Gertrude’s Gifts

by Jennifer E. Tirrell

Aunt Gertrude was my father’s eldest sister. She came to visit us from time-to-time, but she never stayed long. Uncle Nate was kind, but anti-social, and waited in the car while my Aunt came in for her visit. Aunt Gertrude was very plain, with short white hair, brown eyes and a smile that looked like the one I saw in the mirror. She never failed to send me a birthday message, usually written in a simple note card with a bluebird on the front, or a cardinal, or maybe a flower. On the inside she would write to me about the birds that came to her feeder, and other quiet happenings in and around her yard in the town of Cohasset, on the South Shore of Boston. I knew she cared about me, and because she was connected to the father I never knew, I was very interested in her. When I was asked if I would like to stay with her for a week during summer vacation, I said “yes.”

I had never been to their house before, and I felt strange at first, being an insecure child; never truly knowing where I belonged. My parents had died when I was very young. A change-of-life baby, I had siblings who were quite a bit older. The oldest, a sister, soon adopted me and I became part of a new family which included several additional “siblings.” As I grew, I struggled to understand my place in the new order, sensing that I belonged, yet didn’t belong. I was now a daughter to my sister, a sister to my nieces and nephews, and somehow still a sister to my natural brother and sister, who had children of their own.

Butterflies swirled in my stomach as we pulled into the treelined driveway and I caught a glimpse of their tall, straight, house. Once inside, I followed closely as we zig zagged through what I thought might be their living room. My mind grappled with what my eyes were seeing; bookcases overflowing with books, antique furniture pieces randomly placed, dishes and knick-knacks squeezed onto every surface. Only later would I learn how special these treasures were, each piece carefully researched and selected.

We came to a staircase, which was narrow and steep, and my Aunt waved me upwards. “Your bedroom is the one on the right.” The stairs creaked as I climbed and when I got to the landing I waited, uncertain. “Go on. It’s that one.” She was watching from below, pointing, so I turned and stepped into the room. Whitewashed walls were lit by sunlight that streamed in through two wide windows framed with crisp cotton curtains. There were little balls on the trim, I noticed. The bed was covered in a faded yellow quilt. Beside the bed was a book. Curious, I put my bag down and picked the book up for a minute before heading back down.

“Do you like to read, Jenny?” My Aunt was leading me through the maze to the porch, a screened room about 8’ wide with a daybed in one corner. “This is where I like to read. Maybe you’ll try it.” I nodded my head and looked at the bed. Soft, worn pillows were lined across the back in rose-covered fabric. I loved to read but never had enough books. I re-read books over and over, including the 3 encyclopedias of short stories my new parents kept on the bookshelf in our living room. I had read Little Women at least five times already, and it never got old. “I left a book on your bedside table,” said Aunt Gertrude. “It’s one of my favorites.” We passed a small cherry desk and I ran my fingers along the surface. “Your Dad used to sit at this desk and do his homework. That’s him, there, in the picture.” She picked up a small black and white photo and I saw a young man on the bow of a sailboat. After I looked at it for a minute, she turned. “Let’s go out and pick some pears off the old pear tree.”

I climbed up the rickety ladder and she handed me a broom stick attached to a jagged-topped coffee can. “Just find a pear and put the can around it, Jenny. Let the sharp edges cut it off. It will fall right into the can.” It worked. I was amazed. Next Aunt Gertrude and I walked to the edge of her large back yard and at the base of a really big tree, she showed me a hole. “This tree has been here for more than 100 years,” she said, “and there is a family of bunnies living here now. If we wait very quietly, we may see one come out of this hole.” She pointed to the base of the tree and I saw a dark spot. We crouched together on the grass, a little ways away and were silent together for a long time. It felt good just to wait and not have to talk. Our patience was rewarded and my heart leapt as a black nose peeked out of the hole! It was such a thrill to see that little bunny.

Later, with nothing to do, I picked up the book she had left in my room. Anne of Green Gables was the title. As quietly as the stairs allowed, I made my way to the porch. A gentle wind rustled the leaves on the trees, competing with the breeze from the tick of the fan. I pulled a worn afghan up over my bare legs, then, leaning back against the pillows, I began to read.

Anne was an orphan. I was an orphan, too. My father died in a canoe accident several months before I was born. When I was 3 years old, my mother dropped her car keys and fell out of the car onto the ground suffering a fatal aneurysm. I was left sitting alone on the front seat until help arrived. Anne’s parents died of typhoid fever. She was left alone in the world without any other relations. Our lives were quite different, of course, but Anne and I had a lot in common. It helped to read of Anne’s struggles. I liked to read how even the hard things always worked out for the best. I saw how she attached to her new parents, but that they still fought and had to work through their differences. Anne had a bosom buddy, Diana. I thought about my best friend back home. Pausing after reading the words ‘kindred spirit,” I wondered if I had a kindred spirit, too. What a lovely week of imagining. I was hooked. I read the whole series during the week, and I was gifted with the first edition set of books when I left. Over the years, she gifted me with other books like Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost, The Little Colonel series, and Dear Enemy. They are treasured possessions to me now.

I think Aunt Gertrude left that particular book on the bedside table in the little room at the top of the creaky staircase on purpose. Maybe, on her visits to our house, she noticed that I seemed a little lost. Maybe she was my kindred spirit, and perceived that she could offer me something that would ease the turmoil in my young world. She invited me to her home, and gave me rest. She did not often use words, but instead, used her actions to teach and guide.

That week when I was 10 years old she showed me how peace and wisdom reveal themselves in simplicity and quiet. She opened up the world of old books and the sweet purity of their stories. She taught me to slow down as I read, and to take time to breathe in the wonderfully musty scent that rose up as I turned the pages very slowly and carefully. She showed me how to sit quietly by old trees and listen and watch for miracles. Through her storytelling, family heirlooms came alive. Best of all, she taught me that I can find my smile in someone else’s face and feel belonging.