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On the way to town
A Walk into Town
This morning I got up early and went across the street to Sister Alma Rose’s farmhouse because we had planned to walk into town. She had made cheese omelets and fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee for our breakfast, and as we sat down to eat, the sun was clearing the long row of poplars east of the house, and I waited for Sister Alma Rose to say a prayer, as she always does, and this is what she said this morning:
This is the day that You, our Creator, have made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Thank you for air to breathe and water to drink and bread on the table. That is enough, for us, for today. Praise the Great Source of all life, of all universes, who pours forth love. Amen.
Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm
Now, when Sister Alma Rose meets someone for the first time, she always says, “How do you do? I am Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm”—using all her names, you see, like in the Middle Ages when people said, “How, now! I am Will the Wainwright from the Swampy Glen, forsooth.” And folks would call him “Will Wright” or “Will O’Glen” or something, to distinguish him from Will the Cooper from the New Town on the Southern Bank of the River Muddlebury….
Me, Fanny McElroy
Sister Alma Rose is rather prim in the matter of introductions, but she manages to be gracious and warm at the same time. I introduced her to Daddy’s Auntie Pru—or, rather, I introduced Auntie Pru to Sister Alma Rose, because Sister Alma Rose is the elder of the two—one rainy morning on Sister Alma Rose’s big wraparound porch.
Sister Alma Rose extended her strong, capacious right hand and closed it firmly around Auntie Pru’s small, bony one, and then Sister Alma Rose placed her left hand on top of their clasped hands and squeezed, causing Auntie Pru to wince, and it looked for all the world like a Venus flytrap devouring a moth.
Then Sister Alma Rose smiled, and the rain stopped and the sun came out. I am perfectly serious.
“How do you do?” she said. “I am Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm,” which Auntie Pru already knew because I had just said so.
Cucumber sandwiches, Yum! Image by pirate johnny via Flickr
But when Sister Alma Rose and I are chatting comfortably, after lunching on cucumber sandwiches made with barley bread and cream cheese, perhaps, on that wonderful porch, with its floor of wide wooden planks painted gray and with sky-blue soffit as the ceiling, she might say, “Sister Alma Rose has some cold lemonade in the icebox [she’s never gotten used to saying refrigerator] and I think there’s just enough for the two of us.”
That’s the shortest her name gets: “Sister Alma Rose.” Nobody would dream of calling her “Sister Alma” or just “Alma” or “Alma Rose” or, Heaven forbid, “Rosie.”
A lot of kids ask me about Sister Alma Rose
“Fanny McElroy,” they say, “is ‘Rosalie’ Sister Alma Rose’s last name? What does she look like up close? Is she really, really old and wrinkled? Is she rich?
“Why does she always wear those big dresses?” they want to know. “Who takes care of the farm? Is it that giant? Is he her boy friend? Is Sister Alma Rose Portia’s mama? Where does Portia go when she goes away?”
I usually say, “Why don’t you go call on Sister Alma Rose yourself? She’ll give you fresh-squeezed lemonade, and you can see what she looks like and maybe you’ll meet Mr. Truman LaFollette, who is Portia’s daddy. Ask him to say, ‘Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum,’ if you like. And if you are feeling extremely rude, you can ask how old Sister Alma Rose is and how much money she has and where she gets it.”
Sister Alma Rose's house at Hilltop Farm
But they don’t go — not yet — though Sister Alma Rose is almost always sitting on her wraparound porch in a big wicker rocking chair painted grass-green, the same color as the green shutters on the enormous white house her grandfather built (the shutters that Mr. Truman LaFollette took down to paint and never put back up), the same color as the wrought-iron rail around the widow’s walk at the very top of the very tall house on the crest of the long hill that starts its upward course at the Wild Turkey River.
If Sister Alma Rose doesn’t have a visitor, she knits or crochets, and she reads a lot of books about geography and anthropology. She is fascinated by people who live in faraway jungles and on islands where life hasn’t changed for hundreds and hundreds of years.
The view from Sister Alma Rose's front porch
But often she just sits and gazes contentedly at the countryside, a queen surveying her realm, as if God made the rich, rolling farmland and the slate-blue bluffs, the foothills covered with wild clover and goldenrod, the creek and the frogs and the clear blue pond, all just for her; and she smiles her gratitude.*
A Walk into Town
One hazy summer morning, when it was still cool but the air was heavy and promised afternoon heat, Sister Alma Rose and I walked into Hilltop early, just as the shops were opening. It is a downhill walk to get there, so of course it is uphill all the way home, and I was already looking forward to lemonade and canasta on Sister Alma Rose’s porch.
Ning's magical pathway
Sister Alma Rose was going to buy tang kuei from her friend Ninghong, though Sister Alma Rose calls her “Jia Ning.” I don’t know why. Ning sells Chinese food and herbs out of the front room of her house on Poplar Street. It is one of the oldest and loveliest houses in Hilltop, but it might have been built yesterday, as sturdy and neat as it is. The tiny front yard is planted entirely in flowers—deep-coral hibiscus, white oleander, pink roses, yellow and red hollyhocks, and honeysuckle and orange trumpet vines draped over twin arches next to twin weeping willows that shade the large porch. In stark contrast, the house is a delicate eggshell shade, inside and out. The porch is cluttered with old-fashioned white-enameled outdoor furniture—a glider and chairs with deep-red cushions, and small café tables. On this particular morning, a man is sitting on the glider, singing to himself. He stops singing to smile at us, and his smile is sweet and warm, despite the conspiculous paucity of teeth.
We open the front door, with its lovely oval of etched glass, and a bell tinkles. Ning is in the front room opening cartons with a box-cutter and setting the contents—bright yellow boxes of tea—on tidy shelves. Ning’s front room is one of my favorite rooms in all the world. The tall, narrow windows on three walls are open, and there is a heady mix of fragrances—the ginger and the teas and a breath of honeysuckle on the damp breeze. The wide-planked pine floor is polished like the surface of a lake.
Ning emerges from behind the huge pine counter, as shiny as the floor, and squeezes my cheeks between her small, strong hands, kissing my forehead. “Good morning, sweet Fanny McElroy,” she says in unaccented English. Sister Alma Rose has told me that Ning was born in Hilltop, but the two of them always converse in Chinese—Mandarin, I think. Sister Alma Rose takes Ning’s little hands in hers, and I wince, as I always do, expecting to hear the crunch of bones, but Ning only laughs delightedly.
The bell rings again, and we turn to see Ning’s mama holding the door open while Ning’s grandmama shuffles in, leaning heavily on a shiny black cane and smiling. I couldn’t say, precisely, but I think that Ning’s grandmama has just a few more teeth than the man on the porch. Ning’s mama is carrying a box, and when she sets it on the counter I see that it is filled with dozens of small drawstring bags made from colorful fabrics—purple, red, green, and yellow, some flowered, some striped.
Ning is out of tang kuei, but her nephew will deliver it to Sister Alma Rose tomorrow. Ning and her mama and grandmama and Sister Alma Rose chatter for a bit in Chinese, and then Sister Alma Rose takes my arm and guides me to the door, and I turn and say zàijiàn, which means “goodbye” and which is the only thing I know how to say in Chinese, and Sister Alma Rose smiles her approval, and then we are on the porch.
The man with the missing teeth is still sitting on the glider. He is wearing what looks like a basketball uniform, dark green, and his skin is a dusky black. He smiles at us, and we smile back. I notice that the whites of his eyes are mottled with red and that the hand he raises in greeting is unsteady.
“Do you have a dollar for me today?” he asks. At least I think that’s what he is saying, but he has a thick accent and his speech is as unsteady as his hand. Sister Alma Rose reaches into her pocket and pulls out two quarters, places them into his hand, and then takes both of his hands and squeezes them, as is her way. I have a quarter and a dime in my coin purse, and I give them to him, and he holds onto my hand for a moment and looks deep into my eyes and says, “I am the blood brother of Jesus. Do you see the blood in my eyes? That is Jesus’ blood.” At least I think that’s what he is saying.
Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons
“God bless you, then,” I say politely, and then Sister Alma Rose and I begin our trek up the hill toward home and Mr. Truman LaFollette’s lovely lemonade. It is already uncomfortably warm.
“Sister Alma Rose,” I say, “do you know that man? What does he mean, he is the blood brother of Jesus?”
She only smiles, so I go on, “Do you think he is a toper?” That’s what Uncle Lester calls someone who drinks too much alcohol. “Should we have given him the money? Maybe he’ll spend it on liquor.”
Sister Alma Rose takes my hand, gently, for a change. “God tells us to give to the poor, Fanny. It is between them and God what they do with what we give them.
“I have seen this man before. He is from Ethiopia, and he has had much trouble. It is good that he can smile. It is good that people smile back. A great deal is exchanged in smiles from the heart, Miss Fanny.”
“But what did he mean,” I persist, “when he said he is the blood brother of Jesus? Can that be true?”
“Well, Fanny,” says Sister Alma Rose, “it is not a lie. That I can tell y’all. But it is a mystery. Not all angels have wings.”
She is quiet for a moment. Then she says, in her teacher voice, “Did y’all know, Fanny, that everyone on earth is your relative? We are all at least fiftieth cousins. And did y’all know that, in no more than one year, y’all breathe in oxygen atoms that have been in the lungs of everyone alive and everyone who has ever lived?” **
We walked the rest of the way to Sister Alma Rose’s front porch in silence. Sister Alma Rose might be my twenty-ninth cousin three times removed, I thought. And perhaps the man on Ning’s porch is an angel of God.
* From The Ancients, Part 1: Daddy Pete, by Mary Campbell
** From the 2005 book Pronoia, by Rob Brezsny