The long, grainey drive stretched narrowly about an eighth of a mile from County Rd A splitting the homestead. The barn with attending milk shed sat on the north side, long used stanchions now quiet with the manure wagon abandoned in back. The chicken coop to the west faced it like an old tired friend with its crusted floor and an entry door hinged by one. The two story L-shaped house had a garage with a flap down door which pulled out and in. The tractor was in an open end shed where the drive ran out of hard packed sand.
A soot glazed chimney sat on the outside of the kitchen with an add-on porch stuck in where the L had formed cleavage. Red brick splayed atop the roof marked the now dormant smoke stack, plastered on the interior to keep the bats at bay as well as other critters that could and did find the confines tempting. Displayed was the intrusiveness of age. He had long ago closed off the house for winter by placing straw bales all around the foundation, shutting off the upstairs with 1/2 inch plywood cut to measure and then placed plastic over the entryway of the unused living room to prevent heat from escaping. He slept on a cot in the kitchen. The bathroom was usable, but he dared not try if the temperature dropped deep. He handled the necessities manually then.
Where once black and white cows produced milk and metal milk containers were placed in the milk house until collection, there was but rusted stanchions and broken concrete. There were never more than 50. He could do 25 at one time. The chicken coop from which the heralding of the day or the excited cackling of a produced egg had occurred sat quiet. Paint had peeled from its exterior to allow rot. The chickens had been butchered years earlier.
To the front facing the blacktop stood tall Scot pines specifically planted when the stakes for the homestead had been driven. To the Northwest running south were the Boxelders, their quick growth utility and twisted branches forming the wind barrier, prevailing from the Northwest.
Dierk moved slowly to the armless wooden chair beside the wood furnace. He sat and took one of the black rubber boots and leveraged it over his worn leather one. Thick fingers grasped and pulled. Once on, he sat back and reached for the coffee pot warming on the stove. Off the pine scratched table he grasped the sides of the ceramic cup, a coffee ring marking earlier use. The fingers could not fit the handle. Deep black coffee with a hint of heat tipped into the cup. The rust tasting coffee thick in age felt good. He replaced the cup on the table. Resting one arm on his crusted bibs he placed the other ‘outer’ on. He sat.
The Box Elders had been stripped bare by the winds of November and the land now sat waiting under more than a foot of white. The necessary winter chores now became less so. The long drive was open enough for the Ford half ton to get in and out with its chains on. The tractor bore the steel mail on its tires as well. The gravity plow preserved the opening if not fast, assuredly. The path to the both garage and shed were shoveled only when the snow became intolerable. The farm was dormant. He was the only one.
They had married young. She a neighbor whom he had known his whole life. ‘Married up’ they said to which he usually nodded affirmatively. It occasioned the knowing slight smile. Three children they had to bless over three miscarriages. Where she could take over a room with trilling laughter and mirth, he was stolidly content to just be in her presence. The children.
He bowed his head slightly and placed his elbows on his legs, hands folded. The children were heavy on him.
The youngest but three and could not get her little lungs to overcome the whooping cough. They had gotten her to town and the doctor but she was frail to begin. The cough hammered hard. She died on a chilled March day.
The War had come and his son was off to the Pacific. A marine. It was not about pride for him but duty. How does one even understand an island group named Paulaus? Just that there his son died. It never said why, the telegram. Of course the ‘car’ came, but he just politely thanked them and went outside to do his work. Later he sat in a chair as his wife placed her head on his shoulder and quietly wept. His eyes were red but then they were always that way. The outdoors weathered hard on him and his solid body cracked and roughened. Just the way it was. That his heart hurt was truth. He knew. He stared at the wall and caressed her hair with his calloused red hands. His remaining daughter was not yet home from college, but would be shortly. He would hold her up too.
The wedding of his daughter brought a gift of tenderness and salving to protected emotions. Watching his wife and daughter prepare, when he could, was fond to him. The wedding to a man who seemed good was quietly attended and toasted with neighbors and those of extended family who could come. The reception was in the yard, with the lushness of summer tuned to the sing along of the animals. Jim the dog herded anyone that tried to “escape.” Most had and Dierk commenced to milk. But not after his wife stood by his side waving the newlyweds goodbye. He had shook the young man’s hand, looked him in the eye straight and handed his daughter an envelop. When she opened it as they lost sight of the farm, she found greenbacks in denominations of $1, $5, and $10 bills. And a note. ‘Love you, Dad.’
When it came time to get her, three years had gone by. Three years of his not knowing. That young man drank. He hit his daughter. It was an emotion that was so far from his understanding and his tolerance. He pulled into their drive and had gotten out of the pickup. No one knew he was coming. His daughter had answered the door. She acted happily surprised, but the redness of her eyes, which he knew did not come from the wind, and the black and blue marks on her neck told otherwise. He calmly took her hand after the hug and told her to pack, she was coming home. The boy was not home. She obeyed as if in a trance. On the drive she sobbed uncontrollably. He rested his arm around her shoulder as she became his little girl and lay against him. He never looked in his rear view mirror.
The healing took time, but time is what she needed. And her mother. Both balmed her and healing came slowly. He handled the boy. When the next one came, he did not do much different, except they went behind the barn to talk. The conversation went well. Neither his daughter nor his wife knew. This man was good. But now distance would become a chasm. His occupation required him to move to the West Coast. The Pastor married them and they were gone. Neither had wanted anything but. Both had felt the hollowness of a previous union broken.
As the years passed so too the opportunity for grandchildren. The visits brief in coming as they were, became less so. And then the phone rang late one night. Car…totaled…drunk driver. Sorry to inform…. He was thankful he had taken the call. The next days, weeks, months were filled with numbness. He did what he knew how, worked, and watched silently over his wife.
They had grown up in the Faith. Christian. All the tenants and posturing that went with it. But after his daughter’s death, Evelyn, his wife, began to attend a different “Bible” study, one that was not frivolous and searched the deeper meaning, explored the essence of logic to posture a faith and begin to unwind an essence…essence in the frailty of life and the Holiness of God. She had told him. And he listened. And the bedrock she explained was the authority of God’s Word. Yes, he knew that?! But what did he know about it? He listened to what the Pastor said. Was he missing something?
She passed in 1960. Woman’s cancer. He had told the doctor not ‘to hold back horses’ but the cancer was too spread. No pain he contended. They did their best. Evelyn was buried in a plot he bought after they knew she would not be long. He just never had anticipated. He never had for any of his. And of course the service was simple.
He farmed into his late seventies. Then he quit. And his tolerance for upkeep slipped off the cliff. He shuttered in and managed. Answered the phone. Took in the mail, mostly from somewhere or someone he knew not. And his being an only child had stunted that side of the family. Evelyn’s side tried to incorporate and he did go to a Thanksgiving once or twice, but never Christmas.
No, Christmas was his and Evelyns. Where it had been totally engrossing for her prior to the children leaving, she had changed when the last child was gone. Now it had become deep. Deep. The Holy music dragged the hollows of her heart and lifted her to a level of immersion in love unlike she had believed possible. She began to strip down the contents of the World’s placement and simplified. It was when she asked him what he thought of having a ‘Charlie Brown’ Christmas tree and why, he took more notice. Of course he agreed. And the two of them would head to the State land and find a ‘shivering’ pine tree needing love. They put a few decorations on but let it mostly ‘be.’ She would fill the house with the melodic Yuletide songs specific to the Christ.
When they placed the first one is when she explained that her belief in the Gospel is delivered to her heart in a truth that is simple but filling. It came from the authority of the Bible and that to understand one must let go and learn. That he would understand she prayed. He tried.
Hard to shake those old beliefs. He followed that if he kept his character to church standards he would be doing the right.
He stood up and reached for his jean overcoat, pulling it on over his long johns (constant on him) wool shirt and bibs. Pulling down the John Deere Hat with flaps, he opened the door while placing yellow cotton gloves over thick hands. On the porch he went to the far corner and took hold of his crosscut saw and walked out the door. It was a slow walk.
He had taken some time to think through her speakings to him. He did not want to just say yes when she asked if he understood. He was a ponderer at times. And this took time. But that last week in the hospital, when they could still converse, he asked how she knew a difference. The small smile spoke, “because I gave up on myself and gave to God. And it touches me deep. Dierk, I learned that you have to forgive all, for all are battling something. And I cannot do it on my own. I had to let God do it, but He would not unless I let go. And I did. He filled me deep. He taught me in His Word. I love you so much. All I have! I pray peace, Dierk, on you, for you, in you. I will be blessed any day now. Please remember, don’t do it yourself. Let go. And let His word be your authority.”
He stood outside the door. Did she say surrender? The years had passed much like the earlier ones, he holding his character together by will, wit and faith. The fundamental understanding of God was real…He had felt Him, felt Him, maybe with little understanding, but believed. But now, these years later, he wanted to pursue more…to the truth. He was nearing the end here.
“Evelyn, I’m a little hard headed. But I love you and what you love…and I want to see you again. Don’t think that is why God wants me to love Him first, I know. You’re right, we stand before him all by ourselves. I know He exists, I know He is love, and I know that He is waiting for me to let go. I believe this because you told me. And I want to learn more.”
“I’m going to let go. Today. And get our tree. But one that is different. Imperfect. Like me.”
And he did. He ‘quit.’ And let go.
He did not go far, into the Box Elders and found a sapling. Cutting it he told himself it was the perfect tree, an ‘imperfect’ tree for the world…as he was imperfect…for Perfection to be placed upon it for him in his place.
Dierk placed the tree on his shoulder and felt…a small glow. He began walking home.
They found him a week later. A deep cold spell had come. The Pastor felt that someone should check on Dierk. He was found slumped in a living room chair. In the corner was the Box-elder Tree, tied to opposite window handles to keep from falling. There was one blue bulb on the tree and three pink and one blue bulb resting at the foot, in a row. A star was pinned to the highest spot.
A bible was open on his lap.