he’s really mad because he doesn’t raise his voice. And let me add that in the eleven years I’ve known him, I’ve only heard him utter that word one time. Truly, he is a servant of God who looks after widows and orphans in their distress. But don’t mess with him.

    A while back George took his car to be washed. When it was done, he got back into his car to find that a roll of quarters was missing from the glove box. George went inside and spoke to the manager and politely asked for his quarters back. George is not a big guy. With a head of thick silver hair and a cane, he’s not an imposing presence. I’m sure when the carwash manager saw George, he figured he would blow him off like a ripe dandelion.

    The manager all but said I don’t have your quarters old man and why don’t you scram. But George wouldn’t budge. George said that was fine, that he would just hang around and talk to all the customers until he got his quarters back. In about ten minutes the manager handed him his roll of quarters. George thanked him very much and went on about his business. George brokered a deal for everyone to do the right thing without causing a stink and that’s a quality in him that I really admire.

    Across the street from my in-laws house is a park that covers one city block. It is filled with big gnarly twisting ancient oaks which shade the 1950’s space age inspired playground equipment, a basketball court, a picnic area and lots of open space to run and play.

    In the middle of the park is a large granite stone that is engraved with the message that the park was donated to the children of Tuna in 1947 in memory of Janis by her mother. I don’t know what happened to Janis or how old she was when she died, but it’s touching to think of all the children that have played in that park under the shade of those trees, whose children now play in that park and even grandchildren, Sean included.

    Recently a big cell phone service provider came through Tuna and decided that a good place to erect a cell tower would be smack dab in the middle of the park, leveling most of the ancient oaks, leaving only the margins of the park and thusly rendering it no longer a park for all intents and purposes.

    In exchange for obliterating the park, the generous BCS (big corporate schmucks) were willing to compensate Tuna with rent of about $1000 a month. It is my impression that the Tuna powers-that-be were salivating at the thought of all that money pouring into the city coffers and maybe even the idea that they would no longer have to maintain the park. And certainly the dumb people of Tuna would go for that. The notice of their intent and the date of the hearing was surreptitiously buried in the back of the local newspaper. Unfortunately for them, not much gets by George and he was on the case.

    George was the only one who showed up at the hearing. When BCS saw the sight of an unassuming elderly man leaning on his cane, they probably figured they had a ripe dandelion in their sights. But like the car wash manager, they would be wrong. George stood up and made his case on behalf of the children of Tuna. And whatever he said, it was enough to convince the board to kill the issue. For the time being or until they figured George had forgotten about it.

    Across the street from the park is a building that used to be owned by the Baptist church which moved to a new and larger location several years ago. The property is currently owned by another religious organization whose primary purpose is to house a food bank for the needy. After the meeting, George visited with the pastor of the church/food bank and told him that if he were willing, he could rent his parking lot to BCS for over $1000 a month, income the food bank sorely needs. Within a few days, the deal was inked.

    Thanks to George’s brokering skills, BCS will plant their cell tower in an unused parking lot, the food bank will earn some much needed income and the giant oaks will continue to shade the children of Tuna as they play in the park and little Janis will continue to rest in peace – a win-win-win-win deal for all parties.

    Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Matthew 5:9


    Hester

    August 10, 2008

    This month, my maternal grandmother would have been 109 years old.  She died in 1938 when my mother was only 4-years old, about the same age my son Sean is now .  In honor of her birthday, I am re-posting this essay I wrote about her in August of 2006.

    * * * * *

    The day was November 7, 1938. She had turned 39 in August and was in her twelfth year of marriage to an uneducated but hard working farmer who adored her. It was never clear if she really loved him or if at the advanced age of 26, she had just given in to the fear of becoming a spinster and finally agreed to marry him when he asked her for the sixth or seventh time.

    She was a tall, pretty woman with hazel eyes, a thick head of wavy auburn hair and perfect white teeth. She loved jewelry and china and books and beautiful things.  Her own mother ran off and left the family Hester_1
    when she was ten-years-old, leaving her to help her father raise her three younger siblings.

    At an early age, she had made the unconventional decision to forego marriage and children in favor of working as a housekeeper for a wealthy doctor in order to have the nice things she loved so much. Marrying Allen Rhodes had put an end to her life of pretty things and was the beginning of a life of hard work and worry that was the lot of the farmer’s wife. Together they had five children ages 11, 8, 6, 4 and 5-weeks.

    She had been suffering since the birth of the baby with severe abdominal pain and after more than a month she could bear it no more. Her father, Hiram, who had come to live with the family several years earlier, begged Allen to get help for his daughter and so the decision was made to take her to town to see a doctor. In those days, few things were more terrifying to country folk than doctors. Such a radical decision says everything about the degree of desperation and pain she was suffering.

    As she stood to leave for the hospital that November afternoon, her feet must have felt as though they were made of lead. She kissed her infant daughter over and over cradling her downy soft head up to her cheek, closing her eyes and listening for the sweet purr of baby’s breath circling in her ear. She placed the baby into Hiram’s waiting arms and then kissed each of her other four children taking a long time to look into the face of each one. If there was any question of her love for Allen there was no question she loved her children more than anything in the world. In spite of the crippling pain, she couldn’t bring herself to turn away. Allen gently pulled her away and lead her to the door.

    Three separate times she made it as far as the car only to return to kiss her children good-bye one more time, kissing them and weeping over them at the same time. When she turned away for the last time, she knew that she would never return.

    Allen settled his sick wife in to the car for the long journey into town and waved feebly at his father-in-law as he put the car in drive. Hiram stood at the door of the farmhouse with the baby in his arms and tried to nod reassuringly. He watched the car carrying his daughter pull away, then dip and disappear into the rolling hills of corn. When there was nothing more to see but endless rows of corn, he clutched the baby tight to his chest, hung his head and shook and shivered, silently releasing all the tears he had been holding back his entire life.

    As the car bumped down the country road, perhaps she bore the unbearable in silence, wordless and brave. Perhaps she gave in and beat her breast and howled long and bitter and helpless as an injured animal does when caught in a trap and left to die. Allen never spoke of it.

    She never returned to the farmhouse again. She died in the hospital 12 days later. Her name was Hester. She was my grandmother.

    Aunt Dean

    March 6, 2008

    Last Wednesday morning we got the phone call that we had been expecting. Aunt Dean had been sick for well over a year, several years really, and Wednesday morning she slipped away from us and began the life that she had spent more than 80 years preparing for – eternal life.

    Death is tragic, even when expected, yet for Aunt Dean I can’t help but feel a sense of victory, the kind of victory I’ve read about in the Bible, but don’t fully understand – the victory over death that Jesus promises to those who take up his cross and follow him. I know a lot of people who talk about taking up the cross, of dying to self, but other than Aunt Dean, I don’t really know that many people who actually do it. Certainly not me.

    While many of us are in a quandary about what our spiritual gifts are and wonder what God wants us to do with our lives, Aunt Dean just saw what needed to be done around her and did it.

    She welcomed the outcast, took in those who needed a home, fed those who were hungry, prayed for those who needed prayer, comforted those who suffered and encouraged those who were discouraged. And she did it all quietly and without fanfare.

    So then, Saturday morning we returned Aunt Dean to the earth from which she came. Under impossibly blue skies and with the sweet promise of spring in the air, we cried over her with her children.  And we grieved, not so much for her, but for ourselves.

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    Aunt Dean with Sean in 2004. She stood only four feet and eleven inches tall but was a giant among believers.

    Day Is Done – Remembering Uncle Mike

    May 28, 2007

    Cpl. Mike  ~ 187th Airborne, Regiment 13
    February 24, 1930 – September 26, 1952

    Mike was my mother’s big brother. She describes him as a shy red-headed farm boy who loved tinkering with motors and engines and gadgets. He joined the army and became a paratrooper and later a member of the elite Rangers.

    In 1952, eight years before I was born, he was shot by a Korean sniper. He died on foreign soil, in service to our country, far far away from the gently rolling midwestern cornfields of his home and his family who loved him. He was 22.

    Millie Conway

    April 8, 2007

    In our family, we celebrate Easter and our risen Lord as we do any other holy day – by racing home from church and eating entirely too much. And then complaining about how full we are as we waddle off to check out the dessert table.

    And after all that eating, nothing much else can be done except to sit around the table and talk trash before going back for another piece of pie. When my mother-in-law Cleo and her siblings get together, talk inevitably turns to Millie Conway. After 70 or more years, it’s still Millie Conway. If you have ever wondered how long one can harbor sour feelings, it’s at least 70 years.

    In case you are wondering, Millie Conway was a girl that Cleo and her older sisters grew up with. As legend has it, Millie had the good fortune of being an only child and consequently was afforded a few luxuries – new clothes, an occasional Coke or a bologna sandwich all to herself. In Cleo’s family there were seven children and no such luxuries. If Cleo were to have to choose a last meal, I can tell you right now it would be a sandwich of thick cut bologna with real mayo and a Coke. The contentious feelings towards Millie wasn’t borne out of the fact that she had so much and that Cleo and her sisters had so little, but that Millie was the original Nellie Oleson.

    After a round table rehashing of Millie’s many acts of evil against the sisters, each one reported as though it had never been told before, one of the siblings will say of their oldest sister, “You know, Fanny always wanted to hit Millie but mama wouldn’t let her,” and then almost piously, “Mama never let us hit anybody or anything like that.”

    And then someone will say, “Poor Fanny went to her grave wanting to hit Millie and never got the chance.” And then we all hang our heads in a moment of silence for Aunt Fanny and her unrequited and unopened can of whoop ass.

    “Whatever happened to Millie Conway anyway?” someone asked.

    “Oh she died some years back,” Cleo says.

    Everyone paused to consider this.

    Then Antique Daddy adds triumphantly, “Well, I bet the first thing Aunt Fanny did when she got to heaven was kick Millie Conway’s butt.”

    And if there is any image that will convey the true meaning of Easter, it’s two old ladies in a throw down at the Pearly Gates.

    Ode To Aunt Shirley

    February 1, 2007

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    Whenever the chickens saw her coming, feathers would go flying as they nervously scurried and flapped and ran in all directions looking for a hiding place. The same tiny woman with the big voice and the skinny legs that scattered the grain, occasionally got one of them by the neck never to be seen again. And apparently that wasn’t lost on the chickens as the sight of her seemed to set off some sort of silent alarm.

    That tiny woman was my mother’s sister, my Aunt Shirley. She died yesterday afternoon at the age of 79 of ovarian cancer. She died in her sleep, peacefully and without pain. At home in her beloved farmhouse and surrounded by her four children, she slipped easily from this world and into the next. And for that we are grateful.

    Aunt Shirley was one of those people born exactly into the correct time and circumstance. She was born to be a farmwife and by all standards, she excelled. By the time she could walk, she could catch a chicken, wring it’s neck and fry it up for dinner. She was the oldest of five children, and at her mother’s knee she learned how to tend a garden, put food on the table and look after her siblings. And then at the tender age of eleven, her mother died leaving her to become a mother to her own siblings.

    What I will remember about Aunt Shirley is that like my mother, she had impossibly blue eyes and an easy smile. She was a small person with a slight build, but had a gentle sort of authority about her — the kind of authority that tames small horses and wild children, that no doubt came from running the farmhouse and helping her father raise her siblings. Her face was beautifully etched with the years and weather-worn from a life spent working outdoors. She always spoke at a startling decibel, perhaps from years of shouting over the wind and acres and her voice was baritone and gravelly from living on a steady diet of black coffee, cigarettes and little else for 60 years.

    She wasn’t overly affectionate, but she was friendly and always made you feel welcome in her home. And, as my mother likes to say, she could outwork seven men. She didn’t know how to sit down and rest and it was a blessing that she didn’t have to until the very end, because to sit and be waited on, to her, would have been life’s ultimate cruelty.

    She wasn’t one for going to church, but she had a heart to serve and the gift of hospitality. No matter that you might have shown up unannounced, she would magically put together a meal fit for a king. Which was not good news for the chickens. She loved everyone she knew with eggs from her chickens and with the bounty from her garden. She always had something fabulous growing somewhere — apples, cantaloupe, tomatoes — and would insist that you “Go pick ya some, they’ll just rot if you don’t.” And then if you didn’t pick what she thought was an ample supply, she would march you back out to the garden and load you up.

    In her 79 years of life, she seldom ventured beyond the bounds of the county and as far as I know, she never really cared to. She had her farm, her garden, her chickens and her horses to tend to and that was all she needed. She had four children, six grandchildren and a multitude of nieces and nephews who were all crazy about her. And she was smart enough to know that beyond the blue skies and cornfields upon which she gazed from her kitchen window for more than 50 years, there wasn’t anything, anywhere, better than that.

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    Photos:   Aunt Shirley and Sean on the steps of the farmhouse and above, the never changing view from Aunt Shirley’s kitchen window.

    Nothing To Complain About

    January 17, 2007

    After three months of freezing weather, too much cookie dough and entirely too much plenty of togetherness at the House of Antique, I am feeling the urge to complain. I am not a winter person. It seeps into my bones and settles into my soul. Like a chest cold. (Correction: Someone just mentioned that it hasn’t been three months, just three days. Sorry. My bad.) Ironically it was just this time last year I was feeling the same way. After I dislodged my nose from my navel I wrote the following post.

    Ode To Granny McKee

    Dear Granny McKee,

    You had long passed away by the time I married into your family, but I feel like I know you from the stories your children and grandchildren like to tell of you. Now that I have a child of my own, it is all the more that I admire you.

    On those days when I’m exhausted from the constant struggle of trying to shape one pint-sized caveman into a civilized human being and I’m up to my eyeballs in self-pity, I try to imagine what your life was like living out on the North Texas prairie in the early years of the century with seven children. It is then that I sober up and laugh at the absurdity of my mistaken notion of hardship.

    Sometimes I feel put upon to have to make yet another trip to the store (in my nice car and with my bottomless credit card) to buy disposable diapers and wipes to manage the never-ending cycle of diapers. Then I think of you with your two sets of twins less than three years apart. No indoor plumbing and no electricity — nothing but a bucket of water from the well and a scrub board. I know you could tell me a thing or two about never-ending diapers.

    Then there are times I imagine myself a martyr because I occasionally sacrifice the few hours of free time I have in a week to lend someone a hand. But then I recall my mother-in-law telling me how as a little girl she would hear you leave the house in the middle of the night to go deliver a baby or care for someone who was sick or to sit up with the dead, as they did in those days. I guess the fact that I no longer have time to sit down and read a novel anymore doesn’t really qualify as a sacrifice, does it?

    You would probably find it ridiculous that I groan about having to go to the grocery store when everything on your table was put there after a season of planting, tending, harvesting, peeling, chopping and cooking. And when the Texas skies were stingy with the rain, as they often are, then even all that work didn’t yield enough to feed nine mouths sufficiently. Your children like to tell of how never a Sunday passed that you didn’t invite the traveling preacher and his family home for Sunday dinner and then how afterwards you would send them on their way with a basket of leftovers. In spite of having to work so hard for so little, you shared what little you had, often at the expense of your own family.

    And after you had raised all of your seven children and were at a point in your life when you could indulge your own desires, you raised your oldest grandson, who in my book is one of the finest men I know. Except for Sarah Lee pound cake in your later years, self-indulgence was something with which you were unfamiliar.

    Thank you Granny McKee for the example of your noble life. I am so proud that my son shares in your heritage. I pray that he has inherited your steely spine and your heart for sacrifice and service.

    Love,

    Sean’s Mom

    Hester

    August 27, 2006

    The day was November 7, 1938. She had turned 39 in August and was in her twelfth year of marriage to an uneducated but hard working farmer who adored her. It was never clear if she really loved him or if at the advanced age of 26, she had just given in to the fear of becoming a spinster and finally agreed to marry him when he asked her for the sixth or seventh time.

    She was a tall, pretty woman with hazel eyes, a thick head of wavy auburn hair and perfect white teeth. She loved jewelry and china and books and beautiful things. Her own mother ran off and left the family Hester_1
    when she was ten-years-old, leaving her to help her father raise her three younger siblings.

    At an early age, she had made the unconventional decision to forego marriage and children in favor of working as a housekeeper for a wealthy doctor in order to have the nice things she loved so much. Marrying Allen Rhodes had put an end to her life of pretty things and was the beginning of a life of hard work and worry that was the lot of the farmer’s wife. Together they had five children ages 11, 8, 6, 4 and 5-weeks.

    She had been suffering since the birth of the baby with severe abdominal pain and after more than a month she could bear it no more. Her father, Hiram, who had come to live with the family several years earlier, begged Allen to get help for his daughter and so the decision was made to take her to town to see a doctor. In those days, few things were more terrifying to country folk than doctors. Such a radical decision says everything about the degree of desperation and pain she was suffering.

    As she stood to leave for the hospital that November afternoon, her feet must have felt as though they were made of lead. She kissed her infant daughter over and over cradling her downy soft head up to her cheek, closing her eyes and listening for the sweet purr of baby’s breath circling in her ear. She placed the baby into Hiram’s waiting arms and then kissed each of her other four children taking a long time to look into the face of each one. If there was any question of her love for Allen there was no question she loved her children more than anything in the world. In spite of the crippling pain, she couldn’t bring herself to turn away. Allen gently pulled her away and lead her to the door.

    Three separate times she made it as far as the car only to return to kiss her children good-bye one more time, kissing them and weeping over them at the same time. When she turned away for the last time, she intuitively knew that she would never return.

    Allen settled his sick wife in to the car for the long journey into town and waved feebly at his father-in-law as he put the car in drive. Hiram stood at the door of the farmhouse with the baby in his arms and tried to nod reassuringly. He watched the car carrying his daughter pull away, then dip and disappear into the rolling hills of corn. When there was nothing more to see but endless rows of corn, he clutched the baby tight to his chest, hung his head and shook and shivered, silently releasing all the tears he had been holding back his entire life.

    As the car bumped down the country road, perhaps she bore the unbearable in silence, wordless and brave. Perhaps she gave in and beat her breast and howled long and bitter and helpless as an injured animal does when caught in a trap and left to die. Allen never spoke of it.

    She never returned to the farmhouse again. She died in the hospital 12 days later. Her name was Hester. She was my grandmother.