It is two days before Mother's Day, a fitting time for me to post this short story. This 2,000-word composition came to me as I typed non-stop for one evening when I was in Grade 10. Of all the stories I have written or attempted to write so far, this one lies closest to my heart. Its theme is not as light as many of my other compositions, but the soul of the story touches me every time I read it.
Do you remember the wild oak tress that used to surround our houses? The showers of spring? The breeze of autumn? And the white winter snow that never failed to bring along frost and cold?
Do you remember our first winter clothes? The scarlet sweaters? The woolen mittens? And the thin boots that let in the snow?
It’s all more than thirty years ago, but I remember quite well.
I also remember what Ma wore. I remember the brown shawl draped around her thin shoulders. I remember the ill-fitting blue cap that balanced on her straight, tan-gold hair. Her only sweater was dark blue, but it turned lighter and lighter as I grew up. I also remember the gloves that were patched again and again to fit her ragged hands. Ma was less then twenty-five when I learned to recognize her, but she could easily be mistaken for someone much older.
Our house was made of logs, I remember. The logs were of dark wood, and that made the whole little house darker. There was a little shed attached to our house that I used to play in. We also had a garden, I remember. I even had a corner to myself. The rest of the garden was for “useful things” said Grandma.
Grandma was there all the time. She sat on the squeaking rocking chair near the window. I don’t quite remember her anywhere else. Grandma was the one that gave me my lessons. She taught me reading, writing, and arithmetic. I never liked arithmetic or writing; I only liked the stories Grandma told me.
Grandma told me lots of stories. She told me the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the boat, David and Goliath, and so many more I’ve lost count. Ma never told me stories; she was always doing something else, but she always gave me a smile when I looked at her.
Life never changed for me. During spring, I would pick flowers from the woods and give them to Grandma; Ma was too busy to notice little things like flowers. Summer was the time when I ran about and played with Jake. He lived over the little hill near our house. In autumn, I would eat Ma’s pumpkin pies. Then in winter, I would study while I wore things Ma knitted.
There were only three of us in the house. I thought that would never change.
Then one autumn night, Grandma suddenly began to cough violently. I was twelve years old already, so mom sent me off with a lantern to get the Doctor. I broke into a run. I remember that I ran until my heart wanted to fall out. The woods were dark and cold, but I knew the way to the Doctor’s cabin. The fallen leaves crushed under my thin feet and fluttered off behind me. I ran and I ran and I ran until I stood shuddering at Doctor Willow’s front door.
Doctor Willow was quick to answer my knock, and we sped back to our house on his horse. Once we reached the clearing, Doctor Willow jumped down and ran inside the house. When I followed in, no one was moving. Grandma lay still on the bunk bed with her hands beside her, the Doctor stood along the bed with his hat in his hand, and Ma sat on a stool near him, her eyes looking unblinkingly at Grandma.
That was the first time someone I loved died. From then on, I never tried to love anyone else. After Grandma was buried, Ma continued to wash, iron, sew, knit, mend, cook, plant, weed, clean, fix, and do all the other things she used to do, but she never smiled anymore. As for me, I gave my soul to studying. I poured over every book my Grandma and Pa left behind. I made sure I knew everything written in those pages. I thought of nothing else.
Four autumns after Grandma died, Jake told me he was going to the town academy. My heart thumped so madly when he described all the books he’d read and all the people he’d meet. I wanted so much to go with him.
“Why don’t you come along?” he said, “You’d have to pay a tuition though. I’m going to work while I study so I can afford the tuition. You also have to ask your Ma. You can’t come home regularly if you go to the academy.”
My heart sank when I heard that. I hardly if ever talked to Ma. But for the sake of the academy, I just had to try.
“Ma,” I said as I sat on my bed that night, “Jake is going to the town academy next week, may I go with him?”
I held my breath.
Ma didn’t say a single word. She turned her face away from me for a long time, and she motioned me to go to sleep. I slept very badly that night.
The next morning, I was reading when Ma suddenly approached me with a small package in her hand. I looked at her.
“This will be enough for your first semester’s tuition. Take it,” she handed the package to me. “I’ll send the rest month by month.”
I could hardly contain myself at that time. I wanted to hug Ma like I used to hug Grandma, but Ma looked so serious and grim that I kept my arms to myself. I only nodded slightly and said, “Thank you, Ma.”
Then Ma walked away.
The week after, Jake and I started on our trip to town. We were going to travel on foot, and Jake’s folks all came out to bid us farewell. Ma just stayed inside the house. Breakfast was on the table when I woke up that day, and all my books and things were in the sturdy bag Pa left behind. Ma said she didn’t feel well that morning, and she stayed in bed until I left without saying goodbye.
Jake and I arrived at town the next day. It was late autumn already, and my boarding house’s walls offered little warmth. I took out the jacket Ma made for me. It kept out the cold just fine.
My classes began within two weeks. The academy was bustling with life on the first day of school. There were more people than I had ever known in my life. There were so many teachers, and so many workers, and so many students from both town and the country.
My life changed notably from that day on. In winter, I would attend classes in the mittens, coat, and cap I brought from home. When spring came, I would study outdoors and pick flowers for my room. I had summer classes, and they consumed all the days of the hot season. In autumn, I would wear my sweater and wait for Ma to send a pumpkin pie.
Ma always sent a pie in autumn, warm clothes in winter, a book in spring, a hat in summer, and money every month. The money for my tuition never failed to arrive, not even once. And I always had spare money after the tuition was paid.
Things stayed that way for the two years I spent at the academy. One day, when graduation was just around the corner, Jake suddenly asked me what I would do after the “big day.”
“Well,” I replied, “I’d probably become a teacher like my Pa. I’d stay in town and teach in one of the two schoolhouses. They seem to need English teachers anyways.”
Jake nodded. After a pause, he said with his face to the sky, “I’m going home for a while. Father was sick when I visited last summer, and my folks might need some help with the farming.” He paused again, then he continued, “I know some people say it’s a waste to study in town then become a farmer, but I think that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Jake left the day after graduation; I stayed in town. The two schools already had enough teachers, so Ma continued to send money as I looked for a job. The next month, money didn’t arrive for me. I supposed that Ma forgot, though I knew in my heart that Ma couldn’t “just forget” about anything. I had already found a job at the bank, anyhow, and didn’t need the money.
Money never came again after that, and I wondered if Ma had realized I had a job even though I handn’t told her. I continued working without giving it much thought. I worked the way I used to study, and a year passed before I knew it.
One autumn night, I was struck with a loneliness I never knew before. I walked about my small library and pulled out a book. It was the book from which Grandma used to read to me. It had all the delightful stories of David, and Joshua, and Esther, and Paul. I loved the book, but it was the one book I never read since Grandma died. It reminded me too much of her.
I still felt teary-eyed when I started to read the heavy book that night. It captivated me somehow from the very beginning, and I read late into the night. I read without stopping until I reached a phrase that said, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” I stopped abruptly. Somehow, I just couldn’t read on.
I don’t know how long I sat motionless on my desk before I was startled by a knock. I walked to my apartment door and opened it to see a tall young man.
“Oh, Jake!” I cried and let him in. “It’s been a year since you went home. I am glad to see you again.”
Jake only smiled slightly at my exclamations.
“Irene,” he said as he caught my arm, “sit down. I brought something for you.”
His tone suggested something serious, and I sat down slowly.
Jake took out a small envelope from his coat pocket and handed it to me. “This letter is for you,” he said. “I delivered it as soon as I could.” Then Jake left, ignoring all my entreaties.
I looked helplessly at the letter in my hand. My hands shook as I opened the envelope. A sheet of paper with smooth handwriting fell into my lap. It read:
I know you like the ways of the city, and I know you have found a home there. But please do not forget who it was that made it possible for you to have the life you now have. Please come home before it is too late.
You probably don’t know that ever since you left for town, your mother has acted as housekeeper, gardener, and cook to more than one household in our area. Why? Only because she wants you to have money for the education you desire. Your mother worked with all her might those two years. Then more than half a year ago, she fainted while weeding a neighbor’s garden. She pleaded with me not to tell you, and that is why I waited till now.
Irene, your mother contracted a rare disease last year. And though I tried as hard as I could, I have not found a cure. Your mother is now in critical condition. Do you remember how you dashed to my house the night your grandmother died? I want you to do that again now—not to my house, but to yours. I ask Jake to take you this letter with all speed. Come quickly, Irene, or it will be too late.
Dr. James Willow
I clasped the letter in my hands. I sat still. Then I cried. I cried the same way I did when Grandma died. I cried like the child that I was. I cried until my tears ran out.
Then I got up. I changed my clothes, donned my town coat, grabbed my bonnet, and sped out. All was quiet when I reached the street. It was already past midnight. But I couldn’t wait, I just couldn’t.
Then I did what I did seven years ago. I ran with all the strength in me. I ran out of the cement streets of town into the leaf-strewn paths of the woods. There were many new houses I never saw before, but I knew the direction of my house, my home. The crisp leaves perished under my heels. The branches poured down leaves as I hit them. I ran and I ran until I reached my house amidst a whirlwind of autumn leaves.
I stopped at our door. The house looked exactly the same as it did before. It was dawn already, and my heavy panting sounded so much heavier in the quiet woods. Then I opened the door and stepped in.
And there was Ma. She was propped up in bed and wearing the same old blue sweater, the same brown shawl, and the same ill-fitting, faded blue cap on her straight, tan-grey hair. She turned as I entered. And she smiled at me with what little strength she had left.
“Ma,” I cried, and I fell into her arms. I sobbed incessantly, forgetting how sore my feet were, or how sleepy I was.
Ma hugged me weakly and whispered my childhood name. She lifted me and said breathlessly, “I’m glad you came back. I thought I would never see you again.”
Then she lay down and fell asleep, almost as if she had been waiting for me to say goodnight.
Ma died four days after I went home. She was beautiful even in death. Everyone said she looked peaceful and happy. To me, she looked like an angel, but she also looked like a triumphant warrior. She had done all she should, and now she may rest.
They buried Ma in the woods, where she had spent her whole life, and I believe there can never be a more suitable place of rest.
The woods are gone now. People have built other things in its place. But I will always remember the way it was. I will always remember the houses, the clearings, the flowers, and, of course, the autumn leaves.