Are you all very ready? Well then. Now, this is a story about your great-grandmother. My grandmother. Now, do you remember her? Of course you do! Not even a teensy bit? Joe? You’re the oldest….oh! Well, I can tell you exactly what she was like, because I’ll never, ever forget her. She was a tall, graceful woman, with a long swan-white neck, and dark eyes, and a very fast, wide smile, always with a deep red lipstick that made your eyes go straight to it. She was very beautiful, and magic, with a kind, lilting voice; but a gaze that missed nothing. Of course, she was Italian, and very, very picky about her things— her clothes, her hair; it was good for her to be that way, you see? Grandpa made her promise to wait for him, when she was still very young, when they first met, before he went away to the war. Did you know that? Even then, she paid attention. So!
Each summer when Grandma was young, after she went to go live with her sisters, she travelled with the family to the Lots for vacation. These were the low farms and lakelands, away from the city, and the traffic and noise, where it wasn’t built up. There were close little cottages you could rent near the Lake, and Aunt Minnie’s husband had worked hard and bought one, fixing it up with a new roof and breakwall. Grandma loved being there, because she didn’t have so many chores, and she could leave early after breakfast and take all her dolls in her little blue travel case for a walk through the tall grass in the fields, facing the orchards. And she would set up a tea party, with some bricks and old logs, and the dolls would help themselves to wind-fall apples or wild grapes, and the monarchs would come look, perching on the long stems of milkweed surrounding them, and she would stay out until Aunt Minnie would ring the bell. She would always hear the bell. Hmm! Sometimes, the bell would have to go twice before she would go back. She was very happy playing on her own— it wasn’t easy living with all sisters, you know! You boys are very lucky, you don’t get asked to do so many things around the house. And even if I did ask you, I’d have to wait till next week—isn’t that right? Lazy bones! We know this! ha!
And of course, she was never lonely during these mornings, because her dog was always with her. Farfalle! There was never such a wonderful, loyal, sweet-faced dog as Farfalle. He was a proud English bulldog, with a beautiful white mottled coat set off by the handsome crystal-stud collar she had saved for and bought with her weekly allowance. He had brown eyes, and soft eyebrows, with four whiskers growing from each temple. He was about—yes, Nico—just the size you are making with your blanket — this is Farfalle size, if you can imagine him there, with his broad chest and soft ears. There! You can see him, can’t you? He was just shy of 45 pounds, strong and determined, but gentle with his mistress. His eyes would grin up at you, while his sloppy jowls would droop down. Grandma had raised him from nine weeks old, on a diet of soft white toast and boiled egg with just a little bit of parmesan cheese; and when he was grown, he loved the stewed pork left over from making sauce most of all. And he couldn’t talk of course, but she knew what each little yelp, each wheeze, each turned-out paw on her lap, meant. They would walk for hours and Farfalle never wore a lead. No, no need for a tether for such a loyal friend.
They tended to trace the same walks across the fields, following the little lanes and tracks past the lilac trees and apple orchards, through open meadows and down the side of dusty strawberry farms.
There was a railway line that ran along the ridge facing the lot land and she wisely never went as far as crossing the track; but she did walk along the cutting some mornings, spotting the grass snakes basking on the warm rails, or a racoon washing its breakfast in a puddle; like a left-behind hobo. She made a habit of walking back past willow scrub that hid a clearing, and a bullrush pond, about a quarter of a mile from the cottages. In the late summer, the migrant workers would still be there after picking the strawberries, with their four or five small caravans. They never spoke to Grandma— in fact, she wasn’t sure which language they spoke. It certainly wasn’t English, with its sharp, cut-up words and repeating question sounds. The women wore dark dresses with aprons and rough scarves to hold their hair back and seemed to be always busy, snapping twigs to put into kettles, mending clothes, or shaking out blankets. Without seeing their hair, she was not able to guess their ages. The men were always comfortable, sitting near a fire that they had built, talking and not working at all! Sound familiar? Hmmm! But Grandma knew that all their hard work had been done earlier in the season, so now they were having a rest. She liked to watch them shoeing their horses, which spent hours grazing the tender willow and chickweed where they were hobbled. Sometimes one or two of the men would walk towards the houses— it was impossible not to see them from quite a ways off, because the land on the Lake was so flat— and the sisters would rush about, putting any garden tools away and closing up the sheds. The men would want to fix something for money; that was part of their trade, and the sisters found it hard to say no to them. If there was nothing on show, it was easier to turn them away— smart women, you see?
Well, one morning, Grandma came back from her walk with Farfalle at heel, past the caravans. It was unusually quiet in the clearing, with just the sound of the horses cropping the weeds. One of the caravan doors had a split in it, so it was in fact two; and the bottom door had a little wooden ledge you could lean on and look from. There was a children’s pair of red leather walking boots placed there, freshly buffed and polished. The most beautiful pair of shoes she had ever seen! The next morning, they were still there on the ledge, and the next. Well! She found herself thinking and thinking about them. Do you know, soon Grandma could see the boots when she closed her eyes! She had never seen children at the camp. She was sure there were no children who worked in the fields—that would be cruel. Eventually, she decided that she would be better off wearing the boots herself, as no one there could use them, surely! You see, it’s very strange, the things your heart will tell you, when you decide to do something for selfish reasons. Wouldn’t her dresses look clumsy with these on the end of her feet? And don’t you think her sisters would ask her where they came from! But she decided that she would have them, and that was all.
She trained Farfalle as her boot-stealing accomplice. He was incredibly clever; so it wasn’t hard. She took off her own canvas shoes, and lodged them in the trunk of a pollarded tree. She placed a piece of cured ham, from the larder that morning, into one of the shoes. The smell! Fetch! The dog jumped up at her command, but because his frame was rather sturdy and short, he wasn’t able to reach. His whole back end waggled as he stood there, pawing the tree bark and sniffing at the shoes. Farfalle yelped excitedly when she called him back a few feet next— Grandma decided a running jump would be best. Can you picture it? The little bulldog ran ten feet at the stump, jumped, and grabbed the shoes from their perch in one fell swoop, and brought them back in his mouth. He savoured the waiting tasty morsel, as well as another bit from her pocket, as his reward for being such a clever and obedient dog.
On the morning Farfalle was successful in leaping up and grabbing the red boots from the caravan door, Grandma gave him a folded bit of mortadella she had saved from her sandwiches the day before. His eyes closed with pleasure of the delicious taste, as she stroked his ears, softly praising his courage. She tied the bootlaces together quickly and ran down the lane, not looking back once, to the top of the road where the tramline ended and the cottages began. There was a small bench there, behind a low hedge and she sat, out of sight of the road, Farfalle puffing at her feet. And what do you think happened next? Can you guess? Of course, the boots were too small! She tried and tried to squeeze her feet into them. She stamped standing up. She undid the cord laces and removed her woollen socks. It was no use: the beautiful boots she had dreamed of were indeed never meant for her; and she knew this as Farfalle gazed up, grinning and hoping for more treats in return for granting her dearest wish.
What to do? Her heart fell like a stone now, looking down at her lap. A pair of poor babies’ boots! She thought of her cupboards at home; with pretty dresses, gloves and stockings….and of Aunt Minnie, telling her so many times to stand still! while she held a soft piece of cotton to her shoulders, then bent over the sewing machine till late, under the dim lamp, while a dying, tapping moth circled in the light and dark. And she would sigh when she was asked to brush the floor, or wash the dishes?—ahh! How could she? All these thoughts overtook her as she ran back and placed the boots, laces looped together, in the middle of the dusty path to the clearing, where they could not possibly be missed. Farfalle sniffed them, confused and not wanting to leave them behind, but thought better of barking at his mistress who was running as fast as she could back to her family and the cottage by the Lake.
For the next few days, Grandma kept closer to home and jumped up to do all the chores her sisters asked from her.
She felt happy to be around the smiles and the cooking of the women she knew so well, and this partially relieved the gnawing worry in her stomach that she hid by keeping busy. There was plenty to do, as her family was closing the cottage for the summer—putting up storm windows, fortifying sandbags and oiling the garden furniture to stack in the sheds. So, on the morning that they were due to make the drive back to the city, and she could not find Farfalle, at first she did not panic; thinking that he was wise to stay away from the bustle and shouting, panting underneath one of the windowsills upstairs, listening to the waves and keeping cool in the breeze off the water. But she grew quiet when her sisters rang and rang the bell, and still her friend did not come. Uncle John was surprised at how calm she was when he told her that he would come back for him later, after dropping the women off at home with the foodstuffs in tins and wrappers; which could easily spoil in the late August heat. She herself felt frozen in her seat slowly driving away, past the fields and the farms, down the crusted gravel lane, parallel with the trams that clacked towards the city. She couldn’t speak. If she did, it would eliminate the possibility of the episode being just a silly mistake; something that happened when she was lazing and daydreaming, pleasing herself— easy enough in the summertime, no?
Grandma held her breath when the old car rattled past the scrub line, with the caravans squatting and peeping just behind. Peering past the boxes and packages on her lap, she was able to spot the boots sitting on the ledge, in the same place she had first admired them so— only now, oh! neatly laced, polished and full of wildflowers! Chicory, ragged robin, ox-eye daisies… how her heart leapt to see the graceful roadside flowers— surely she was forgiven! It was only as the car rounded the bend, that the sun glinted off something— was it crystal? … binding the stems. She desperately tried to turn her neck, blinking and blinking her eyes. Was it? Could it have been? Well, I ask you— did it matter? The traveller families would be going back to where they came from soon, too. Or perhaps they just wandered to the next place that suited them. In any case, it was only two more summers, before Grandma met your great-grandfather….
So! The end, and time for bed! Wait, Joe… are you crying? But you are the oldest, don’t be silly! Nico, get your brother a drink of water. Shhh! Well, if you really don’t like my stories, we can forget them and turn out the lights earlier, of course! Get under the covers, now, quickly! And— good night!
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