By Karen Brode
It was one of the first days of summer; still cool enough to sit out on the front porch of my house. In a few days school would be out and I would officially be finished with fourth grade. I looked forward to summer, but I was a little sad that the school year was coming to an end. It had been a good year overall. I didn’t like endings. My heart yearned to hold to what I knew, and not keep changing things.
I saw Mr. Powers walking down the street in front of my house. He wore a hat to keep the sun out of his eyes and carried a fold-up stool in his left hand. There was something purposeful about his walk, something that suggested he wasn’t just walking around the block for exercise.
Years before, when I was very little, he had scared me because his bottom lip was gone from cancer. I soon learned that there was nothing scary about him. He liked to make me laugh and he always feigned surprise when he saw me, as if it had been a hundred years since our last meeting.
He and his wife, Hattie, had been a special part of my young years. She was a study in calmness, a beacon of kindness to everyone she knew. I remember dancing as a little girl through her garden. It reminded me of a fairy tale and I felt like a princess. There was even a rose arbor in the back with a place to sit inside. I loved the beauty and tranquility Mrs. Powers (as I called her) carried with her.
Inside the house they had photos of their children and their life together as a couple. Mr. Powers told me once over a plate of cookies how shy he had been to court Mrs. Powers when they were young. It made Mrs. Powers giggle to hear him tell it, but I could see in his eyes the real concern he had felt back then.
“I had to quit school,” he told me, leaning forward in his blue-upholstered rocking chair. “I hadn’t even gotten to the third grade.” He looked up and counted something on his fingers.
“How old are you now?” he asked.
“Ten,” I said.
His eyebrows shot up like he was surprised at my answer. “I was younger than you when I had to leave school,” he said.
I wondered what that would be like to not have school anymore. In my mind, it seemed wonderful to never have homework again. I loved the structure and the sameness of the school year, but it seemed so freeing to imagine never having to go there again.
Mr. Powers grinned over at me. “Before you get to thinking what a grand thing that would be, let me tell you something. I left school to pick cotton so my family could have just the basic necessities.” He looked at the plate of cookies Mrs. Powers had set in between us. “We couldn’t have those cookies. No ma’am. I forfeited my childhood so we could just have some potatoes and a bit of meat now and then.”
He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
“What was it like?” I asked. “Picking cotton, I mean.”
He opened his eyes and shook his head. “I panicked sometimes. The rows of cotton went further than I could see. I felt stuck there in the middle of all these plants that needed tending. But I couldn’t let it get to me. I had to keep working.”
Mrs. Powers sat down next to me and patted my leg. “He had to be at the cotton field at five in the morning and by two in the afternoon he went home to help his mother with chores.”
Mr. Powers grinned. “But then I saw this one here,” he said, leaning forward and taking his wife’s fingers into his hand. “I couldn’t look at another girl. I was obsessed.”
“He was embarrassed,” Mrs. Powers said, squeezing his fingers.
“Why were you embarrassed?” I asked.
He laughed out loud. “I was poor as dirt. I was afraid my Hattie would find out how poor my family was and want somebody better.”
“There couldn’t be anybody better,” she whispered back.
Even at ten years old, I knew how devoted he was to her. I imagined my own life getting married, having kids some day and hoped whoever came along would be like Mr. Powers.
It wasn’t until much later, when Mrs. Powers started “going downhill,” as all the adults around me would say, that I learned just how much devotion Mr. Powers had for his wife and their family. I hadn’t known how much they had endured together until Mrs. Powers couldn’t remember any of it.
Over the months of Mrs. Powers’ decline, I learned about their son, Tad who had been killed in a car accident.
“No one should have to live with that kind of memory and misery,” my mother had said to Mrs. Wright, our next-door neighbor. They were watching Mrs. Powers from a distance. She stood on her back porch looking out at her beloved yard and she looked a little lost.
Mrs. Wright agreed. “It was such a tragedy. But it’s going to be just as much a tragedy to lose her memory of him. She had always lived with that sorrow and managed to find peace besides.”
Weeks passed and Mrs. Powers started forgetting bigger and bigger things. The few times she and Mr. Powers visited after her diagnosis, she would forget what she was talking about in mid-sentence and lower her eyes pitifully. I didn’t totally understand what was happening to her, but I felt sad anyway. After that, they didn’t come visit us anymore.
They didn’t visit us anymore, but my mom made sure we did what we could to help out our neighbors. One Saturday evening, we went to their house to drop off a casserole. One of their daughters answered the door. She thanked us for the food and invited us in.
“She’s just started watching Lawrence Welk,” Mr. Powers whispered, looking up from his chair.
Mrs. Powers was in a wheelchair dressed in a beautiful dress and her hair and makeup were done as if she was going to church.
“She wants to look her best for Lawerence,” he said, smiling.
Later, in the kitchen, I overheard Mr. Powers and my mother talking about his life with “Hattie,” as he called her. It seemed to help for him to talk about their years together, so my mother sat with him and listened while Mrs. Powers and their daughters watched her favorite show together.
Mr. Powers pulled open a photo album they had kept nearby to help Mrs. Powers with her memory of her family. He, my mother, and I looked through it together. When we came to their son Tad, Mr. Powers seemed happy and sad at the same time.
“He had a huge imagination,” he said. “And Hattie always believed him no matter what he told her.” He smiled and continued. “Made me love her even more….”
He leaned over to peer into the living room and then he leaned back and whispered, “My kids seem older than I am now. I still feel like that hopeful young man who was determined to woo Hattie.”
His finger traced along the edge of their wedding photo. He and Mrs. Powers looked so different. I didn’t recognize them until Mother complemented the dress Mrs. Powers was wearing.
“It’s hard to see her like this,” Mr. Powers said with a gentle nod toward the living room. “I try to give thanks for the years we’ve had. I try not to be bitter and angry at God for giving us this burden.”
Tears pearled up in his eyes and overflowed down his cheeks. It was the first time I had seen an old person cry and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I shifted in my seat and accidentally knocked my glass of tea. It spilled all over the table, but my mother was quick enough to lift up the photo album before the liquid reached it.
One photo fell out of the book, though and landed right in the tea.
“I’m so sorry!” I said. I jumped up and ran to the sink for a handful of paper towels.
Mother shook the photo out and we did our best to dry it off. Then we cleaned up the table while Mr. Powers stared at the photo.
“Don’t worry, child,” he said. His voice had turned sour and, at first, I thought he was mad at me.
He flicked the picture back to the table and continued. “That there is my brother Pierce.” The photo showed a young man in a white t-shirt and partly rolled up jeans. His arm was slung over the door of an old car and he looked like he was singing at the top of his lungs.
“I didn’t know you had a brother,” I said, hoping he wasn’t mad at me about the photo. “I’m really sorry I got it all wet with my tea.”
Mr. Powers grunted. “I’m not upset about the picture,” he said. “I could just do without being reminded of Pierce.”
“You don’t get along?” my mother asked.
Mr. Powers leaned back in his chair. He had both hands on the cane he sometimes used to get around.
“You know that fella that lives in that abandoned boxcar in the woods?” His eyes were squinted. He seemed uncertain if he should tell us this.
My mother nodded.
“That’s my brother.”
We were both speechless. I had seen that man several times and was a little afraid of him, though he seemed nice in a way. He was always singing that song – When Irish Eyes are Smiling.
“He used to live with us,” Mr. Powers continued. “For years he did.” His face softened for a moment. “Hattie was so good to him. She cried when he left.”
“Why did he leave?” I asked barely above a whisper.
Mr. Powers looked right at me and I could see anguish in his eyes as he said, “Because I told him to. He wouldn’t stop drinking. I couldn’t let my children be around that.”
Several days later, I watched as Mr. and Mrs. Powers tried to get in the car to go somewhere. When she stepped out of her wheelchair to get into the car, she held onto his arm and took tiny, uncertain steps. Not once did Mr. Powers get irritated or impatient, not even when she took a long time to get in the car. He just seemed to be reassuring her every step of the way.
I didn’t see Mrs. Powers after watching her husband help her into the car. It wasn’t that I wasn’t allowed to go visit. It’s just that I wasn’t invited by my mother when she would go. I never asked why, though I figured it was because of something she didn’t want me to see. She always seemed sad when she came home from her visits.
And then the day came that we learned Mrs. Powers had died.
It was the first funeral I had ever been to. Mrs. Powers looked like she was sleeping in a lacquered box stuffed with satin pillows. She looked smaller than I had remembered. I cried when I realized she would never wake up and there was no one to tend to the fairy tale garden or the rose arbor. It didn’t seem fair.
The neighborhood wasn’t the same after she died. Mr. Powers looked even older than before. It seemed like a piece of him had died when his wife did.
On that summer day before the end of my fourth grade year, I decided to follow Mr. Powers on his solitary walk. I hid behind a bush outside the cemetery and watched him walk to Mrs. Powers’ gravesite. He sighed. As frail as he looked, he also seemed weighted down. Something seemed to pressed down on his shoulders and make them sag.
He sat down on the fold-up stool he had carried with him. For a while he was silent. Then he put his head in his hands and cried.
I wanted to go comfort him. He had always been so nice to me. But I also didn’t want him to know I had been watching him. Before he could see me, I snuck back to the road and went home. I was sitting on the front porch when he walked up the street to go back to his house on the corner. His back was straighter. His face looked less drawn in sorrow. It seemed he had talked things over with his wife and she had helped him to carry on.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.