Amy Lemoine Stout
“Anna! Stay with your mother! Stay with your mother!”
The panicked shrill of a woman’s voice outside her window awoke Ms. Anna Braun of 37 Pine Street as if God himself had spoken into her ear. Heart beating wildly, she leaned up against the window. At the corner Anna could see the little girl who shared her name, dressed in a pink jumper, bouncing off of the city bus and skipping along the sidewalk while her mother scrambled to hold her hand. In her raven hair the little girl wore a blue bow that was faded and frayed and with every bounce it was slowly falling out of her sea of curls. The mother wore a uniform, blue with white trim and lettering that read “Value Mart” across the front. She was young and graceful when she walked, as if she had been a ballerina in another time, and her deep brown eyes looked kind, yet tired.
A cool breeze blew through the window and Anna looked away. Fall had arrived and the leaves would be turning soon. Anna lay down again in her bed and wiped the sleep from her eyes. She liked this little Anna, full of such life, hopping from foot to foot as if eagerly waiting to discover every step. It’s such a shame, Anna thought, to grow up in poverty, with not even enough money for a new hair ribbon. She deserves more from life than this.
Anna squinted at the clock on the wall. 7:01. The little girl and her mother were running a bit ahead of schedule today. She usually saw them at ten past the hour, after the yellow school bus had come and gone and the morning paper had been delivered. She wondered why they had left so early today. Even now they seemed to be hurrying along. Anna had noticed that the mother was beginning to look as if she was expecting again. Hurrying off to a doctor’s appointment, she assumed. Anna shook her head. So many mouths to feed and so little money. At 3:00 every afternoon, Anna watched the little girl walk home with two slightly older girls and a small boy barely older than little Anna. The two younger ones held hands as the older girls guarded them from oncoming traffic. They seemed to be an endless source of songs and laughter, especially little Anna, who took much joy in belting out whatever hymn she had learned in the church day care that day. Anna recognized them as siblings immediately. They all bore a striking resemblance to each other, with high cheekbones and piercing black eyes. How could this family, whose children wore the same tattered clothes nearly every day, afford to have yet another mouth to feed? Anna wondered. It seemed irresponsible and illogical, two characteristics she readily associated with the poor.
At 7:15 Anna slowly sat up from her high plush bed and took the long gray robe off of her bedpost. Her legs gave way initially and then regained their strength as she made her way to the bathroom for her morning shower. The old house creaked as she walked down the hall and the bathroom light began to flicker as soon as she pulled its string. “Drafty old house,” she muttered, as she pounded the wall to steady the light. The house had the same creaks and moans as it did when she was a child, and the pipes still sang their monotone chant, but the noises that accompanied her every memory seemed unsettling now, as if the old house were groaning with the pains of a long and tiring life.
The first cold splash of water from the shower brought Anna back to a summer long ago when the icy water from those same pipes had given her a similar shock. Anna’s father would sneak around the big oak tree and soak her with a cold splash from the hose before Anna and Finny could even think of running away. Finneous McKay was the little boy who lived in the white house across the street, but there was rarely a moment of daylight that he wasn’t found in Anna’s yard. The heat was unbearable that summer, Anna remembered, but Papa took care of that all right. Finny and Anna’s endless games of hide and seek were repeatedly interrupted by surprise showers from her father accompanied by his deep, full laugh that seemed to resonate throughout the neighborhood. Then it was war, Anna laughed to herself, spray or be sprayed. She could still hear his warm laugh ringing through the walls of the house, even after all those years.
By 7:25 Anna was slipping on her pristine brown loafers and buttoning the top button of her blue cardigan. She sat gracefully at her vanity mirror to comb out her brown curls and put on her face: blush, lips, eyes, and just a dab of her mother’s sandalwood spray. At 7:40, fully adorned for the day, Anna sat in the ornately carved oak chair with her cup of coffee and an English muffin, lightly toasted, jam on the side, as she faced the large picture window that overlooked the park just east of her home.
The milk truck clanked up the street and came to a slow stop at every house on its route. Fin had been riding in that same old truck for as long as she could remember. Long before he drove it himself, Anna used to watch him sit proudly next to his father as he bounced inches off the seat with every bump. Fin had reupholstered those seats now, but Anna would’ve known it was the same truck from a mile away, even with the fresh coat of white paint that he slapped on every year or so. Fin gave a wave and a smile to the familiar silhouette in the picture window, as he did every morning, and Anna, as usual, looked away as if she’d never seen him. “The nerve of that Finneous McKay, goin’ around lookin’ in people’s windows!” Anna grumbled to herself as she sipped her coffee. “You keep your mind on the road Fin! Just keep those eyes straight ahead.”
Finny loved that old truck, Anna remembered with a half smile. He had learned how to drive in that hunk of junk and he was never more proud than the day it became his. Fin had been driving the truck for years with his father and on weekend outings, but on his twenty-first birthday his dad had retired and handed the keys over to his son. Finny was the youngest of seven boys and the only one who wanted nothing less than to follow in the footsteps of his father. On that day, Finneous McKay owned the world. It was on that day that he asked Anna to ride next to him.
“Finny! Get off of there, you’re gonna get yourself killed!” Anna had screamed.
“Not until you agree to marry me, Annabel Braun!” Fin had paid the paper boy a quarter to drive slowly down the street in front of Anna’s window that morning, while he stood on top of the beat-up milk truck.
“I will not! Now get down from there,” she had replied.
But it was no use. He urged the boy to speed up a little as he screamed with even more vigor, “I’m twenty-one, I’m a man today, and I wanna give you the world, you silly girl. Ride with me!” It was common knowledge that Finneous McKay would have given almost anything for the chance to love Anna. But Anna would have none of it. She was beautiful and intelligent, the kind of girl who could “go places.” Fin, on the other hand, was never expected to go anywhere. He hadn’t even gone to college like the rest of the guys after graduation. He had gone out to the bus stop along with the townspeople to see them off. When that bus pulled away, all weeping eyes were on its precious cargo, all except for Fin’s. His eyes were on Anna. Those blue eyes shined with the same fiery love on the day he asked Anna to ride with him, and in that moment, the little boy in the milk truck was the tallest man in town. It would never have worked, Anna insisted as she spread jam on her English muffin. She had wanted the world back then, but not the one Finny could give her. As the clanking of the milk truck faded, the only sound that could be heard on Pine Street was the rustling of the newly-fallen leaves in the autumn breeze. Anna rose from her chair to clean her dishes and put them away in the cupboard.
The October breeze reminded Anna once again of that which she had tried repeatedly to block from her mind today. It was the anniversary of her mother’s death. October third stung like a wound that seemed to get worse every year. This year seemed to hurt more than all of them put together. This year her father was gone. She busied herself with household chores throughout the morning in an effort to avoid the painful memories, but the knot in her stomach only seemed to grow larger with every room that she swept. By midday she had polished every piece of silver, dusted every shelf, and changed the sheets in both of the spare rooms where no one ever slept. When she finally sat to rest, an ocean of memories flooded her mind.
Anna walked over to the antique china cabinet that stood against the back wall of the dining room. She slowly opened the middle drawer and pulled out a small hatbox. The cover was bright red and on the side, written in her mother’s small neat cursive, were the words For Anna, with faith, hope and all my love. The box and the hat that once was stored in it were gifts from her mother on the occasion of Anna’s first communion. Anna could never forget that hat. It was white with a lace overlay and a silk ribbon around the brim. It made her feel like a lady. That was the last time Anna remembered her mother being out of the house. She had walked down to the church early with Anna that day to pray, before the other children arrived. The two of them sat in the very first pew, kneeling and silent. Mamma prayed with tears in her eyes that day, Anna remembered. She recalled her mother’s tight grip on her hand while they prayed that morning, and then how her mother’s hand had suddenly grown weak and released Anna’s as she made the sign of the cross on Anna’s forehead and then crossed herself. The memory of that morning was one of the most vivid from Anna’s childhood. She had seen her mother cry before, but there was something about those tears that Anna’s seven-year-old mind couldn’t make sense of.
For as long as Anna could remember her mother had been sick. In the earlier years she was still well enough to go on outings and to sit on the porch and sing while Papa did yard work and played hide and seek with Anna and Finny in the field where the school now stood. But at the end she was barely able to walk and mostly just sat at the picture window gripping her rosary beads. Anna blew the dust off of the top of the old hat box and sat at the dining room table. She removed the top delicately. After her father’s death, Anna had taken her mother’s belongings, placed them in the old hat box, and put them away. With her father gone, she couldn’t bear to have them lying around the house, but she also knew she could not throw them away. Something about today urged her to open up the box again; something in the cool wind begged to be remembered.
The first thing she saw when she opened the box was a wedding photo of her mother and father. They’re smiling as if they have everything to give and nothing to lose, she thought. If they’d only known what awaited them down the road. In the picture, her mother held that same rosary that Anna had seen her pray with daily through the years, the same rosary that now lay at the bottom of the hat box. Anna glanced up at the old painting of the Blessed Virgin that hung on the wall and a sharp pain went through her heart. Her mother’s faith had been a stronghold, but Anna could have gladly done without it. Even the townspeople saw Anna’s mother as the woman to seek for prayers in times of crisis, or joy, or thanksgiving, or any other intention that they might have.
As a child, Anna never understood her mother’s sickness. She heard Papa and everyone else talk about how horrible the pain must have been and how the end was near but she never heard her mother complain. In fact, it was her father’s tears that Anna saw most, and even those were dried by her mother. Anna had accused her mother countless times in her heart of simply wanting attention. How could a sick woman always smile? Anna thought. The townspeople said she had faith that could move mountains. Well if she moved mountains I never saw it, Anna thought angrily. If she moved mountains she should have made herself well. She could have saved herself. She could have saved Papa and me. Anna sighed. Why didn’t he ever see this? He believed that she could move mountains too, Anna thought. He kept hope alive until the end. He adored her until her dying breath and then she let go and she might as well have taken him too.
Anna remembered that day as if it were the end of a blissful dream. She was sixteen. She had been awakened that morning by the sound of singing and her father crying. Her legs shook as she ran to the living room to see the inevitable. She peeked quietly through a crack in the door. She couldn’t bear to go in, not now. Her mother sat in the old rocking chair next to the fire place singing, rosary in hand, as her father knelt with his head in her lap weeping. The song was barely audible, but her mother had sung it so many times throughout the years that her cold, weak lips could have finished it without her.
He lives and grants me daily breath
He lives, and I shall conquer death:
He lives my mansion to prepare;
He lives to bring me safely there.
He lives, all glory to His Name!
He lives, my Jesus, still the same.
Oh, the sweet joy this sentence gives,
I know that my Redeemer lives!
And just like that, she was gone. She was gone and the dream was over. The music on Pine Street had stopped, and the silence was louder than anything Anna had known before. People flocked in to pay their respects as if on pilgrimage.
Everything changed that day. Her father had been the joy in Anna’s life and his love was what she knew best and cherished most. Anna had never known a problem that he couldn’t fix, but the death of her mother shattered his heart into more pieces than even his strong hands could mend.
After almost two years of grief, Anna’s father suffered a heart attack that left his middle-aged body too weak to work. Two weeks later, a bus full of her friends and classmates left for the state college and Anna stood and waved with the families and townspeople with tears in her eyes. School will have to wait until Papa gets stronger, she thought.
Days turned to months and months turned to years as Anna watched class after class come and go. Papa was never quite the same again. The eyes that had once danced with love grew dim, and his strength never returned. Dear Papa, Anna thought as she gazed at the picture of her father in his wedding suit, I never could have left you.
Almost one year earlier, when her father passed away, Anna had him buried next to her mother in the graveyard of the church where they were married, just as he had wished. Every year on October third for those twenty-six years after her mother’s death, he had gone out to bring three white roses to her grave site: one for her faith, one for his hope, and one for their love. Every year he asked Anna to join him, and every year he went alone. There was no one to bring roses today, no one but Anna. She felt the knot in the pit of her stomach return at the thought of it. White roses for what? she scoffed.To memorialize a faith that fell short when we needed it the most? To celebrate years of pain for a man who did nothing but love? White roses are nothing but thorns in my side, a life trapped here, going nowhere, doing nothing.
The chime of the dining room clock shook Anna from her thoughts. The afternoon had been steeped in memories of which she now wanted desperately to make sense. Tears welled up in Anna’s eyes as she searched through the box. Toward the bottom, she noticed a small yellow envelope with her name written neatly on the front. Inside Anna found the note that her mother had given her along with her first communion gift, a note that Anna remembered quickly discarding at the site of the beautiful hat inside. Anna’s hands shook as she unfolded the neatly creased stationary and read:
To my precious little lady,
Today you receive the greatest gift of all!
Put your hand in His, and I will always be with you.
All my love,
As she read her mother’s words, Anna felt like a seven-year-old girl all over again. I don’t understand, Mamma, Anna cried. Is this why you were crying at the Church that day? It was you I’ve needed all these years, Mamma. Papa and I needed you and you were gone. You left us all alone.
Through Anna’s crying she could hear someone humming, ever so softly, a song that struck a familiar chord. She glanced up at the clock and noticed the time: 3:00. Little Anna, she thought, she will be walking home from school now. Anna moved to the window and quieted her tears. Little Anna’s sweet voice filled the street now, singing the words that she had been humming:
He lives, all glory to His Name!
He lives, my Jesus, still the same.
Oh, the sweet joy this sentence gives,
I know that my Redeemer lives!
Anna sat at the window in silence and listened once again to the melody that had shaped her life. Hearing those words again, sung by little Anna, brought her back to a time of peace, a time when life was happy and free. She remembered being little Anna’s age: the laughter, the love. Most of all, she remembered her mother’s smile. That smile filled their home with a joy that she knew came from her mother’s faith. Anna’s favorite memories of her childhood were those times of prayer and singing. Little Anna’s song brought tears of joy to the little seven-year-old girl in the lace hat.
The singing stopped abruptly when the scrambling group of siblings saw a graceful figure dressed in blue standing on the corner of the street. “Mother! Mother is here, Mother is here!” little Anna chanted wildly as the group filed down the sidewalk to meet her.
“Yes, little Anna,” Anna whispered softly, “Mother is here, isn’t she?”
Anna knew now where she needed to be. She frantically searched through the box to find her mother’s rosary. Gripping it tightly, she left the house to pay her respects to her mother. I’m coming, Mamma, Anna wept. I’ve been so angry because you left me, but all the while it was me who had turned away from you. You were dying and yet you were more alive than I’ve been all these years.
As she neared the churchyard, Anna realized that she had come without roses. Tears welled up in her eyes once more until she gazed up into the sun toward the graveyard on the hill. Squinting, she could see the tall figure of a man standing at her mother’s grave with three roses in his hand. The sight stopped Anna in her tracks. She stood speechless for a minute as she watched the image kneel and pray before placing the flowers carefully on the ground one at a time.
“Papa?” Anna asked quietly. “Papa, is that you?” The man turned slowly to reveal the timid smile of Finneous McKay. “Anna?” Fin said in disbelief. “You’re here.”
Anna walked slowly up the hill and fell to her knees at the foot of her mother’s grave. “Why are you here, Finny?” she asked through her tears.
“To be with you, Annabel,” Fin said with a crack in his voice.
“Have you been coming here all these years?” Anna asked.
Fin nodded his bowed head.
“But I never came!” Anna exclaimed. “For twenty-six years I never came.”
Fin shyly shrugged his broad shoulders. “You came today, Anna.”
Anna looked up at Fin’s fiery blue eyes and noticed that he had been crying too. “Will you pray with me, Finny?” she said quietly. Fin smiled, and the silver crucifix around his neck caught the light of the sun. The fall breeze blew gently, and Anna could almost hear her mother’s sweet voice singing in the wind once more.