Before We Were “Us”


“Grandma how did you meet Grandpa?” Glenna smiled before answering Conner who looked up at her with his big brown eyes filled with wonder and curiosity. “It was a very long time ago, and I was very young,” she began. Conner crawled into his Grandmother’s lap and nestled in to listen to her story. As she spoke he laid his head against her shoulder, and Glenna wondered from time to time if the warm little boy had fallen asleep only to have him ask, “Then what, Grandma? Then what?”

“When I was a young girl of only 16 years old, my family was very poor. We lived in the country, and my father grew what we ate on our small plot of land, but some years were harder than others. Some years there was very little rain, and all of the plants my father worked so hard to coax out of the ground withered and died in the sun. Some years we had too much rain, and the nearby river would swell over its banks and flood our field turning it into a lake just long enough to drown every living thing that grew out of the ground. I never knew a day that I could not say I felt hunger, but it was the way it was, and I loved my family, and they loved me, so we made due. One day, a strange woman came walking down on our road. My sister, your Auntie Nyla, saw her first, and she came running into the house shouting about a funny bent over lady on the road. My mother shushed her, fearing the woman would overhear what my sister said. I followed my mother and my sister to the window and peeked out behind the calico curtains that hung from the window over our kitchen table. Nyla was right. There was a funny looking woman out on the road, only now she was even closer, and it looked as though she was looking for someone. 

My mother opened the door and walked out to ask if the woman needed some assistance, and when she did, Nyla, who was only ten then, and I followed. When the woman saw my mother coming toward her, she stopped and put her large purple bag down on the ground, and leaned on her gnarled wooden cane awaiting what my mother had to say. Mother asked her if she was in need of any help or directions, but the strange woman smiled and said, “No, ma’am. I am here to help you.” Mother was confused by this but having been raised with proper manners about the way things are done, she asked the woman if she’d like to come inside for a glass of lemonade as the day was hot, and it was evident from the beads of perspiration glistening on the old woman’s forehead that she could likely use a break. Nyla was giddy with anticipation of what might come next, but I was older than Nyla, so I was a little more cautious. We stood off the path and made room for mother and the woman to go to the house, and then mother asked us to gather some glasses and the lemonade as she pulled out a chair for the old woman to sit. Mother laid the woman’s purse and cane against my great grandmother’s rocking chair that sat facing the other window in the small living room next to the kitchen. 

Though my mother had not said to do so, I also gathered up what we had left of the shortbread cookies we’d made for the church picnic a couple of days before. I knew my mother also served her guests a snack, so I figured that this was the right thing to do. As I placed the cookies down in front of the woman I noticed just how pink her lipstick made her mouth as her lips curled into a smile, and she said, “My! How nice! Those look delicious!” 

My mother explained that they were, and that her daughters had made them for the church picnic. “My girls are quite talented when it comes to baking,” my mother explained in a rare display of pride that made my cheeks grow warm. The woman at our table nodded as she took a bite and seemed to think a moment before she said, “I am not surprised to find that these might be the best shortbread cookies I have ever tasted. I knew when I came for you that I would not be disappointed.” My mother’s look of satisfaction and contentment darkened to what I can only imagine was something closer to concern. Nyla looked to me with questions in her eyes, but I only shrugged. There was nothing I could tell her about anything that was going on, so I stood back and waited to hear more. 

The woman took her time, took a bite of cookie and then a sip of lemonade before she spoke again while the rest of us sat in silent expectation. “I have come from a long ways away in search of your eldest daughter.” My mother and Nyla both looked at me before looking back to the woman, and I realized that I was holding my breath and beginning to feel somewhat nauseous. “I had a dream many moons ago, and your daughter appeared in a flowing white gown with flowers in her hand and in her hair. She was to be married. She was very happy.” 

“Madam, I am sorry, but you must be…” my mother began, but the woman ignored her interruption and continued. “Your daughter is to be married to a good man. He comes from my village far away, but he will come here soon to work on the railroad, and they will meet. She will know him by his kindness, and not long after, they will marry.”

“Madam, my daughter is only 16, and I don’t think that she is ready to marry.” My mother said in a protest that sounded less convincing than I would’ve expected. I knew that once I married, life would not be as hard for my family. One less mouth to feed and body to clothe would mean more for everyone else, and I couldn’t say that I didn’t want this for my family, but the thought of marrying at my age a man who I had never even laid eyes on seemed inconceivable. I knew that some of my classmates were leaving school and getting married. I even had one girlhood friend who would soon become a mother, but I didn’t feel like I was ready. I was scared, and the words this woman said made me worried and a little sad. 

“Don’t be sad Grandma,” Conner said, and stroked Glenna’s face with his little hand. She could feel that his thumb was wet, and she guessed that he’d been sucking on it as he listened intently to her story. “I’m not sad, honey. I am very happy. Let me tell you more about how this whole story goes.”

Glenna stroked Conner’s hair as she recalled where to continue her story, “Ah, yes. So, the woman at our table predicted that a man would come for work, and he would be the man I would marry. Shortly after she revealed this, she thanked my mother for her kindness and gathered her cane and purse and walked out into the lane. Mother followed her, and Nyla and I followed mother. Before the woman left, she said, “You’ll know the young man when he arrives, and your heart will be glad.” The woman then turned with a swish of her many layers of purple and black gown and walked back down the road in the direction from which she came. My mother watched her until Nyla asked her what had just happened. Mother turned to answer her, and when we all looked back to the road, the woman was gone. It was as though she’d vanished into thin air. I felt like the whole thing might not have actually happened, but all three of us were there to witness that it had.

The rest of the summer grew hotter that year until everything in the ground dried up, and we went into fall with very little food put up to get us through the long, cold winter. Nyla and I went back to school that fall with empty stomachs and dreams as dry as the ground that ate the food that we never could. Some days it seemed pointless to even try to study as I was too hungry to see where it would get me in the end, but after the grueling cold of January and February subsided, spring came early in March, and the tender green shoots and flowers that grew out of the land gave us hope once again that this year might be better than the last.

I’d all but forgotten about the visit from the strange woman the summer previous until I was at the story one day and overheard the storekeeper’s wife talking to a couple of women who went to our church. She told them that she’d just received word that the railroad would be coming through our town. “Do you know what this means for my store and my restaurant?” The women nodded with enthusiasm knowing full well that hard working men would soon overtake their town, and they would need to eat, and they would have money to spend. On top of that, once the railroad was finished, one could only dream of the growth and promise the little town might see. For an instant I was nearly noticed eavesdropping as I found myself staring in their direction lost in thought of a man I did not know who’d arrive to build the railroad. At first, I couldn’t recollect why I had this thought at all, and then in an instant, it came to me, and I realized that the woman who’d come with her message the summer before had predicted what was to come next.

I hurried home and told my mother what I’d heard at the store, but rather than being interested, my mother scolded me for being nosy and sent me to the post office to send a letter off to her sister Mabel in Montreal. On the way there, a wagon passed by and blew up dust from the road that sent me into a fit of sneezing. Just as I was about to wipe my face with my handkerchief, I heard a man’s voice say, “God Bless you.” I turned to see a young man of about 25 on his way to the general store. “Thank you,” I said, and I knew from the warmth in my cheeks that I was blushing furiously. I turned to continue on to the post office, but the man walked up and extended his hand. “My name is Jacob Murphy and I am here to work on the railroad. Could you suggest a place for someone new to your town to get a bit of food?” I wanted to tell him that there was only one place in our town, and that was Lottie’s Café next to the general store. I wanted to tell him that they had very good food there, but I found that the words were stuck in my throat. He stood looking at me with big, soft brown eyes that look an awful lot like someone else’s eyes. Glenna playful scratched her grandson’s head, and he wriggled in delight before settling back down to hear the rest of her story. 

When I finally found my words I couldn’t believe what I heard myself say, “There was a woman who came last summer…” Before I finished, the man, who was now smiling from ear to ear, said, “Ah yes! You met my Aunt Tilda the match maker! Did she tell you that you’d meet a young man who’d come to work on the railroad?”

I wanted to answer, but I found that my breath had been taken from me, so he continued. “Yes, she told me that she’d met a beautiful young girl of only 16, and that she’d be the woman I would marry. She said I would know the girl when I met her, and I am sure that she meant you.” My heart pounded in my chest, and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I stood and waited to see if he’d say more, but he only waited for me to speak. Finally, my words came to me, and I told him I had to go. I hurried off in the direction of the post office but was so flustered that I walked right past it and off into the meadow where the grass grows higher than your head, and you can get lost if you go in too far. It was a long time before I came to my senses and realized what I’d done, and by this time, the sun was getting lower in the sky, and I got scared.

I walked in one direction only to be met by every color of late summer flower. The grasshoppers jumped wildly as I made my way through the meadow, and I am sure from the tickles at my feet that my searching for my way out woke more than a couple napping field mice. The one thing I did not find was a way out. I tried walking in another direction only to find that as the sun sank lower in the sky I was still hopelessly lost. I didn’t know what to do when I heard a creature much larger than a field mouse making its way through the tall grass. I was frozen in the spot where I stood waiting for the creature to be upon me as I could hear its footsteps grow closer. Suddenly, when I was sure that some prowling puma would be making a feast of me, the grasses parted and there stood Jacob Murphy. His lips were smiling, but his eyes showed a concern unlike that one typically shows to strangers. 

“Jacob?” was all I could say to him before I burst into tears. He said nothing but took me by the hand and within just a couple of minutes he led me out into the open filed just behind the post office. “I watched you walk away, and I grew worried when I saw that you did not return.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying to me. “You waited for me?” He told me, “I’ve waited for you longer than a man’s heart can bear, but I can wait for you no longer.” At first I thought he was angry with me until he bent down on one knee and said, “Please make me the happiest man alive. Marry me.” I was thunderstruck, but not the least bit unsure that this wasn’t exactly what was meant to be, so I said, “Yes.”

Glenna stopped and savored the memory still sweet as the hot summer day itself before Conner looked at her with great concern. “Does Grandpa know?” Glenna laughed gently not wanting to embarrass her sweet grandson, “Maybe one of these days I will tell him.”

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