a tender mercy
Let Me Help You Tie Your Shoes
My heart like wax is melted. –Psalm 22:14
When I first met Allie and Ida, my wife Jody’s uncle and aunt, back in the late 1990s, Allie looked across the table at me and asked in his quiet and gentle way, “Are you a farmer, too?” I appreciated quickly that it would have been an honor to have been anything that Allie was. Ida was a treat, too, and became an e-mail buddy even before Jody and I were married. She especially liked to tell me about the weather on the farm in Wisconsin and how Allie would sometimes take their dog Schatzi for a combination walk and ride in the foul cold of winter. Allie would simply drive slowly along their country lane with a long line out the window with Schatzi at the end of it enjoying the winter air when the scent of rabbits was strong.
Ida was the youngest sister of Jody’s father Ernie. Their parents had immigrated from Switzerland at the end of WWI and settled in southern Wisconsin to raise children and dairy cattle. Lots of rich milk and a variety of cheeses came from those cattle. I recently read a poem by our former poet laureate Donald Hall entitled “O Cheese” in which he attributed personalities to all the cheeses he and his late wife Jane Kenyon enjoyed. Like Ida and Allie, Hall is in his mid eighties now and still has his playful side despite his losses. On his list of favorite cheeses, he writes about Emmentaler which he says is “decent and loyal, a little deaf in one ear.” It’s named after its city of origin in Switzerland and can be described as savory but not a very sharp taste. In cooking, it is often put on top of gratins, or other homey dishes which are comfort foods put in the oven to let the cheese melt and become golden-brown and crusty. The gentleness of Allie and Ida are reflected in this cheese.
Now that Ida is lying in a hospice bed in the final stages of multiple myeloma, her Allie makes the trip daily to sit at her side. We’re told that she still has her sweet smile, although she sleeps most of the time. When Jody called her cousin and their daughter on Saturday morning, Connie could say little more than any one of us can muster when confronting death, especially of a parent.
When she called her father who was in the other room to come to the phone, the old boy was fumbling to get his shoes tied. She calmed him in her own gentle way by saying, “Dad, come talk and let me help you tie your shoes.” What can any of us say or do under such times other than to bear witness as the light slowly fades. I think of my dear Aunt Dolly who simply went to bed one night and never awoke. As a boy, I remember well her apricot marmalade preserved in old jars. She was shown a tender mercy and spared these last days of dying. When Hall spoke of his wife’s death, he said, “It was a year without seasons; it was a year without punctuation.”
And so as we think of this dear one and all the others who have enriched our lives and are now gone, we can do little more than remember their endearing qualities and the love they shared with us. Their essence, their gratin on top of the dish of life, is captured in the name of their sweet dog Schatzi, who alas is also gone now. These were good people, “treasures” of a kind not found in the dust of Sierra Madre bags of gold blown back to their origin.