Amana Colonies, Iowa
"Come down from that tree, Oma!" I'd done my best to sound firm. Taking a sideways step, I shaded my eyes to gain a better view among the bloom-laden branches of the apple tree.
My grandmother peered down at me with a devilish grin, her leather-clad feet wedged into a crook of the tree. "Nein, Gretchen! I'm going to get an apple." She pointed a gnarled finger toward a spindly branch bearing a few spring blossoms.
"Don't go any further, Oma. There aren't any apples, and that branch won't hold you."
Ignoring me, she grabbed another limb and hiked her right leg toward a scrawny branch that would surely crack under her weight. The old woman's addled brain might be willing to make the climb, but her aged and fragile body was going to end up on the ground.
After steadying the ladder that Oma had placed against the tree trunk, I lifted my skirt and stepped onto the bottom rung. "Just wait until Stefan gets home!" I issued the muttered warning from between clenched teeth and cautiously began my climb. No matter how often I scolded my brother, Stefan never put anything away. He'd used the ladder to retrieve a ball from the roof yesterday afternoon, and instead of putting it back into the shed, he'd left it sitting outdoors. Out where it created an alluring diversion for Oma, who had somehow managed to drag it across the yard and balance it against the apple tree.
A low-hanging branch snagged my finely knit black cap, and Oma chuckled as she watched my attempts to disentangle the head covering. After finally grabbing the cap and giving it a one-handed shove onto my head, I glanced upward but quickly averted my eyes. "Oma! Put your leg down. I can see your undergarments."
She leaned forward and peeked down, as if she intended to check the truth of my statement. Her body listed sideways, and one foot slipped from the branch. A snowstorm of flowering blossoms showered down on me.
"Hold on, Oma! I'm coming up to help you."
"Don't bring the blackbird," she shrieked. "It will eat the apples."
My frustration mounted as Oma continued the childlike behavior. For all of my life, my mother's mother had lived with us, and we shared a special bond. But when these bouts of dementia took hold, there was no dealing with her. "There are no blackbirds and there are no apples, Oma." I took another step up the ladder and reached for a thick branch. The rough bark dug into my palm as I tightened my hold. If I inched a little closer, I could
grab hold of her leg.
"Go away! You're bringing the blackbird with you."
She climbed higher into the tree, and I gasped in fear. Now I couldn't even reach her foot. "There are no birds in the tree, Oma. I've frightened them all away. Come back down to me."
She peered over her shoulder. A flash of terror shone in her dark eyes. Her once-gentle lips twisted in a menacing jagged line. The look would have held a stranger at bay, but I wasn't a stranger, and I wouldn't be deterred.
"There's a blackbird on your head," she cried. "Get it away! Shoo it off before it eats my apples."
Utter defeat shot through me. Would I ever learn to deal with Oma's episodes? If I didn't get her out of the tree within the next few minutes, my father might discover the dilemma. That thought alone propelled me back into action. I yanked the hat from my head. "The blackbird flew away. See, Oma? Look at me!"
Lips curved in a toothy grin, she leaned forward, peered around my shoulder, and cooed, "Pretty boy, come and get me."
"Oma! Please come ..." I lifted my foot to mount the next rung but was stopped short when two strong hands encircled my waist. I grabbed hold of the ladder and glanced over my shoulder. "Conrad." I exhaled my friend's name along with a silent hallelujah.
"Come down, Gretchen. I'll get her." His hands remained clasped around my waist while I descended to the ground. With one sympathetic gaze, I was enveloped in comfort. He touched a finger to my trembling lips, and warmth spiraled up my spine. "You should have come for me when you first discovered her."
"I know, but I thought she'd listen to me."
He tilted his head toward the ladder. "Did she drag this from the shed by herself?"
"Stefan," I said.
He nodded his understanding. "He's a boy. In a few years he will begin to remember what you tell him."
I thought it would take more than a few years before Stefan remembered anything other than how to have fun, but I didn't say so. "I don't know who creates more problems, Oma or Stefan. Neither one of them will listen to me."
With a chuckle he mounted the ladder and waved to my grandmother. "I've come to rescue you, Sister Helga. Let me help you out of the tree."
I stood below and prayed this wouldn't take long. For a brief moment Oma eyed Conrad with curious suspicion—a strange occurrence, for she usually fancied him her beau when in a delusional state of mind. I immediately feared the worst.
Finally she pointed to a far branch. "First an apple I must pick."
Conrad wagged his finger and shook his head. "Nein. It is too early in the year for apples, Sister Helga, but I promise I will pick you a large red apple come September."
"Ja?" She gave him a toothy grin that creased her aged skin into a thousand wrinkles. "Then I will come down to you, pretty boy."
With skirt and petticoat askew and slowed by an occasional snag to her black stockings, Oma shimmied and slid down the tree until Conrad held her in a firm grasp. He maintained his hold until the old woman's feet were firmly planted on the ground. She turned to face him and jabbed her finger in a tap-tap-tap rhythm on one of his shirt buttons. "Permission from the elders you must have before you marry me."
If Oma's outburst had caused Conrad any unease, his feelings remained well hidden. I couldn't say the same for myself. Heat climbed up my neck in a thousand fingers and splayed across my cheeks. How could Oma recall a marriage requirement of our faith, yet fail to remember that old women don't climb trees or that apples aren't ready for harvest until fall? Those thoughts, along with Oma's behavior, caused my head to ache.
"Thank you for your help, Conrad." I hoped he wouldn't notice my embarrassment. "I apologize for Oma's words."
With the tip of his fingers, he lifted my chin. "What is this with apologies? We have known each other for twenty-two years. We look after each other, ja?" He took a step closer and leaned forward. "I know this is hard for you, Gretchen." His eyebrows dipped low over cobalt blue eyes.
I bobbed my head. "I don't know what I'd do without you." I forced a grin. "But we haven't really known each other for twenty-
two years. I think you can only count from the time we reached the age of four. Before that, I remember nothing."
He chuckled. "From now on I will just say I have known you all my life."
Conrad thought he understood my daily plight: the rigors of trying to keep my work completed at the store while attempting to hide Oma's behavior from my father, and striving to keep Stefan on the proper path to manhood. I didn't want to dash Conrad's belief, but he could only partly understand. He wasn't there day and night to see my struggles.
The right side of his mouth lifted in a half grin. "And you don't have to worry about what to do without me, because I will always be here to help. I'm not going anywhere."
Before I could respond, Oma clutched Conrad's arm in a viselike grip and tugged. "Come on, pretty boy. Come and sit with me."
He winked at me before returning his attention to my grandmother. "I have a better idea. Why don't you come and sit with me in the barbershop, Sister Helga?"
Shaking my head, I mouthed that he didn't need to take charge of Oma.
"It's the least I can do. You need some time alone to complete the ledgers at the store without worry." He shifted his weight and waved me toward the general store. "And if your work is all done, you can write in your journal. You're always taking care of others. Let me look after you some of the time."
Lifting a bony finger, Oma tucked a wisp of white hair behind one ear. Her black cap remained twisted in a loose knot at the back of her head, but I made no attempt to fix it. If she discovered any black fabric in her hair, she'd probably think the imaginary blackbird had built a nest atop her head. Conrad tucked Oma's hand into the crook of his arm, and she smiled up at him as they strolled toward the barbershop. Conrad glanced over his shoulder and waved. "I'll bring her back before time for the noonday meal."
I stared after the two of them for a moment. Oma continued to cling to Conrad's arm. She chattered to him as though she hadn't talked to him in years. And in her muddled thoughts, perhaps she hadn't. Nowadays, my grandmother often confused Conrad with her deceased husband. I found the idea quite odd, because the two men looked nothing alike. At least not according to my memories of Opa. My grandfather had died when I was only nine, but I remember him as short, stoop-shouldered, and bald. A stark contrast to Conrad's tall, broad-shouldered build and crop of thick blond hair. But who could know what went on in my grandmother's mind? Certainly not me, and I'd tired of any attempts to figure out when these strange episodes would occur.
The soles of my shoes clacked on the wooden sidewalk that bordered the storefronts of Homestead. A train whistled in the distance, and I instinctively turned toward the station and picked up my pace. If Father returned from the depot and discovered the store unattended, he'd be unhappy with me. Worse yet, I'd need to give a reason for my absence. I didn't want to lie, yet I didn't want to give him any additional reason to discuss the insane asylum in Mount Pleasant. I'd promised Mother on her deathbed that I wouldn't permit him to send Oma to that place, but with these incidents occurring more frequently, it was becoming difficult to defend my position.
I hurried through the front door, scanned the area, and exhaled a whoosh of relief.
"Ah, Gretchen, there you are."
I swiveled around. My shoulders relaxed when I caught sight of my good friend Sister Mina behind a counter stacked with folded ends of calicos and woolens. I lifted up on tiptoe and met her blue-eyed gaze. "I told Stefan not to stack those pieces so high, but does he listen?"
"Ach! He is a boy. I'm surprised he listens to you at all."
Mina circled around the display, and I stepped forward to encircle her shoulder. I gave her a quick squeeze and pecked her cheek with a fleeting kiss before releasing my hold. "It's always good to see you, Mina. We need to find time to visit more often. I miss our talks."
She patted my hand. "I miss you, as well, but it seems there is always something that keeps us busy. It's better in winter, when we can get together and quilt with the other women. In spring and summer, the hours are filled to the brim."
"True. And when Stefan doesn't do as he's told, it takes even more of my time."
Mina chuckled. "Boys don't listen to older sisters. I should know. I have four brothers, and not one would listen to me when they were Stefan's age." She wiggled loose several pieces of the dark calico and unfolded one of them. With a shake of her head, she refolded it. "Not enough for even an apron."
"There are some larger pieces over on the other side." I circled around and directed her to one of the far stacks. "I think you might find a piece or two large enough for an apron or even a waist among these." Always eager to keep the deductions from her account to a minimum, Mina would be happy if she could find a fabric remnant that would serve her purpose. "Do you want dark blue or black?" I yanked at a piece of cloth near the bottom of the pile. "Or maybe brown?" I held the piece aloft.
Mina hitched one shoulder. "I care little about the color so long as there is enough to make a new waist. All of mine are beginning to show wear. Never fails. They all wear out at the same time." She looked toward the door that led to our living quarters.
When my parents had first been assigned to operate the store, we'd lived in one of the houses down the street. But then my mother became ill, and my father asked to have a portion of the store converted into living quarters. The elders had first expressed concern over the idea but eventually agreed when Father assured them he would find a way to maintain the same amount of inventory. And he had. By adding some additional shelving, keeping only samples of some merchandise on the shelves and stocking the additional inventory in the large warehouse located behind the store, he'd been successful. The change meant he spent more time in the warehouse, and I was expected to take over more of the store duties. But having our living quarters within the store had proved more of a blessing than a hardship during my mother's illness. And now, with Oma experiencing bouts of dementia, I was even more thankful for the arrangement.
"Sister Helga is taking a nap?"
Mina's question pulled me back to the present. "Nein. Oma is over at the barbershop with Conrad."
Mina arched her brows. "Again? That Conrad is gut to help with her, ja? Not like your Vater, who has no patience."
"Vater helps when he can, but he has to be out in the warehouse most of the time." I pointed at the side window. "Oma climbed into the apple tree. Conrad helped me get her down."
"It's a wonder she didn't break a bone, but is gut your Vater wasn't here when it happened. For sure he would start talking about Mount Pleasant again. I am thankful your dear Mutter isn't here to see how he behaves." She snapped a piece of fabric in the air and placed it across the table. "This looks like it will do. These end pieces are still less costly than the ones on the bolt?" She glanced toward the myriad bolts of fabric that stood at attention on the nearby shelves.
"Ja, of course. Why would you think otherwise?"
Mina looked about the room. "The last time I was in here, your Vater said he was going to tell the elders it made no sense to sell the end pieces for less. I told him he should leave well enough alone, but who can say about your Vater? Ever since your Mutter died, he's been as changeable as the weather." She patted my shoulder. "You are a gut and patient daughter."
I couldn't disagree with Mina's assessment of my father, but I knew I wasn't as good or as patient as my friend thought. Father's moods had been unpredictable for more than two years, ever since Mother had taken ill. And I'd found it increasingly difficult to gauge his reactions and behavior. "He's said nothing to me about changing any prices. Until he does, we will both agree that the end pieces are less expensive."
"As they should be." Mina's curt tone didn't surprise me. It was simply her way. Few women in the Amana villages were as outspoken as Mina. Other women might murmur among themselves or privately state an opinion to their husbands, but Mina spoke her mind no matter who was present. Some of the men thought her a bit brash—my father among them. But whatever her tone of voice, I loved Mina. Even though she was twenty years older than I, she was my best friend. She was the one who had sat at my ailing mother's bedside during her final days on this earth. She was the one who had offered me solace, comfort, and a shoulder to cry on. And she was the one who had given me my very first journal.
There were so many times I longed to be like Mina—to say my feelings out loud. But I knew better. Instead, I wrote in my journal. Though I'd filled the pages of that very first journal long ago, it remained a secret between the two of us. Mina never told me how or where she purchased the journals, but each Christmas she gave me a new one. "I know there are those who think writing for pleasure is a waste of time, but you're a girl who needs to write your heart. I can see it in your eyes," she'd told me that very first Christmas. Ever since then I dreamed of writing beautiful poems or stories that would capture the hearts of readers. I had always loved reading the Psalms in the Bible. Not that I fancied my writing ability akin to David's, but I did find pleasure expressing my thoughts on paper and hoped that one day others might enjoy my writing. I wasn't sure how that could ever happen. Still, I continued to write.
"You going to list this on my ledger sheet, or are you expecting me to do it myself?"
Once again Mina's voice yanked me back to the present. "Just that one piece? You don't need anything else?"
"That's all." She trailed her fingers across the wide array of lace and trims that were displayed to advantage. "Sometimes I think your father keeps more goods on hand to sell to outsiders than he does for those of us who live here."
"Something you need that cannot be found on my shelves, Mina?" I heard the irritation in my father's voice before I saw him enter the store. He closed the distance in a long determined stride and came to a halt beside me.
Mina didn't back down from his hard stare. "Since you ask, I think you could give over more space to dark calicos and woolens, the ones worn by our people."
My father's gaze settled on the small piece of fabric Mina had selected. "The outsiders come here and buy more in one day than you have purchased in the last ten years." He poked at the small piece of cloth. "More of these tiny scraps I should have on my shelves? Is that what you think?"
Mina squared her shoulders. "Is the store for the people who live here or for the visitors who come to stare at us as though we are some curiosity?"
"The store is here for both, but if you are unhappy with how it is being run, maybe you should speak to the Bruderrat."
"I have no desire to speak to the elders, but that doesn't change what I think about the goods you stock."
"Ach! Nothing changes what you think, Mina. I have plenty of goods in the warehouse—you need only tell me what you need." He sent a dismissive wave in her direction. "You are as hardheaded as ... as ..."
"As a man?" Mina said. Without waiting for my father's reply, she picked up the piece of cloth and marched out the door.
"That woman, she is not a good example for the other women in this town. Her behavior you should not follow." My father peered at the ledger book. "The accounts are finished?"
"Not yet, but I'll have them completed before this evening."
His jaw twitched. "What is it you were doing while I was at the train station?"
I didn't dare tell him I'd spent my time trying to get Oma out of the apple tree. And one look at the ledgers would tell him that Mina had been my only customer.
"That Mina, she complains about the store and keeps you from doing your ledgers. That one, she talks too much."
Though I briefly considered telling my father he was wrong about Mina, I knew she wouldn't mind if I didn't come to her defense. She'd much rather I protect Oma.