Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Evergreen

 





 That particular brisk November morning, as had been the entire Fall season to that point, was colder than usual for the southwest corner of Georgia. Emory could hear the familiar sound of the soles of his feet scrape across the coarse sandy surface of the road. His pace was quickened that morning, but not simply because of the temperature. He knew that Hannah would be at her usual spot and he didn't want to keep her waiting.  

   The school bus stop was about half a mile from Emory's house and was a familiar route once all of the harvesting was finished and the school year rolled around. Emory, an outdoor person by nature, nonetheless looked forward to the reprieve offered by the school year. His favorite class had always been biology, although history was a close second. Math was useful but still a little dry for him. His whole environment was immersed in life and to obtain a greater understanding of that diversity had always been fascinating. Now, more than ever, his and his family’s existence depended on the land. The Depression and the seemingly never-ending war overseas had stretched resources beyond their limits and what the land could produce and your hands manufacture were all that anyone had. And none of that was guaranteed. Emory had friends who would beg him for the left-over core of his apple at lunch. He gave away all that he could, but he had very little to offer to begin with. 

   In a world where there was little to possess and little to hope for, there was one bright spot in Emory’s life. His jacket. More specifically, it was his bomber jacket. It might have seemed almost laughable to someone from a larger town or from a family possessing greater means, but to Emory it meant the world. It was exactly the same kind of jacket that the American bomber crews wore on their high altitude bombing missions in Europe. The exterior was entirely leather while the inside was lined with a thick layer of fleece that would deflect even the staunchest winter winds. He had saved what he had earned from working the previous summer and purchased the jacket after combining those summer earnings with his entire life savings. He was too young to go and fight, but only barely so and wearing the jacket was a small way of respecting those who fought and died daily. After all, they were his heroes.  

   Emory knew that he was getting close as he approached the familiar bend in the road. The leaves of the large red oak to his right had turned brown and were slowly, one by one,  succumbing to the November winds. The small fishing pond to his left had been a scene of constant activity and socialization during the warmer months but was now secluded and alone. Yet, closer to him and just beyond the edge of the road was a lofty long-needled southern pine whose girth and height indicated a tree of great age and majesty. Never losing its needles in the coldest of seasons, it remained a symbol of hope that perhaps all would be well. Yet, the beauty and dignity of that tree seemed to pale in comparison with the diminutive young woman who stood beneath it. Hannah, her blonde hair playing across her face in the cool morning breeze, was standing beneath the tree engrossed in a book. As Emory approached, his movement caught her attention and she looked up with a smile that made the morning pause to take notice.

   Hannah was German. That was the simple truth of it, and usually the only knowledge necessary for most people to pass judgement. It seemed to make little difference that she and her parents had fled Germany for the distinct purpose of avoiding the Nazi regime and were already settled in their new home by the time hostilities had begun. It was enough merely to hear her speak, her English decorated with a slight Bavarian accent, and gaze upon her long golden hair and sapphire eyes to realize that she was one of the enemy; no matter how pleasant her demeanor might first appear.

   Emory, however, saw her differently, although he had never spoken openly of it. When he had first met her at school, he had immediately felt great compassion for her at being so far from her home. The flat coastal plain of southern Georgia held little resemblance to the foothills of the Alps from which she had immigrated. She already spoke English, but she nonetheless still faced a society who did not speak the language of her heart and whose culture was markedly foreign. Not to mention that within the short period of time that she had lived in her new home, her native country had declared war upon it. 

But Hannah was certainly not helpless and that fact, perhaps, made Emory respect her all the more. He had often remarked to himself that if all of the German people had the same strength of will as Hannah, it was no small wonder that they made such staunch fighters on the battlefield. She also possessed a keen mind and Emory, although a good student himself, had to admit that Hannah was likely more gifted than he. And, in spite of all of her attributes, it had not escaped Emory’s attention that one of his favorite things about Hannah was just how pleasant she was to look at. Superficial, but true nonetheless. 

   Hannah’s smile, as she stood beneath the Evergreen, warmed his heart as it always did on those cool fall mornings.

   “Guten Morgen, fraulein!” Emory greeted her proudly as his breath condensed in the cool air. 

   “Ah, du sprichst Deutsch?” Hannah replied. “Wie geht es dir heute?”

   “Alright, I give up,” Emory responded by throwing up his hands. “I need you to give me more lessons. I didn’t understand a word you just said.” 

   “Perhaps, if I had a more diligent student you would already be fluent by now,” Hannah responded jokingly.

   “That's not funny,” Emory responded with a smile as he joined her underneath the evergreen tree. At that exact moment, the unmistakable rattling of the 1931 Ford school bus reached their ears. It seemed on most days that every bolt holding the old green vehicle together would rattle itself out of place but it had, with constant diligence from the maintenance crew,  somehow managed to hold itself together. The dust kicked up from the sandy roads by the bus’s tires rose above the dormant fields and made it quite easy to track the path of the vehicle.

   “Do you think we'll make it to school today without breaking down?”

   “Not sure. But, that’s one of the things that keeps life so interesting.”

   The vehicle pulled up beside the pair and the door swung open revealing the serious face of Mrs. Davis, the bus driver. The two got onto the bus and took their usual seats about midway back on the right hand side of the bus. Hannah pressed in a little closer to Emory for warmth which was never unwelcome as she always smelled like cedar. 

   “So, how is your piano playing these days?” Emory asked. 

   “Fine, I suppose,“ Hannah replied modestly although Emory had heard her play before and was not fooled in the least.

   “I’m sure that it’s much better than just fine. I remember the last time you played at church. I'm certainly no Mozart, but I thought it was flawless.“

   “You are too kind, sir,“ Hanner replied with a smile while putting on the air of a medieval princess. “And I dare say I would be happy to play on a much more frequent basis, if only they were more Lutheran churches in town.“

   Emory chuckled before responding.

   “Now, you know good and well that there aren’t any Lutherans in this town, but you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Baptist Church.”

   Hannah nodded in acknowledgment.

   “At least Mrs. Johnson still lets me practice on her piano. She has really been very nice about the whole situation and has allowed me to play whenever I need to. I’m not sure, but it seems as if she enjoys the music as it takes her mind off of the emptiness of her house.”

   “I’m sure it does,” Emory responded. “I can only imagine having a house full of the noise of that many children and then how quiet it must be when they all move away.“ 

   Emory then looked over at his companion and she thumbed through her sheets of music.

   “In fact,“ he offered. “You can come and play the piano for me anytime when all of my children have moved away.“

   Hannah then returned his gaze and curled her lips over her teeth as to give the appearance that she had none.

   “You mean when you’re old, with no teeth like this? “

  Emory couldn’t help but chuckle, in spite of his friend’s teasing.

   “Now, you just hang on a second there. I’ll have you know that I’m planning to keep all of my teeth.  And my hair, too.”

   “Oh, I see.”

   A thought then suddenly came to Emory. 

   “You know, it really has been a while since I’ve gotten to hear you play. The school recital is coming up in a couple of weeks and that’s something that everyone in town always looks forward to. Maybe I’ll get to hear you then.“

   Hannah smiled as a respectful gesture but did not respond verbally.

   “You’re going to play then, aren’t you?” Emory  asked. “You’re one of the best piano players that I know.“

   “And just how many piano players do you know?”

   “I’m serious. You have to play. You would be great.”

   “I don’t know,” Hannah responded, still thumbing through her sheet music. Emory could tell that something was bothering her but he was not sure exactly what it was. 

   “I know it can be a little intimidating getting up in front of all those people,” Emory continued sympathetically. “But I certainly wouldn’t let that stand in your way.”

    “No, it’s not that.”

   “Is it everything going on with the war?”

   “No,” Hannah shrugged her shoulders. “Not really.” 

   Emory could still tell that something was bothering Hannah, but he also did not want to push her if it was something that she really did not want to talk about. Almost as if she had read his mind, Hannah suddenly  turned to him as if to share a secret that she could no longer bear to keep hidden. 

   “You can’t tell anyone. Promise me.” 

   “I promise.”

   “I’ve seen pictures from other years,” Hannah began. “And I’ve been to other recitals and I know how the girls are dressed.”

   Hannah paused to collect herself. 

   “Papa’s crop was not as good this year as we had hoped. Our family doesn’t have anything extra for something as impractical as a new dress. Right now, I don’t own any clothing that would be considered appropriate for a recital. My parents feel terribly about it but I believe it would be more embarrassing to them for me to go ahead and play publicly dressed as I would be than to not play at all.”

   Emory listened respectfully.

   “But you know what?” Hannah continued with a more optimistic tone. “Papa took us to town the other day and we walked by Alderman’s store downtown. In the window was this beautiful blue evening dress with a neckline just perfect for showing a string of pearls.”

   Hannah smiled wistfully. 

   “Maybe one day, after this war is over, I can have some things like that. If only every now and then. I guess what I’m really wishing for is something constant. Something dependable. Something unchanging. Like that evergreen tree that we meet under every morning for school. Immergrun as we say in German. Evergreen.“ 

   Emory's face was filled with compassion. 

   “I’m sorry, Hannah.” 

   She smiled in return.

   “I know that things are tough now for everyone. I just wanted you to know. But, please, don’t tell anyone.”

   “I promise, Hannah.”


   For the rest of the school day, Emory could think of nothing but Hannah and the blue dress hanging in Alderman's window. Emory knew without doubt that Hannah would be the most talented musician at the recital, but he greatly respected her unwillingness to embarrass her parents or herself for the sake of putting herself on display. As the day progressed and just before school ended, a solution began to form in  Emory’s mind. Wishing to honor his promise to Hannah, he kept his ideas to himself. 


   The next day was Saturday and Emory’s brother, James, had several errands to run for the family in town. Catching James by himself, Emory made his request.

   “Why in the world do you need to stop by Alderman’s?“ James asked with a perplexed expression. “Unless you’ve come into some money that the rest of us don’t know about, you don’t have any business going there.“

   “Listen, I just need to go there. It’s not for me.“

   “Then who is it for?”

   “Can’t tell you. I made a promise.“

   “Is it something that’s going to get you into trouble with mama and daddy?”

   “No. They would approve.”

   James appeared a little disappointed.

   “Then you should go tell them about it.“

   “I will. But I have to keep my promise first.”

   Reluctantly, James agreed to take him with the stipulation that Emory would owe him a favor to be cashed in at a later day. That stipulation didn't bother Emory in the least and he grabbed his bomber jacket before heading out the door behind James. 

   

Following the eight mile drive into town, James eased the farm truck into the parking area on the city square in front of Alderman’s. 

   “Now listen,” James began. “You’d better be done with whatever business you’ve got to do by the time I get back from the hardware store. Don’t think that I won’t leave you here if you start interfering with my schedule.” 

   Emory pretended not to hear as he slammed the truck door and made straight for the front entrance of the clothing store. Before going in, he paused for a moment and stared into the right front window. There, just as Hannah had described, was the blue evening dress. She had certainly been right about one thing; even Emory could easily imagine the dress accented by a strand of pearls. Gathering his courage and taking a deep breath, he then entered the store.

   The woman who assisted Emory was very kind and listened patiently as he explained his proposal. 

   “Well,” she began once she fully understood what he was asking. “It’s certainly a reasonable thing to suggest, especially with times the way that they are now. It’s just that I was wondering if this is really something that you wanted to do. Especially at this time of year.“ 

   “Yes ma’am,”  Emory replied immediately. “I’ve given it a lot of thought.“

   “I’m quite sure you have. It’s just the mother in me that makes me ask questions like that. Very well then, let’s get this all set up for you.”

   “And if you don’t mind, would you mind wrapping it? Nothing fancy.” 

   “I think that we can arrange that.”


  

 “What in the world is that?“ James asked as Emory climbed into the passenger seat carrying a package.

   “I’ve already told you. I’m not going to tell you right now. I made a promise and I’m keeping it.“

   “So, it doesn’t bother you at all to keep me in the dark about all this and yet use me to give you a lift to town?”

   “Not in the least,“ Emory replied. “You were coming this way anyway. I’m also not going to feel bad about asking you to stop by Hannah's house on the way home, either. But don’t park out front. I want you to drop me off where no one from the house can see me.” 

   “You certainly are causing me a lot of problems today.“

   “Yes,” came the sultry reply as Emory stretched his arms across his package. “But I’m worth it.”


   The following Monday, the brisk November air was even colder than it had been the previous week. Emory once again settled into a hurried pace so as to not keep Hannah waiting. He always looked forward to seeing her, but on that day his excitement was above its usual level. As he navigated the familiar turn in the sandy road, he once again saw Hannah reading her book beneath the spreading arms of the evergreen pine. Noticing his approach after looking up from her novel, her face burst into the largest smile that Emory had ever seen. 

   “Herr Tucker! “ Hannah began using one of her playful names for Emory. “You will never guess what happened this weekend!“

   “Well, don’t leave me in suspense! Spill the beans!”

   “Do you remember me telling you last week about the blue dress at Alderman’s? The one I dreamed about having for the recital?“

   “Of, course. The one that would go really well with a strand of pearls.” 

   “So, you were listening!”

   “Of course I was.”

   “Well, Sunday morning papa had gone out back to feed the livestock before church when he found a package on the back porch. We had no idea where it came from. We certainly had not ordered anything and the postman never leaves anything on the back porch. It had no address. We didn’t want to keep something that wasn’t ours, so we decided to open it to see if we could find out who it belonged to. Emory, you’ll never guess what was inside.” 

    “Tell me.” 

   Hannah paused for a moment as if she still could not believe her own story. 

   “It was the gown.”

"What gown?"

"You know which gown!"

   “The blue one from Alderman’s?”

   “Yes! That exact one.”

   Hannah paused again. 

   “I don’t want to keep something that is not mine, but I would not even know where to begin to find its owner.”

   “Sounds like an answer to prayer to me.”

   “I thought you told me that God didn’t hear Lutheran prayers. Only Baptist ones.“

   Emory chuckled. 

   “I may have been stretching things a little bit there.“ 

   “Then what should I do?”

   “I think you were meant to have that dress. I think you should wear it and attend the recital and take your place among the other ladies. It’s where you belong. You’re out of most of their leagues anyway.” 

   Those last words rolled out before Emory could restrain them, but once they were free upon the November air, he did not regret saying them.

   “At least that’s my opinion. For what it’s worth.” 

   “Danke,” She replied softly, the harshness of her German accent having almost completely faded away.

   “Bitte,” came the honest reply. 

   Hannah smiled again and, this time, allowed her blue eyes to linger a little longer than usual, interrupted only by the sound of the arriving school bus. As the pair boarded the bus and slid into their usual seats, it seemed to Emory that Hannah moved in a little closer than usual, making the welcome scent of soap and cedar even more prominent.

Hannah’s gaze then moved back to Emory as she observed his hands and how strong but kind they were. They had seen more hardship than a person of his age should have endured. She was noticing the worn cuffs of his shirt, no doubt a hand-me-down from his brother, when a thought suddenly occurred to her.

   “Emory, where is your jacket?”

   Emory looked down at his shirt, attempting to feign surprise. 

   “I must have forgotten it. I was in a hurry.”

   “Today was one of the coldest days of the year so far. And besides, you never go anywhere without that jacket.“

   Hannah was far too keen for a detail of that nature to go unnoticed and Emory suddenly felt very foolish to have thought that he could have ever kept it from her.

   “It was you, wasn’t it?” Hannah started as the details began to fall into place. “You traded your jacket for my dress . An expensive jacket that you bought with your own money.”

   Emory did not respond at first, a part of him regretting that his sacrifice had been so obvious. He had somehow hoped it would go unnoticed. To watch her enjoy her dress and recital from a distance without any need for compensation. But that was a very childish idea. 

   “When I told you about the dress last week, I never meant for it to sound like I was…”

   “Of course you didn’t,“ Emory interrupted gently. “Of course you didn't. It was never taken that way.” 

   Emory’s gaze fell to the floor boards as a silence settled between the pair. He had already made a fool of himself. He might as well complete the task.

   “I would rather be cold than to ever see you embarrassed or to have to go without.” 

   He was quite sure that he had ruined everything and that his priceless friendship with the beautiful young woman next to him was over, when he suddenly felt the soft touch of Hannah’s hand as it grasped his. He suddenly realized that he had never touched her before and this new sensation was in no way unwelcome. Emory’s gaze returned to Hannah and he could tell in the softness of her gaze that her German fortitude was crumbling. 

   “You know what they’ll say about you when word gets out, don’t you?”

   Emory nodded. 

   “It doesn’t really matter.”

   She smiled once again. 

   “Immergrun,” she whispered.  “Evergreen.” 

   “Evergreen,” he responded. 


   




   


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