THURSDAY, MAY 07, 2009
The little village of Twenty Mile is about twenty miles from McKinley, or it used to be before McKinley grew out that way. Twenty miles was about as far as a team and wagon can travel in a day, at least comfortably, so there was a little mercantile store there, not much more than a provisioner but also a post office, more by evolution than by design. The post office is gone now. Caused a major fuss when it was closed because people hate to lose evidence of their pasts even when they’re over and done with.

My aunt Tildy was the clerk for a very long time, which wouldn’t have been remarkable except that she was blind. It was the neatest little trading post you ever saw, because otherwise she couldn’t find anything. Of course, the mail was a bit of a problem, because you have to read the addresses on the envelopes, and regular postmasters sort them into alphabetical pigeon holes, according to the names of the people. But Tildy had just two big pigeon holes: IN and OUT. People could pick out their own in-coming letters. Or sometimes they’d see something that belonged to a neighbor and deliver it on the way back home. It’s not as though there were very many.

Of course, everyone read the postcards — well, them as could read. Tildy had sensitive enough fingertips to feel whether there were stamps on the envelopes. She had to be a little careful about it because otherwise she might have to buy a stamp herself, and though they were only pennies, she didn’t have pennies to spare.

In fact, her clothes were always a little startling. She was neat and clean and the patterns were pretty standard, but women made their own clothes in those days and she would use up the material left on the bolt after most of it was sold. Sometimes the color combinations were pretty bold. Not that she needed to dress very special anyway. About the only place she ever went was to the church four miles away. She had an old mule who was remarkably gentle and she could saddle him up by feel. The mule knew the way.

The church was a good one and they had hired an eloquent and handsome preacher. He was a single man and that kept everyone’s attention, in order to see who could catch him. Tildy loved him. Once they had a big shindig, a wedding for a rancher, and everyone came from miles around. They stayed dancing and — truth be told — doing a little drinking until way into the night. When it was nearly dawn, they laid out all the food again and finished it off.

The teenagers looked sly on the way home but no one realized why until their wagons pulled into their yards. The babies had all been put to sleep in the backs of the wagons while the grownups had their fun. The teenagers, who weren’t even called teenagers then, had quietly undressed all the babies and re-dressed them in other baby’s clothes, switching them to different wagons, so gently that not one baby woke up or cried out. It wasn’t until the mothers took a good look by daylight that they realized what had happened and faced the rather grim fact that they would have to turn right around and go back, losing another day’s work and tiring the horses further. There were no telephones. It was years before the ringleaders confessed.

Neither the minister nor Aunt Tildy had to attend that second meeting to exchange babies so no one saw them at the little store that day, talking so intently. No one saw them embrace. The minister had decided to resign in order to go back to school for a higher degree and he proposed to Aunt Tildy. He said that if she could wait for him a year, then after he had gotten his advanced degree and a better church somewhere, he would write for her to come to him. He’d send train fare.

Of course, he wrote back to Tildy while he was at that advanced school and, of course, the letters had to be read to Tildy since she was blind. People were willing to do it and, anyway, curious to know what their minister said. The truth was that they had NOT wanted him to leave. They loved him and were used to him and were really quite angry that he deserted them for such a foolish pursuit as a higher degree. What use WAS such a thing, anyway? But they helped Tildy write back.

Then it dawned on them that as the year completed its circle they would lose Tildy as well. Much discussion about the situation resulted. Some of the single women were jealous and wanted to write to tell Tildy’s minister that she was marrying someone else. The older women said that Tildy, being blind, might never get another offer and should have such a chance to better herself as this one was. The younger women retorted that the handsome minister was just wasted on a woman who couldn’t even see him and anyway, she didn’t dress properly. She would embarrass a minister, who had to keep standards.

The men didn’t quite know what to think but they felt there was nothing anyone could do about it. The teenagers hearing that could not resist the temptation to interfere. It was the same ones who had mixed-up the babies. Of course, they knew when the letter with the train ticket in it was likely to come and they managed to intercept it. They burned the letter and gave the train ticket to an abused boy so he could run away, good and far away.

Once someone caught Tildy smelling the letters, hoping to find one that smelled like the minister. He sent more letters, which were a nuisance to spot and remove, but gradually he stopped. Of course, they made sure none of Tildy’s letters got out, though a couple of soft-hearted girls cried when they read them. Then came a postcard from Europe. Then nothing more.

One day the old mule died. Not long afterward Tildy died, too. The boy who had used the train ticket intended for her had managed to get back east to a small city where he found a job and a sweetheart. When his mother wrote to tell him about Tildy, his conscience got to him. He sent a letter with the whole story to the newspaper. At his new church, the minister subscribed in order to keep up with old friends. When he read the story and told his wife, they both wept, he for grief and she for secret gratitude. Then they prayed together.

Then the minister’s daughter was born, he wanted to call her Tildy but his wife refused. Finally, he named his beloved dog Tildy.


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