“This is a new recipe,” my grandmother said, setting a pan of pastry down on the table in front of me and my great-aunt Gertie. “Tell me what you think.” At 80, my grandmother, Loretta “Rita” Shultz, was as fearless as ever, always trying new things. I wished I had her confidence. “Tell me again about that time you got lost in the woods, Gram,” I said while she dished out our dessert.
Gram and Aunt Gertie shared a conspiratorial smile. I’d heard the story a million times, but how they loved to tell it. “Well,” said Gram, settling into her chair. “It was 1923 . . .”
“Late summer,” said Gertie.
Gram nodded. “The corn was almost ready for harvest. Gertie and our sister Elizabeth went to get the cows back into the barn for the night. Even though I was two years old and not allowed to go, I followed right behind my older sisters anyway.”
“We didn’t know she was tagging along,” said Gertie, who was only five herself at the time. But five was old enough in those days. In the farmlands of Pennsylvania, everyone did her share of work either in the fields or with the chickens, horses and pigs. “When the cows were back in the barn, Elizabeth and I washed up for supper. We all sat down at the table—even baby Tony was in his high chair, but little Rita wasn’t there.” Gertie looked out into the distance, remembering, I suspect, the kitchen back on the family farm, and her mother’s worried face as she asked, “Has anyone seen Rita?”
“We shook our heads,” said Gertie. “Then everybody jumped up from the table and started hunting everywhere for Rita. Mom called the neighbors and Dad searched the barns. When no one could find her we realized that Rita had to be out alone in the woods.”
“Where were you, Gram?” I asked.
Gram finished a bite of pastry and sipped her tea, drawing out the story. “I couldn’t see Elizabeth and Gertie ahead of me in the tall grass, so when they headed down the lane I kept walking straight into the woods thinking that I was following along behind them,” she said. “But I wasn’t, and I got lost. I was wearing a summer dress, and it got cold when the sun went down. I hollered for my mother, but no one answered.”
“We cried all night back at home,” Gertie said. “Dad came to tell Mom they had closed all the coal mines so the miners could form a search party. The miners marched through the woods beside the farmers, so close that their hands almost touched each other, beating the bushes and tall grass.”
“A priest came to sit with Mom in the kitchen to comfort her. He lit a candle, and we all prayed for God to send Rita’s guardian angel to stay with her until the men could find her,” Gertie said.
“So what happened?” I asked, reaching for another piece of pastry.
“Early the next morning I woke up and heard someone calling my name,” said Gram. “I stood up and brushed off my dress, which was quite dirty from sleeping on the ground. Mom didn’t like it when I got my clothes dirty. Then, through the trees, I saw our neighbor Mr. Gray standing there. ‘There she is! he called out. Mr. Gray scooped me up and wrapped me in his warm coat. He carried me all the way home—over a mile away—and up the back porch steps.”
“It was about eight o’clock in the morning,” Gertie said, picking up the tale. “Mom flew outside and grabbed up little Rita into her arms.”
“She was so happy to see me,” Gram broke in, “she didn’t even scold me for following you, Gertie.”
“All us kids clapped and cheered,” said Gertie. “Dad said, ‘Let’s have a corn roast to celebrate! Mom sat Rita on her lap and held her close. She said, ‘Rita, baby, weren’t you scared? Rita just shook her head and smiled.”
Gram was smiling now just at the memory of it.
“No, I wasn’t scared,” she said. “A pretty lady with wings stayed with me all night and kept me warm. I don’t think she has ever left my side, not once through my whole life.”
I guess that explained where Gram got her confidence.