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“Hemlock Stories” by Ira Briggs

The Tragedy

By Ira Briggs

10 March 2015

Jane Barnard, a woman of retirement age and member of the Hemlock Baptist Church, was of singular grace and steadfast tranquility, due to her abiding faith in the Lord.

Jane and little Joan Knapp, an easily excitable single mother of twenty-five years, were best of friends. They were both very active in the church’s curriculum and shared the duties of the church’s domestic up keep. The church shone with the glow of Murphy’s Oil Soap and their service.

One of the responsibilities that Joan took exceptional pride in was the hand washing and ironing of the church flags. The American flag stood in its stand to the left of the pulpit and the church flag stood on the right. These flags were made of the finest satin. The church flag was white with a white cross sewn into its upper left hand corner over a square blue satin background. The perimeter was edged with gold fringe. To Joan, this flag represented everything that was good and pure. She would hand wash it, along with the flag of our country, and hang them inside her home to begin drying. After setting her iron’s adjustments to lukewarm heat, she would carefully iron the flags while they were still damp.

Joan and her seven-year-old daughter, Ruth, lived alone in a modest home on the well traveled County Road 37. Having sole responsibility of an active youngster created an anxiousness in Joan that couldn’t be relieved by her faith in God.

Joan would often warn Ruth not to ride her bike past the driveway’s end. Unable to resist the temptation, Ruth ventured past the permitted boundary and rode her bike a short way along the highway’s edge, as did the older, more seasoned children. While Joan made her usual four o’clock trek to the mailbox, she discovered her daughter’s whereabouts. Her frantically screamed instructions to return to the driveway immediately startled the child. Ruth steered her bike into traffic to turn around, and the impact of Holly Short’s vehicle killed the girl instantly.

Holly was a fellow church member, but from that day forward, Joan ceased all activity there and publicly made derogatory remarks to the effect that Holly was to blame for her daughter’s death. The unwarranted guilt that Holly herself felt over the incident was eased by the support of the community and her knowledge, gained through Jane, that Joan, too, was suffering with her own self recriminations. The only good to result from the tragedy was heightened public awareness and unity amongst the believers. They all prayed that in time the two women would find an inner peace and forgiveness. In the meantime Jane took on the duty of caring for the church flags, longing wholeheartedly for the return of her best friend.

This was not to be, for just two years following the devastating accident, Jane received an unsettling visit from an emotionally distraught Holly. Jane was ironing the church flag at the time, and the news shocked her. Joan was dead. A truck/car accident at the intersection of Richmond Mills Road and County Road 37 had called Joan home. The crash was just three miles from her daughter’s death site. As the two women wept together, the unattended iron slowly scorched the pure white satin of the flag.

To this day, that flag still stands to the right of the pulpit, the triangular shaped scorch mark partially hidden within the fold of satin.

Editor’s Note: Ira Briggs is a well digger, writer and Arc Living Skills Assistant and a University of Rochester employee who hails from Hemlock. He writes short stories from his memories of the people and events of Hemlock NY.