The following story chronicles my mother Anna LaVerne Guthrie Bomar’s early life before she married my father Irvin Keagy. I used family bible entries and dates to tell the stories she told me over and over. I wrote this first one “Indigo Stain” sitting at a Secretary Desk I inherited from her which has an ink stain on it’s blotter surface. The fountain pen in the story was in a cookbook I got from my mother-in-law, Mabel Howell Wilks, who says it wasn’t hers. Copyright: 2000 irvana Keagy Wilks.
Indigo Stain – Anna LaVerne Guthrie Bomar
A woman with soft auburn hair pulled a chair up to the secretary-desk and sat down. She draped her winter coat over her shoulders like a cape because the bitter February wind seeped through the cracks in the little house and her hands were bone cold. The black dress she wears under the coat sucked life from her pretty face. Black was not her color.
As the grey afternoon light filtered through the parlor windows, she listened for rustling from the bedroom. Her sons nap on her bed. The youngest, Norman, who just turned one, slept soundly. Her ten-year-old, Charles, sniffles. When she peeked in. He pretended to sleep.
Anna LaVerne Guthrie Bomar braced for the task of writing the letters which would inform her loved ones her husband had died. She preferred to be called LaVerne. How could someone so young live a lifetime in widowhood?
She lifted the roll-top of the desk, its burled walnut patina, dust free. After LaVerne and Nolan’s wedding, on a dreadfully hot August day, in the Year of Our Lord 1921, her grandmother gave LaVerne the heirloom, their first piece of furniture. Decades earlier, it had traveled cross-country to her grandparents’ farm near Arkansas City, Kansas.
The secretary-desk stood seven feet tall with an upper cabinet containing shelves for books and the Holy Bible, protected by two locking glass breakfront doors. Propping open the roll-top, she saw cubby-hole compartments filled with letters and notes.
The desk surface had a glued-in paper blotter. Below the desk surface were large drawers. Although heavy, LaVerne insisted the secretary-desk be moved to every town the railroad sent Nolan.
Inside the desk’s first, large drawer which stuck as she pulled it open, she placed Nolan’s death certificate and the newspaper obituary. They were stacked next to, but not touching, her sons’ birth certificates. Also in the drawer, stored in a long envelope she removed a lady’s, pearl dipping pen.
One day while cleaning out the secretary, she discovered the pen wedged in a crack in the back of a drawer. She wrote to see who it belonged to, but her grandmother replied she didn’t have such a nice pen.
LaVerne twirled the pearl pen between her fingers. Its gold nib and grip had residues of ink which she tried unsuccessfully to soak off. The pearl body of the pen caught the afternoon light as though an illuminated soul inhabited it. She had never studied the pen nib before. With a magnifying glass she kept for small print ads and threading needles, she peered at the stamping on the nib: E. S. Johnson & Co., Warrant, New York. She realized the pen — like the desk at which she sat — had a past.
From cubbyholes she removed a bottle of indigo ink, a strip of blotter paper and the old handkerchief she used when ink smeared her fingers. She positioned a sheet of blue notepaper at just the right angle and pondered how to begin.
LaVerne regretted her vanity-steeped, earlier missives to her loved ones. She would sit at the secretary-desk, proud of her graceful penmanship, writing boastful letters about how the railroad took care of its men.
Rather than write to her grandmother and Aunt Laura about Nolan’s death, she needed two days to sew the black, straight-line chemise she wore to the brief church service that morning. Between weeping, sewing and feeding Norman and Charles, she prayed about their future, about her choices.
Pen in hand, she wondered why life tested her, punished her for being happy and loving so thoroughly. She loved Nolan with a whole heart and for that she was being brought down.
Her own mother Allie Guthrie died of tuberculosis when LaVerne was eight. LaVerne was an only child. Her father Jim married a widow woman who had a daughter of her own. Her stepmother kept a willow-tree switch in a cupboard to whip LaVerne about something almost every day.
One day, after school, LaVerne was given a banana to eat. Her stepmother said she stole it and whipped LaVerne’s legs until they bled. That night when her father came home from work, instead of holding her and banishing the stepmother and the girl who lied about the banana, the father chose their sides. The stepmother wanted LaVerne sent away. Her father Jim had agreed and took LaVerne to an out of town Catholic orphanage.
That betrayal had been profound. It would haunt her father who one day would ask for forgiveness for sending her away. As he was dying, he pleaded with her, but LaVerne could not even feel sad at his death and could not forgive him. She made herself a promise that if she were ever a stepmother, she would be kind to the children and the memory of the dead person or in divorce, the spouse still alive.
Her Grandmother Guthrie and Aunt Laura Guthrie had driven their horse and buggy to the Catholic orphanage where LaVerne had been dropped off with nothing but one picture of her mother and a bag of clothes. Her grandmother and aunt rescued her. LaVerne’s grandfather had passed away years earlier, leaving his wife and sister to run a farm outside Arkansas City, Kansas.
With LaVerne, there were three. They hired men to plow their fields, to plant and harvest the wheat. LaVerne attended local schools. She did chores, milking cows, gathering eggs, shooting rabbits, planting gardens and cooking, which she loved.
Nolan arrived in Arkansas City on a steeplejack crew, brought there to build a steeple on the new Presbyterian Church. From his perch he watched LaVerne, driving the horse and buggy first to morning class at a secretarial school and then to the church where she was learning to quilt.
Climbing from his ladder one day, he boldly introduced himself. His smooth southern charm disarmed her, and then he announced he was courting her. LaVerne was sixteen; Nolan, twenty-six when they met. She loved him so much she surrendered her soul to him.
After one Sunday supper, when Nolan returned to his room in town, LaVerne confided in her grandmother and aunt that he asked her to marry him. The following day, washday, LaVerne and Aunt Laura hung wet sheets on a clothesline swaying in the hot, Kansas wind. Aunt Laura paused. Her gift of divination was admired and her advise sought by superstitious neighbors who believed in such things.
“You will have an interesting life,” her aunt predicted. Being young and in love, LaVerne took the words, at first, to mean she would have good luck, but then she saw the sorrow in her aunt’s eyes and looked away.
Just before their wedding day, Nolan’s father from Memphis, Tennessee, wrote him a letter, disinheriting him if he took a Yankee bride. Nolan was one of twins and his other brother Nobel stayed home and married Southern. But Nolan laughed them off, especially his mother. At night he held LaVerne, promising an eternity of love that would overcome her in-laws’ hatred. A golden light shone around him and for eleven years she basked in the glow, because love and luck finally delivered her to such an alluring man.
When LaVerne telegraphed Nolan’s parents in Memphis, she advised them in stiff, brief type that their son had died, but left the manner of his death unstated.
The silence in the house since his death was enormous. She still heard his laughter, his teasing, could smell the Camels he smoked. His grin disarmed her worry over money or her dislike of the tiny house they lived in.
In the Year of Our Lord 1932, LaVerne sat in a little rental house in Cushing, Oklahoma, remembering her aunt’s eyes. An icy draft drifted along the floor boards, around her feet. She shivered. She imagined Nolan in the coffin inside the railcar that would take him back to his home in Tennessee. She would accompany him, taking his body dressed in the suit he wore to get married. The Railroad had sent her a paper for the coffin transport, and three tickets for her and her boys.
She contemplated the letter she owed her Grandmother and Aunt Laura. What truth to tell them? She bragged to those gentle, innocent, God-fearing Protestant women of her lavish city life, of the security she had from a man’s salary.
How does she tell two teetotalers who know nothing of whisky that her husband died from drinking moonshine?
Two days earlier Nolan went to work, kissing her cheek as he left because she was feeding Norman messy cereal. He was a switching agent at the rail yard. At noon he stopped at the boss’s guard shack. Nolan told her he hated how his boss expected him to drink with him, how it sometimes made him sick. She also saw how he liked to fit in and suspected he didn’t protest too much. The moonshine, a peddler’s home brew, had been cooked in a galvanized tub, and after Nolan and his boss downed their drinks the poison began burning slowly into their veins.
Nolan and his boss went to a nearby diner, each became ill and collapsed. Having witnessed men poisoned from bad moonshine before, the cook forced them to drink milk. The rail-yard boss survived. Nolan died on the floor of the diner.
A policeman brought LaVerne the news: Nolan had been taken to a funeral home. The policeman also asked if she wanted to be told when they arrested the moonshine peddler, whose violation of prohibition laws killed her husband. She could attend his trial. At the time she did not understand the policeman’s question, she merely wanted to absorb that Nolan would not be home for dinner. Seeing the face of the one who killed him, would that make it real?
The policeman told her to consider it, and offered to drive her to the funeral home. As he waited, LaVerne bundled up the baby and put on her own coat, silently wondering if this was an elaborate practical joke Nolan was playing on her.
Numb from two days of sadness, LaVerne saw two paths to take. One led back to the farm, to those meager crops in the Dust Bowl of Kansas. Or she and her sons could live with Nolan’s people in Memphis, Tennessee. Two hungry boys, no savings, no job, LaVerne believed Nolan’s death would soften his parents’ loathing of her.
The young woman with auburn hair set her mind. With her sons, she would take Nolan’s body home. As a virtuous, honorable widow, she would move south. She envisioned Nolan’s quarrelsome mother’s heart melting, welcoming the three of them into her home.
This decision made, she must write the two women she loves enough to tell the truth about her husband’s death. LaVerne unscrewed the lid from the nearly empty bottle of ink. She tipped the bottle, immersing the nib. Then the bottle slipped through her cold fingers and the ink spilled. She dabbed at it with the handkerchief, but the cloth was no match for the huge stain soaking into the blotter paper affixed to the desk surface.
Since the desk blotter paper was glued, there was no way to remove and clean it. The desk surface was ruined forever.
Not like the widow’s tears invisibly cramping her heart, this stain was public.
She recalled eating her stepmother’s banana snack, testing her stepmother’s rage, certain her loving father would choose her over the cruel woman and her hateful daughter. Her father’s betrayal hardened LaVerne, and when she let down her guard she fell in love.
Nolan’s death felt like the same depth of betrayal as her father’s.
LaVerne grabbed a square of black cloth left from her sewing to dab at the ink stain. She contemplated the bleeding indigo image as though deciphering a dream. LaVerne saw herself traveling with her sons to Memphis, Tennessee. No matter how she protests her innocence, Nolan’s parents would blame her for his death.
They would give her an ultimatum. Her sons could stay and be raised as southern gentlemen, but she must leave them and never return. The cruelty knocked her off balance for a moment. When she regained her composure, she dismissed the premonition, because she was not like her Aunt Laura, able to predict the future.
One fact she knew. Her lucky, golden charm was in a casket waiting to go home. The great indigo stain on the desk top silently proclaimed that no matter how old she became, life would always extract compensation for the happiness it allowed her.
To warm herself she reached for one of Nolan’s cigarettes. She took a wooden match, struck it and watched the flame burn. Then she held the match and cigarette in her ink-stained fingers. This would be the first time she smoked, looking for Nolan’s smile in the ash cloud curling through her life.
Copyright: Irvana Keagy Wilks 2000 – Published on this web site.