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Friday, January 22, 2016

Under the Cedars of Edenhope

Under the Cedars of Edenhope

[With appreciation for apt phrases to poet women of the early Australian bush and to Carl Riseley.]

Milicent Humphries pulled her shawl closer as she sat alone on the porch swing of her Iowa home. She was dreaming of the night, the first time she had peed in a graveyard. She had been eight years old when her Mum took her to visit the grave of Grandma Burns near their home in Edenhope, Victoria.

Of course, Milicent had lived in Australia at the time. Everybody had called her the diminutive “Mili.” It wasn’t until she was eighteen that she married a Yank during The War. He had properly, though not promptly, whisked her away to the United States of America. It had all been such a great adventure.


To Mili, Grandma Burns was just Momu. Momu was Mum’s Mum and most other people called her Lizzy. She had been laid to rest near the back of Edenhope Cemetery when Milicent was a little girl and could still remember her grandmother’s kindness and laughter and the smell of peppermint on her breath. Lizzy’s full name, engraved on her granite marker, was “Elizabeth Florence, wife of John J. Burns.”

Lizzy wasn’t buried next to her husband. John J. had gone off to make his fortune in the gold fields of Kalgoorlie and gotten himself killed in a mining explosion. None of his partners had ever sent anything back to the family, not even the bits and pieces of John J. So, Mum had been an only child and, as it happened, so was Mili.

Mili had never met her father; he disappeared while her mum was pregnant with her. He had gone off hunting Lord-knows-what in the outback and never come back. Folks had said he might be alive or dead. Probably dead. That’s all anybody had ever told Mili when she was young. But, later, she overheard an aunt say that her father had been seen in a pub in Melbourne, so “he must have been hunting something more delectable.”

Mum didn’t talk about him at all and Mili used to wonder if Mum even missed him, what with living with Momu and all. But once, exploring Mum’s dresser, Mili discovered that Mum had marked the last verses of Mary Gilmore’s “Being Marri’d:”
It’s getting up again And wandering in and out;
And feeling wistful-like, Not knowing what about;
And flushing all at once And smiling just so sweet,
And feeling real proud The place is fresh and neat.
And feeling awful glad Like them that watched Siloam;
And everything because A man is coming home.

Mili had never missed either of the men who should have been so much a part of her young life. Momu, Mum, and the entire Burns clan welcomed Mili into the world and doted on her, showering her with affection and “extra care for her circumstances.” She had more than enough aunts, uncles, cousins great-thises and great-thats than required by any budding young girl. Still, sadly, Mili had been denied her own men.

*****

That night, when Mili and her Mum went to visit her Momu, was seventy years ago. They had walked, hand in hand, down Langford Street and past the white picket fence bordering the front of Edenhope Cemetery. They got down to the gate and turned right to enter between two large, low posts flanking the entrance. Paths branched from there, but one, especially, continued all the way to the back, toward a spreading copse of ancient Toons — Red Cedar trees; Toona australis — at the back along the south fence.

The Toons were tall and, in the approaching dusk, cast long shadows, like the Guardians of Hades themselves. It was spring and they had the dusty smell of sweet dry roses. Mili raised the bouquet of red roses that Mum had given her to carry and inhaled deeply to make a comparison. The fresh roses weren’t dusty but had a sweetness of their own that wanted to dance in your nose, curl up behind your eyeballs, spread to your fingertips and flow out your ears.

The odor of the Toons reminded her of the cedar chest at the foot of her bed. The lining of the box was old and didn’t have much smell but, since Mili was small, she had curled up in the chest with a pillow to nap. Every time, she would scratch a fresh spot to release a new burst of protective essence.

Momu had said that oil beneath the scratch would protect the contents from insects and other evils. It smelled sweetly bitter with a sharp tang that surely would ward off anything intent on biting a little girl. Mum said that Mili could rest there if she left the lid open. And so, she retired to her special box until she was too large to fit, secure in the confidence that no bad could happen while she slept.

At Momu’s grave, Mili and her Mum paused to reflect and lay the rose bouquet, with some spring wildflowers Mili had picked along the path. Mum took out the small book of poems that Lizzy had given her years ago and read some of Lizzy’s favorite verses. They stood together quietly, absorbed in their thoughts and the feelings that billowed, in time and place, around them.

Her Mum started speaking softly, mostly for Mili’s benefit. “Lizzy, we love and miss you so much. You were always so strong and wise. Thank you for all that you did in bringing me up and helping me to bring up Mili. You helped me know what was needed and what was not. You showed me how to live and then how to live alone. Your life was blessed and you blessed the life of everyone you ever met. I know that you are still looking out for us and that you will continue to look out for Mili when I, too, am gone.”

Mili had been listening carefully. It was fair dinkum and she took it all to heart. However, she had an increasingly-urgent problem: “Mum, I need to make water.”

“That’s okay,” Mum replied, “you can do it right here.”

“No!” Mili protested, “There’s no lavvy.”

Mum explained, “Really, it will be fine. We are in private. Besides, my Mum, Lizzy, used to tell me that, from the time of Ka-ro-ra, people and other animals openly returned their water and, upon dying, returned their dust to the earth and their breath to the sky.”

Whereupon Mum directed Mili to a monument of convenient height. She bid her daughter to lift her skirt and lower her delicates. “Drop your knickers, sit with your bum just barely perched on the edge like a wee blue wren, relax yourself and wee. Her little joke lightened the moment.

The young girl did as she was told and found relief. She also discovered the soft caress of fairy breezes whispering beneath her. More importantly, Mili, at that moment, received a gift of courage, self-confidence and tolerant liberality that would serve her a lifetime. “Good on ya,” Mum had said.

*****

Milicent also reminisced about her late husband. Glenn had provided a good life and a good home. He worked hard and took care of his family. He brought gifts and spent time. He loved truly and fairly. Milicent was content. More than that, she was a bubbling reservoir full of joy and love. She was an inspiration to her girls and neighbors. She was a pillar in her community.

Mili never forgot the community in Edenhope that she had left behind. She continued to hold them in her heart with warmth and concern. She wrote often, rejoicing in their good news and offering comfort for misfortune. She exchanged news and pictures and recipes. Half a world away, she made certain to return and redouble the care of all those who had not hesitated to love little Mili.

No life proceeds without some measure of tragedy and grief, yet life in the States was good. In time, their girls grew and left home to make homes of their own. So, too, did their children. But, now, the old house was all-too-quiet and Milicent’s persistent solitude weighed heavily on her spirit. Sometimes she would have a pot of tea and then visit old friends in the dusk of the day, where they rested, returning their dust to the earth and their breath to the sky.

In their life together, Mili and Glenn had prospered. He retired from a productive and well-compensated career. They had lived within their means and saved responsibly. They traveled when they wanted, lighting here and there, like bees sampling the flowers of a field — always moving on — always returning to the security of their well-established home.

Still, in life, as in a full orchestral symphony, there were moments of counterpoint and great sweeping movements where Milicent’s heart ached for the simple and sensual gifts of her childhood home at the other end of elsewhere. Sometimes she would retreat to an especially-private place and give her heart to Lola Gornall’s “Nostalgia:”
I want the quiet ways of old;
I want my cottage thatched with cloth-of-gold,
The chintz-hung casements, where the April rain
Pattered like music on the window-pane.
I want the jasmined eaves, that from their height
Dropped waxen stars of perfume in the night,
And where each morning, ‘twixt the dawn and dark,
There trilled the lyric of the waking lark.

This mansion house, its stately corridors,
Its Persian rugs and highly-polished floors,
The limousine that waits my beck and call,
The retinue - God! I would give them all
If I might have again the soft caress
Of my old home and all its simpleness.

*****

In time, Milicent could no longer bear to rattle around her old house alone. Her children and grandchildren came to visit, brought her meals, cleaned her place and drove her to medical appointments. She was surrounded by supportive family, but found that she could not be satisfied. It felt like she had kangaroos loose in the top paddock.

It was fall in the Northern Hemisphere. Days were growing shorter. The first frost crusted the occasional blossoms remaining on her roses. Milicent took out a pair of shears, cut them off and brought them in to dry for potpourri. She warmed up a plate of home-made food that the children had brought over yesterday but found that she didn’t have the appetite for it.

Remembering her beloved poems, Milicent retrieved them from a drawer in her dresser, under seductive lingerie she had long-since stopped wearing. She decided to read the poems again — now — cover to cover, but she stopped after Dora Wilcox’ “The Call of the Bush:”

The road is rough - but to my feet
Softer than is the city street;
And then the trees! - how beautiful
She-oak and gum - how fresh and cool!
No walls there are to hamper me;
Only the blue infinity
The distant mountain-ramparts rise
Beneath the broad arch of the skies.

There in the silence of the hills,
I shall find peace that sooths and stills
The throbbing of my weary brain, -
For I am going home again.

Her decision, long malingering like mist in a far field, sprang into clarity and established itself solidly in its fullness. It was time to pack her kit. She was ready to hit the frog and toad.
Milicent booked a flight from Des Moines to Los Angeles and passage on a cruise ship from there to Brisbane. Finally, she traveled overland by rail from there to Sydney and on to Melbourne where Norton’s Coaches ran to Edenhope. She knew that she could have linked air routes all the way to Edenhope, but preferred to slow down and look about as she approached her destination.

The voyage could have been grueling, but Milicent had the good judgment to pace herself. It had been merely tiring; nothing an old gumsucker couldn’t handle. She rested when she could during the trip and at way-points along the route.

Milicent considered reserving a room at the Lake Wallace Hotel on Wimmera highway in town, but the Higgelty Piggelty Bed and Breakfast was on Langford Street and only a stone’s throw from her destination. It met her needs just fine. The place was small, but a general lack of demand assured that a room was usually available. Besides, its antique furnishings suited her mood.

As expected, Milicent found that her accommodation seemed a bit bent down around the ears — as was she — as was the favorite book of poems she had tucked carefully into her valise. And, her room was a little musty too. It did not smell of rot, just the gentle maturity earned by old linen and yellow paper. Milicent opened the window to invite the cool breeze that picked up in the late afternoons when the heat from the warming seas pushed a gentle surge of air from the south over the fields of spring wildflowers.

Milicent placed her grandmother’s small book of poems by early bush women carefully on a side table. She shivered in a sudden chill as the breeze turned cold. She murmured to herself the close of Enid Durham’s “The Wind Child:”

There comes a wind from out the south, a little chill and thin,
And draws me from the human warmth that houses it within.
My soul streams forth to follow a soul that lures it on,
The sleepy flash calls kin to it, and murmurs to be gone;

Across the dreaming dewy flowers and through the shadowy trees
The sweet insistent whisper comes, and I am ill at ease,
How, they have not told me, and where, I do not know,
But the wind-folk is my folk, and some day I’ll go.

As Milicent unpacked, she handled her most special memories with reverence. She unfolded her late husband’s uniform patch from its stiff paper packet and fondled the golden texture of its eagle, rifle and anchor on a field of deep sea blue.

Milicent smiled at a familiar irony. When young Mili had first left home to try her own eagle wings, she had been determined to reclaim her grown-up name. Then, when she met Glenn, he had spontaneously, and without knowledge or malice, started to call her “Mili.” In the greater scheme of life, there were worse concessions to make and heavier burdens to bear. But, after Glenn died, two generations thought that it felt stiff and unnatural to switch to addressing her as “Milicent.” Yet, switch they did, under her swift, severe, and persistent glance.

Milicent deliberately called up the memory of her husband and how she loved to greet him at the door when he came home each day. She was shorter and would hug him with her head on his chest – her head turned sideways to hear his heartbeat. Then, she would nuzzle his neck and raise her face, which he would meet for a lingering kiss that could weaken her knees.

She laid her hand on the book and quietly recited to herself another bit from Mary Gilmore’s “Marri’d:”
It’s watching out the door,
And watching by the gate;
And watching down the road,
And wondering why he’s late;
And feeling anxious-like,
For fear there’s something wrong;
And wondering why he’s kept,
And why he takes so long.

In the Second World War, Glenn, had been in a Yankee combat engineer battalion and served in the Pacific Theater of Operations. His part of the 2d Engineer Special Brigade had assembled boats and conducted training in Rockhampton, Queensland. He had eventually managed a furlough to Brisbane, which is how they had come close enough to meet each other.

Mili’s Mum had died shortly before her 18th birthday and Mili became determined to find her own way in the world and to make something of herself. Toward that end, a friend wrote a letter of introduction for her to a member of the Brisbane Women’s Club who offered her a room. In return, Milicent volunteered to work in the club’s War Work Circle. They gave her a fair go and she proved to be a right fine Jillaroo. She developed a gift for organizing the assembly of camouflage nets.

Her trip from Edenhope to Brisbane had traversed over 2,200 km up the coast by rail via Melbourne and Sydney. The passengers were obliged to change trains several times as the rails changed gauge. Now, back in Edenhope, Milicent, paused to heat water for tea and reflected that her engineer husband would have never designed such an inconvenient mess.

*****

Milicent met Glenn at a serviceman’s dance. He was tall, handsome and muscular. He exuded confidence and a musk that pulled her into him and bound her to his chest. She wanted this flash fella for her own and would not be denied. They were smitten with each other flat out and had married on impulse. He was a gentleman and would not have allowed himself to take her otherwise.

That’s the way it began. Mili and Glenn spent hours talking about a lifetime plan. He promised her that their life together would turn out right. And, he promised her, “When we’re old, we’ll go dancing in the dark and reminiscing.”

But, it ended all too soon. Within days, he was bound for New Guinea and on the road to Tokyo. After the war, true to his word, Glenn bought a small house, the first of several, and called his bride, with their little Annabeth, to Waterloo, Iowa, USA, where they made their life and their family.

Milicent recalled the tender steel of his embrace and the complex cinnamon-citrus-floral scent of the Shulton Old Spice that she had given him on the occasion of their fifth anniversary. From that point forward, he had worn it for her. In the mornings, she had liked to lurk by the bathroom door and hug him from behind just after he splashed it on — while the scent of carnation first came out. He would hug her forearms, crossed just under his pectorals, and say, “I love you too.” His gift to her, that same day, had been a precious bottle of Chanel No. 5.

Milicent closed her eyes and took a slow deep breath, inhaling the memory of the swirling mix of pleasure that their perfumes had made together. She smiled, remembering the other swirling mix of pleasure (and twin daughters) that they had given to each other that same night. She took a moment, removed her travel bottle of Chanel and sparingly wetted spots on her wrist and behind her ear.

Milicent remembered that, for her, the lingering base note in Old Spice was cedar. When she and Glenn came together in bed, she would bury her face in his shoulder to find the cedar that reminded her so much of her childhood in Victoria. She flushed and fumbled for the nearby chair where she sat until the heat of her tears blew cool in the breeze wafting from the window.

*****

There was still enough light for Milicent to make her way to the cemetery to visit the graves of Momu and Mum. She finished her tea, got up and found her hand bag and a light jacket. Then, thinking better of it, put the bag back down; she wouldn’t need it.

Milicent made her way, a little unsteadily, down the uneven ground of the graded street. She caught sight of the familiar low picket fence at the corner and turned left to follow it. Sometime, someone had added a bench at the cemetery entrance and Milicent was grateful. She carefully lowered herself to sit and catch her breath.

She thought back to her early days in Waterloo. How happy and busy she had been, taking care of her man and her home and her growing family. Having been an Army engineering officer during The War in the Pacific, he had had no trouble finding supervisory work with an industrial manufacturer. Glenn had been promoted to Division and, eventually, Plant Manager—retiring just before the oil and farm crises hit the area.

Her life had never been hard, or struggling, or particularly tragic. There had been no great triumphs or moments of fame. It had been satisfying and reasonably fulfilling like most people’s lives. She had been a good person, trying to always be strong and wise. She had done well bringing up her girls, helping them see what was needed and not. She had set them on independent paths to do as well or better than herself. It was enough. And besides, she intended to always look out for them.

Rising, Milicent made her way to the plots in the back, walking carefully but unerringly toward the guardians, now impossibly tall. She paused occasionally to pick a small bouquet of wildflowers. Finding her family plot, she squatted with her back against Momu’s stone and returned her water.

Milicent had left her poems in the room but didn’t need the book; she knew every word. She remembered her first time here as a young girl, before Mum had been laid near her Momu. Quietly, she recited the first lines of Zora Cross’ “Memory.”
Late, late last night, when the whole world slept,
Along to the garden of dreams I crept.
And I pulled the bell of an old, old house
Where the moon dipped down like a little mouse.
I tapped the door and I tossed my head:
“Are you in, little girl? Are you in?” I said.
And while I waited and shook with cold
Through the door tripped me—just eight years old.

Milicent felt tired and rested in the grass there between Momu and Mum. She thanked them for showing her how to live and then how to live alone. She spent the hours reminiscing, letting the years roll on and the memories come along. The shadows of the Toons embraced her, as with tender steel, and wrapped her in the layered comfort of dusty sweetness that protects and preserves for the ages.

All around her was deep blackness, but her dreams were as bright and colorful as the world we see today. And so, Milicent retired there, secure in the comfort and confidence that no evil could befall her while her sleepy flesh called kin to the wind and murmured to be gone.

Her confidence was not betrayed. True to his word, Glenn came to her, bent low and raised her up with the strength of his youth. He whispered, “I promised you’d never be alone.” She could hear music. Glenn Miller’s Band was better than before. They heard their favorite song and danced across the room. In due time, dawn arose and the world was flooded with light as if for the first time.

When the search team found her there the next day, her friends and family in Victoria came to gather her up like the fallen petals of a wilted rose. They assembled to remember her life with joyful appreciation and loving reminisces. They lined her coffin with cedar and returned her to the place, among the dreaming dewy flowers, shadowy trees, and wind-folk, where she had gone to rest.

Above her grave, Pastor McDougall gave moment to reminisce about her life and read the lines of Nina Murdoch’s “The Braemar Road” — left open at Milicent’s bedside:

The road that leads to Braemar winds ever in and out.
It wanders here and dawdles there, and trips and turns about
Like a child upon an errand that play has put to rout.

Oh, the long, long road to anywhere seems haply without an end,
But who shall call it weary with the love of some good friend
To greet him like the wattle as he turns the final bend!

David Satterlee