A Visit With the Orchard Lady

I met the Orchard Lady when I was nine years old and living in Glendale, Calif. At the time, I was sure that the path to our school went through one of the most enchanting spots in the world. I have never changed my mind about that.

The last quarter-mile of the 2-1/2 mile walk bisected an orchard of fully-grown apricot trees and ended up almost on the front steps of Doran Elementary School. In the spring of the year, when the trees were all in bloom, this became a walk in a paradise garden.

The two-block garden-orchard was fenced along the sides, but openings had been left in either end to provide access for the owners, who lived in a frame cottage in the center.

The entire property was beautifully and strangely laid out. Here and there were open spaces where trees had been omitted and round beds of orange cannas and purple statice had been planted instead. All about the house bloomed simple, homey flowers: lilies, yellow daisies, and red geraniums.

The trees, when in blossom, were bedecked like brides. Their lacy whiteness combined with the brilliant colors of the other flowers to present a dazzling scene. The scent was spicy and sweet.

The open ends of the lot provided a shortcut that was too much of a temptation for schoolchildren. Hundreds of young feet had beaten a track from one side to the other.

''Isn't it nice of them,'' I asked Mama, ''to let us kids walk through their orchard every day?''

''Well, y'all be careful. If they tell you to get out, you get.'' She paused. ''They just might not enjoy having a bunch of noisy kids trooping right past their door, morning and afternoon.''

But they did enjoy it. At least the woman did. I thought of her as the Orchard Lady. Every day she stood shyly behind her screen door and watched us kids walking by.

She had gray hair braided over the top of her head and always wore a flowered housedress. Sometimes she raised her hand in a tentative wave.

I waved back.

The man seldom appeared. That is, entirely appeared. He was occasionally glimpsed, feet sticking out from under an old Dodge truck, upon which he seemed to be perpetually working.

Once in a while I heard them say something to each other, but I paid no attention to their words. Only one time did I hear them speak to someone else, and that was to me.

I was often late going home along the little path, for I enjoyed staying after school to help my teacher clean up our room. I got to erase the blackboards and beat together the erasers with great chalky flourishes. The time the Orchard Lady spoke to me was one of those late afternoons.

I was strolling past the house, admiring the flowers and the apricot blossoms, as I usually did, when suddenly she opened the screen door and stepped out. She had on an apron and was holding a plate of cookies.

The smell of sugar and vanilla came out with her. She held the plate toward me.

''Hello. Would you like some cookies?''

I stopped, remembering that my parents had warned me about strangers. But the Orchard Lady didn't seem like a stranger. I had been walking through her garden for a long time.

''I'm Mrs. Truax,'' she said. ''And that's Mr. Truax there, under the truck.'' I saw the feet beneath the Dodge move a little.

I smiled. This was going to be all right. Now I knew the Orchard Lady. ''My name is Betsy Ann. I go to Doran School.''

''Yes, I know. I've seen you many times, with the other children.'' She came slowly toward me, still holding out the plate. ''I brought these out for my husband, but there are so many. I thought you might like some.''

I took one. ''Thanks,'' I said and bit into it.

''Father!'' Mrs. Truax called toward the truck. ''Father! Won't you come out and have some cookies?''

I saw the heels of Mr. Truax dig into the dirt as he wriggled out from under the Dodge. He sat up, blinking in the bright sun. Then he stood up.

I realized it was the first time I had ever seen the top of him. He wore a dirty white coverall, like the men who work in gas stations. He had shaggy brown hair that was tied back by a bandanna handkerchief. His eyes were bright blue.

''Father, won't you wash your hands at the hose there, and then have some nice cookies?''

Mr. Truax washed his hands and his face and dried them on a towel hanging on a stake near the hose. His face and hands still had oil smeared on them when he finished.

''Oh well,'' said his wife. ''I guess that's good enough. We can get the rest off later.''

He took a cookie. I took another.

''These are certainly delicious,'' I said.

''Yes, Mother,'' said her husband. ''You outdid yourself today.''

I looked toward the house. I had never seen any Truax children around. ''Are your children grown up?''

''No, dear.'' She smiled sadly. ''Gone.'' She sighed. ''Gone. Long ago.''

''We only had the one,'' said Mr. Truax. He turned and drank from the hose and disappeared under the truck again.

''Because of her, we keep the garden open for the children,'' Mrs. Truax added.

What was I supposed to say? I thought I should say something, but I could only come up with: ''Well, I've got to be going. My mama is expecting me. Thank you for the cookies.'' Then I pitched my voice toward the feet under the truck. ''Goodbye, Mr. Truax.''

I heard a faint reply. ''Good-bye, Miss Betsy.''

''Goodbye, Mrs. Truax.''

''I'll see you tomorrow, dear.''

At the last moment I had another thought. ''And thank you for keeping the garden open.''

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