Friday, August 14, 2009

Josephine Weber and Her Trees

Now that I’ve shown you what that big Norway spruce looked like coming down, I’ll tell you a little about the history of those trees.

As far as my personal experience is concerned, the tremendous conifers across the street from Grandma’s house were basically, “always there.” Everyone in our family enjoyed the view out the front windows of the house, because it was like a forest of spruces—very Old World and Germanic, it seemed to me. As a child I enjoyed collecting the cones from the sidewalk—and then discovered I didn’t particularly enjoy having my fingers covered with sticky sap.

Dad mentioned that he has always enjoyed the special sound the wind makes when it blows through conifer needles—from both the Norway spruces and the big pine tree just east of them, in the same yard. Thus they provide not only some shade to our front yard in late afternoons, but also a quiet music as the wind blows.

When you look at aerial photographs of this town taken during the last half of the twentieth century, it’s easy to locate the corner of Broadway and Elm by the big dark green patch of the massive conifers.

Wanting to learn more about the history of these trees, I talked to my Mom and Dad, since they both were born and grew up in direct sight of the yard at 601 Broadway, where these trees are.

The little house, on the southeast corner of Broadway and West Elm, is one of the oldest homes in the area still standing. My dad’s maternal grandparents rented a room in the simple, one-story house in the 1880s when they first came over from Germany and before they built the house next door to it at 215 W. Elm (and then made two other homes across the street, including the one I live in today). (Long story.)

Somewhere in there, Caroline Weber, a German immigrant and widow, and her daughter, Josephine, came to own the house at 601 Broadway; after her mother died at the age of 96 in 1933, Josephine stayed on and lived there, alone, practically her whole life.

But she wasn’t exactly alone. My mom and dad remember her as an incredibly nice neighbor lady. A tremendous Cardinals fan (she listened to each game on her kitchen radio), she understood how baseballs from the neighbor kids’ games, played out in the middle of the street, naturally could end up in her strawberry bed, or in her beans and tomatoes, and she tolerated the kids stepping carefully into her garden to retrieve their stray balls.

In addition to her strawberry patch and garden, Miss Josephine had a cistern, a well in her backyard, and she made fantastic angel food cakes in her little bitty kitchen and sold them to people “uptown.” Since her baking utilized only the egg whites and thus orphaned dozens of egg yolks, she occasionally called across Elm Street to have my grandma send one of her boys over to pick up a Mason jar full of the bright orange yolks.

This was during the Depression and World War II, so you know nothing was going to waste. My grandma made custards and super-omelets with the yellow bounty. And my dad still talks about what it felt like to carry those glass jars across the street. He says it was like grasping a jar full of squishy golden eyeballs.

(There’s a picture, huh?!)

My dad also remembers all the other goodies she baked—cookies, rosettes with powdered sugar sprinkled on them, and so on—as well as her nifty pet canary that sang constantly, and her devotion to the Cards. She was happy to chat with neighbor kids about baseball heroes Stan Musial, Marty Marion, and Enos Slaughter. No wonder she was so popular!

What a great neighbor, huh? She was in her fifties during this time.

I am trying to remember if I ever knew her, or if she had gone on to live and die at the St. Joseph’s Home by the time I came along and was old enough to have a clue about anything.

One thing is for sure, her house and its forest of trees have become almost an archetypical landscape in my consciousness. It is like a tiny gingerbread house in a deep Alpine forest, which has no witch—instead, it had been the home of a genuinely kind lady. (Such women used to be called spinsters, or old maids . . .)

And big pines are certainly uncommon around these parts. Shortleaf pine forests once dominated the southern part of Missouri, but they were gone long before I was born. And spruce trees are unusual, as well; I don’t think any are native to the state. So Josephine Weber’s stately conifers created a miniature boreal forest here on Elm Street, something that feels very different from the scrubby, jungley oak-hickory woods around here.

I asked my folks about the trees—the pine and the two spruces—and they consulted with each other and looked at old photographs. The pine tree’s definitely the oldest, and the two “matching” spruces are apparently different ages. A photo my mom took in 1954, with her brand new Argus camera, shows all three conifers: The pine is biggest, the spruce that was just cut down was in the middle (in terms of both location and size), and the other spruce, which still survives, is on the other side of the walkway.

Mom has a painting she made of Miss Josephine and her house and trees, which dates to about 1949, and it shows the trees even smaller. So we’re guessing the spruces were planted in the 1940s. The pine tree is certainly older.

Both my folks remember Miss Josephine stressing out, in later years, with fears that rowdy neighborhood kids might play with fire beneath her big trees on Halloween night and accidentally ignite them in a spectacular blaze. And yeah, there used to be a huge carpet of pine needles under there. I guess she tried to rake them up each year as October drew to a close.

After Miss Josephine passed away—in the 1960s, I guess—her house was remodeled at some point and became a hair salon by the 1980s. It was still a beauty parlor (“Sil-o-ette”) in 2001 when we bought Grandma’s house. The salon and its people were good neighbors to us; they specialized in old ladies’ cuts. All day long, sedans would pull up to the corner and “little old ladies” would work their way out of the cars and onto the sidewalk, and shuffle carefully up the steps to the front door, while their husbands found street parking somewhere and waited.

But a few years ago, the salon owners decided to call it quits, and after a few other enterprising hair stylists have tried and failed, and after a half-assed exterior paint job with an icky orangish color of paint . . . the little house now sits vacant, needing tuck-pointing, wanting someone who will care.

Obviously, this memoir is about much more than just some big ol’ trees. It’s about the memory of a single woman who died long ago but whose memory deserves to live on, despite her lack of biological progeny. The trees in her backyard have been hinting reminders of her life, but now they, too, are starting to go.

So I don’t know. It just seemed important to say something.

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