March 04, 1994|By BRUCE CAUDLE

EASTON — Easton. -- My father, John Wilson, was the last of nine barefoot children running through the backwoods in the Virginia Appalachian foothills near Lynchburg, in the shadow of Mill Mountain beneath the Blue Ridge. My mother came from a German brewing family in East Baltimore. I have a photograph of her, a serious tomboy with severe brown bangs, frowning and squinting into the sun, her face smudged and her eyes troubled. Later pictures show the duckling a peroxide swan, a vivacious flirt in Atlantic City, clowning on the rolling chairs, doing the Charleston.

She was working at her Aunt Ada's saloon on North Avenue when John Wilson came knocking after hours and would not take no for an answer. He married Mary Elizabeth and swept her away to the Chesapeake shore, where photographs show them young, healthy and in love, searching for shells in the Betterton dusk, the fading orange light behind them dancing on the bay. The war separated them, but postcards he wrote her from the Isle of Capri survive. Each one says the same thing: the Blue Grotto is lovely, but it pales by your eyes. When he came home he built a house for her in Glen Burnie, on the banks of the Furnace Branch, with a breezeway and a porch swing, and weeping willows in the yard. I have a photograph.

In the 1980s my mother developed Altzheimer's. She misplaced things and angered easily, got lost in shopping malls trying to find the bathroom. She would sit on a bench and cry until my father came. Soon she referred to him as ''that handyman who fixes things'' and kept him awake all night, prowling the house and muttering about the ''poor dear little animals,'' her hair gone white and wild, her eyes desperate.

I watched my father sitting in his Plymouth outside the nursing home we put her in, gunning his engine and wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Later he would go faithfully and feed her lunch, take her for walks with the flowers blooming under a brilliant sun in the bluest of skies, the bright autumn of his life with her stolen away by a thief that could not be seen.

At the end Mary Elizabeth could only say ''kitty cat,'' and kiss the faces that bent down to her, that she used to know but would never know again. John Wilson never stopped caring for her, the shell of the pretty barmaid he loved for so long, the inner woman having fled and left him alone.

I can still see, when I look into my mother's eyes, the flapper dancing by the Steel Pier; and the little tomboy with a dirty face and sad frown, on Gay Street with a bow in her hair.

We are only echoes of laughter in the summer night, when crabs were cracked on picnic tables stained with Old Bay, and Rolling Rock and Natty Boh. Nights when the sea crashed by the boardwalks in Rehobeth and Bethany, filled with the creak of the boats shifting in the harbors of Tolchester and Rock Hall. When the fire flies blinked in the magic silence broken by the rhythmic buzz of swamp peepers, when my mother and father sat in plastic lawn chairs under the weeping willows; whispering in the darkness of love and hope, and listening completely to the music of the earth.

Bruce Caudle is a free lance.

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