Noah looked like his father, and she hadn’t noticed it before. But here in the backseat of a Dodge Caravan, strewn with skateboarding magazines and CDs, there was time enough to
see it in the young man whose long legs stretched from the seat beside her. To see the freckles dusting her grandson’s cheeks, the way his hair poked up like a hayfield, and how his eyes grabbed at everything.
Up front, Oliver asked Shane to adjust the radio, the static reminding Clara of the white noise she used to make with a vacuum or a fan to calm her newborns. The first one being Shane, her eldest, the one in the passenger seat turning now to laugh at his father, who wrinkled his long nose as Shane tried to find a classical station.
Then, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and Clara could see Oliver smiling, pleased, and she remembered the way he’d looked over at her in church so long ago with the same expression: as though he’d finally found what he’d been looking for.
Noah was playing a game on one of those Nintendo machines. He noticed her watching him and said, “Do you want to give it a try, Grandma?” He looked so eager.
Gone were the days of Hardy Boys and marbles. “Sure!” Clara said, mustering enthusiasm as she took the tiny gadget. Then she saw what he was playing. Some kind of shooting game with uniformed men and guns and she nearly dropped it. “I’m sorry, it’s too complicated for an old woman like me,”
she said, handing it back and turning to stare out the window, at Maryland passing by, wondering what a kid in high school could know about war.
They were taking the George Washington Memorial Parkway, one of Clara’s favorite drives, which would carry them from her home state to Mount Vernon, Virginia. They were passing through Glen Echo, north of Washington, DC. And Clara remembered the story her daddy had told her, on one of their summer holidays, about her namesake, Clara Barton, who’d spent the last fifteen years of her life here. The founder of the American Red Cross, Ms. Barton had tirelessly provided aid to wounded troops during the Civil War. She had dedicated her life to serving those in need, Daddy said.
On that holiday, Clara—only eight years old at the time— had decided she would do the same. After all, she had been named after Ms. Barton.
“Something wrong, Grandma?” Noah said.
Shane turned in the front seat. His green eyes met hers, and it seemed only yesterday she had brought him home wrapped in the quilt—the one cleaned, pressed, and folded, lying in the back of their van.
Shane’s eyebrows rose and Clara shrugged, feeling cold in her white cardigan even though it was late June. It had been more than fifty years.
“Fifty years,” she said, more to herself than anything, and the van was quiet. She’d had these moments before, many of them. Moments landing her in the past, amongst broken and dead bodies, for there hadn’t been enough beds in Normandy.
Oliver peered at her now in the rearview, through his glasses, and she should give his hair a trim, she thought. It sprouted silver around his ears, and when had her soldier- husband aged? At what point between them marrying and adopting Shane and giving birth to two others had his hair turned gray?
Noah was tucking the game away now, saying, “I don’t need to play this right now. What are you thinking about, Grandma?”
And she wiped at her eyes, moist, and cleared her throat and told herself to smarten up.
It was sixteen and a half hours to New Orleans, where they were heading for a family vacation, and she should make the most of the time she had with this boy who knew nothing of the miracle of the quilt in the back. Who knew nothing of loss, and this was good. But there is a need for history to plant itself in the hearts of its children.
“Do you know about Clara Barton?” she said. Noah shook his head.
“She was a woman of great character. The founder of the American Red Cross. This whole area is a National Historic Site in her name, and she didn’t want it. All she wanted was to help people. In 1891, two men, Edwin and Edward Baltzley, offered Clara land for a house in an effort to draw people to this area. They offered her land, as well as free labor for build- ing the house, believing people would come in flocks to see the home of the woman who founded the Red Cross.
“Clara was clever. As all women of the same name are,” and here, she winked at Noah who laughed. “She had been look- ing for a new place to serve as headquarters for the Red Cross, so she took them up on it. She used the home originally as a warehouse for disaster-relief supplies, then reworked it and moved in six years later.
“A newly built electric trolley that ran into Washington brought in crowds of people to a nearby amusement park. When a new manager took over the park in 1906, he offered to buy Clara’s home and turn it into a hotel. She refused, so he then tried to drive her out. Apparently, he built a slow-moving scenic railway right by her house, with a station by her front door. When it failed to work, he erected a Ferris wheel in front of her house. Can you imagine? It is said Clara loved the lights from the wheel. She served as president of the Red Cross until 1904 and kept living in the house until her death, eight years later, at age ninety. She said the moon used to always shine at Glen Echo.”
Noah’s eyes were fixed on her. “What a woman,” he said. Clara nodded. “I know. She’s the reason I became a nurse.
And went off to war when Daddy told me not to.”
It was quiet in the car and then Shane said, “You can’t stop there, Mom! Tell him the story!”
Oliver’s eyes shining in the mirror, Vivaldi on the radio, and
Maryland’s fields of corn and hay waving graceful good-byes. “You sure?” she said to Noah.
He folded his hands in his lap. “I’m all yours, Grandma.” And so, she began.