Ephrata, Pennsylvania --- sometime in the future
It's funny where you can be when you finally come to an important conclusion, especially one you've resisted most of your life. I have just made a decision, sitting here in my front-porch rocker with my old afghan clutched against an autumn wind. I've changed my mind about something --- something that has bothered most of my family for years. I feel like I'm ready to share these secrets. Actually, I'm just trying to work up the courage to spill it out.
After all this time, I can hardly believe what I'm going to say. The thoughts have been floating around my brain for a while now, but until tonight I haven't felt any urgency about clearing the air. I know some of you have always felt I am a bit too secretive.
Maybe it started with my coming out here to the porch, which is something I haven't done in a long time. Not at this late hour, at my age, and at this time of year. In summertime, maybe. But this is a crisp autumn night, and strangely enough, I felt almost drawn out here by a wind that stormed out of the north and chilled me in my bed, not to mention it rattling the shutters and incessantly flinging dead leaves against the window. And the widest, brightest harvest moon took up station above the familiar granddaddy maple tree and beamed its dusky glow through that bedroom window so brightly I could see the tree's reds and golds.
The coming of fall no doubt has something to do with the choice I'm contemplating. You see, it was fall when I first came here. The season's rich colors and smells wove together my earliest impressions of this place. I came from a part of the country where autumn meant only slightly less scorching days, bluer skies, crisper nights, and maybe a rain shower or two. And before that, when still a girl with my biological family, all I experienced of harvest time was hard work. I never knew people who actually harvested their very own pumpkins for fun and took in such leisurely activities as hayrides and events like apple festivals. Or celebrated the arrival of what they called "sweater weather."
So now, every time fall rolls around to those falling dry leaves, I find myself magically transported to the first time I came here. In contrast, I feel the past come to life in autumn. Sometimes during my ambling sunset walks, I can almost make out silhouettes of the old-timers stomping along with their emphatic gaits, leading horses through the tall grass or grasping rusty old hand plows. I strain to see them, but the figures remain faint in my eyes, gauzy and transparent like the screen ghosts on those old-fashioned televisions. This was back in the black-and-white days when you changed channels with a metal knob, and the see-through remnant of one show sometimes bled off into another. I suppose I see the past a bit differently than most, maybe even the ones who lived it with me.
So I have just now decided the time has come for me to tell the complete story of where I came from and who I was before I arrived here. Yes --- brace yourselves --- I have changed my mind. After years of resisting all your well-intended requests, there's no one left that my silence protects but myself. I have nothing to hide now. Those I loved so much, whom I had vowed to shelter, no longer care what we know or don't know --- are no longer here to protest. And as I live through old age myself, I imagine I won't care either. The greatest risk now is that I will pass on without telling you the truth, and carry my story with me into the hereafter. That would be a tragedy, I'm thinking.
Those loved ones I sought to shield passed away decades ago. First, my dear husband, Bo. Many of you are not aware of the facts surrounding our marriage. Just as my complexion has always been a tad darker than most of yours, thus raising questions, so has my reputation been. But I have managed to outlive all that, I think.
The last person I sought to protect died not long after my husband. Naomi --- the only woman who was ever like a true mother to me. All these years after their passing, I no longer need to clamp my history down tight in a hiding place no one can reach. Instead, I now feel the need to give all of you a long-overdue glimpse into my past --- the good and the not-so-good.
It may take some time for me to get it all down. I know my lawyer would rather this was a document entitled The Long-Overdue Last Will and Testament of Ruth Salmon, as lately I've neglected my estate planning. But first things first.
I write my story for you, my family. I want you all to understand things like why an old 1976 Chevrolet Impala sits in the back of the barn, covered by that blue tarp and gathering dust. And why, even though it no longer runs and is little more than a pile of scrap metal, I cannot bear to part with it. For it is precious to me, and to my memories.
I want you all to understand why I came down to this porch tonight. Without turning on the flood lamps and yard lights that Bo had installed for me, I'm looking out over the farm in the moonlight. You need to know what this farmhouse looked and felt like when I first came here and found an Old Order home empty for decades, without electricity or modern amenities.
Most of all, I want my descendants to know the truth about the blood running through your veins, and why I chose to stay so reticent about it all these years.
Don't worry, it's good blood --- time has proven that. My story is full of human failing and pain, but nothing absolutely vile. However, it will not be a whitewashed story. You'll figure that out soon enough. Human beings in my story behave like human beings, damaged and fallible, carrying around great big broken hearts. You won't find any angels in this tale. At least none we can see with the naked eye. That's because this story is real and true. And I'm pretty sure you will find it interesting as well as informative. You will learn some things that will certainly surprise you.
I realize my long silence has provoked many of you in the family, and many in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to sometimes imagine things far more serious and embarrassing than what is actually true. I have both chuckled wryly at some of those rumors and deeply regretted others --- though I do have to admit that one of the few remaining joys in life is the inventiveness of the town gossip still being spun about me. I'd hate to see it all die out forever since it seems to provide much entertainment here. Where I came from, such rumors are a dime a dozen. But here they take on a life of their own, stretched and elaborated beyond belief.
Just last week a little boy came up to me at Martin's Market and asked if it was true that I had my husband locked in my cellar, and had I really been keeping him alive on bread crumbs and root beer all these years? His mother looked like she was ready to box his ears something fierce. I bent down and, in the spirit of Halloween, mock-whispered that, no, actually he passed on a long time ago, and I'd stashed his bones under the floors of Ephrata Elementary. Then I gave him an exaggerated wink for good measure. His mom, just the same, didn't appreciate my humor. She flashed me a look that made it very clear where I'd spend eternity, then whisked him away with his eyes still bugging out as he stared over his shoulder at me.
I don't know if my story will ever squelch such stubborn whimsy on the part of the very young and the very old. But I know there's far worse gossip out there, just sitting there pickling the older ones' minds.
I'm going tomorrow to pick up a large notebook to begin chronicling the little-known events of my life.
You know what will be the hardest part of writing all this down? By far, it will be figuring out where to start. I could go back quite a ways, trying to explain everything about my childhood, my husband's family and your aunt Naomi's. There's a lot of story moldering away out there in the sun, like that ghost of a steel mill along the banks of the Lehigh River that launched it into motion. Right here in greater Bethlehem.
But the part of the story that matters most --- about that I have no doubt --- starts on the worst day of my life. Ironically it's the day I lost two others who were more than dear to me.
And not here in Pennsylvania. It was many years ago, beginning in a place where I'm not even sure you knew I lived.
Excerpted from THE ROAD HOME © Copyright 2011 by Tommy Tenney and Mark Andrew Olsen. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.