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Back to Jerusalem
By Jan Surasky
Sandalwood PressCopyright © 2017 Jan Surasky
All rights reserved.
Jenny Thompson looked out over the landscape that was the small town of Jerusalem, New York in the 1970s. A long blade of grass, newly plucked before her climb to her perch on the half-second floor of her family's rundown barn, hung from her mouth, a reminder of the ones she had used to force the rudimentary sounds of an instrument through as a child when she had finished her chores. Not that she had ever had many. As the child of a successful farmer and owner of a tire store in town, she had mostly helped Mother in the kitchen, putting up jams and jellies and pickles, and pitting the sour cherries they found down by the river.
Often, she had tagged behind Hiram the hired man who fed and watered the horses, and baled the hay while Father plowed the fields that grew feed corn for cattle on neighboring farms, beans and oats, soy beans and sunflowers, and whatever cash crops he found appealing in the new edition of the Farmer's Almanac. The land was lush and fertile, but the work was hard, and the county still the second poorest in the state.
Sometimes, as a small child, Father would boost her up on the seat of the tractor in front of him, rolling off to the fields to plow or fertilize or sow the seeds that would soon sprout with the rays of the sun and the gentle mists of rain, if they were lucky. It was then she felt protected and all-powerful, especially if the skies were blue and the sun was very hot and strong upon them.
As she sat, Jenny crossed her legs on the rickety floorboards to give herself some leverage. The landscape that lay before her was home to mostly subsistence farming, with a number of pockets of poverty scattered about. The neatly-kept homes and barns of the Mennonites who farmed without electricity intermingled with the farms of the townspeople known as the "English." Trailers and small, disintegrating homes, in need of paint, with shingles falling from the rooftops, took their place next to clotheslines of shabby, flapping clothes. But, rich in beauty, its flatlands and gentle, rolling hills brought out the rusts, the oranges and the yellows of autumn, the lush greens of summer, the pinks, the lavenders and blues of spring, and the pristine white expanse of winter, as they stretched toward the evergreen-covered mountains of neighboring Bristol.
As she mused, Jenny realized this was the last year she and her friends would be gossiping about school and boys in the meadows and along the lanes of her family's farm. Seniors, they would soon be scattering to pursue their dreams of the future. Serious Caroline Mackey to Cornell to become a teacher. Flighty, fun Dotty Thatcher to business school a few towns away to learn typing and stenography. Jenny was struck with a mixture of fear and excitement.
"A penny for your thoughts," shouted a voice from the floor below. Jake Martin looked up, his overalls dirty from farm work, his muscles fairly rippling through the thin shirt he wore beneath it. He was pretty nearly on time, almost always catching Jenny at around four in the afternoon, when he was sure she had finished her chores, and he had finished his. As he climbed the ladder toward the loft, his blond hair, uneven from years of home haircuts, glistened in the late afternoon sun.
He settled on the floorboards next to her, pulling an envelope from his overall pocket. To Jenny, it looked pretty important. An official looking seal on the envelope, and one to match at the top of the letter he pulled from it. "What's this," said Jenny, as she wriggled over to give his large frame more room.
"I've been accepted at Hobart," said Jake. "Pa doesn't know about it. I'm not even sure he'll want me to go. I know he needs me on the farm. And, I know he thinks higher education is an intrusion into the purity of living. He has strong Mennonite beliefs, and I don't like to go against his wishes."
Jenny looked at Jake, so changed from when he first came to Jerusalem, a skinny, twelve-year-old dressed in what she thought were funny clothes. The oldest of a family which came here to follow the cheap land prices, settling on a piece of land next to the Thompson farm that had lain fallow for nearly twenty years. And, they had strange ways. Farming without gas or electricity, traveling about in a strange, black buggy pulled by two lively horses.
At first, Jenny stared, never offering to share her few possessions, but as the months passed, and she saw how much fun they had together, in the few hours they had for playtime, she relented, reveling, as an only child, in the comfort of their companionship. It was then she shared her barrel hoops, laughing and rolling them along with Jake and his five younger brothers and sisters. And, the old, tire swing hanging from the red maple aside from the porch. She and Jake passed many hours pushing the little ones and talking about what they would do when they grew up. They made Jenny laugh, the girls lifting their long skirts on a hot summer's day to cool their feet in the Thompsons' shallow stream, the boys donning black hats and turning somber for a Sunday morning service.
But, today she could see that Jake's usually sunny countenance was lost in conflict. "Jenny," he said, "I so much want to help the poor. But, to give good help, I will need an education."
"Why the poor?" she asked.
"When Pa looked around for a place for us to settle," said Jake, "he had no money for help here. He had to keep going back to Pennsylvania for advice from his cousins who knew little more than he did so he wouldn't get cheated."
"When we went to school," he continued, "most of the boys either teased us or ignored us. Bud Anderson and his crowd chased us off the playground at recess every day, picking fights and getting us into trouble, getting the teachers to side with them because their fathers were rich and big in town. If it wasn't for Sammy Walker, who the other kids teased because his pants were too short and too worn, taking me into the grove of elm trees behind the playground and showing me how to fight, I never would have been able to stand up to any of them.
"But Bud got him back by keeping him off the football team, his only hope for college."
"How will you help the poor?" she asked.
"I am going to be a lawyer."
"Then you will be rich. Emily Watson's father is a lawyer. Father says he is one of the richest men in town."
"You don't get rich helping the poor. But, what are you going to be when I am a poor lawyer?" he asked.
"I am going to be an artist. My paintings will be hanging in all the rich people's homes in New York."
"Then, you will be famous. And, I can say I knew you when you were a farm girl canning pickles and cherry jam."
Jenny turned toward Jake, her long brown hair, its chestnut highlights glistening in the rays of the sun that streamed through the open barn door, bouncing along her shoulders as she moved. "Will it be bad for you when everyone goes to the prom?" she asked.
"It's only one day," he said. "And Pa and I will be unloading the buggy after a long day's work at the market. And," he added, "the little ones need me. If one gets into trouble, they blame the other one, and then they both come to me to plead their case to Pa."
"I hope I get asked."
Jake looked at Jenny, her thick chestnut hair the envy of every girl in the school, her eyes, now wide, the blue of the Jerusalem sky on a sunny day. The scent of the lavender soap she always used filled his nostrils. "Of course, you'll get asked. You're the most beautiful girl in the class."
"Oh, Jake." She threw her arms around him. As she withdrew, she stood up. "I guess it's time to go help Mother with supper. No sense my hanging around here till she pulls on the bell. She'll only scold me for sitting around dreaming when I could be useful."
As she climbed down the ladder, Jake clambered after her, walking as far as the path that led to her house. Then, he turned, taking the tree-lined lane that ran between the Thompson and Martin farms.
The scent of the lavender, still lingering in his nostrils, mingled with the scent of the dogwood. Oblivious to the orange, the mauve, and the brilliant red of the early sunset, his mind was far away on thoughts of the future. The few stray stones crunched beneath the cleats of his sturdy boots.CHAPTER 2
Peeling potatoes for supper with Mother was always an ordeal. Not only was she fussy about where the peels landed in the sink, and how carefully the "eyes" were removed with the end of the peeler, she was very interested in how Jenny had spent her day, especially when it came to making herself attractive to the boys in her class at Dundee-Penn Yan Central.
"Jenny, I think you should wear a little blush," she would say. "Your cheeks are so pale." Or, "I think we should tweeze those eyebrows, they're way too thick in the middle."
Today, she felt more inclined to complain about Father. "Your father picked the wrong crop again this year. No rain. The beans are small and he'll lose most of them if it's dry all season." Then, she sighed. "That will mean longer hours in the tire shop."
And, then came the same old refrain. "You know I gave up a lot to marry your father. My family had money and social standing. Your grandfather was a first-class printer, with over sixty people working for him in his heyday. He had jobs as far away as Syracuse and Elmira, Rochester and Buffalo. He was one of the few printers around who had the equipment to do four-color printing. We belonged to the Hunt Club and the Auburn Country Club.
"Your father's family were nothing but poor dirt farmers. He swept me off my feet, he was so handsome. But, he had nothing but big dreams. We eloped against my father's wishes right out of high school."
"I know, Mother, I know," Jenny would murmur, as she hastened her potato peeling, perhaps to get to her room and her homework that much sooner.
"Jenny," Mother would stop the cooking to look directly at her, an expression both decisive and wistful crossing her usually noncommittal angular features, "you are my only hope. You must marry someone with money and social standing. Then, you will have an easier life. You will have all the things and the gaiety I had as a girl."
"Yes, Mother." Jenny always agreed, hoping assent would get Mother to change the subject. But, she persisted.
"Has anyone asked you to the prom yet?"
"Well, no. But, there's still time. Dotty and Caroline haven't been asked yet, either."
"Maybe you should mingle more. Get interested in a few more after-school activities, instead of always hanging out with that tattered neighbor boy."
Mother knew Jake's name as well as her own, but she always persisted in referring to him as "that neighbor boy."
"Jake's not tattered, Mother," she countered. "His mother is a seamstress. She takes in mending and makes beautiful quilts." But, she didn't want to fight with Mother today, so she added, "Well, maybe I could go out for girl's softball. Tryouts start in three weeks."
"And, what about your clothes. We should get you a few new things for spring. It will give you a lift to add a few things to your wardrobe."
"Bud asked me out for Saturday."
"He did?" Mother could hardly contain her excitement.
"Well, he's been asking practically every girl in the class out since he broke up with Janey Masters, so it doesn't mean anything."
"Maybe he'll ask you to the prom. We'd better get your hair done.
Mayva owes me a favor since I filled in for her at the church supper. I'll see if I can get her to do your hair on Saturday at her shop."
"I can do my own hair, Mother." Jenny tried not to let annoyance creep into her voice. Finished with her peeling, she added, "I better get to my homework."
"Oh, I forgot to mention your Aunt Gertrude called. She wants you to help her plant those seedlings she sprouted in the greenhouse." A short pause. "That woman should have married years ago. She was responsible for my mother's misery in her old age. When that Rafe of hers was killed she should have looked for another man."
"I'll go over on Saturday."
"Make sure you come when I call you for supper."
Jenny turned silently toward the old, wooden staircase that went to the second floor of the century old, brick-red farmhouse. As she climbed, she wondered what Aunt Gert would think about her dating Bud Anderson, or how she could convince Mother to let her apply to art school. As she reached the landing, she picked up speed, skipping every other stair toward the small, pink flowered room that was hers across from Mother's and Father's, humming in anticipation.CHAPTER 3
Jenny chose to bicycle to Aunt Gert's on Saturday. The day was bright and sunny and she would avoid the tug-of-war and the lecture she knew she would get from Mother if she asked to use the Chevy.
As she bicycled past the Martin farm she waved. Jake's sisters, Anne and Sarah, waved back, tending the fields in their long, plain dresses whipping about their slender bodies, their gauze caps rippling in the breeze. Peter and Jonah, the littlest, never noticed, too busy chasing their dogs and each other, sending imaginary sticks over the high, gabled roof of the barn their family had raised with the help of their neighbors over a decade ago. Today, Jenny didn't stop but called hello. The word seemed to echo as it wafted through the breezes now picking up speed across the open fields.
Next, past the Walker place, an old, mobile home set back amidst rubble and a small grove of trees. Their place looked deserted. Their old jalopy was up on a board, two of its tires missing. No doubt they were off to get a few rabbits, or see if the blackberries were ripe along the hills above the stream.
Jenny pulled up at Aunt Gert's, throwing her bike on the lawn as she ran up the stairs to knock on the heavy, timber door. Before she could raise her hand, the door flew open, and Aunt Gert, in jeans and a light, cotton flowered shirt, her hair done up in rollers, threw her arms around her niece, jumping the threshold to land on the wide, grey veranda.
"Jenny," she laughed, as she looked out over the expanse of green meadow, "I saw you coming on that old Schwinn. What a beautiful day to plant.
"Would you like some lemonade?"
"Thanks, Aunt Gert, but I just ate breakfast."
"Alright, then we'll save it to go with the oatmeal raison cookies I just baked for after our planting."
"What are we planting?"
"Well, I've seeded some delphinium and nasturtium and lilies. It's a little early, but if the weather holds we'll have good, strong plants by summer. And I bought some tulip and daffodil bulbs from John's nursery down the road. The rabbits got most of them last year.
"Okay, let's get to work," she laughed.
As they walked toward the greenhouse at the side of the large, white frame farmhouse, Gert looked at her niece. The little, pigtailed girl who had romped in her gardens, played hopscotch on the small sidewalk that led to the garage, and chased a mongrel puppy called Chaucer had grown into a lovely young woman poised on the threshold of life.
"Oh, he's fine Aunt Gert, but Mother doesn't like me hanging out with him too much. She wants me to pay more attention to my future."
"But, you like him, Jenny. Nothing's more important than that."
She stopped short of going any further. If she crossed her sister, she knew Mattie would keep Jenny away. And, Jenny had been a joy to her since the girl had let out her newborn cries in the nursery of Penn Yan's Soldiers and Sailors Hospital. Growing up with the stern-faced Matilda had been a challenge for the fun-loving kid sister.
"Bud asked me out for tonight."
"Bud Anderson, Leland's son?"
"Yes. He said something about going to the basketball game tonight. Penn Yan plays Geneva."
"Well, that sounds like fun. What kind of boy is Bud?"
"Popular. He's the only boy who gets to borrow a Corvette for a Saturday night date."
"Well, Leland's had that agency for a long time. He built it out of nothing, a few Corvettes on a sand lot. Now he vies with an Elmira group for the number one spot along the southern tier. But, he's always working. No wonder he spoils his son. He's never home."
"Well, since he broke up with Janey Masters, he's been playing the field. I think he's asked everybody out on the cheerleading team but me."
"That's okay, Jenny. You should be playing the field yourself. You're too young to be attached to just one boy."
As they reached the greenhouse, Aunt Gert opened the door, letting Jenny in first. As Jenny entered, the scent of rose blossoms filled the air, the powerful aroma enveloping all her senses. The orchids, elegant in their pots, added a rare beauty to the sunlight sparkling along the panes.
"Aunt Gert, they are beautiful."
"Everyone should be surrounded by beauty, at least for a little while. But, between Mother's Day and prom night I shall have to part with most of them," she laughed.
Excerpted from Back to Jerusalem by Jan Surasky. Copyright © 2017 Jan Surasky. Excerpted by permission of Sandalwood Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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