Miss Hester at the bridge
THE water drainage system in Waldburg was pretty limited to one major stream which bisected Main Street. It was fed by tiny contributing ditches, which swelled into creeks in the spring. And, oh, in the spring! Gertie and Mary and I would meet at the corner at noon for the walk back to school. At that particular corner several ditches converged and flowed under a little wooden bridge that was part of an old board sidewalk. It was an ideal place to launch little chips of wood upon the flood. We could look between the boards of the walks and see the flowing waters channeling toward the bridge and the main ditch. At the bridge we would lie flat, our noses pressed against the damp wood the while the water gushed and swirled beneath us. The Mississippi at floodtide could not have been more exciting, and the ''ships'' we set sailing were wondrously laden, in our imaginings, with cargo more exotic than any ever loaded in the Orient! It was such a comedown to have to admit to our teachers that our tardiness was not due to some high enterprise of great moment, but just to high waters.
There was a guardian of the bridge, who must be thanked for the fact that we arrived at school at all. Her name was Hester Quinlin, Miss Hester Quinlin, and her home stood just beside the bridge. It was a large, old, white clapboard home with a turret, and a great porch which encircled two sides. I remember the vivid blue painted on the ceiling of that porch, and the immaculate gray of its painted floor.
Hester lived with her aged mother and supported the two of them by sewing; she was an excellent seamstress, who did magical things with silks and laces and braids. She had a loving way of stroking silks, and, I suppose, it was the roughened fingers that produced that delicious, scratchy sound as if each thread in the fabric had been plucked. I associated the gesture with the creative process. Hester's flaming red hair was piled high upon her head in wavy masses, and how I admired those tresses as she knelt to pin Mother's dress hems. The pins were held in a curving row in her closed lips, where they were readily available as she worked. And best of all, she could cut threads on her eyeteeth with twist and a twang. That was real professional expertise, in my book!
It was in the spring that Hester's life, which was normally self-contained and relatively placid, took on a new responsibility and purpose. Not only was she anxious, and rightly so, about the possibility of a flooded basement, but there were those little rascals who persisted in playing so dangerously close to the flooded waters at the edge of her yard. I'm sure it was her faithful watch that prevented more than the occasional sleeves wet above the elbow, lost mittens, and a few duckings.
For hours when children were en route to and from school, Hester clutched her old, gray shawl about her shoulders and mounted watch upon her battlements. Like a Flaming Red Queen she stood guard in the wind, overseeing our play. While we squealed with delight, Hester watched with a mixture of amusement and apprehension, fully aware that four feet of water is treacherous as well as marvelous fun. ''That's the idea, Mary, toss the stick way out into the water. No, Joey, don't go so close to that rail; now watch your step there; and put that mitten in your pocket, Annie, or it will fall into the water! Jerry, keep back, keep back - now you've lost your rubber! Don't try to reach it! Jerry! All right now, you've had your fun. Do you hear that bell? I think it's the last bell! Better scoot now, 'cause you are already late!''
So her somewhat strident voice rose and fell with the urgency of her direction as she cajoled, coaxed, and reprimanded us through yet another flood season. Then one day I happened to come along, alone, at an off hour, and there stood Miss Hester, a few stray locks of hair escaping their orderly arrangement and streaming in the wind. With a smile of excitement upon her face, she was leaning far out over the porch rail. Her gaze was intent upon the waters tumbling and churning down the ditch. As I silently watched, Miss Hester broke off a stick she was holding, and with a graceful toss she committed the stick to the stream. Then another and another. There was so much grace and even gusto in her action that I've always wondered if she, too, welcomed the breaking of winter's bonds, and if she, too, responded to the primal stimulus of spring.