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Bev Alsleben

© 2000


"How 'bout stoppin' at the next town.
Could sure use a goood cup of coffee."
"Aagghhh, it's a waste of time!
Ya always gotta sit with that cup o' coffee." . . .

"We hafta take a little break, chickens won't care.
It's time for some morning coffee."
"Sure. . . Do I get some?" . . .

"Ma called. Again. Says she's
takin' an afternoon coffee break.
When does that woman ever get work done?" . . .

"Ya know why I'm so short? Coffee.
Don't drink coffee! It stunts yer growth."
"It does?"




Ages ago, giant masses carved out the land
creating a new world,
a home for those yet to come.
With relentless courage and determination,
they demonstrated a fearful power;
a silent heralding of strength unleashed,
evident in the rich earth, green valleys and glistening waters.
A changed land: filled with uncertainty --
filled with beauty and hope.

Tender Years

Carried by whispered breezes,
a seed, young and tender, assumes flight among
dry prairie grasses, prickly thorns,
stifling midday heat.
No grand entrances, no proclamations
as she rises hesitantly
with the gathering dusty wind,
carried over gnarled limbs in stagnant waters
and sweet clover meadows,
tossed by playful drops from the sun-streaked sky.
No protests
at sudden cold pellets
from ominous clouds.
No fanfare as she rests,
patiently. . .
then emerges,
silent amid the grasses, thorns, heat, wind, waters, meadows
and the cold, hard rain.


She stood tall,
growing, blossoming —
on her way to becoming. . .
until the harsh thralls of winter
wrapped around her tender limbs,
commanding surrender.
Bending, snapping, shoots lay cold and lifeless
buried in coffins of hardened snow.

She stands yet,
humming with the howling wind,
mocking winter’s bitter deeds,
drawing secret strength from the frozen banks,
nourishment in disguise.

Until at last, Spring!
Her roots travel deep,
extending outward,
providing greater strength
than the forgotten broken limbs:
on her way to becoming. . .


I knew the road north out of town well. It passed over the winding Chippewa, first before the crossing and then farther into the river bottom. When the pavement ended, thick clouds of choking, gritty-tasting dust rose from anyone traveling the country roads. It was hold-your-breath and come-up-for-air time. Amid the dust, a melancholy settled in the pit of my stomach. It was there every Sunday afternoon as we headed north. It is there today as I recall visiting older relatives - bachelors, old maids and childless couples. Great aunts and uncles whose houses held a void, filled with silence and emptiness.

Ellen’s View

Knock — knock — knock. Heavy footsteps came toward the door and a high raspy voice offered, “Come in! Come in!” Ellen was a large, round woman whose steps were as pronounced as her precise, well-articulated, school-teacher vocabulary. It flowed from her and mesmerized me until punctuated by gasps that reflected the weight her swollen ankles carried. Her white spitz, a beloved, aged companion, cocked his ears in concern as Ellen instructed between breaths, “Come. . . Buddy.”

She’d been expecting us and led us to the dimly lit living room. The room emitted unmistakable emptiness, dampness and stale scents. Rocker-runners paced across the wooden floor. Her husband, Lewi, sat among ticking, chiming antique clocks, as much a fixture as a silent clock awaiting repair. An occasional spark in his eye lit up his face and brightened his words.

The afternoon crept by: small talk - listening; family talk - boredom. Politeness mixed with unnoticed and unheeded pleas to go. Until what I dreaded most, happened. We were staying for lunch. “No!” I thought. I didn’t want another lunch prepared by aging eyes with cloudy vision, prepared by a scholar not a cook, prepared by the koolaid-made-with-pickle-juice lady. “Ahhhhhh!” I reluctantly chose a sandwich that looked safe.

The tiny bites slid down easily with gulps of water as Ellen shared her one-room schoolhouse stories. Stories about the pot-bellied stove, cold winter days, meager school lunches, few books and students who were her only children. The gleam in Lewi’s eye, his nod, his smile, affirmed his sweetheart’s struggles and triumphs. After each story, Ellen raised questions about my school days. I squirmed anxiously. When would we leave?

When she asked to share her poetry, I nodded politely. Opening her Bible, she took out a paper and read “The Wintry Day” deliberately, with meaning. She rocked slowly. My squirming settled. I began to see the snow, the busy squirrels, and the school children on their way to school, as Ellen described them. I imagined them, visible through her small front window, her world view at 90.

Her words sparked my imagination and questions I’d never dared ask filled my head: What was it like for her growing up? What did she do to naughty kids? How did she fall in love with Lewi? Why didn’t they have kids? I pictured Ellen as a young teacher — slender, articulate, laughing, and kind. I pictured her and the young man with the glimmer in his eye. And now. . .I wondered, “Is she sad to be old?”

Ellen continued reading. “Lord, help me serve you each day. Be my Guide in all I do.”
I sat motionless. Suddenly it didn’t matter I’d spent all afternoon there. It didn’t matter there were no other kids. It didn’t matter about the lunch. It didn’t matter about the stale scents and empty house. What mattered was Ellen’s strength...the strength she drew from God and from those around her. What mattered was her caring...her warmth...and her view of the world from her small front window... with Buddy...and with Lewi.

Bev Alsleben was a 2000 Selective fellow. She teaches ESL at Highland Park Jr. High. She enjoys exploring the outdoors; her favorite literature is the poetry of Langston Hughes and Robert Frost. She is especially proud of having successfully started a new career in mid-life.