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Elderberry Wine and Jack Daniels by Edie Williams

Memory is a winding road removed from maps. When I was a young girl, it was an old country lane leading to pastureland for our horses that dad rented from the neighboring Koss family. I could be anyone I wanted in that playground of imagination. I’d hide in the bushes as Tonto and the Lone Ranger rode by looking for robbers. When I spread my sweater next to the elderberry vines by the lane, I served tea and berries to the Queen. I was never alone.

The land was a mile up Joy Road and across the railroad tracks. I’d climb a fence and belt out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Our mares recognized the tune and came galloping across the field for the carrots and apples hidden in my pocket. These girls had never been saddled or ridden. They were trotters, bred for sulky and driver. The smallest horse always allowed me to climb onto her back. That’s when the fun began.

I’d spend the next hour going wherever she decided. Sometimes, we would head for the back line of trees while I watched out for the wolf and a boy named Peter. More likely, she ambled about munching on grass and flicking flies with her tail, and I read comic books. On the way home, I’d stop at the elderberry vines along the fence and gather enough for a pie. My berry gathering didn’t go unnoticed by the Koss family because the fruit made elderberry wine.

Sisters Marie and Ann Koss lived with their two brothers, who I knew collectively as the Koss brothers. Except for Marie, none of the siblings ever married. The brothers often said that Marie came home with processed curly hair, red lips, and painted nails and claimed to have been married one day. I always checked Marie’s fingernails, hoping to see the color reappear.

The Koss family attended Our Lady of Good Council Catholic Church. Enrolled in a college history of religion course, I often attended early Sunday Mass with them during weekends at home. At five-thirty in the morning, I’d wait at the end of our driveway for their car to arrive. Marie always sat in the front passenger seat beside an open window while I sat behind her in the back seat. Because of the ever-present wind, it could get cold and breezy. When the car picked up speed, her false teeth began rattling. Depending upon how wide Marie opened or closed her mouth, the rattling took on a faint musical tone, becoming singsong. This music occurred only during the ride to church and never on the way home, leaving me to wonder if communion wine had filled her head with too much Holy Ghost.

One year later, on the October night Marie died, the Koss family invited my parents and me to their home for the official death watch. I don’t remember what caused her death, nor do I know if the illness was chronic. I only knew the family expected her demise. Ann made Marie comfortable in their shared bedroom and joined the brothers and my parents at a kitchen table loaded with food. According to Mom, Ann spent the day preparing for the evening’s death watch. The smorgasbord included bratwurst, sauerkraut, potato salad, soft pretzels, spicy mustard, beer cheese dip, and a slab of chocolate cake. Dumping a wooden keg of elderberry wine onto the table, the brothers inserted an on/off spigot into the bottom and let gravity do the rest. It was red pop for me because I was the designated driver.

At the top of every hour, one of the brothers left the table to check on Marie. Upon his return, he’d announce, “She’s still breathing,” and then pour a glass of wine. The conversation soon veered into politics, with the Koss brothers wondering, “What those damn Kennedys were up to blockading Cuba.” The talk of possible nuclear war mingled with Marie’s death watch jangled my nerves. I’d been dating the anchorman of our college mile relay team and wanted to return to campus safely. My boyfriend knew how to kiss a girl, and I’d discovered a new world at eighteen.

As the evening of conversation and imbibing wore on, stories softened, and childhood memories of stern hardworking parents with little regard for public school education took front and center. Mornings began at first light with family prayers. Before breakfast, Papa Koss and the brothers mucked out the horse stall, milked their cow, and gathered eggs. Meanwhile, Ann and Marie baked biscuits while Mama Koss fed the sourdough starter and began baking the day’s bread.

At the age of sixteen, all except Marie had quit school. According to their parents, only reading, writing, and arithmetic were skills needed by farmers. The remainder of public-school education was for the gentry. The brothers needed to help Papa Koss with the plowing, planting, and harvesting while the girls maintained the household and kitchen. Only Marie, the youngest, defied her parents’ insistence to quit school. The brothers figured Marie got her high school diploma because Ann had already stopped school to help with household chores. On the other hand, Ann felt that the diploma allowed Marie to go into the city and find herself a husband.

At midnight, the brothers announced that Marie was still breathing. We said our goodbyes, and I drove my drunk parents across the railroad tracks to our home. Marie died on October 27, 1962, in the wee morning hours. The death watch now complete, I wished Marie a speedy trip to Heaven.

The following summer, on a hot July afternoon, the Koss brothers drove their old rusted-out green pickup truck into our driveway, parked it by our side door stoop, and shouted my dad’s name from the driver’s seat open window. Dad came out of the house and squatted on the top step. The brothers said they’d paid their priest to pray Marie out of purgatory and into Heaven but were afraid the priest’s prayers had been insufficient. They wondered if Dad would help them pray her into Heaven. They’d brought a fifth of Jack Daniels and a couple of six-packs of cold beer to help with the praying. Dad agreed.

Even though Dad married the daughter of a Methodist preacher, he never attended Sunday services. Our bookcase held an old, dog-eared Bible and a Koran, but my father was not a praying man as far as I knew. Still, there he sat in the hot sun, passing the bottle of Jack and praying.

As the afternoon hours wore on, the Koss brothers, sitting in the cab of their truck, and my dad, crouching on top of the side door stoop, told beautiful stories about Marie and farming in general. They laughed about our milk cow jumping the fence and heading off daily to socialize with the neighbor’s herd. They commented on my grandfather’s feeble attempts to raise asparagus. They discussed Farmer Schmidt’s efforts to keep strangers from picking the asparagus he had planted in the roadside ditch across the street. But mostly, they talked about Marie, her attempts to integrate into our Plymouth farming community, and how much they missed their sister.

By dusk, everyone felt Marie was sure to get out of God’s waiting room and make her way into Heaven, where she belonged. Besides, the Jack and beer were gone. Having never left the cab of their truck at our house, the Koss brothers drove away. Dad slowly got up, saying, “I think I’ll go to bed.” He walked into the house with an unsteady gait, shucking off his clothing, and collapsed onto the bed.

Today an expressway runs through the Koss family home and pastureland. Apartment buildings with winding roads ending in cul-de-sacs litter my family’s farmland. No one remembers the farmers. They are the flickering remains of a vanished time.
Author Edie Williams

Edie Williams is a retired university professor whose research has appeared in numerous social science journals. She loves to write memoir. Her first literary fiction novel, Altered, is searching for a publisher. Edie once hitchhiked through Europe and The Middle East. She now lives in Seattle.


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