Clara loved to drive. She learned when she was nine. No licenses were required and it wasn’t unusual for children in rural areas to be behind the wheel. Cars weren’t as fast and dangerous, highways and freeways didn’t exist, the roads were mostly dirt, the traffic mostly horses, carriages and wagons.
“You had to be careful of stray animals and young Amish men racing their carriages at breakneck speed down the road. They were a handsome bunch. An accident to look forward to,” Clara said.
When she was ten, her father, Howard, needed an important legal document delivered seventy miles to Cleveland. No one was available to take it, so little Clara hopped into the family Model T, made the delivery and arrived back home at sunset. Her mother, Sarah Jane, was not pleased. Howard, however, was overjoyed and threatened to hire Clara as his courier from then on.
Howard was larger than life, a cup that ran over and over. I loved to hear stories about him and the enthusiasms that got the better of him, like the April day Clara was born in the blue house where she lived most of her life. The nurse presented the twenty-minute-old bundle to her proud new papa, whereupon he skipped out the door clutching infant Clara and headed uptown to show her off to his cronies.
Sarah Jane was no shrinking violet herself. When her parents would not allow her to marry Howard, she locked herself in her room and went on hunger strike. They knew she meant it.
Old folk repeat their stories not only to relive them, but so that we’ll remember them and thus give them a measure of immortality. Their history is also ours.
We went riding in Clara’s old Chevy every day of my visit. Clara and I alternated driving, with Biddy in the front passenger seat nodding off. Our route was lined with oak and sycamore, maple and sassafras trees with mitten leaves, a blur of gold, pink, copper and crimson. The countryside was littered with abundant roadside stands.
Clara knew the best stands. Some had reappeared year after year for decades. Berries, apples, peaches, pears, potatoes, peppers, watermelons and cantaloupes, butternut, Hubbard and delicata squashes. Pumpkins piled sky-high! Leeks and onions spilled out of pickup trucks or were neatly arranged on jury-rigged counters made from crates. Pies and breads, eggs, and gallon jugs of fresh milk.
We passed Amish buggies and Amish kids on Rollerblades. We chugged up a rise Clara called Pumpkin Bump where she recited:
Jabez Benson raised the pumpkins
Hannah baked the pie
Jabez ate so many
He thought to God he’d die
Early supper on the road, then home, where Biddy and Clara played cribbage or cards, while I attacked the mending I saved all year to bring on this trip.
“Honey,” Clara teased, “you mend rags I’d be ashamed to give to charity.”
Biddy, sipping a beer, offered to buy me a new wardrobe or at the very least, a new lace tablecloth. “I’m sick of seeing this one turn up every year with new rips and holes in it.”
“But it was my grandmother’s,” I sputtered. Biddy was unmoved.
The year I brought a friend’s quilt to rebuild, I made an impression at last. Every evening, I laid it out on the floor for inspection. That year, Clara gave me Sarah Jane’s lovely sewing kit for a birthday gift. Three sizes of silver scissors, sharpie needles, a sock darning ball and a petite thimble that barely fits my pinkie.