“A” Is for Apron
Ilene H. Kingsbury
Old woman! Old woman! Old apron woman! Are you too tired to walk the streets today? Why are you rocking so calmly under your plum tree shade? Haven’t you noticed your chair sinking ever deeper into the grassy ground?
Clarissa’s eyes, half closed to the slanting, setting sun scarcely acknowledged the taunt of imprudent children. Old apron woman, indeed! This starched linen apron, crisp to a scratchy crackle; this crocheted insertion six inches deep; this long mantle of white was all she asked of heaven for adornment.
And why not? For on the day she turned eight she wore just such an apron over her best linsey-woolsey, and by midnight it was in rags, covered with printers’ ink! Only one corner was worth being cut off to make a small handkerchief.
She now remembered that night in October of 1838. The frontier was a seething mass of six thousand mobsters intent on death to an unarmed community! No time to harvest the fields, not a moment to pack precious possessions, only an hour to gather the children and start with mother out on the prairie. Only a hasty prayer to protect father gone to negotiate with the wicked invaders.
The start was made. Merging families hastened together for mutual aid. Like quail beneath a bush they hovered. On down the street they soon fled, sobbing, crying, whispering, demanding, praying, grimly going like beasts before a whiplash.
Up ahead was a shout of warning, Back through the ranks thundered word of emergency within this greater struggle. Then, so the rabble would not miss a block of refugees, the man in charge ran by and pointed to one of a family for this acute, quick, quiet, secretive assignment. now an old man, here a boy, there a strong youth, and on to Clarissa’s family cart he came calling.
As she looked up, the man nodded his head in her direction. She glanced backward, hoping she was not the one he meant. But he fairly yelled her name and pointed north to Brother Dawson’s field, to which the other called ones were already running. Her terrified gaze sought her mother’s, who only nodded her consent. At eight years one still minded one’s parents without question, so Clarissa chased after the fleeing figures.
years later Clarissa tired to determine just where she changed from wildly escaping danger to meeting a duty eagerly. It could not have been many rods. But once she became part of this varied aged group, she sensed she could be thought of as a little sister form just another fear-ridden household. Those up ahead waved her onward, past the field, and shortly they entered the printing office. By the time Clarissa caught up with them, the leaders had about-faced somewhere in the shop and were fairly kicking the rest over as they crowded out the door.
Until Clarissa was pushed against a rain barrel she was not aware that each person held something in his arms. In the darkening of night she just couldn’t make it out. Her own steps, now steady, took her indoors. A sure-sounding voice ordered, “Hold out your apron!” Automatically she clasped its lower corners and instantly a great weight was thrown into the ample folds. The jerk of gravity made her knees buckle and her knuckles whiten to the burden. Someone pushed her shoulders to an about turn and as she stumbled out, the order to the next child was, “Put these in your bonnet1″
This automatic, violent course, born of determined action, was so abrupt and almost ruthless, that there was no time for thinking; only obeying. She staggered under her load, and trailed the old man in front. Back toward Dawson’s field they tottered with their burdens.
Above the noise of hounded humanity out on the road, Clarissa could hear the rasp, scrape, and grind of a shovel on reluctant soil. The plunk of the earth sounded at her feet and a voice ordered, “Dump out the type, girl!” She guessed she was already on the brink of a small pit, so, bracing herself, she flung her load out and ahead, heard it fall with a metallic ring, then she clasped her hands to ease the tension of the apron hold.
Someone cried, “Don’t stand there, girl! Go back again!”
Oh, she might lose her place in line if she halted! Three trips she made before the moon showed over the trees. Each time the metal clanked with others in a newly turned hole; each time a ready shovel smoothed the field’s furrows to disguise its recent disturbance.
Quickly, the crew left the spot. Orders were given to be silent on this night’s work. Two men were charged to remember the spot, even if it took years to come back, or if flood or fire should change the scene. One boy whispered, “I’ll come back all right! I’ll dig up that type, and help uncle set it again! I don’t care if it takes ten years!”
Well, it didn’t take ten years, but eleven months did pass before the type was resurrected, carted four hundred miles east to another state and set up in a damp cellar through which ran a spring!
But at eight, Clarissa was too young to think of the far future. Her sudden remembrance of her mother on up ahead in the stream of men and women made her eyes water and her heart jump to her throat. She would have run swiftly to find safety, but the command was to allay suspicion, trail with her fellow laborers of the field, try to appear calm, and give no clue to the night’s affairs. The picture was to be of a belated party catching up with the whole fearing, fleeing settlement.
She cried a little, thinking all was lost – her mother, father, two little brothers – where were they – gone forever?
The march ended at dawn. The frontier miles powdered under their feet. The eight-year-old peered through a morning mist to identify her fellow travelers. But so dirty were they, so unkempt, so inked from head to fingertips, who could tell who they were?
Then, looking at her own hands, as the sun came up, she knew that she was one of them in this hiding away of treasure. it was when she picked up a corner of her apron to wipe her tears that she cried out in despair. It was ruined! torn, jagged, inked, oiled, snagged, creased as beneath a crimping iron; oh, never to be worn again. Then, as she smoothed it over her knees she remembered the hand-clutched corner and looked at it. Well, enough cloth had been protected to keep clean a small portion. Those eight square inches were enough to sew some lace to and make a handkerchief for her wedding! And along one edge, faintly showing, could be read “grace of God” – from the wet type buried in a field!
Old apron woman, indeed!
Thoughtless children, out to make fun of the aged, could not crush her now … no, they only hastened her memories to that night eighty years ago, where, for a brief time, she was in the thick of the greatest excitement she was ever to see.
Old, old apron woman! Look our way. Look at us little boys on the moist ditch bank. To right or left, you do not notice us! Ah, she is so ancient, so soft of step, we guess nothing ever happened to her!
Nothing happened to me, indeed!
Once, age twelve, I crept scarcely breathing to save sound, and followed my mother to a great corral of milling horses. Several hundred animals, each stolen from such a defenseless soul as was my mother, had been driven mercilessly, and now awaited day to be herded, in all haste, to a market hundreds of miles over the prairie. Their quivering, frightened, frantic bodies attested to tragic blows and tightened ropes. Some were subdued to wretched drooping of mouths to the ground; others, still undaunted, jerked raw necks upward as though presently feeling the lash.
Mother, the gentle, the forgiving, the anything-for-peace type, seemed changed in her entire demeanor as were the once fearless horseflesh behind the bars. Neither woman nor horse was in its normal element. Mother represented a sort of controlled fury. Even her voice was tones lower. Her shoulders appeared broader. Her bare hands, hanging in rhythm to her determined stride, looked as large as a man’s!
I saw a wall of water once in a dry wash that came on with the same inexorable force as she now strode toward the rails of the corral. her long, full skirts dragged back in the night breeze and crept up a little above her high-top shoes. Sorrow or adversity might bow some people to the earth, never to rise; but with Mother, if she was felled, she sprang up more majestic. The men who had run off her cattle and horses could well beware of this pioneer settler.
And so she marched toward that cattle pen looking as if neither man nor the devil could stop her. Without a pause she climbed the rails and only stopped her course to call the name of a mare, beloved by our family. In the clear, cloudless night she discerned an answering jerk of a horse’s head and heard a familiar whinny. She grabbed her skirt, threw her legs over the top rail, and in a half vaulting motion cleared the inner side of the fence. She gained momentum and ran to claim her horse.
An oath cracked in the air. A hulk in human form lurched toward her. A grip of iron shook her shoulder.
Then, through the apertures of the fence I saw majesty in all its power and beauty. Mother looked that evil man squarely in the face. her words were lost in the ceaseless tramping of the captured beasts, but the effect on that man amazed me as much as seeing Mother in that pen. he seemed struck with an invisible whip, or pushed away by a magnificent force. I always meant to ask her what she said to him; but never dared.
At that instant other forms emerged from the gate of the corral, and a wrangling ensued which showed that some of the thieves could not understand how a woman got in the place anyway! All of which didn’t concern this desperate pioneer woman for one instant.
Again she called the mare, again it answered her. Mother went to it, the danger about her as mere nothing. And when she came close enough to stroke the animal’s mane, a great peace came over the creature. Its nose, in her outstretched palm, ceased its jerking to the sky.
A raucous noise grated on my ears. A rough voice yelled, “Woman, how you expect to get it back?”
Language is not so important sometimes; at least Mother didn’t need any. Her hands jerked to the back of her waist, caught the ties of her apron, yanked them apart, and with one motion snaked that apron and its strings around the mare’s neck, cast a slip knot, and with a free end of cloth gently tugged along her property. A few clicking sounds from the side of her mouth signaled the animal to pace it out of the corral with her.
By this time I had inched around to the gate, and I reached for Mother’s hand as she came by. I guess she knew I was there, for she had ordered me to come along just in case of trouble. but the look on her face was so triumphant I scarcely recognized her.
From the area of the horses came shouts and quarreling – “Bring her back” – “Shoot her down” – “Can’t you beat a woman better than that?” – “What she say to you?” – “Let’s move these critters out before any more women come in …”
But by now we were running to our wagon. Our cow was hitched to one side of the tongue, the three little children were bundled in the back under a quilt, and the mare backed into place as quicksilver flows in a narrow trough in a refining mill. I helped Mother harness this odd team of bovine and equine flesh. We stepped over the wheel hubs and settled in the seat.
Later, I realized Mother hadn’t breathed a word since that man grabbed her in the corral. What she had said to him had sufficed for quite a period of time.
Over her shoulder she lovingly glanced at her little ones. Over her knees she smoothed her apron. She slapped the reins and made the same side-of-the-mouth click of her tongue we knew so well.
Our team leaned forward for a pull to the open prairies – which would lead, in a few years, to the Rocky Mountains – to a Valley of refuge in the Great Basin.