She is a feature of the town: a tiny old woman with a bent back and a cane, heavy skirts to her ankles, a faded red and black plaid winter jacket worn all days except summer days warmer than today, with uncombed thin white hair, translucent skin except for the liver spots, and alert pale blue eyes with a faint clouding of cataracts. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays she walks the four blocks down the hill from her second story apartment to shop at the National Tea grocery story.
She is a feature of the town in the way the decorative brickwork at the top of the storefronts is a fixture—a contribution to the texture of downtown to which the residents give scant attention and which the tourists consider small town charm. Not even the absence of wrinkles on her ancient face draws notice from the locals. No one knows or remembers her name. Because she has for many years come into the bank every month only to cash her small social security allotment, the tellers no longer read the name on the check.
With her cloth shopping bag in her right hand, Gerda Pederson walks down the hill with her left side supported by the cane. A small seven-year-old girl holds Gerda’s right wrist above the cloth bag. The child, in her delight with herself, with life, with summer, and with the expectation of her night under the shooting stars, prances and chatters.
Gerda is trying to remember about this little girl. When she was dropped off earlier Gerda knew who her name. Gerda knows she will think her way through her confused brain paths to an answer. Is she her granddaughter, daughter of her stepson Maynard? No. That granddaughter is all grown up and living in Texas in all that heat. Daughter of her son Eldon? No. He was killed in a war. Was it the First World War? No. It was the Second World War. He never had children. No, the girl has to be a great granddaughter. Ah, yes. This girl is the granddaughter of her daughter Phyllis, not the granddaughter of her stepdaughter Bernice. Nancy is the name of this happy little thing dancing by her side. Nancy’s behavior reminds Gerda that she herself was once a happy dancing little thing all those years ago in St. Paul before she and her abandoned mother moved to this town in 1889. How old is she now? Gerda tries to do the math. Eighty something.
Nancy. She will have to remember that. Nancy.
Having Nancy by her side makes this a good day, but then, all days are now good days for Gerda, who has lived through many bad days. One husband, Henry, died of influenza in ’19 leaving her with a son and a daughter. He survived the Second Battle of the Somme only to die of the flu. The second husband, Davey, was killed in a hunting accident, shot by his brother in ’28, leaving Gerda with his two sons and a daughter.
Gerda and Nancy cross a street to walk past a town park. Two of Nancy’s many friends are dancing and singing in a round roofed bandstand. Nancy waves; the girls wave back. After Gerda and Nancy cross a second street, they are in the business district. Neither the business owners nor the residents know that in another decade the downtown will begin its slow fade. The first business which tottering Gerda and bouncing Nancy pass is Willy’s Radio & Television Store. Gerda likes this store. The two storefront windows always display old local photographs, which take her back to her younger days. The photographs are changed every week. If he is not busy, Willy comes out to talk to Gerda. Sometimes she provides Willy the information to write captions for a few of the photographs. Willy jokingly tries to sell her a television, which always requires him to explain to Gerda that a television is a radio with moving pictures. Despite not being able to imagine it, she always rejects his invitation to come inside and see for herself. Perhaps such a thing would be dangerous to be near. And there are those three steep stone steps into the store.
Gerda tells Nancy they must stop to study the photographs before heading to the National Tea. The first window has photographs of logging. Gerda knows nothing of logging history. Her mother moved here to be a cook in a boarding house and later owned a restaurant. The second window has eleven photographs showing town buildings, all but three of which are no longer standing. Gerda has forgotten that two days ago she had provided the information for the captions. She and Nancy study the photographs and read Willy’s version of Gerda’s words.
Nancy chatters about what she sees, especially the two girls wearing pinafores in one photograph. She wants a pinafore. Gerda says she once wore pinafores. The two girls are holding jump ropes. Nancy is excited to see that girls jumped rope back then. Did Gramma Gert, as only Nancy calls her, once jump rope? No, not that she remembers. She did not have a lot of play time. She played with her two dolls, and she played checkers with some people in the boarding house. She remembers trying to learn chess from a man missing fingers of his right hand, but Gerda, as she says, was too dumb to figure chess out. There was another man who stayed at the boarding house for awhile after he lost his leg on the railroad. That railroad was a dangerous place. The house behind the girls used to stand a block east of where they are now. Then it burned down. There were lots of fires back then. A girl had died in the fire. Was it one of the two girls with jump ropes, Nancy asks. Gramma Gert does not know. Nancy pushes out her lower lip in a sad pout.
Willy comes out the door to say hello. He does not call Gerda by name, nor is he aware he does not know her name. He asks for Nancy’s name, which Nancy tells him, knowing that Gramma Gert cannot remember it right now. As they chat, a man passes behind them and pauses to look in the other window. Willy wants to talk to the man who looks like a possible buyer of a television, but Willy is too polite to walk away from Gerda and Nancy. They talk about the photographs, about how houses are changing, about how everyone is building those long one-story ranch houses at the west end of town. Nancy lives in one of those houses. Yes, they have a television. No, Gramma Gert has not seen the house. Nancy’s mother does not like to let Gramma Gert in their house because she stinks of liniment. After Nancy goes back home tomorrow her mother will wash all her clothes. Gerda does not seem surprised or embarrassed by this information. Willy is of the last generation that is accustomed to old people smelling of liniment.
Nancy says, “I’m staying with Gramma Gert tonight. We’re gonna stay up late and watch the shooting stars. Gramma Gert and my mother watched them.”
“Like your grandmother and I did too,” Gerda says. “They just keep a comin’ every year. But some years they ain’t too good.”
The man at the other window stops studying the logging photographs and crosses the street.
Willy asks, “How do you know there will be shooting stars?”
“Lotsa shooting stars come every year at the end of June. This is the first year I’m big enough to stay up and watch them,” Nancy brags. Gerta smiles down at Nancy.
“Have you checked the weather to see if it will still be clear tonight?” Willy asks.
“We listened to the radio,” Nancy explains.
“Television has weather reports, too, and with maps,” Willy teases. Gerda cannot imagine what maps have to do with the weather.
“Gramma Gert, tell the man about when you first saw the shooting stars.”
Gerda shakes her head no.
“Please tell me,” Willy says. “You know how much I like local history.”
Gerda wonders if her life is history. She thinks of it as only her life, neither history nor a story.
Nancy dances up onto the stone steps. Gramma Gert must tell the story. She must! She wants to hear it again. Gerda’s pale smooth skin tinges pink.
“We was living down in St. Paul and one day my father flew the coop. My aunt was living up here. She was my father’s sister. Her husband was an engineer. The best job to have on the railroad. My father wrote her asking her to help us. Mamma could not do much, I mean for making bucks. But she could cook darn good. My aunt got Mamma a job as a cook in a boarding house. Boarding houses up here were most awful rough places back then. One of our boarders got murdered.”
“Was the murderer found?” Willy asks.
“Nope. He got clean away,” Nancy tells him.
”Anyways, Mamma packed up our clothes in valises and boxes. And she packed up as much cooking stuff as she could in a steamer trunk. She’d need that stuff for cooking. My grandpa brought the trunk from Ireland. We owed rent so we had to sneak out at night and have a drayman bring us and our stuff to the depot down in St. Paul. We slept on the platform. We leaves early in the morning for Duluth. We stops at all them little towns. It took all day to get to Duluth. I carried a broken hat box with food. I had to keep holding it together. I remember Mamma was crying sometimes, but I was happy as a clam. We got to Duluth late. A railroad man tells us we can’t sleep on the platform there. Mamma says, ‘The train got us here late for our train. We got no money to stay anywheres and all our stuff is right here. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.’ The railroad man left. Mamma cried after that. We was cold but we could put on extra clothes from our valises. We run out of food the next morning. I weren’t happy like a clam no more. Our train up to here the next morning was broke down. We didn’t leave until the evening. Oh, I was hungry. Mamma was about cried out. A different railroad man gives us some bread and some cheese. We got part way here and the train breaks down again. When we get there, Auntie don’t know we are there. The depot agent has a wagon ready to deliver stuff that comes in on that train. It takes some talking for him to figure out where we need to get to. I was the one crying now. I was tired and so hungry. I was lying all bundled up in the back of that nice man’s wagon, trying to stop my crying. I was looking up in the sky and I saw shooting stars. I didn’t know what they was. By the time we gets to Auntie’s house, I had seen several stars shoot. Oh, but those stars! I remember them stars even now.”
“Were you afraid” Willy asks.
“Noo-oo!” Nancy dances up and down on the steps. “She fell asleep!”
Expecting Gerda to say she was five or six, Willy asks how old she was. Gerda has to think. Nancy answers for her. “She was thirteen.”
“No. I was just a little girl just like Nancy’s age.”
“Gramma Gert you were born in ’75.”
“Yah. That’s true. I was born in ’75. So in ’89 when mamma moves us up here I was . . .”
“Thirteen, Gramma Gert.”
“So, how old am I now?”
“Eighty-one? I can’t be only eighty-one.”
Willy tells her, “You must be about the oldest resident in town. I mean the longest to live here.”
“Gramma Gert thought the shooting stars were in a dream.”
“So the next night I snuck out to look again, and there they was. They was there the next night, again. Then Mamma caught me and I could not sneak out no more. The next year at the end of June as we was going to bed, Mamma says we had been here a year.”
A dog trotting down the sidewalk stops to smell Gerda’s legs. Willy drives it away.
“Great Great Gramma did not like living there. They slept in the same bed.”
“We slept in the same bed when we was living at the boarding house. She never did like it here. We stayed here the rest of our lives.”
“Gramma Gert’s never even been back to Duluth.”
“I looked for shooting stars some nights in the winter that first year when it gets dark so early. I only saw one shooting star.”
“I imagine you could see the stars better back then without all the lights in town,” Willy tells them
“Is that why? I ‘member seeing them better but thought my memory must be playing tricks. When Mamma tells me we been here a year, I tells her that at fourteen I should have leave to go out and look. When I tell her about the shooting stars the night we moved, she cries. Then we goes outside and looks. There weren’t many. The next two nights were more of them.”
“And they come back every June.” Nancy dances her excitement.
“Not every year, and some years I forget to look. My husband Henry, he died in ’19. There was shooting stars that year.”
“Great Great Gramma started a restaurant, you know,” Nancy tells Willy.
“When was that?”
Gerda has to think. “The Superior Dining Hall . . . musta been about ’96. Mamma was very happy to get out of the boarding house, but I liked some of those people. Some was scary, though. I was waitress for Mamma.”
“What became of the restaurant?” Willy asks her.
“It done good business. Mamma was a good cook. Then in ’12 she gets too sick to run it. So I run it. But I hadda hire a cook.”
“Gramma Gert is an awful cook.”
“Yah, I always was.”
“What became of the dining hall?” Willy asks, not sure which of the two of them will answer.
“Henry and me run it after we get married in ’13. Mamma died in ’15. When Henry goes Over There, I sell it to take care of our children. I don’t ‘member when the building was torn down. The National Tea grocery store’s there now. Me and Nancy better get there to shop.”
“Gramma Gert buys store-bought cookies. I like store-bought cookies. She likes Oreos. I like the windmills. Come on, Gramma Gert.” Nancy dances a few steps down the sidewalk to turn and wait for Gerda to catch up.
“I never have got me enough chocolate,” she tells Willy and toddles on her way.
When Willy turns to enter his store, he sees approaching the man who had looked in the window a few minutes ago. Willy waits for him to come near.
In the National Tea Nancy leads Gerda in slow progress up and down the aisles. Gerda stops to look at products and say, “Why I never!” She cannot grasp the range of new products that are appearing on the shelves as the country rebounds from World War II.
When Nancy adds bacon and eggs to the cart, Gerda stares at them in confusion. “Remember, I’m cooking scrambled eggs for supper. Remember, you’re not a very good cook,” Nancy reminds her. “Momma taught me how to make scrambled eggs and bacon for when I come stay with you.”
“No, I ain’t a good cook. I hadda hire cooks for the dining hall. I never could cook. Now, Henry, he died in ’19. He was a good cook.”
“What about Davey who died in ’28?” Nancy knows the story but she knows Gerda gets few chances to tell one of her favorite stories.
Gerda laughs before answering. “All he wanted me to make was mashed spuds with rutabagas in ’em, when we could get the beggies. He said I overcooked everything, but he said he liked food that way.”
“That’s what Gramma Phyllis says.”
“Davey, he liked his deer meat that way. He got shot, you know, by his brother out deer hunting. His brother Ted shot him. He and Ted did not get along much. I don’t know how we made it through the Great Depression.”
“That’s what Gramma Phyllis says.”
“Your Gramma Phyllis, she was a good older sister. She took care of all the younger kids when I did some accounts and cashiering at the drug store. I could do numbers. Can’t any more, though. How old am I? Ted would get some deer meat to us, feeling bad like he did for shooting Davey. And he grew spuds and beggies and carrots to give us. You ever had rutabagas?”
“Don’t ever eat ’em. They taste like dirt. What else we need?”
“Gramma Gert, I just put our cookies in the cart. See? Now we need to get milk and some corn flakes for tomorrow morning and some bread.”
“Soda pop. Let’s have soda pop with our cookies out watching the shooting stars. What flavor does you like?”
“I’ll have that, too.”
“And some Milky Way candy bars for under the stars.” Nancy laughs at the joke which passes over Gerda’s head.
As they check out, Nancy notices the woman at the till turn her nose away. Nancy explains, “It’s Gramma Gert’s liniment. She’s got arthritis real bad.”
“Arthritis, is that what I got? I thought it was lumbago.”
“Gramma Phyllis says it’s arthritis.”
When it is time to pay, the cashier fails to hide her displeasure as Gerda digs through her coin purse for the exact change. As they head down the street, Nancy stops them to look in the windows of the jewelry store. Next they stop to look at the cheap jewelry on display in the Ben Franklyn windows. Nancy oohs at the displays in both windows, nor does Gerda see any difference between the two.
A bench sits in an empty lot where a bar burned down two years ago. Gerda plops down on the bench to rest her back and legs. Nancy sits beside her, leaning her head against Gerda’s arm. They watch residents and a few tourists pass. Gerda explains, “This used to be a bad old beer hall. Out back of here is where our boarder was murdered. Henry, he wouldn’t touch a drop. But Davey, now, he liked it. Ted said they was both kinda drunk when he shot him.”
Nancy bounces up to stand on the bench. As she dances and sings, some of the passersby smile at them. A tourist asks if he can take their picture. He manages only two pictures before his wife moves him on to buy tourist schlock at the drug store.
When Gerda and Nancy pass Willy’s windows without stopping—Gerda is worn out—Willy catches up to them in front of the park to tell them, “Your shooting stars are called the June Botids. One of my sons reads all about about astronomy. He told me that’s their name, the June Botids. So it’s real.”
Nancy shows her impatience in her reply. “We know it’s real. We’ve seen ’em.”
“My son says some years they don’t show up very much and some years are very good.”
“Yah, that’s true,” Gerda agrees. “Some years I look and see nothing.”
“My son and I are planning to watch tonight. The forecast is for a clear and chilly night, so you two dress warm.”
“We got blankets,” Nancy tells him and dances on ahead, but then she has an inspiration. “Gramma Gert, let’s sit here in the park on a bench tonight. We’ll see the sky more.”
Gerda, who is focusing on making it up the hill, agrees. Before climbing the stairs to the second floor apartment, she rest on the swinging bench under the covered front porch of the house. Once they make it upstairs, Gerda lies down on her sagging bed. “Just to rest my legs and back, mind you. My lumbago’s pretty bad today.” She falls asleep. After Nancy puts away the food, she plays with the big book of paper dolls she keeps in the apartment.
As they eat supper—the eggs are a bit crusty and the bacon a little raw on the ends—Gerda tells Nancy, “You see that china sugar bowl and creamer up on that shelf.”
“Oh, yah . . . I never saw that up there before.”
“Well, that was Mamma’s. About all I got left of hers. I wanna give it to you for your hope chest.”
“What’s a hope chest?”
“It’s stuff girls make or buy and save up for when they’re grown up.”
“I don’t have any chest. Did you have one?”
“No. We was too poor and I hadda work after we come up here.”
“Why is it called a hope chest?”
Gerda considers for awhile. “I guess for hoping to get married.”
“I don’t hope I get married. I hate boys.”
“I don’t guess you will ever do any sewing or embroidering. Girls would make things for after their wedding, like pillowcases and towels and other stuff. All that’s changed, I guess. I lose track.”
After supper to fill time before the late-arriving darkness, they listen to the radio. When the sun approaches the horizon, they put on their jackets and walk down to the park. Gerda carries her bag with the pop, cookies, and candy bars. Nancy carries the two faded and worn blankets. The light does not linger long after sunset. The sliver of a moon will rise late tonight. On the bench wrapped in blankets, Gerda sits upright, and Nancy lies with her head on Gerda’s leg. Only after they have eaten a few cookies and drunk half the pop does a shooting star appear.
“What’d the tel’vision man say they’s called again?” Gerda asks.
“The June Botids.”
Nancy giggles. “Not bow ties, Gramma Gert. Bo tids. Just imagine bow ties up in the sky.” Nancy giggles; Gerda cackles. Then Nancy becomes serious. “It musta been just awful moving up here in ’89. I’d been pretty scared.”
“I was some scared, mostly pretty excited until we got stuck on the depot platform at night in Duluth. That got me most awful scared. The next night when the train broke down, I near peed my pants.”
“I got off the train and went behind a bush.”
Nancy giggles. Gerda cackles.
“And I did pee my pants in the back of the wagon right before I fell asleep.”
“And you had no daddy neither. I wouldn’t wanna be without my daddy.”
“We never heard from him again that I know of. Mamma and Auntie never talked about him around me. It was awful sad.”
“What are you two doing here?” a male voiced booms in the dark. A flashlight beam blinds them. Nancy jumps up in fright. She wants to run. She will not abandon Gramma Gert.
“Who is you?” Gerda asks in a voice so calm it calms Nancy.
“You answer first! Whatcha doing here?”
Against the stars Nancy can see the shape of a policeman’s cap around the man’s unseen face. If Gramma Gert can be calm, she can be daring. “You made me spill my grape Nihi, and I peed my pants.”
Gerda cackles. Nancy leans against Gerda and whispers, “I think it’s a cop.”
“I’m a policeman. I’m not a cop.” His youth is apparent in his voice. “The parks close at sundown. It says so on the rules on the bandstand. You don’t know what kinda men could be lurking around here.”
Gerda cackles. Nancy giggles and tells the cop, “We’re watching the June Botids.”
“June who? Who’s she?” His bravado has left his voice. Gerda cackles again. “Now you’ve made me piddle my pants.”
Nancy giggles. She asks the cop, “Would you like a windmill cookie? I promise I didn’t spill Nihi on it . . . or piddle on it.” Gerda cackles. Nancy giggles.
The cop ignores the offer, only in part because he is unacquainted with windmill cookies. “Who was you watching?”
“Shooting stars. They’re called the June Botids,” Nancy tells him with the child’s superior knowledge. “Gramma Gert, tell him about seeing the shooting stars in ’89.”
Stepping closer and lowering the light beam from their faces, he asks, “Eighty-nine what?”
“I don’t know. Eighty-nine what, Gramma Gert?”
“1889, when me and Mamma moved up here.”
The cop cannot believe that is true. “Where does yous live?”
Gramma Gert is suddenly confused. Nancy answer for her. “Up there.”
In the dark he cannot see where she is pointing. “Well, you two gotta be getting home. This park is closed.”
“But we hardly saw any Botids,” Nancy complains.
“No arguing. Get yourselves home.”
Nancy’s disappointment is expressed with a huge sigh. “Come on, Gramma Gert.”
Gert struggles to stand. Her cane falls from her hand. She reaches out for Nancy’s shoulder and folds silently onto the damp ground.
“I’ll help you up, Gramma Gert.”
Gerda does not respond.
Nancy drops on her knees by Gerda’s face, which is half turned into the ground. “Wake up, Gramma Gert . . . Gramma Gert?”
The cop shines his light on Gerda’s face. Nancy says in a small confused voice, “She needs help.”
The cop stands frozen in the rising odor of urine and liniment, looking at Gerda’s face yellowed in his light. His speaks in a high-pitched voice, “I didn’t do nothing to her. I didn’t.”
Nancy shakes Gerda’s shoulders. “Come on, wake up, Gramma Gert.”
Nancy cries in hiccuppy sobs. The cop runs away, leaving them in the dark. Nancy sobs and pleads and shakes Gerda.
After a few minutes the cop returns. “I called for an ambulance . . . they’re just volunteers . . . it takes awhile . . .” He sits on the bench. He is afraid to touch Gerda.
Nancy has given up trying to wake Gerda. She curls herself up against Gerda and continues her raspy sobs.
The cop knows he should act. He is supposed to take care of people in trouble, especially children. He knows he cannot help Gerda. He has no idea how he could help this quivering small girl. A thoughts strikes him. “Little Girl, does you live with your grandma?”
“She’s my great gramma, Gramma Gert. I live with my family, of course. I’m only staying one night to watch the shooting stars.”
“Who’s your father?”
The cop dithers in confusion. He should not leave this little girl lying in the dark by her grandma, who may be dead, but he should use the police radio in the car to have the dispatcher call the father. He makes his decision. “Little Girl . . .”
“My name is Nancy.” Fear and loneliness have made her petulant.
“Nancy, you take the flashlight. I’m going to the car to have them call your daddy.”
As he steps around the bench, he trips over Gerda’s cane and sprawls on his face. He manages not to swear in front of the little girl. In a few minutes he gropes his way back and sits on the bench. Nancy has stopped crying, she seems almost asleep. He feels useless and very young. In his first few weeks as a policeman he has imagined dramas in which he is the hero, usually by the power of his gun. Dealing in the dark with a little girl and an old woman, an old woman who may be dead—this was beyond his imagination.
When Nancy’s father arrives ten minutes later, Nancy wakes and clutches to him. John tries but fails to find a pulse on Gerda. He sits on the bench beside the cop with Nancy curled into a ball on his lap. He wraps her in one of the blankets. Now it is obvious to the cop: he should have put a blanket over both of them.
Fifteen minutes later the ambulance arrives and drives over the curb and into the park to stop near them. This too is obvious to the cop: he should have driven the police car into the park.
The ambulance driver is not allowed to say Gerda has died, but all know she has, even Nancy.
As the cop and the driver lift Gerda’s liniment-smelling body onto the stretcher, Nancy’s father says, “An era has died.” In the dark no one sees the driver nod in agreement.
The next week when Willy reads Gerda’s obituary in the newspaper, he says to his wife, “Gerda Pederson must have been our historian, our liniment lady. The obituary should have told the story of her first night here under the shooting stars . . . Funny isn’t it, Elenore, that I somehow never learned her name. I feel a bit ashamed.”
Nancy recovers quickly. A seven-year-old girl raised by loving parents, a caring grandmother, and an iron-willed great grandmother is a resilient creature. The cop recovers more slowly.
Over the next few years, even though the Botids often disappoint, Nancy watches them with her grandmother Phyllis.
When she becomes an adult, even though the Botids often disappoint, Nancy watches them with her children and then her grandchildren. As they eat Oreos, windmill cookies, and Milky Ways, she tells them the story of Gramma Gert and the night she and Gramma Gert piddled their pants under the shooting stars.
©Clyde L. Birkholz 2017