In the Lutheran church I attend, the first Sunday in November celebrates All Saints Day. The service commemorates those who have died in the past year by lighting candles as their names are read. Fortunately, I had no names to add to the list this year, but still the service stirred up memory. I came away with my heart full of parents, grandparents, other kin, and friends. These are my saints, and I’m grateful to have had them in my life.
I’ve been thinking for some time that it would be a good thing to post a story here. Today, the choice is easy. The “Oma” in the story is neither of my grandmothers, although she bears some resemblance to both. The story is fiction, but as always, it had to come from what I know.
Water from the Well
(from A Crack in the Wall, Oolichan Books 2008)
Soon Marta will be here to slide the pins from the coiled braid at the nape of my neck. Her fingers will fan the pleated grey waves across my back. “Mutti!” she will say. How long since they washed your hair?”
Ilsa was marooned, perched on a green vinyl chair that sucked at her thighs where her dress was hitched crooked beneath her. She’d awakened with Marta on her mind. She whispered her daughter’s name to the stiff-fingered rhythm of the knitting needles. The names of all her children: Marta, Walter, Annaliese, Bruno. The living and the dead. Not sure if she chanted them aloud, or in her thoughts, until the Filipino nursing aide poked her head into the room and asked, “You calling for me, Ilsa? Or is Bernice making all that racket?”
Before she could answer that it was the one in the other bed moaning and carrying on as though she was dying, someone else stepped through the door.
“What are you knitting now, Oma? Slippers or scarf?” The tall girl brushed snow off her shoulders.
“Jeannie.” Ilsa tried to blink the sticky webs from her brain. “I thought you were coming in the morning.”
“It is still morning, but you’ve probably been up since dawn. Did you have a good sleep?”
“With that one jabbering?” She pointed over her shoulder with the free knitting needle, stabbing into the air on the other side of the room. “Since she came, who can sleep?”
“Water, please.” The voice from the bed sounded like fingernails on a screen.
“See what I put up with? Always complaining about something.” She frowned at a dropped stitch many rows back, and put the wool aside. “No school today?”
The girl pressed a cold cheek to hers. “School? Oma, don’t make me a little girl again. I’m on my way to work. At the bank, remember?”
Now the voice from the other bed commenced a low keening. The old woman lay scattered in the bed like the broken limbs of a tree, her hair sprouting from her skull in tufts that looked as though they would blow away with a puff of breeze.
“Be quiet!” Ilsa shouted.
Her granddaughter shushed her. “What is it with you and Mrs. Ridley? You know, you talk just as much as she does.”
“I?” Steadying herself with a hand on the night table, she stood up tall in her stout black shoes. They tried to make her wear bedroom slippers in this place. As though she had nowhere to go. “I mind my own business,” she said. “I’m a quiet woman waiting here patiently to die.” She tugged at the back of her skirt, pulling the wrinkled fabric free of her damp skin. Someone has stolen my garter belt and stockings again. Marta will have to go to the Army and Navy store.
While her granddaughter unwound a scarf as bright as buttercups, Ilsa stooped to hoist a water jug from the floor. Shuffling the few steps to the mahogany dresser — her only piece of home — she tested the soil in the pots of African violets, then tipped the pitcher to each, careful to avoid drips on the hairy leaves. She shoved the pitcher out of sight between the chair and the nightstand where two more jugs stood.
“Should you be doing that?” Jeannie asked. “Walking on your own?”
“Am I on my own? I thought you were here?” The effort of easing back into the chair, of concealing her pain, squeezed the breath from her chest.
Mrs. Ridley flicked open a milky eye. “I need a drink, please. A drink of water.” The claw that reached over the blue blanket plucked at the air as though clutching at feathers.
Jeannie took a step toward Mrs. Ridley, her gaze swinging from one surface to the next and then finally descending to the hiding spot. “Oma!” She swooped toward the stainless steel water jugs.
“No!” Ilsa’s arm blocked her, but before they could resolve the standoff, the door whooshed open.
“Good morning, ladies.” Here was the fat nurse, the one who looked, Marta always said, like she’d been sucking on a radish.
“Bernice? Let’s go listen to some lovely carols.” No answer from the lump in the next bed. Her eyes had fallen shut again. Only the twitch of fingers at the hem of her sweater gave her away. Mrs. Ridley. Bernice, in this place.
It puzzled Ilsa still to have her own name tossed around like a child’s toy. Ilsa, Ilsa. Like the bounce of a bright red ball. Good morning, Ilsa. Time for bed, Ilsa. Nice chicken for lunch today, Ilsa. For eighty-eight years she’d owned that name, but could count on her fingers the people who’d used it in her adult life. Even to her friends, she was Mrs Gartner. Mrs. Rolf Gartner, so there would be no mistake.
The first time Marta heard, she’d stormed to the nurse’s desk. Her voice so loud it carried down the hall and back into the room. “My mother’s name is Mrs. Gartner.”
She’d come back to the room with a roll of tape, covered “Ilsa” on the name plate at the end of her bed and printed MRS GARTNER in big black letters. But still, she was Ilsa in this place. And did it really matter?
Mrs. Ridley — Bernice — was carted off moaning to listen to the Sunday school children sing. Poor little ones never knew what to do, where to look, when the moaners sang along.
Jeannie held aloft the bag she’d carried in. “I brought you something new.” Shaking the wrinkles from a pink shirt, and then pants, she draped them over her grandmother’s knees.
“What is this? Pyjamas?”
“No, for daytime. Fleece pants and a top. Very cosy and they won’t get wrecked in the laundry like your good dresses.”
Marta washes my dresses. Folds them every Sunday into a bag and brings them back on hangers on Wednesday. And my underthings, hand washed in Ivory soap, not thrown in a boiling machine with the smelly garments of strangers.
“Your mother takes my clothes.”
Jeannie knelt in front of her, crossing the arms of the shirt, tucking the cuffs one inside the other, and then finally looking up into her eyes. “Oma, Mom’s been gone for six months. I can’t do your laundry.”
“Who said you should? Just tell them to put my name in this new suit. Every day since that one came,” she jerked her chin at Mrs.Ridley, “I have to go into her closet and find the clothes she steals.”
“I talked with the nurses last week. They said your clothes are in your own closet. They say you’re the one who’s been snitching things.”
“I?” She sniffed, but let Jeannie take her hand. “What do they know?”
“Are they treating you well, Oma?” She sounded so sad, little Jeannie, but at the same time she sounded like her mother. She would stand up to the sour-faced nurse when the need arose.
“They do their job.” Ilsa shook her head. What could she say about living among strangers? “They come and go and when they’re here they worry about what’s happening at home. You should hear Marcella, the little Filipino girl, how she talks about her family.” Yesterday when she’d changed the sheets, Marcella had cried about her sister back home dying of cancer and no one to take her babies. She would have to go back to the Philippines herself, she said. “Likely even the fat one has troubles. How can we know what goes on in other people’s lives?”
Jeannie poked a wrist free of the heavy cuff on her jacket and looked at her watch. “I’m sorry to be in such a hurry, but I have to be at work at ten o’clock. Uncle Walter said he’d pop in this afternoon. Shall I take you to the lounge before I leave?”
Ilsa patted the fleecy pile on the bed. “I should maybe wear my lounging suit to go there?” Peering over the top of the wire frames, she let her glasses slide down her nose and looked up at the girl, coaxing a grin that reminded her more of the boys, of Walter and Bruno, than of Marta. Never before had she seen the old man in Jeannie’s eyes, but there he was smiling at her over his basket of apples where they stood together on the dock waiting for the big ships.
“Oma?” The hand covered hers like a shy glove. “Ilsa Reinhold. Someday we’ll sail,” Rolf said. And so we did, but he landed me on a poor prairie farm with no well. Nor an apple nor an ocean in sight.
“Oma? Shall I wheel you to the lounge?”
“Lounge? Who has time to lounge?” Run to the garden and bring an onion and parsley for the soup. Her eyes were drawn to the window, to coloured bulbs strung on the juniper bushes. Christmas already? We should roll the springerle today.
Marta is holding both hands now, squeezing, forgetting that my knobbled bones are held together by sharp pins. Ilsa winced and pulled away.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Oma. I forgot about your poor hands. Look, I have to go but I’ll see you tomorrow. Christmas Eve, remember? The Handi-bus is bringing you to Walter and Lydia’s. I’ll make sure you get on, then follow you over.”
Marta is making Weihnnachten. Not Lydia!
Ilsa pushed away the hand on her arm. She felt the gentle kiss on her cheek, the rush of air when the door opened and closed, then she was alone. The shake of her head drip-dropped tears onto her wrists.
When she stirred, her neck was stiff from the lopsided sleep in the ugly chair. Mrs. Ridley was back. From across the room she heard snoring. Who brought that one here? Let her into the house?
“Ilsa? What are you doing, sleeping in the middle of the morning?” Marcella bent to her chair, eyes bright like a sparrow’s. “Time for lunch.”
The fat one came through the door. “Take Bernice,” she said. “I’ll bring Mrs. Gartner.” She pulled the curtain that divided the room, manoeuvred the wheelchair round and offered an arm as strong as any man’s. When Ilsa was seated, the nurse eased her own big bottom onto the green chair. “Your granddaughter says you’re unhappy. That you want a different roommate.”
From the other side of the curtain, Mrs. Ridley’s moans and Marcella’s encouraging chirps carolled the move from bed to chair and then out the door. A tide of voices in the hall rolled toward the smell of lunch, toward cream soup that hung from the spoon like wallpaper paste.
“What is it about Mrs. Ridley that’s bothering you? You shared so nicely before with poor Mary …”
Snowflakes as big as fists clumped down outside the window. Or maybe just her glasses needed cleaning. She pulled them off with a shaky hand, one temple catching in her hair. When she reached up to free it from behind her ear her fingers puzzled at the bristly fringe on her neck. Mary? What is this woman talking about? There is no Mary here.
“So there’s nowhere to move you. You understand that, don’t you? These little problems between you and Mrs. Ridley will work out in the end.”
Oh, yes. Mrs. Ridley. She was to share her room with Mrs. Herbert Ridley. She slid her glasses onto her nose and stared into the pale eyes of the nurse. “In the end?” she said. “You mean when one of us dies?” Then she folded her arms, put her feet securely on the rests of the wheelchair and waited for the fat one to take her to her lunch.
In the afternoon there were more visitors. Little girls trooping through the halls with flowers. This time both she and Mrs. Ridley had been shuttled from the dining room to the lounge, part of the sea of shipwrecked grey faces bobbing in their wheelchairs. In the drab room, the children were like bright cut-outs pasted onto a yellowed old photo.
When they were wheeled back to their room to nap, there was a poinsettia on Mrs. Ridley’s bedside table. Marcella held up a handmade card and waved it in front of Mrs. Ridley’s nose. “See, a nice present for you, Bernice. Merry Christmas from the 203 Brownie pack.” She picked a paper thimble of pills off the tray she’d carried in, then frowning, looked from the night table to the dresser. “Jesus in the garden! Your water’s gone again.”
Ilsa steered her chair to the window. The snow had stopped and on the street a long line of cars inched toward the traffic light at the corner. The old man won’t drive to the city. He scarcely leaves his bedroom now. The only way I can visit with Marta or Walter is to catch a ride with a neighbour.
This morning she’d left her Bible on the window ledge, and she reached for it now.
“Ilsa, did you hide the water again?”
She absent-mindedly fingered the skein of wool in the pocket on the side of her wheelchair, ignoring the nurse rummaging around the room. If I double the yarn it will make warm mittens for Bruno.
There was a metallic clink behind her. “Bernice can’t hardly get out of bed never mind play hide-and-seek when she’s thirsty. Now you stop this, you hear?” Marcella’s footsteps moved round the bed, and she began to cajole Mrs. Ridley to swallow. Then the scolding tone warmed. “Look, Ilsa, here’s your son.”
“Hi, Mom.” The man crouched in front of her chair. He tapped the Bible that lay open on her lap. “A bit of evening devotion?”
She blinked through the snow in front of her eyes. Here was Walter with a gift-wrapped package. “I brought chocolates for the nurses,” he said. He set the box on the floor and dug in the pocket of his overcoat. “For you, some peppermints.You can suck them while you pray.”
“I’m praying for patience to put up with that one. Listen to her yammering again about water.” She tapped the cover of the Bible. “Someone asked today how long since my husband’s gone, so I’m looking. I wrote it in the Bible.” When Walter leaned close to slip the roll of candy in beside her knitting, his jacket brushed her cheek. “Is it snowing?” she asked. “You smell of snow.”
. Rocking back on his heels, he shook his head, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Why the hell they couldn’t leave your braid… heads would roll if Marta was here.”
Ilsa pursed her lips to keep from telling him. Why make trouble even though she knows it was Walter’s Lydia who told that woman to cut her hair, when all she wanted was a washing. I heat water from the rain barrel for rinsing our hair. Mine and the two girls. The water from the well is too hard, so much iron that Annaliese’s blonde curls are streaked with rust.
Ilsa’s hand tugged at the stiff fan of hair over her ear. “Lydia,” she muttered.
“What?” Walter’s eyes behind the thick glasses were grey as the winter sky. When did Walter get glasses? On my side, everyone has good eyes. Only poor little Bruno with his lazy eye needs glasses for school.
Ilsa shook her head and turned the worn pages of the Bible. Bruno likes the coloured pictures in the middle. Elijah in his chariot of fire. I imagine myself aboard that chariot, the mane of the white horse streaming against crimson clouds, my best navy dress billowing in the wind, my hand raised in farewell.
“Mutti?” Walter slid the Bible from her knee and held it with his thumb marking her place. He leaned closer and spoke softly. “Jeannie phoned me this morning. She said you and the new lady don’t get along.”
Ilsa’s glance flew furtively to the other side of the room. She cupped a hand around his ear. “Old Lady Ridley,” she whispered. “From the home place.”
Walter looked toward Mrs. Ridley who sat swaying on the edge of her bed, mumbling. He shook his head. “Not. Those Ridleys must have passed away years ago.”
“It is!” she hissed. “Bernice Ridley. You look at the card at the end of the bed.”
“She was called Bernice? I only remember his name. Herbert Ridley, the old son-of-a-bitch.” He took one more look at Mrs. Ridley, shook his head again. “I don’t think so. And if it were, what does it matter now? They moved away when we were all still kids.” Then he paged through the Bible with his stout thumb. “14 Oktober, 1982. Rolf Freidrich Gartner ist gestorben.” He wrinkled his nose. “Is that right? I thought ’83.”
She rubbed her eyes. Who was it wanted to know? One of the nurses? Maybe the woman who sat beside her when the little girls in their brown dresses were singing. Always people asked where she was from, how many children, is there a husband.
Mrs. Ridley had managed to reach across the void between her bed and the table and drag the poinsettia onto her lap. She cradled it in her arms and poked at the dirt. “Dry as a bone,” she croaked. “Somebody bring me water! I need water.” Just as she toppled sideways, Marcella rushed back into the room. “Bernice! You’re squashing that pretty flower.” She held up a handful of red petal. “Oh, now look!”
The first summer on the farm at Bruderfeldt, I sowed seeds I brought from the old country and the scarlet tissue paper petals of the poppies danced in the wind. When two months passed without rain, Rolf hauled buckets of water from the slough to the vegetable patch, and I watched him from the window, him pouring the last of the pails around the poppies. A few days later, before I could harvest the seed, a hailstorm pounded the garden to a pulp and stripped the trees. But only our farm. The hail cut a swath the width of our land. Old Man Ridley had a fine crop of barley in the neighbouring field.
Ilsa shifted in her chair, trying to ease the ache in her bad hip. She’d been dozing again. If only it would stop, this sleep that crept up in the middle of business. What were they talking about, she and Walter? Oh yes. “Mrs. Ridley?” she called. Her neighbour was belted into the wheelchair, still clutching the potted plant. Marcella had left the room, but was not far away, her cheerful voice singing from the room across the hall. “Mrs. Ridley!” Ilsa called again. This time the woman looked up, her eyes a startling forget-me-not blue. “How long is your husband dead?”
The answer seemed to come from far away, but clear as a chime. “Why, he died in ’76. Dropped dead in the field. Found by Richard Fyffe, come to help with combining.”
Ilsa let her feet drop off the foot rests and walked her chair to the dividing line between the two halves of the room. “What was his name?”
The moment of calm was past, the tremor returning to shake Mrs. Ridley like a faded flower in the wind. Her hands fluttered and tangled in the leaves of the poinsettia. “Go away!” she wailed. “Leave me be! I’m dying!”
“Herbert was his name!” Ilsa shouted. “Herbert Ridley, who wouldn’t give a thirsty child a pail of water!” She looked frantically for Walter, to tell him it was so. She was locked here with Mrs. Herbert Ridley.
Fourteen days on the ship, all four children sick with measles and still so weak by the time we docked we were afraid we’d be kept behind, quarantined. But a kind doctor from the Red Cross convinced the immigration officer that we should be allowed to go on to the relatives who awaited us. Five days on the train, a month crowded into the tiny home of Rolf’s brother and then finally we had our own land. The well still to be dug, but the Englishman from whom we bought the farm — leaving after only a month because his wife and new baby died — told us that the neighbour, Ridley, welcomed him to draw as much water as he needed. Just a half mile down the road to his gate, an easy walk for the children, certainly for the three eldest. How was the Englishman to know that the gate opened only for the right names? That Ridley was still fighting the Battle of the Somme.
“His name was Herbert Ridley!” Ilsa shouted again.
Mrs. Ridley covered her eyes, shreds of peat soil clinging to her nails. “I don’t know you!”
When Walter and the mean-faced nurse ran into the room, Ilsa was at the window again, staring into the dusk.
Supper was ham, mashed potatoes and peas. Mrs. Ridley was not at the same table anymore but parked on the other side of the dining room. “See?” the afternoon nurse clucked when she steered Ilsa to her place. “We had to move poor Bernice because your son made a fuss. Just when she was starting to talk, and feel at home. Shame on you. You with your lovely family and she with nobody.”
Ilsa spooned the last of her rice pudding. Miserable stuff, but she had a sweet tooth, so she ate. She had her own teeth and a good appetite, not like some of these poor people who hung over the plates until someone came to mash a few peas past their lips. On each table was a tiny Christmas tree. Lydia would roast a goose for Christmas Eve, Walter said. Ilsa smacked her lips at the taste of memory. I will make the prune stuffing. None of the girls, not even Annaliese, can do it right. Lazy little Marta will try to hide in the barn with the kittens. And Walter wanting to go to Lydia’s after church instead of coming home to open the presents. That Lydia…
“Ilsa. Ilsa?” Someone was shaking her arm, talking about Lydia. Back in her room now, in the cold chair and the light so dim she could barely make out the shadow calling her name.
“Marcella?” Her voice sounded thick in her own ears.
“No, Marcella went home long time ago.” One of the night girls she didn’t know draped an afghan over her knees. “You’re so cold you’re shaking. I’ll be back in a minute and help you to bed. Your daughter-in-law phoned. Lydia. She said she made you an appointment in the morning with the hairdresser. How nice you’re going to look with your hair curled for Christmas. And so lucky to spend it with your family.”
My sisters all have curls. But my hair is white-blonde, strong and straight as the tail of a horse. Hair down to my hips. Each morning I fix it in a braid as thick as my wrist, then coil and pin it at the nape of my neck. Both Marta and Bruno are dark like Rolf. Walter and Annaliese are fair like me.
She licked her lips. The ham had left her with a terrible thirst, but she hadn’t the strength to drag the pitcher from the floor. Fumbling with the paper sleeve, she unwrapped her roll of peppermints and pressed one past her dry lips. The curtain between the beds was drawn.
Ilsa closed her eyes again, the blanket warming her legs, the Christmas lights outside the window bleeding the walls pink, and the taste of the candy sweet and fresh. From down the hall, there was a surge of music and then it grew faint. More Christmas carols, this time from the radio the nurses kept at the desk. Silent night… Heilige Nacht. She hummed, letting the sound swell in the room.
There was a stirring on the other side of the drape, the smacking click of dentures, a dry swallow, then a rising moan.
“Go to sleep, you mean old woman!” Alles schläft, einsam wacht… Ilsa’s voice was still strong, still a rich soprano.
“I need water! The pails are too heavy to carry. They’ll bring on the baby again.” Mrs. Ridley wailed like a lost child. “Too soon, too soon!” “What do you know of babies? You chased my children away with the broom. Like chickens or stray dogs. All they wanted was a few pails of water from your well. Chased them like dogs!” Ilsa sat up and yanked open the drawer in her bedside table.”Four miles they had to walk. Little children. Walter carried Marta on his shoulders the last mile. His hands were raw from the wire on the pail.”
“All my babies dead before they were alive.” The curtain dividing them billowed as though a wind had entered the room. “And him, the mean old bastard, always stinking of manure and always on me.” The voice grew stronger, the room colder. “Wait a few months, the doctor said. Your wife needs to rest. But did he listen?”
Ilsa shuffled through hairpins and handkerchiefs. “Be still! How can I think with this racket going on? Where is my apron? I need to light the oven for the goose. Walter is coming home and Marta… Be quiet you old woman! Too mean to give children a pail of water!”
“On me every night like an animal!”
“Bernice! Ilsa!” The nurse swept the curtain aside, and stood between the beds. “Let me get you both settled or you’ll have everyone else in an uproar.” Frowning, she retrieved the water jug from the hiding place and filled their two glasses. She handed Ilsa the paper cup of pills, and the water. Mrs. Ridley had fallen back onto the pillow, her jaw slack. The nurse dumped the tablets into the yawning mouth, sloshed in water, then hoisted the woman to sitting just long enough to watch her swallow.
Within minutes, Ilsa’s dress was whisked over her head, the worn nightgown pulled on in its place, one last trip to the toilet and the light was dimmed. She lay breathless under the thin blanket, wishing only that Marta would remember one day to bring the featherbed from the farm. Down the hall the carols played on… Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh’, Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh’. And from the other bed she heard weeping.
“Oh sleep now, Mrs. Ridley,” she whispered. “Just sleep.”
They must look, Ilsa thought, like bookends the way they sat in their matching chairs. Mrs. Ridley in a fluffy blue robe, her hair brushed into a frizzy halo. Ilsa herself, like a traveller waiting for a bus, with her handbag in her lap, her good black coat bunched around her shoulders. She’d folded a triangle of grey wool over the fussy cap of curls, and knotted it under her chin to form a soft hood. She hoped Lydia would be satisfied when she saw this hair. How stupid she looked.
She was sweating from the extra layer under her best silk dress. She could feel the ribbing on the sweatshirt bunched around her neck. When she lifted her foot onto the metal rest on the wheelchair, a pink cuff peeked out between the hem of her coat and the furry top of her winter boot.
“Good grief, Oma! How long have you been bundled up waiting?” Jeannie breezed into the room, slim and smart in a belted red wool coat.
“Jeannie!” Ilsa felt tears sharp as pinpricks. “Your Mutti, too, always looked so pretty in red.”
“Of course she did. She looked pretty in everything.” She touched the edge of her grandmother’s scarf. “And did you know you look like a wise little owl hiding in there. The Handi-bus is here, and I got your pills from the nurse.”
“When she was a girl, I made her a red coat. She and Bruno both so beautiful, so rosy-cheeked in red.”
Jeannie crouched in front of her and gently lifted her hands. “Oma, please don’t start on Bruno. You know Bruno died long ago. Long before I was born.”
Ilsa looked into the dark eyes of her granddaughter, eyes just like the two boys. “Of course I know this. I’m his mother. I was talking about his mittens. I knitted him a red scarf and mittens. Stop looking at me so serious.” She let her glasses slide down her nose. “I wore the suit you brought me.” When she looked down at her coat, she could see that the buttons were wrong. She’d missed the bottom two. This was why one side of the collar caught on her scarf each time she moved her head. She fumbled with stiff fingers.
Jeannie leaned over and began to undo the buttons. “I see that. Did you know that people wear those suits without anything over top?”
Ilsa shook her head. “Not on Christmas Eve.”
Jeannie tugged the collar smooth. “The only bad news is that Aunty Annaliese probably won’t get here tonight. Big snowstorm in Toronto and the airport’s closed, maybe until tomorrow. Bad timing for the holiday travellers.”
There was a sigh from Mrs. Ridley’s chair.
“Oma,” Jeannie whispered. “Isn’t Mrs. Ridley going anywhere for Christmas?”
She shook her head again, a finger to her lips. “No family. She lost so many babies. It broke her heart.”
Jeannie stared at her. “How do you know that?”
Ilsa flipped her wrist at Mrs. Ridley, struggling with the other hand to help Jeannie with the last button. “She told me.”
“SHE told you?”
“Well of course. She tells everything. Talks all day and all night too, you should know by now.”
Mrs. Ridley’s head drooped. She snored softly.
“See how tired she is. She has to sleep all day because she talks all night.”
“I know she talks, Oma, but I didn’t think you listened. You told Uncle Walter she’s someone you knew from the farm. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ilsa set the brakes on her wheelchair and inched forward on the seat. “Maybe she isn’t who I thought.” When she rose out of the chair, Jeannie offered an arm, but she leaned on it only a moment before she took the few steps to the window sill. There was still one hidden pitcher, this one tucked days ago behind the drapes. She bore it across the room in both hands, taking steps like a child just learning to walk, breath ragged by the time she reached Mrs. Ridley’s bedside table. She set the jug next to the poinsettia, then grasped the edge of the table with one hand, the arm of Mrs. Ridley’s chair with the other. Bernice Ridley opened her blue eyes. Ilsa released the hand on the table letting her weight lean on her good hip so that she could stand straight. She felt so tall, so heavy beside this ghost of a woman. Jeannie was behind her now with the wheelchair.
When she felt the gentle nudge of the chair on the back of her knees, she let the girl guide her into the seat. Then she leaned forward, her palm outstretched.
“Frohe Weihnnachten, Frau Ridley.”
A thin white hand rose to meet hers. “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Gartner.”