The Family Tree of Martha Toole

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A little blog post in support of my novella The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole featuring an interview between the leads.

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Martha Toole, having come to their home and taken up a possibly temporary residence – though she had no firm dates about going back to the home – agreed to her great-something nephews request for an interview. Owing, in some small way, a debt to the hospitality of her kin she had, one rainy morning, let herself be sat down in the garage her nephew had taken up residence in so that she may have the comfort of a bed in the evenings. The boy, tall and red haired, was always smudged with paint and was rarely far from a sketch pad.

“To say I am comfortable with the proceedings is a lie; this is a foolish errand. History is the story that shaped it. We add to it but should not wallow in it.” Martha Toole lifted one liver-spotted hand to her chin and scratched at her drooping, grey, wrinkled face. “The great trees at the home place have seen so much, have tasted it in their roots. And someday their story will end, their contribution passed on to a seedling – but all trees fall.”

“Martha Toole – Aunty Martha – would you rather we didn’t?” John Davids tape recorder was at the ready, his pen and paper on his knee – he dare not use a computer in front of Martha Toole. “There are others I can ask, others I can speak too – your son, Bray?” John David knew better, most days, than to bring up Martha Tooles only son. Today he knew it to be the only way he would get what he wanted.

“Oh, turn on your machine. Always with the machines.” Martha Toole nodded at him. John David was anything if not consistent in his hunger for family knowledge and the history of the town. “And you, in the shadows. Stay and sit or leave – do not sulk like a spy. A lady never spies.” John Davids sister, all of 4 and a half feet and a a vision in red headed beauty stepped from a shadow behind the water heater and took a seat on the ground. “Yes, that’s lady like. Much better.”

“Lady like – !” Elizabeth began and John David could see a fight brewing. With a look he stopped her from continuing and reached forward to press record. With a click the little wheels of tape began to roll and John David knew the old woman’s voice was being preserved.

“Your mother will dispute these facts and come thanksgiving I suspect their will be a debate of sort – their usually is, most years. But I was there for most of it and the rest of it I heard from my own father and grandfather. All of what we know as Hammers Field, Virginia was ours. The land under our feat and the air that touched it at the horizon belonged to one generation of Tooles and Hammers and the such. In short; kin by marriage or affinity.” She looked at her great-great-something niece and nephew, “You wouldn’t understand but in those days family was not separate from the land- to sell the land was to sell your history. I said we should not live in the past, a task I often fail at, but I did say we should add to it. The great story goes on and goes on again.”

The old woman paused, reached for a pitcher John David had arranged on a small side table he had rescued from the to-be-yard-saled pile and poured herself a glass of water. John David glanced to his sister, sighed, and resigned himself to the interview being over before the old woman began to talk again.

“Now, when I come for a visit where there used to be a great house of a great family I find five or ten or fifteen homes, I find farms I used to visit broken up into suburbs. The Granger family farm is now Granger Estates with nary a Granger to be found. There ain’t much I call sin, but I would call it that.”

“Modern times can’t be all that bad, can they?” Elizabeth had her smartphone out, idly listening. Martha Toole did believe much in multitasking when their was talking to do. John David feared an outburst by the old woman was imminent.

“I don’t know much about modern times – I heard this phrase the other day, post-modern. Seems we are always in a rush for something new before we appreciate the present. I recon they have new medicines and the such, and thats good. Seems like the ‘conveniences’ just make people move faster and faster.”

“Martha Toole, what do you think-” John David began, watching from the corner of his eye as Elizabeth scooted agains the cold garage wall to sit next to the heater. John David was eager to return the conversation to family history and could see how Elizabeths question may have derailed thing. If so, the only way through was to let the old woman talk.

“We, the people of the dirt, the great families, we ain’t like them back in Europe. Ain’t no aristocracy i’m talking about, heredity carefully guarded and preserved to maintain rank and title. We were people of the dirt and our great families were people of the dirt. Our histories were preserved in the front pages of our bibles, our stories told in code in the quilts we made. It was about roots. My father dug into this land and when it was wounded from over ploughing he healed it, dedicated years to its health. Thats who we are, or used to be.”

“You say,” John David began, trying out wording in his head, careful in his approach “not to grieve the past, though. That it is a thing that happened and when its story ends to move on. Or do I not understand?”

“You are a fool, John David Hammer. Though, most young people are. The sin of our times is the replacement of the old with the new, instead of adding the new to the old. A dance between past and present, do you see?” She paused and looked the young man in the eye, searching for a glimmer of recognition.

“I do, I think.” Elizabeth looked up from her phone to catch Martha Tooles eye. “I think I do, really. We can’t have the new without the old, the present always holds what came before, and, I guess, what comes next. To have the one you have to respect the other. When the great tree falls it adds itself back to the earth, a nurse for what comes after.”

Martha Toole looked up, surprised at the girls words. She had expected such wisdom from John David – they had had these conversations many times before – but from the girl she had expected the frivolous.

“Well there may be hope for the Hammer family in these times.” She nodded to John David and he turned his recorder off. Carefully they helped the old woman to her feet, handing her her walking stick on which she leaned heavily. Through the small garage windows they could see a breeze trapped high in the leaves of a great oak, dancing shadows in a puddle on the garage floor. For a moment Martha Toole was in that pool of shadow, a flickering light show, eternity and the present all entwined. Later, in front of his canvas John David would try and put it on canvas and would weep for the beauty of it.  

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