Keeping Busy

Bessie is sitting by the window in the kitchen. The window panes are wet with rain and the view to the garden is like looking through a piece of Saran Wrap. All the dishes from breakfast have been cleaned and put away. The clock that belonged to her mother makes the only noise in the room other than the quiet rhythm of her own breathing.

She looks down at her hands. They bear the marks of her years in this place. Once smooth, they are now wrinkled. The little brown spots are telling her age. She will see her 80th birthday this spring.

For eight years she has been alone in this house. Robert died in 1990. She can hardly believe that she has lived to see the century come and go like it has. She was only 17 when they got married in 1935. He was 20. She smiles as she thinks about the day the two of them drove down to the courthouse over in Stowe County. It was raining like today.

She pushes herself up from the chair, one hand on the window sill. It’s a good morning for a cup of hot tea before she gets on to the rest of her day. It’s not that she has any schedule to keep, but keeping busy makes the day go by and she is always pleased to get things done. She still makes the bed every morning and wonders why, except that it gives order to her living.

The kettle whistles and she pours the hot water over a tea bag. A little sugar out of the canister on the counter. Just a bit of cream. She allows herself to sit again. There is no rush. Yet she cannot stand to be idle for long.

“Mama, why don’t you just take it easy for a couple days?” her son would ask. She hears him in her mind as if he was sitting next to her.

“No sense in letting time waste away. I may not have that much time left.” Even at nearly 80, she was determined to be useful.

With her hands folded around the warm cup in her lap, she notices how bright green the turnips are in the garden. Robert always planted the garden. She tended it, and picked it, and put it up for the year. He was not much for house work, but she didn’t mind. She had shelled peas and canned tomatoes since she was a child.

The first year Robert bought a tiller for the garden, the garden space got bigger. He was always one to plant more than they could possibly use. And, of course, he didn’t buy a new tiller. He found one in an auction over at Ben Hadley’s place. It was ready for the scrap pile, but Robert was sure he could get it to work.

“You should see that tiller run, Bessie. I’m thinking about putting the turning plow in that little space between the garden and the barn. I could plant enough Silver Queen over there for us to have plenty.”

Plenty was right. She shucked corn that year until she was sick of corn. She canned corn. Put up freezer bags of corn. She made creamed corn. Served corn on the cob. Made corn casseroles. And as a last resort, she stuffed corn into brown paper grocery bags and left them on the back seat of cars in the church parking lot. Unsuspecting folks would get in their car after church to find that their prayers had been answered.

The tea gone, she washes the cup and dries it with a towel, and places it back in the cabinet. It tickles her to notice that she has so many coffee cups when all she really needs is one. And on a whim she takes all the cups from the cabinet. Spread out on the counter she counts 18 cups.

She sets four of them aside. One is the cup she just put away. It’s her favorite. Funny thing about a coffee cup that feels right in your hand; the way it fits against your lips for sipping. The other three? One, her son brought home from Germany where he was stationed. One, a Christmas mug with a Snowman and Penguin with a red scarf around his neck. It was cheerful. The last one was Robert’s favorite cup.

She went to the broom closet where she kept old newspapers and extra boxes and busied herself wrapping each cup with paper and placing them carefully into the box. She would ask her grandson to take them down to the thrift store where someone else could get use of them. She surely didn’t need all these cups just for her.

Satisfied with the surprise of this little gesture, it makes her feel good. Her folks raised her to be generous and to treat life as a gift to be shared. It was not pride. Bessie would be mortified to think that anyone would accuse her of being prideful. The cups were just a simple gift. A way to offer something of herself and not forget that others were less fortunate.

While she was sweeping off the front porch, a truck pulled up in the driveway. It was her grandson, Zack. She knew that he had just got off third shift down at the paper mill. It was not unusual for him to stop by on his way home just to check on her. She half cringed at the idea that she needed checking on, but was always pleased to think that he would take time to come by.

“Morning Grandma.”

“It is a fine morning. Glad you could come by. Can I make you some breakfast?”

She knew he would refuse. It was the dance they danced every time he came to see her like this. She leaned the broom against the door frame. They sat in the rockers and talked of nothing in particular.

Zack thought the world of his Grandma. She reached out her hand to him as they made small talk. He could feel the paper thin skin in his hand. Her knuckles were swollen a bit and her index finger a little crooked. He had watched her work since he was knee high to a grasshopper. She taught him to appreciate order, and determination, and sticking with something until it’s done. Whatever sense of satisfaction he felt about his life, he had learned it from her.

“Maybe you should see a doctor about your arthritis, Grandma. Your hands have to hurt something fierce.”

She wouldn’t do it. He’s tried to take her to the doctor himself.

“No, I guess not. The liniment helps enough. If I keep busy, I don’t think about it.”

He stands to go.

“Wait,” she says. She goes inside and comes back with the box of coffee cups.

She hands him the box and reaches up to hold his face with both hands. As he pulls back out onto the road, she takes the broom and goes back to work. She has the whole day ahead of her, still. Busy hands make the time pass.

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