Five-thirty in the morning, and this lady is trying to wake me up.
Here I am, balled up inside the car trying to stay warm—and there comes a tap-tap-tapping at the window.
Parked on a side road, about half way to Sioux City and 50 feet from the steepest driveway you’ve ever seen.
At the end of the road is a farm place with white house, red barn, brick silo. Kept real nice except for the thistles along the lane.
So there’s a tapping at the window. I’m awake now and I see there’s this nice old lady standing beside the car whacking the windshield with a wood walking stick.
I roll down the window. “Can I help you?” I say.
“I think I can help you, son,” she says.
She’s a nice looking old gal, maybe sixty years old with a big blue apron and her gray hair done up in a bun.
“Aw mother, can’t I sleep a little longer?” I ask, chuckling at my little joke.
But she doesn’t crack a smile. Just looks me in the eye and says, “What do you think you’re doing sleeping out here in front of my place all night?”
I figure she’s fixing to clobber me, the way she grips that stick.
“I’m on my way to Iowa to dig potatoes,” I say. “This is far as I got last night before my eyes got to heavy to see the road. I nodded off so fast, I didn’t even notice your farm.”
“All the more reason you should’ve drove in and knocked at the door. I don’t expect a stranger to know, but it ain’t safe to sleep outside around these parts.”
I don’t have the heart to tell her that these parts aren’t more than 20 miles from those parts where I live.
I find out the lady’s name is Esther and she lives alone. Her son’s gone off to the service and her husband is dead.
It’s just old Esther, a dog, a few cats, chickens and cows.
She hasn’t been able to cook for anybody but herself for a long time.
She enjoys cooking for other people.
During the next hour or so, I find out a lot more.
At first it’s a trickle. Then I’m pulling my finger out of a dyke, and the water starts gushing.
She grew up at the very table where I sit.
She worked until she was 18 in a nearby town. Then she married old Ed and they had Tom. She had another baby, but he died. Heartbroken, she kept on with old Ed and young Tom, working the farm. They got their first dog. Now she didn’t feel so alone. The dog helped make up for the deceased son, you see.
I wonder about getting a word in edgewise, but decide to start filling my mouth instead of emptying it.
Esther’s got steaming scrambled eggs with green onions and goat cheese on the table.
Fat strips of peppered bacon follow and toast with mulberry jam.
Fried potatoes and gravy.
Fresh milk and hot coffee.
She’s been up since 4:30.
She gets up every morning at 4:30. Goes to bed each night at 8:00 after writing to Tom.
She hasn’t sealed last night’s envelope. She decides to share.
By the time she recites the entire thing, I’ve cleaned up my breakfast.
Under cover of the napkin, I slip a dime beneath the plate.
The food, the conversation, the coffee—all of it is worth more than a dime.
I thank her and explain that I need to get moving. That potato picking crew won’t wait for you. It’s first come, first serve.
I shake her hand.
Walking up that steep lane, I start to think gravity is pulling me back down.
I realize it’s Esther tuggin on my shirt.
She’s got my dime pinched between two fingers.
She’s mad as a wet hen.
“How dare you leave this at my table,” she says. “You ain’t no customer, son. You’re practically family.”
I’m embarrassed, but happy to get back the dime. That dime’s worth of gas will get me through Sioux City.
For just a minute I think about offering to cut down the thistles on Esther’s lane.
But I’m still thinking in terms of payment for the breakfast.
And my willing ear and pleasant smile is all she wanted.
A few years later I’m hauling cows to Sioux City.
Traveling on that same road, and I see this little cemetery about a mile from Esther’s farm place.
So I stop and get out of the truck and see there’s a big pile of dirt there: a new grave.
According to the date, she passed away a month ago.
And there’s a marker for old Ed, and one for the infant. But there’s one for young Tom too.
And it’s dated 1936.
A full year before I went to Iowa to dig potatoes and met Esther.
Young Tom wasn’t in the service at all.
He was laying up there on the hill with the others the whole time.
Now I understand why Esther wouldn’t take my dime.
Why she said I was family.
Old Esther was more lonely than I ever imagined.