“Tell me about what it was like when you lived on the farm, Sean.”
Mary was driving, traversing the two-lane highway which ran between small towns in Northern Iowa: Rock Island, Spirit Lake, Estherville, on and on, each one containing a short Main Street lined with empty storefronts; old buildings leftover from a time when these small towns were vital and growing places. It was their fourth day on the road, heading toward Aunt Tina’s place, a few miles west of Decorah.
“She was nice to me, but could be stern at times. She was worried that I might get hurt when my mother was away. My grand uncle and aunt, Henry and Alice, were still alive then. They were old, Tina was younger of course, but already near fifty. Sometimes, if I was lucky, Henry would take me to town to get groceries. He had a circle of friends he would visit and he would show me off. I was always called ‘Marilyn’s boy.’ Every morning he would sit in his rocking chair and read the paper. I was not to bother him then. Usually, Tina would be doing something in the kitchen so I would sit there, at the table, and ‘do my homework’—that’s what Tina called my drawing."
“What did you draw?” asked Mary
“Oh, the usual kid stuff: cats, dogs, houses, doodles, butts. I was real good with butts.”
“You still are,” Mary said with a smile, “What else did you do when you lived there?”
“By the time I was four, I was allowed to explore the countryside. In the summer, I remember going to the creek. I spent a lot of time there. I would throw stones at sticks floating in the water. There were fish too, minnows and shiners, and mud turtles as well. Lots of ducks to chase. In the fall, during hunting season, I had to stay inside. In the winter, I mostly played in the house. There were quite a few books. I couldn’t read yet, but I loved looking at the pictures. Sometimes Tina would explain what the pictures were about. My grandmother had left some books of modern art; when I asked her about them she just shook her head. She called them ‘crazy people’ pictures.”
“Your Grandmother? Who was she? How did she fit into the family?”
“Emily Carroll was the artist. My mother didn’t talk much about her. What I’ve gathered over the years, mostly from Tina, was that she had abandoned my mother soon after she was born. She just left. I have no idea who my mother’s father was.”
“She left? And that was it? What happened to her?” Mary was intrigued.
“She had done the same thing before, with Tina, seventeen years earlier. She went back to New York City both times. Alice and Henry accepted her behavior then, probably because she would send them money to help raise Tina. In 1933, when the farm was in danger of going under, she came back and paid off the mortgage. The next day she was gone again. She didn’t return again until 1944, at almost the end of the war, pregnant with my mother. Several months after my mother was born, she left again. She sent them money once, then—nothing. They never heard from her again.”
“Did they look for her?”
“Well, they did what they could. Henry even went so far as to go out to New York City. He filed a missing person report with the police. Nothing came of it. All they had was a mailing address, and she had left that place weeks earlier.”
“Tina wrote that your grandmother had some things you might want to look at. What do you think those might be?”
“I don’t know. Art supplies maybe. I think there were some paintings. There was a room in the attic, a garret, which was always kept locked. Tina called it ‘Emily’s studio.’ I was not allowed in. I think they kept it locked in the hope that she might come back some day.”
“Sean, I hope you don’t think I’m being snoopy, but this is really very interesting to me.”
“No, it isn’t being nosy, not at all. I’m just as curious as you are.”
“I hope you don’t follow in Emily’s footsteps.”
“My mother left me too, although she did come back. I can see how you might have some concerns. Slow down, that’s the Madison Road turnoff coming up on your left.”
Mary slowed and entered the county road.
“Tina’s place is about five miles, on Happy Hollow Road.”
Mary drove on, past fields of corn and soybeans, until Sean saw the sign for Happy Hollow. She turned onto the gravel road. Two miles in was a mailbox with the neatly painted, but weathered, name ‘Carroll.’. Mary drove up the driveway.
“Are you ready?” asked Sean, “This is the place, the house is just ahead, behind those trees.”
“I’m ready, Sean.”
The driveway ended in front of an old farmhouse. The house looked as if it had once been very nice, but it was sorely needed repainting, as did the outbuildings. Weeds had taken over the flower beds, although the grass had been recently cut.
“Tina?” shouted Sean. “Tina, we’re here!”
The screen door opened and a petite, elderly woman stepped out.
“At last! I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever make it,” said Tina. Her high pitched voice had a touch of a rasp in it but was strong and unwavering, “Come here you two, I don’t trust myself on these steps anymore.”
Sean and Mary walked up to the porch and Sean gently kissed Tina on the cheek.
“Tina, this is Mary.”
“Oh! I’m so glad you came.” Tina reached out and her hand touched Mary’s arm. “I was beginning to despair of Sean ever settling down, I can’t wait forever, you know.”
“Sean had told me so much about you, Ms. Carroll. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” Mary gently put her arms around Sean’s aunt, “I’m so glad to finally meet you.”
“Call me Tina. You kids come in, I just put the water on for some tea, you do drink tea, don’t you dear?” said Tina.
“I’d love some, Tina.”
“Welcome home, children… ” said Tina, “… Willkommen.”