The Intergeneration 2011 Storytelling Contest Winners
CASH PRIZE WINNERS:
click author/title to jump to story:
Rachel R. Hammer – “What It Means to Be Grand”
Anne Hanley – “I Remember”
Lynn R. Hartz – “Grandmother/Granddaughter
Miodrag Kojadinovic´ – “Nostalgia, the Colour of Wine-
JoAnne Potter – “Lighting the Sky”
Robert B. Robeson – “Walking By Faith”
Timothy Elliott Smelser – “Great-Grandfather”
Matt Sundakov – “A Tiny Woman With A Great Heart-
Marion Grace Woolley – “Hush Hush”
Athamadia Baboula – “Footsteps to Freedom”
CERTIFICATE OF DISTINCTION WINNERS:
click author/title to jump to story:
Angelo Ancheta – “Seeds”
Jenny Argante – “Bird-
Roy Chadwick – “Gramps-
A.B. Chesler – “Mama’s Kitchen”
Monique Finley – “Esther’s Garden”
Lisa Hefling – “The Box in The Basement”
Nancy Leinback – “Arising To the Occasion”
Beth Mathison – “I’ll Remember For You”
Elizabeth S.E. McBride – “Summer Cut”
Rolanda Pyle – “A Tribute to Grandparents Raising Their Grandchildren”
I once thought that one became a grandparent by growing large. The Grand Canyon is a large canyon. A grandparent is a large parent.
“No, a grandparent is a parent of your parent, and you can only have four, at the most. Ever. Do the math.” the spoiled girl next door said.
At the time she said this, I only had three out of four, and quickly went down to two when Grandpa died a few days before my eleventh birthday. It wasn’t fair, we decided, my brother Dave and I. And it would probably disrupt our proper development, not having a full set. We had already lost several pets: the kindergarten class hamster, Flower, choked to death on a Barbie shoe on my watch; Dave’s bird, Fred, crushed its skull at full speed against our television screen, a false window. We didn’t have many more chances to be normal as it was.
Scanning the city for possible replacements, we decided that Stanley and Barbara Smith were the best candidates. Church-going folk, they came to family camp every year with their Skyline Nomad trailer, had two miniature schnauzers, Heidi and Lily, well-groomed, grew their own vegetables, and made their own honey. Stanley carved baseball players in balsa wood and went to the shooting range, Barbara did crossword puzzles to completion and knit blue sweaters. There weren’t any children in their lawn chairs on the Astroturf outside the Nomad.
It seemed like a fitting question at the time. “Hello, Stanley Smith. You see, two of our grandparents are dead, and you and Barbara don’t have any kids. You got interesting projects going on at your house, like riding motorcycles and charming bees, and we were hoping, maybe you’d consider having me and Rachel for grandchildren? At least for birthdays and Christmas.”
Stanley, with his red round face, Navy tattoos on leathered arms, and gold capped front teeth, gleamed like a shaft of sun.
“Of course, David! Ha ha! What a thing to ask!”
Later, he told the whole church what my brother had said, and though my face turned red, I was happy and pig-tailed. Stanley had tears in his eyes as he choked on his words, and everyone seemed to understand more about it than we did. They mm-hmmed, their faces dripping. Barbara was a quiet woman, but she smiled from the pew, and nodded, her eyes glistening too.
Stanley and Barbara were grand to us. Better than their word, they sat through soccer games and school plays, we spent hours warming ourselves in front of their woodstove with plates of cookies. Kids talk brag about their old people like the middle aged boast of their children. Stanley flew planes and raced street bikes, Barbara knew how to program computers. We always had the one up. Our hearts burned with pride. David and I grew up. We moved away. Stanley and Barbara sent their love, from afar, and we carried with us the lesson that it was Okay to ask for love and help when you find yourself incomplete.
I started as a teacher. When, one day, a student shattered my classroom window with a fist, my laptop stolen, grades, lesson plans and all, the whistle around my neck blown hoarse, I sought out a Barbara. The high school’s Barbara was Merle, and I collapsed in her doorway in tears. “I got ya back, baby.” She braced me with her encouraging words, and taught me how to teach. I stood taller.
Life led me, later, to medical school. During my first physical exam, I went in to see the patient with my stethoscope in my ears the wrong way. I didn’t hear anything. I went to Dr. Rohren, who gently placed his hand on my back, squinted smiling crows’ feet like Stanley’s, and said, “Rach, you’re gonna hear better like this.”
I honor Stanley and Barbara, and the grandparents I never knew who came before them, and the grand mentors who came after, for saying Yes when they did, for giving the grace of time, for putting a hand at my back, and surrounding me with old stones. Because of them, as I grey with grace, I shall stay alert for the lonely pigtailed girl, the tear streaked teacher with her whistle, for the young doctor with a stethoscope backwards in her ears, so that I may, too, be grand.
I remember my Kansas roots””Great Bend, the place of my birth; Belpre, home hidden in shelter-belts; nearby Zook’s two-room schoolhouse; and after the dust-bowl, my growing-up-years in the farmlands near Cimarron.
I remember the comfort of my ever-so-familiar thumb, the smell of my pointer finger snuggled up to my nose, the endless battles waged to banish both from their settled-in domain.
I remember moving to our gabled turn-of-the-century farmhouse, a dozen magical rooms to explore, the white clapboard siding sheltered by trees on every side, and a long wide porch to face the rising sun.
I remember the seven-year-old terror of the not-yet-known, immobilized, hopelessly peering at rows of lined up yellow school buses, locked into never finding my ride home.
I remember climbing up to the highest platform on the forbidden windmill, and as far as the eye can see, open sky and swaying-in-the-wind glistening golden wheat fields.
I remember a belting snowstorm, drifts twenty feet high, my father rescuing us from the stranded school bus by the ditch, keeping overnight seven-plus-seven rambunctious kids.
I remember rising before dawn to move rows of irrigation pipe””a rhythm of twist-turn-pull apart, pick up and run, shove in, twist-turn and back again””and the principal yelling at my father when we came to school late.
I remember my 12 year-old brother standing on the International Harvester frantically waving his arms, and finding my father, legs trapped and bloody beneath the disks of the plow.
I remember the 35-mile trek to the hospital, my mother driving too fast, my sister holding the leg with protruding bones, and I, the mangled foot.
I remember the days that followed, moving silhouettes of long tractor lines, neighbors and friends joined together, completing the work in our fields.
I remember setting up hurdles round the school track field, my personal joy at jumping so high, pinned-up skirt catching on a nail, deep cuts and bruises exempting me from that dreaded Home Ec fashion show.
I remember 8th grade, Sam Fricke giving me my first-ever box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day””my painfully shy soft spoken “no thank you,” and Miss Welsh scolding me with her eyes””and him tugging at my heartstrings three more years before dancing at my junior prom.
I remember St. Mary’s, my finest dare, the highest risk of detection, “Climb up the bell tower and back down while the nuns are at prayer!” My cousin Patsy and I opening the ceiling trapdoor at the chapel’s exit, quietly braving all 40 steps of the dare.
I remember my mother, her handmade life, her patterned quilts, skeins of colored yarn, fabric pinned and cut with pinking shears, embroidered dishtowels and pillowcases.
I remember her gardens, and the jars of dill pickles, canned peaches, sandhill plum jam, fresh baked pies and cinnamon rolls, pan sprinkled with brown sugar and carameled pecans.
I remember my father dying, the loneliness of my mother, eighteen years of life-without-partner, her Medjugorje vision, the games of Liverpool rummy, all the while hands busy, stitching and sewing.
I remember my mother coming for the winter holidays, visit turned into graceful dying, ten forever precious days filling our home and her gathered clan with never-to-be-forgotten treasures.
She always called me “Granddaughter”
Seldom using my name, Mary Lynn.
But since my name was after her
People knew we were close kin.
When I was young my job
Was flying in the skies
As an airline stewardess
To most people’s surprise.
I had a cute car
that I liked to drive
Back when a 57 T-bird
Made my heart feel alive!
When I’d drive home from flying
Grandma always asked me
To take her to the Diamond
The department store where she liked to be.
Of course, I always agreed
To take her to pay her bills
And we’d eat in their cafeteria
Which was always a special thrill.
Then suddenly I realized
That Grandma didn’t care
Where we went or what we did
As long as the two of us were there.
Grandma never told me
Or confessed that this is true
That what she wanted most of all
Was to ride in the car that was blue!
We’d take the top off
And then it was a convertible.
With wind in our hair
And sun in our eyes
The experience was remarkable!
Oh, Granddaughter, she would say
The next time I came home.
Will you take me to the Diamond?
I don’t want to go alone.
All night she travelled on a rickety train, and now we are getting up early to meet her at the station on a gloomy autumn morning. Whereas my father’s mother lives about a mile away from us, in the same dreary and sad Belgrade’s residential and food processing satellite town, granny-RuÅ¾a comes from the East, where the family originated. She herself does not live in the old bishopric see where I was born “” her sister does “” but stays with my aunt in a newly built industrial and administrative centre nearby and only occasionally goes back to our family mansion, lost in the vineyards on the sunny slopes around the Timok, whose now heavily polluted waters remain forever beautifully clear in my early school holidays memories.
At the station, an electric engine heads a long train of wagons in. Among the few passengers who get off is grandma, radiant with joy. Dad takes the large leather bag from her and she hugs me and tells him to be careful: there is a cake inside. “Mum is still teaching, eh?” asks she as we walk to the car. Later we are all at the table, and I blow at the eleven pink candles on top a heavily coated, deep green birthday cake in the shape of a shamrock. A party for the kids will be on Saturday, so this is a family affair. I got the presents from mum and dad the previous night, after I sulked for having to wait till actual birthday. This evening I may even have a small glass of “young wine” grandma brought, which at this stage is actually just sweet-sour fermenting grape juice, the colour of mom’s coral necklace, and only slightly sparkling. It was pressed five days earlier from the grapes in our own vineyard, although, of course, grandma had to hire people for the picking.
The vineyard, the land, woods, wine cellars, shops, money at the bank, cars, stables with horses, and the family house amidst a large yard with a high wall all around, everything was confiscated long time ago, before I was born, because great-grandfather had fled to England (where the king was). Later, because it had been a part of great-grandmother’s dowry, the house alone was returned, and in a decrepit state, having suffered substantial damage at the hands of the communists. Whimsical and lacking all husbandry, those young men from the highlands could not run the prototype safe world of the green valley. Proclaiming hiring workers as exploitation, and being unable to actually do anything themselves on their collective farms, the few crops that, by the very fruitfulness of nature, did grow they let rot in the fields. The vineyard had grown wild. It took grandma two years after she bought it back from the “people’s chancellery” to bring it to cultivation again. But she did, and it mattered. It had been ours before the tragedy of the war and there it was in the family again.
No revolution can possibly last forever. The young wine at the table told me that. It was a link to my merchant great-great-grandfather, who had built a public fountain in the 1860s. It was an assurance that there was someone who cared to carry the bottle “” and the cake too “” across four hundred kilometers as grandmother did. It brought back memories of warm sun rays, caressing my face as I fly high up in the air on a swing tied to the old cherry tree of the mansion. It smelt of a crispy wind in barley fields. It was freedom from society’s pressure, the right to be different, both as an individual and as a family. And it made me tipsy.
When I tucked myself in to bed and grandma came to wish me goodnight, I knew that as long as I carry that grain of stubborn will I’ll be human.
Mine is a generation that could make no bond with that of our parents in most countries, especially those that have experimented with communism. But some of us were lucky to have had a chance to bridge that gap with our grandparents. Even now, though very old, my grandmother writes me long, wise and loving letters from across the ocean which help me get through the exile to the Canadian Pacific. Cares about me. Shares my joy when I get scholarships to escape from the country she never left. And I still like my wine rosÃ©, semi-sweet, and slightly sparkling.
Miodrag Kojadinovic is a Serbian-Canadian academic researcher, poet/writer, translator/interpreter, working towards finalizing his Ph.D. thesis in Anthropology, but he prefers doing fieldwork in faraway places, travelling for fun, surfing the Net, writing, and occasionally teaching at universities. His 190+ pieces of writing have appeared in anthologies, academic and literary journals, and magazines in English, Serbian, Dutch, Slovene and Hungarian in Canada, Serbia, the US, India, China, Holland, England, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Croatia.
“Enough sitting around,” Dad announced, pushing himself out of the couch. It was the summer of 2003 and we had all come to Reno to celebrate Dad’s 80th birthday. We were in the mood to indulge him.
“What do you want to do, Dad?”
“We are going to raft down the Truckee this afternoon.” Characteristically, he didn’t wait for a response, but began to gather up his khaki shorts and deck shoes. He didn’t see anything odd about an elderly man with limited agility and degrading vision attempting whitewater rapids. But then, he never did.
Maggie looked at him with customary delight. Her eyes shone when she exclaimed, “Oh, John, what fun!”
That’s all it took. That’s all it ever took. Maggie, my stepmother, did what no one else had ever done. She truly loved my dad. She orbited his bright glow like an adoring Io around Jupiter””constant, puzzling, and beautiful. We never understood why she loved our eccentric father, but she did. Oh, she absolutely did.
So five of us piled into the oversize rubber raft that day””three generations. My son Bryan, a strapping college boy, could do most of the steering. My brother, Frank, and I would mind the parents. We three younger shipmates shoved off with trepidation; Dad and Maggie jittered with excitement. Bryan and Frank handled the paddles on either side while I sat within arm’s reach of both senior citizens.
Mountain terrain glided serenely by: stately pines and towering rock strata that recalled impossible mythic beasts. Birds called in chirps and squawks. We dragged our fingers through the water against the river bottom’s stones worn smooth by rushing snowmelt. Over an hour passed. Then Bryan’s face clouded and he leaned over. “Listen,” he said.
It sounded only like distant traffic noise at first, a low rumble that grew to a roar as we rounded the next bend. The rocks that had obediently hidden themselves in the upper river here rose up and erupted through its surface. The river boiled up in bubbles and foam we knew only hinted at the turbulence below, and our boat began to pick up speed. Steering couldn’t keep us between the rocks, and we careened over some, lurching left, then right, then left again.
“Look out!” cried Frank, as we crested a big one, raising up in midair, then coming down with a crash. Just as the boat fell, so did Maggie, landing face up in the boat’s bottom. The rapids still had us imprisoned by foam and rock and I could reach her, but she couldn’t sit up again amid all the pitching.
“Hold on, Maggie,” I urged. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Oh, I’m all right,” she beamed. She threw her head back and laughed wide with childlike abandon. “This is fun!”
By the next year, when Dad was diagnosed with dementia, the fun slowed and eventually stopped. Dad’s star gradually dimmed, but Maggie, his adoring moon, kept undiminished orbit. As he drifted away and his care absorbed her, she thought to eat less often and her clothes began to hang. Her lipstick went unused and her garden unweeded. Eventually, her lighthearted demeanor tightened from the strain.
“Maggie, can we talk?” I took her small soft hands in mine. “I’m concerned. How are you doing? Are you OK I mean really OK? Do you know what is happening?”
She smiled a waning half moon. “Yes, I do. This is part of life. It happens to everyone, and until it does, I am spending as much time with your dad as I can, as much as we are given.”
“You look so tired. Is this all too much for you?”
“Oh, honey.” Her eyes glittered, but with wonder, not tears. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”
And she stayed with him for all the time they were given.
He died in April, just as Spring was taking hold, and after that, laughter all but left her. In its place, she often wore a wistful smile where happiness met loss. Loving Dad had brought her a special joy that, even as memory, lit her soul. Maggie is not my mother, not at least through the physical process of birth. She showed me, though, how a brilliant beauty can still shine into dark places. In the end, she mothered me in the best way possible. Mothers, after all, often show us how to love.
In 1934, Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and “Pretty Boy” Floyd met their Maker in a hail of police bullets. Bruno Haupmann was arrested for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby and Alcatraz became a federal prison. During these historic criminal events my mother, Winnifred Gennow (Robeson), was involved in more positive pursuits as a North Central Bible Institute (NCBI) student in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Mom told me that she was one of 68 students from seven states and Canada who made up her NCBI graduating class of 1935. During this era the Great Depression was debilitating America. Times were hard for most people. It was especially difficult for Bible school student families that had barely enough to exist on without sacrificing more for a college student’s tuition. This was my mother’s situation. Her tuition for the entire year was $50, which didn’t include meals or books. As a means of comparison between then and now, in 1934 the average annual income was $1,601, a new car cost $625, a loaf of bread was 8 cents and gas was 10 cents a gallon.
Mom related many stories about her college years when all women NCBI students were housed in private homes. One of her first jobs there provided room and board, meals, plus $1 a week.
“I paid 10 cents tithe out of that dollar,” Mom said, “and the other 90 cents went for streetcar fare.”
This job involved doing housework, cooking, washing and babysitting””working 52-54 hours a week””while taking a full load of college courses.
“Money was always scarce and we continually operated on faith to make ends meet,” Mom admitted many times. “That simple childlike faith and trust in God is a mighty thing. It is stronger than the darkest fear and can make even the weakest heart brave.”
During the summer of 1934, Mom attended the popular Lake Geneva (Minnesota) Camp Meeting where she lived in a tent and washed dishes in exchange for meals. She was also involved in special music since she played the piano, guitar, French horn and sang.
While there, another NCBI student from Grafton, North Dakota asked her to go to Park River (about 19 miles from Grafton) to help conduct a tent meeting in an effort to establish a new church in this town of 1,600 residents.
“We got a ride to Crystal, a town of about 300 people that was 20 miles from Park River,” Mom recalled, “where a Christian woman owned the only hotel in town. She let us stay there all summer. We earned our lodging and meals by making beds, cleaning rooms and doing dishes during the day.”
Their nightly transportation to Park River was provided by another resident of this hotel. Without being asked, he volunteered to drive them on this 40 mile round-trip for the rest of that summer.
“When you walk by faith,” Mom repeated constantly, “God is always there to work out the details.”
In those days, the most effective advertising was by word-of-mouth. Many people attended these services because it was one of the few things happening in this town where finances and community events were limited. Since most people were affected by the Depression, everyone needed personal and spiritual encouragement. These tent meetings were held on a vacant lot one block from the main street.
“The floor of the tent was the ground,” Mom recalled. “Seating was provided on rough benches and it was always dusty. We wore our white school uniforms every night and constantly had to wash them because they were always dirty from the surroundings.”
My mother’s classmate was usually the speaker, unless ministers or other Bible students visited. Mom sang, played a guitar and the piano for services. They received little financial support. Because times were hard, offerings were minimal. Yet, through their efforts, a new church was eventually established in Park River.
Now, 77 years since those days, my mother is no longer available to relate her experiences anymore. She was relieved of her cares when she passed, at 95 years and four months, to a better and brighter world she’d always talked about and dreamed of. After 66½ years as a minister’s wife, her faith had finally transported her “home.”
Mom’s favorite Bible verse, II Corinthians 5:8 (NAS) written by the Apostle Paul, became her benediction. “…we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
In yourself you gave me a hero
A person to inspire to be
You risked it all and lost so much
To save as many as you could
You went through Hell with your best friend gone
And came back out with the will to live on
I’ve heard the stories of your childhood
Filled with humor, strength, and courage
Your siblings looked to you as a second father
Even though you were younger than most
You watched as your daughter died
With her child’s father nowhere to be found
You took the young child in with loving arms
And raised him to be a great man
You lived your life fully
With pain and joy
After defeating many diseases that you received from hell
Cancer finally killed you
I remember talking to you not long before you died
You looked so weak lying in your bed so abnormal for my great-grandfather
I only hope that I make you proud
And I promise your memory will live on through the generations
The above submission was a poem written 3+ years ago by Timothy Elliott Smelser, age 15, in remembrance of his great grandfather Elliott Junior Smelser (b 07/22/1922 – d 06/06/1995).
When I was just a schoolboy, my Mum often told me a story of her life. That story touched me profoundly – maybe just because she was my mother. Maybe, her experience would not have been seen so unusual amongst many other people of the old Soviet Union. But not many people with a similar life pattern live amongst us in the West, and not many of us can demonstrate comparable will and stamina which was hidden in the fragile body of my mother – a tiny woman with a great heart.
My mother was born in the small Russian town of Nevel on the 8th of September 1907. Actually, this settlement could be called Russian only because it was in the territory of the Russian Empire. The population of this provincial town consisted mostly of Jewish people, who were prohibited from living in the big cities by a decree of the tsarist government.
The girl was given a beautiful Jewish name, Rohke-Mirim (the equivalent to Rose Marie in English). The beauty of the girl matched her name, and her parents, who adored their daughter, called her -our Little Rose.-
The relatively sheltered life of Rohke’s early years came to an end rather too soon. The First World War and then the communist September Revolution of 1917, followed by a four-year-long civil war, changed dramatically the peaceful atmosphere of her sleeping town, which was then filled with all kinds of marauding gangs.
The death of her father Mendel Oskotsky in 1919 finally shattered all family hopes for a good stable future. Working successfully for the world famous company -Zinger,- Mendel had provided a relatively comfortable life for his wife Bronya, Rohke and her younger sister Anna. However, with his sudden death, the family lost not only a breadwinner but also a very gentle, kind and caring person.
After Mendel’s death, Rohke’s mother, who had never worked before, opened a small chocolate business, which was not profitable but still helped the family to survive through these difficult times. Thus, Rohke had to divide her time between studying at school and assisting her mother with her house and shop duties.
In 1926 Rohke’s family moved to Leningrad where they all could find many more opportunities in every sphere of life. Rohke was absolutely delighted with the magnificent beauty of Leningrad’s buildings, bridges, squares and parks, and utterly enjoyed the museums, theatres and concert halls of this splendid and unique city.
Ironically the 1930s, years sadly famous in Soviet history as the period of Stalin’s terrible repressions, were the happiest years in Rohke’s personal life. She married her old school friend Efim, who by that time had become a successful engineer. Both working, my parents became so financially comfortable that they even managed to buy a piano: to play piano was Rohke’s greatest dream from her early childhood.
The first child, Mark, arrived sooner rather than later after that event; and Rohke realized that she would not have time for learning to play piano. With my birth some four years later, Rohke’s chances to find spare time for piano lessons diminished even more. Nonetheless, she was happy and optimistic about the future.
Her happiness, however, did not continue for long. On June 22, 1941, Germans suddenly attacked the Soviet Union. Soon after that, the first bombs and artillery shells fell down on Leningrad’s streets, and each day the bombings were getting more and more fierce. Rohke and her family were forced to spend many hours of each day and night in the bomb shelter.
The beginning of 1942 added new dimensions to the suffering. German troops completely surrounded the city, hoping that continuous bombings, combined with the unusually severe frosts (the air temperature fell down below minus 30oC) and hunger, would bring Leningraders to their knees.
This did not happen but at a great cost. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed under air attacks or artillery fire. An even much greater number of people died from starvation during the 900-day siege of Leningrad, including Rohke’s husband and her mother…
I really could never understand how my tiny mum with her two little kids managed to survive that horrible time. She was small and fragile, but her motivation to never give up was truly exceptional, which helped her not only see the end of the war but live a meaningful life for 50 more years after that, even though she had never played her piano…Marion
There are so many things I wish that I could say to my daughter. So many lessons I would like to save her from having to learn. So many pieces of advice that nobody ever told me; that I had to find out the hard way.
Now seems like the perfect time. I should just open my mouth and let it all come tumbling out. Who knows when, or if, there will be another?
But I can’t.
I watch the late afternoon sun illuminate the specs of dust around her face as we sit, motionless, in this sterile environment that smells of antiseptic and stale urine. My mother’s hand feels cold against my own; fragile as paper. The steady hush hush of her ventilator marking the passage of never ending hours.
Did I terrify my mother as much as my daughter terrifies me? Not in a violent sense, not as a matter of mortal dread. Simply in the fact that she burns so brightly. Where did she get that clever intellect of hers? Certainly not from her father.
I hardly recognise myself in her. She was always closer to my mother. They say that, don’t they? That the generational gap allows for a certain, objective, distance. We fight with those above us, yet listen to the ones above them…
Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I never learned how to talk to her when she was very little, and now she doesn’t listen to me as an adult. Or very nearly an adult. I can’t pretend we still have time.
But if I could, what would I say? I think she’s already au fait with the birds and the bees. She’s so smart like that, nose in every book, sights set on the stars. What have I to tell her that she doesn’t know for herself, or couldn’t find on Google? Very little, I suspect.
So we sit, and I hold my mother’s hand, wondering whether she can hear my silent anxiety. Is it possible to transfuse thoughts through human touch? Oh mum, would that I could see my daughter as you saw her. Would that you could have seen me that way, too.
Mum sits opposite, the setting sun shines so brightly through the window that I can hardly see her face. Gran isn’t going to get better this time, the doctors have already told us. I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I don’t want her to suffer anymore. She’s my Gran, I love her. She shouldn’t be in pain. But at the same time, I don’t want her to go yet. There are so many things I still need her for. Without her, it’s just me and mum.
I feel like I ought to say something. We’ve been sitting here almost three hours now. All the sudoku puzzles have been completed, and mum filled in the crossword. I hate the way she does that, just pens everything in without double-checking. It looks such a mess when she scribbles out the mistakes, no one else can make it out.
It’s stuffy in here. I want to open a window but mum is so still. I guess she’s thinking, and I don’t want to disturb her. I can’t help realising that one day this will be me, holding her hand, like she’s holding Gran’s. I try to think what I’d want someone to say to me, but, honestly, I have no idea. What do you say in situations like these?
So I don’t say anything. I just let mum get on with her thoughts. She’ll speak when she’s ready, I guess. I’m going go get coffee in a minute anyway. It’ll give me a chance to text Mark. I love him so much, I feel like I can tell him anything. Can’t imagine what I’d do without him. I just wish mum had someone like that. Someone she could talk to.
“Mum?” I ask.
Did you pack your things?
Waiting for no reply I grabbed Nick by the elbow though younger. He lacked confidence since he was a baby. But this time it was different. Duty called that we moved quickly up the mountains cause the rebels would leave the next day. The enemy would track them down. If we wanted to have a chance with them we had to rush through the door without our father waking up.
Ready to go even before we realized that this small group of freedom fighters had settled near our village we didn’t spare a second contemplating the thought. Nick, 16 at the time, had planned this to the end. We were to move out the night before they should leave, and that’s something we would surely hear the older villagers talk about in the market.
That’s why we’d put on a hard working profile for days in a row. Helped Dad in the farm and Mum in the house, took little Catherine to school and walked her back in turns, fed the animals and watered the flowers in front of the house, even offered to do some carrying to and from the market for our neighbor whose son had died in the battle of Piraeus, a few weeks back.
So we knew… We had three hours to catch up with them but was no trouble as we could tell the mountains like the back of our hand. Winter had settled in, however, and we faced the dilemma of taking more than one blanket away from the house. Determination led the way and off we went that night around 11. The walk was brisk to keep warm but getting there presented itself with unpredictable hardships most of which we handled reminding ourselves of the cause. If resisting the German Occupation was the rebels’ goal we would do the same and keep fighting the cold, harsh weather at least. Otherwise we wouldn’t be worth to be called their own.
Meanwhile our 10-year-old sister had been awake all the time and clever as she was she put two and two together and crept up Mum shortly after we’d gone. What she couldn’t understand was why we hadn’t included her to this midnight game and wasted a little time on that thus helping us escape and get a head start. On three, everyone was up and about trying to figure out what we had been up to as well as trembling to the thought of us getting hurt in one way or another.
They soon got to the right conclusion -it seems every family has someone who can’t hold his tongue and in this case that was me- after sharing some things I might have half-said to either of my parents at some point…Dad, dressed heavily to have enough clothes for when he’d found the two scoundrels, set off for where he knew the fighters would be staying that last night of theirs, knowledge that stemmed from the fact that everyone in the village had been up there with some food, fire wood or water for those who had been risking everything for the country. Mum said a prayer at his back.
It was around dawn that we realized we had been lost for good. Some wrong turn, some cold illusion of already having gotten there but everybody having left already and desperation got a good grip of our hearts. Nick and I decided to hold on until the morning so that the sun would come warming in our bones and then finding our way by following the tracks that the rebels would certainly have left. I was 13 and very naÃ¯ve for sure, but on the other hand persuasive enough to convince my brother I was right.
My father met the rebels in less than two hours. They gave him hot tea and some bread and fierce though they looked calmed him down. We were in their safe hands in nothing more than five hundred footsteps and were scolded heavily by those on whose side we had wanted to fight for precious freedom.
Go back to your house and work hard for school, we were told.
It was a noble thing you wanted to do but fighting for freedom needs the young ones to be able to fight in many ways. Educate yourselves, learn how to support your families and teach others about democracy and rights. Unfortunately the opportunity to fight for justice will never be scarce.
A few words from the author about the story:
This is the true story of my two uncles Nick and Costas Andrikopoulos. It took place, more or less the way it is narrated here, according to my mother, their 10-year-old sister mentioned in it. The time is the time of the II World War in a small village near Corinth. Three generations of people are involved. The younger ones wanting to do something for their country, the adults actually doing something for freedom and the older ones in the face of the parents trying to survive the war.
Intergeneration Storytelling Contest 2011
WINNERS CERTIFICATE OF DISTINCTION
Lolo, could you tell me how those trees grew?
I planted them, apo. Before you were born. Your Lola and I planted vegetable seeds, root crops and flowering plants in the yard.
This corn is small unlike the ones we buy from the market. Can I pick one?
Yes, you may.
How many kinds of fruits have you planted, Lo?
I can not count anymore. Some of these seeds were given by friends who know I love to plant and garden.
Why do you love to garden?
You ask a lot, apo. That’s good. Asking questions is wisdom’s seed.
You mean, Lo, I will be a plant someday?
Ha Ha! Do you like to plant too?
Of course, Lolo. I want to be like you. I want to see those seeds you keep in the jar grow into trees and bear fruits and plants or produce flowers.
That’s good of you. I’m proud that you have that interest in you.
Just another question, Lolo. How do they grow?
Everything takes time, apo. One at a time you’ll learn them all: how to choose the right kind of soil, how to properly plant the seeds, how often to water them.
There are many shoulds, Lolo.
You’re very young to know all the shoulds. There is a right time for learning each one of them. Sometimes you will get it. Lots of times you won’t. But what is sure is that each time you plant seeds they will turn into trees someday. Each seed may grow on a different soil, and withstand the seasons and weather conditions. Each one will be taken care of and nurtured by different hands.
That is sad, Lolo.
You mean someday I will grow up without you?
At different times of your life you will meet different people. You will grow with them as you grow older. You will make friends and make enemies too. Then you will meet someone just like I met your Lola.
Did you still grow when you met Lola?
Of course. She is another tree of her own and a beautiful flower at the same time. When I met her a lot of things happened to me and to her too. We both grew in many different ways. And just like trees and plants, we bore flowers and seeds. You are a seed of our seeds in a way.
Ha ha ha! So I will be a tree too someday, Lolo?
Yes, a different kind of tree. A tree of your own.
Tan was my mother’s pet name in her family, and that’s what my father usually called her. Mum was queen of the kitchen, and guarded her secrets well. If you begged a recipe from her, she would give it to you; but somehow it never turned out as good.
Mum had learned to be hospitable as an Army wife, and could cope with anything from coffee mornings to dinner parties for the Brigadier. Even after my father retired, the two of them continued to enjoy friends dropping in, family lunches on Sunday, and parties three or four times a year.
My sister and myself, by now experienced wives and mothers, were never allowed to intrude as she planned, prepared and presented. We were there to be kitchen maids and helpers, nothing more. Mum had an uncanny ability to materialise as you pulled the cheese straws out of the oven, slightly burned; or when the mayonnaise curdled; or you dropped the lamb chops on the floor.
And, just when you thought you were done at last, that now you could sit down, relax and wait for your company to arrive, suddenly Mum would come up with a Great Idea. A last-minute addition to the menu, for instance, that required a trek to the supermarket; or a desperate need to rearrange the furniture. Something you had not anticipated, which was not on your list of things to do. She would fix you with her bright green eyes, a half-smile tugging at the corner of her mouth, and convince you it was absolutely essential that you did it, now.
Sheila and I got used to this and took a secret enjoyment behind Mum’s back in being hard-done by and trying to out-guess her. Yet she nearly always succeeded in throwing us off-course at the last minute. We would expect, but we never could avoid, some final, unexpected task.
Mum died, less than a year after Dad; and it was so hard to say goodbye to all that wit and energy.
We began to plan her funeral with the same meticulous care she’d used for his. Family and friends were coming, and she had taught us well. The house must be cleaned and polished, and food good and plenty. We began to make lists. It was now Sunday, and time was running out.
I went into the extension. The outside door was shut, but a small brown bird, a cage bird, was sitting on the table, head cocked and a bright eye turned upon me. I called Sheila. We tried to think of any neighbours with an aviary, or who kept a pet bird. We could discover none.
Suddenly we had extra work to do. We ‘phoned the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who referred us to the local animal sanctuary. No, they couldn’t come and collect the bird. We’d have to catch it, and take it to them.
A difficult hour ensued, but eventually the bird was safely tucked inside a shoebox and we were driving out of town for the hand-over. I chatted gently to it. Like my mother, I was fond of birds and regularly fed them in my garden.
The young woman at Reception checked the bird over as it continued to observe us placidly and occasionally to cheep. She confirmed it was a cage bird, and well-cared for, but could throw no light upon the mystery of its appearance.
Then she pulled the ledger towards her and began to record its arrival. What she wrote there convinced me forever that this bird was a messenger from Mum, and that all was well with her. I need no proof of this; it’s a matter of belief.
For on the page she boldly printed two words only: “Tan finch.”
Belinda hated the village for what it had become. Once fishing had been the thriving heart of it, but now the old harbour had been turned into a marina for the rich on their idle days. They came in their van-like cars and stocked up at supermarkets on their route. Few real shops had survived in the old market place; now effigies of times past, made in China and called souvenirs filled the shelves. Restaurants offered menus from the world over but no local recipes, certainly no local fish. But Belinda brought Gary and Susan at least once a month to see their grandmother. She knew her mum would never leave the village.
Gramps was there too. He’d been in that old boathouse for ever it seemed. Gramps would be an excellent subject for an article about the old ways, Belinda thought. She wondered why she hadn’t thought of it before.
The kids loved the boathouse too; she could leave them there safely for hours while she did things for mum. She thought the skittle alley and ice cream parlour at the back were the main attraction. But she’d seen them help Gramps to carve out the wood to build his model fishing boats. They were rarely as calm and content at home, or so willing to concentrate and create.
Gramps was ensconced at the front of the building as usual, ensuring that his weather beaten face captured the mild heat of the spring sun. The children rushed in but Belinda paused to capture the scene with a feature writer’s gaze. She noticed that Gramps was wearing a badge on his overalls. The words THE GRANDFATHER LIBRARY: BORROW ONE TODAY were embroidered in yellow on a dark blue background.
As Gary and Susan approached, Gramps reached into a nearby cupboard and removed two almost complete fishing boats. “˜I know these be yours, but I can’t figure out which be which,’ he said. She hadn’t realised they were making their own boats. More than a dozen kids were doing the same thing.
Belinda studied the shelves of souvenirs for the first time. All were wood carvings that represented the vision and ability of their creators. There were exquisite ballerina figures, a steam train that even had light wood representing billowing steam, animals with human faces and some simple and even ugly canoes.
Then a ship’s bell rang and the children gathered around a rocking chair in the centre of the room. Gramps sat on it and told a story about a lost dolphin swimming too close to shore and being snared in a drift net. The fishermen had released their catch leaving market stalls empty just to release it.
Belinda told Gramps she wanted to write an article about the boathouse and asked how long he had been there. “˜Just over twenty years now,’ he replied then saw the confusion in her eyes. “˜You’ll be thinking of my dad, he was here all his life like my grandfather afore him. It was my grandfather taught me the stories of the sea and how to carve. When my dad passed on I didn’t want the boathouse to die with him, retired early from teaching.’
An avaricious looking woman asked how much one of the ballerina figures cost.
“˜How much is it worth to you?’ Gramps asked.
She named a sum. “˜It’s worth more to me,’ Gramps said and ignored the woman even when she made a higher offer. When she gave up and left he said, “˜Esmeralda says she only wants her dancers to go to good homes, beautiful sculptress isn’t she; took to it like a duck to water, works in stone now as well; in a wheelchair poor kid but she makes her figures dance.’ He talked of other budding carvers and kids who had driven him to distraction by their ineptitude.
Finally she asked about the badge. “˜It’s just a group of us oldies, thought we had something to offer to kids, and started a website describing our skills, offering to be grandparents on loan for the day. It’s turned into a charity now; raises money so kids who wouldn’t usually get the chance can spend time learning from us. There are painters and writers; but there are plumbers and electricians, nurses and cooks, carpenters and farmers too. Some of the kids have never had an old person they could respect in their lives, not one who cared to help them learn.’
He personified dignity in age, Belinda thought.
One of my earliest, most frequent memories is standing atop of my mother’s tippy toes, peering over the edge of our kitchen counter. My height scoffed at my intentions; no matter how tall I stood or how hard I peered, I could never see beyond the lip of Formica. I remember breathing in deeply and attempting to compartmentalize the scents I had detected. “Shepherd’s Pie? Meatloaf? Hamburgers?” I pleaded with my mother to tell me.
“Wouldn’t you like know. You’re underfoot and you know you’re too young to help. Go, wash up for dinner, it will be ready soon,” Mom would tell me. I’d scurry to the bathroom, scrub intensely, and rush back to the table. “Can I help yet, Mama?” I pled. “No, not yet. Set the table please.” Each night I timed myself while setting the table, trying desperately to beat the previous evening’s record. My imagination led me to believe that if Mom saw that I could dress the table rapidly, she would surely think I was old enough to help her cook. No such luck. “Now call your brother and take your seat,” she commanded.
I would sit down, eagerly waiting for the meal to be delivered to the table. I tasted the roaming scent of warm deliciousness before it had even been plated. My brother would tumble down the stairs, clearly perturbed that his presence was required. He sat there, moody and morose because his time was being stolen from his video games. I, on the other hand, clearly knew the effort and passion that had produced that evening’s meal. I could barely contain my excitement, my intense desire to taste my mother’s love incarnate. This was our evening ritual. Mom cooked. I begged to help. My brother complained. Each night this dance about dinner ensued. Even though my help was consistently rejected, there was a tradition to the process that kept me happy.
Eventually, life moved on. I aged, no longer cared to offer my help, and instead allocated my time in “more important” ways. Schoolwork consumed me first, then friends, following with boys, and finally anything but family. Mom still cooked, albeit less frequently. I did not flit around her while she concocted meals, nor did I relish her hard work as much. In fact, no one did. Eventually, she stopped cooking. I took advantage of not having to be home for dinner. What once was the tie that bound us together became a vast, gaping hole in our relationship.
Not long after, my mother passed away. No one had anticipated her death, nor had I anticipated losing the most important person in my life. I spent weeks rummaging through her things, trying to find solace in the tangible. Her famed DVD collection offered me little, her parrot hated me, and her red leather couch was comfortable, but not comforting. Nothing offered me the warmth and love that she had emanated so richly during her life.
Soon, I was forced to sell our home and relocate. While packing her things with the help of great friends, I reminisced, appreciating all the beautiful things she had left behind. I played her piano, took a nap in her bed, and read a few of her books. But, I remained clear of the kitchen. It had so clearly been her domain during her life. It made me feel traitorous to be somewhere I had not belonged. The kitchen was the last room I dared to pack up. As I did so, I found myself cradling her cooking instruments, trying on her aprons, and mixing imaginary concoctions in her pots. If anyone had born witness to this process, they would have committed me with no hesitation. If Mom was able to watch, I imagine she was proud.
I moved her things into my new home, still wary of using them. I left the kitchen utensils in the boxes for an exorbitant amount of time, doing everything I could to avoid them. I’m not sure if it was that I felt out of place in a kitchen, or this was my way of further honoring Mom. Regardless, I finally peeled back the flaps of the moving boxes after several weeks. I hesitantly emptied the contents into my vacant drawers.
While organizing, I found a small red cube with “Mama’s Kitchen” typed neatly across the top. I opened it up, and an instantaneous grin spread across my face. I had found my mother’s recipe box. Had I ever even known she owned one? I hungrily broke open the lid. Mom had not bothered to organize the cards, so I simply dumped them all over my tile floor. I planted myself on the cool tiles, amidst the sea of scattered recipes. I picked one up.
Lasagna. Mmmm. A million memories cascaded over my consciousness. My 6th birthday, and enough lasagna to feed all twenty-five of the classmates I had invited over my house. I picked up the next card. Beefy Burritos. I traveled back in time to 1998. Mom had begun working full-time and made 63 (yes, I counted and remember) burritos in order to place in the freezer. Every night she was at work, my brother and I easily prepared deliciously oozy, cheesy burritos that tasted of juvenile freedom. Yum. I ravenously snatched the next card. Shepherd’s Pie. My favorite! I clearly remembered coming home from my stay at the hospital after a nasty bout of pneumonia. A gigantic, steaming pie had been waiting for me on the kitchen counter.
All of these cards represented wonderfully tasty memories from my childhood. But even more so, they each represented a moment in time that Mom had filled richly with flavor and love. I sat atop the pile, reading each one repeatedly. After hours and hours, I had memorized almost every single one of the hundred-two recipes. I felt satiated for the first time in so very long. I felt, for once, that I had found a vividly undeniable connection to my mother.
From that moment on, I made the kitchen my second home. At first, I simply revitalized Mom’s recipes and relived our beautiful moments via taste and smell. Soon after I gained a bit more culinary confidence, I started to branch out and attempt to cook new recipes. Thus, I started to form my own powerful memories. I now transcribe each and every recipe on my own “Mama’s Kitchen” cards. I am able to carry on my mother’s memory and passion, as well as add my own flavor to the mix. I adore food, cook any free moment I have, and look forward to the day that my own family is able to contribute to the recipes that have provided me such limitless joy.
In 2003 my mother and I moved into a beat-up little house in a quaint Louisiana neighborhood situated in the middle of a dead-end street that was a sharp turn from a pseudo-highway (you know, the roads with posted speed limits way under the speed actually driven). We live in the city, but overgrown fields surround our block on three sides, providing the illusion of country living. We met Guy and Mrs. Esther the first day of move-in. As an older couple they felt blessed to find comfort in each other after their spouses passed way. They loved to garden and wished to share the joy with us, as busy folk and poor gardeners, we took the offer as a blessing, and balked when they rototilled the backyard.
“Mrs. Esther’s got herself a younger man,” we teased them both when we found out their age differed by a decade, “you go, Mrs. Esther!” Her softly curled lips often hinted at a smile she refrained from releasing. Her eyes sparkled as she excitedly told us of their latest adventures on the road to and from North Dakota. She showed postcards and photographs slowly, skipping explanations of friends and family intent on sharing the funny stories about their travels.
For four years we spent autumns outside with Guy and Mrs. Esther, listening to evening tales of travel by our elderly neighbors who alternated storytelling with practiced ease. The summer of 2008 concerned us all greatly, for Mrs. Esther was too sick to travel. Unfortunately, Guy had to leave, but he asked us to watch over her. I feel we failed, for a few weeks later Guy’s car was in the drive. She had been too ill to get out of bed and while she had our number, she didn’t have it easily accessible. Guy explained it simply, “she called and said she couldn’t get out of bed. I came home.” He stayed with her for a few weeks making sure she went to her doctors’ appointments, then he returned to his property in North Dakota. The whole summer went on like that: one day Guy was gone North and Mrs. Esther was home moving about, in a flash, he was back because she was bedridden.
Their storytelling changed drastically. His trips North became fewer; she couldn’t tell the stories with him, but she could get him started on the stories she wanted to hear, even if her hearing was failing. The stories they told together became a bitter testimony to pharmaceutical company black labels and doctors habitually misdiagnosing, over-prescribing, and carelessly mixing pills that eat the patient’s insides, particularly the kidneys, heart, and mind. They told her she had Lupus and they prescribed a ton of pills: one each for every symptom, until they made her sick, then they weaned her off. She oscillated, a tidal wave of manufactured cures coursing through her veins. It became impossible to watch. What is one to do? I brought her a pill dictionary with pictures and full descriptions of side effects when combining medicines. I meant to sit with her, to read her the story of her prescriptions, to discuss with her questions to ask her physicians. I never got the chance. Soon after she was moved from her house and on April 6th, 2011 she passed away.
In our grieving, we created an area in our yard, an area just for Esther, our tribute to her. We call it Esther’s Garden. In the autumn we’ll sit outside and talk of our travels and tell stories of our pasts. We’ll plan for the future, though we know plans sometimes change, and we’ll watch the foliage turn in the garden thinking of the last words Guy said before he got in his car and drove off, “She told once that she wanted to travel. So, that’s what we did. She had the time of her life and so did I.”
My grandparents were colorful characters. Children of Czechoslovakian immigrants, they both had thick accents and spoke in their native language when they argued or cursed. After living on a small farm, my grandfather’s knack for innovative thinking progressed into inventing or improving farm equipment. Later he created hand painted wooden wagons small enough to rest on the average bookshelf. My grandmother was just as creative. Their home displayed bright quilts, crocheted blankets and patch- work polyester double-knit pillows tied with yarn remnants. They lived frugally so they could be generous with their family. As adults we appreciate their sacrifices, but as children we thought they were just plain weird.
Thirteen years after Grandpa passed away Grandma gave up caring for her home and garden. Mom invited my sisters and I, along with our cousins, to pack up the house as Grandma passed on her belongings, treasured or useful. The loitering leftovers were destined for donation, auction or the trash. Talking with Grandma was especially sweet, sharing memories, asking questions and video taping parts of our time together. Mom kept busy and tried to balance between following Grandma’s wishes, managing her responsibilities and enjoying the fun.
Inspected each room we cleaned, joked, haggled, packed and moved a lifetime of possessions. It is an odd thing to shop in someone else’s home and claim things as our own…or place them in the “Thank God it’s gone” pile. Descending into the basement toward the end of the day, we mopped and scrubbed. Pine Sol filled the air. Our conversation bounced between the cinderblock walls and vinyl floor tiles. Every whisper could be heard and our laughter was almost dangerous. We opened the cedar chest to reveal a collection of embroidered tea-towels, doilies, linens and other keepsakes meant for us since birth. Our biggest surprise was finding Grandma’s appendix in a small jar shriveled up like a dried worm. That went to the trash in a hurry.
My heart fluttered as I saw another box in the corner of the basement. A trunk made of blue stamped metal trimmed with wood molding on the top and cracked leather handles on each side. I waited for everyone else to reply before I staked my claim. Years of neglect in the damp basement had rendered it musty and unusable for practical storage.
As we observed its sad condition, we found Great-Grandfathers signature resting on the interior tray. I knew nothing about the man named Emil, yet a signature he wrote more than 100 years before lay visible for his descendants. I’ve often felt the term “family heirloom” should be saved for something of great beauty, value or purpose. Though the old trunk is neither, it is a piece of family history I hold dear. Hidden in a closet, shoved in a corner and now a catch all at the top of the stairs my Great Grandfather’s trunk is part of my home. Though, I have yet to restore it to a more attractive or useful status.
Still, I wonder if he ever thought it would hold anyone’s affection so long after he was placed in his last box.
Mother always told me she was a princess. It was hard to believe as I stood there beside her holding a wet curtain. She was setting up the stretcher frame. As usual she had on a flowered house dress covered by an apron with rick rack trim along the hem. Mother turned to catch an end of the curtain and began hooking its edge over the pins around the frame. It was exacting work and impossible to do without pricking a finger. But Mother was an exacting person. She noticed everything. That is because she was a princess.
“You know the little girl,” Mother would remind me, “who said she was a princess? No one believed her and she had to be tested to find out for sure. One night she was made to sleep on top of twenty mattresses. Under those mattresses was a single dried pea. The next morning when she got up the little girl yawned and shook her head. I could hardly sleep last night. The bed was so lumpy. Immediately all the lords and ministers, waiting to greet her, bowed down. They had found a real princess.” Mother said she was like that–though we didn’t have twenty mattresses so there was no way to find out. “Doesn’t matter,” because she knew for sure.
Mother always told me she was related to Arthur Middleton who signed the Declaration of Independence. I was sitting in the genealogy room of the library. There were books and documents all around me. I was looking for the missing link. Mother was with me. Her grandmother, Laura Middleton Brinnon, was kin to Judge Henry A. Middleton of the Ohio Supreme Court. He claimed, on behalf of all Mother’s Middleton kin, direct descent from the South Carolina Middletons–the ones with the plantation near Charleston. The one who signed. I could not find the line going from this eighteenth century family to Mother’s in the twentieth century. Plenty of information but none of it connected the dots. In fact the dots marched away from each other. “Doesn’t matter,” Mother insisted. Family legend held the true story and thus justified her entitlement to special privilege.
Mother always told me she intended to spend a night in The White House. We would be sitting side by side watching TV–listening to the news. Daily flashes didn’t interest her so much as wishing to be included among the elite. Her Middleton lineage was key. She wanted to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom though she claimed no connection to our sixteenth president. Mother wondered why Bill and Hillary hadn’t called her yet. She felt she deserved the chance. After the Monica affair Mother grew more insistent. She was a Republican, but Clinton was cute. She never spoke of wanting to stay in The White House after George went to live there.
Finally, the ultimate. HRH Prince William of Wales and heir to the British Throne was getting married. Mother expected an invitation. “This time it will come,” she assured me. All her stars had lined up. Her royal blood, her esteemed ancestry, and something else. The names. William’s bride is Catherine Elizabeth Middleton and Mother is Kathryn Elizabeth Middleton, two generations removed. Except it was too late. Mother has been dead for six years. Yet, she was always a determined woman and she would not miss this main chance.
In early April, I received a forward from Mother’s last known address. In the heavy square envelope was a stiff white card with gilded edges. I read the first line: The Lord
Chamberlain is commanded by . . . Oh My Gosh . . . the Queen to invite . . . Oh Dear . . .
Kathryn Elizabeth Brinnon Yocom. What a hoot. Finally she would be going to the wedding. The Wedding, that is. I was sure of it. I made a special effort to get to Mother’s grave and put the invitation on the mound where we left her in December, 2004.
At 11 a.m. on Friday, April 29, 2011, at Westminster Abbey in the Middleton section there was a guest, one hundred years old and prim, in an aqua and black silk dress. She was holding onto her purse and turning her head with regal ease–to gaze at the bride as she swept by.
I was tuned to the BBC, but did not catch the guest’s profile or hear her name. “Doesn’t matter.” Mother was always the princess and wouldn’t have missed this occasion for any reason.
Brinna walked down the long hallway, her footsteps quiet on the carpeted floor. She imagined the building was a hotel, filled with tired businessmen and families packed into small rooms. Just passing through before heading home.
But in this building, most of the rooms were open, each resident’s name posted on the wall next to the door. Johnson, Frederick. Michaels, Micalena.
And instead of hotel cleaners, chlorine, and the haunting scent of cigarette smoke, the hallways smelled like hospital disinfectant.
Brinna stopped in front of a room at the end of the hallway, a slip of paper with “Marx, Marie” on the nameplate.
Her grandmother’s paintings filled the small room’s walls, covering the stark white paint. Marie’s paintings gravitated towards rich, deep oils in muted colors. As always, Brinna stopped to admire the artwork.
Each painting was framed simply but elegantly, highlighting the subject and not the frame. A woman stood next to a well, her hand lightly touching the rough stone circle, a water pitcher dangling from the other hand. Subtle light filtered in through the clouds above her, bathing her face with a heavenly light. Men in Turkish robes rode on horses, their swords raised high, the sky a combination of blues that seemed almost alive. A small girl with dark curls and a sundress sat in the grass, a slight smile playing on her face as she gazed at something or someone in the distance.
A home-made quilt covered the bed, and colorful rugs dotted the floor. The bed was empty.
Brinna walked back the hallway, greeting caregivers as they passed. One of them told her that Marie was in the courtyard.
The late-summer sun was warm, but not hot. Lush green hostas and ferns filled shady corners of the courtyard, and black-eyed susans brightened containers. Marie was sitting on a bench in the shade, her hands folded neatly on her lap, her eyes fixed on something only she could see.
Brinna sat down next to her. “Hi Grandma,” she said softly, wondering what kind of day today was.
Marie sat quietly, her expression soft, hands still folded in her lap. So it would be a day without memory, Brinna thought. She reached over and took one of Marie’s hands and held it in her own. Both of their fingers were long and graceful. Artist hands, Brinna’s mother called them. While Marie was a painter, Brinna sculpted. Marie’s hands were soft, her skin like parchment.
When Brinna was a little girl, she would jump into her grandmother’s arms the moment she saw her. She would lay her head on her shoulder, inhaling cooking smells, lotion, and the sweet smell of peppermints Marie always kept in her pocket.
While her mother worked, she stayed with Marie several days a week. Brinna would watch her paint, the canvases coming to life under her practiced hand, entire worlds created out of stark white canvas. In the late afternoons when they were both tired, Marie would set Brinna on her lap and they would watch the birds in the backyard. Marie told her stories about her mother and her grandfather. She told wild tales of her younger days when she would ride a motorcycle with her friends. She told her of picnics with Ralph, Brinna’s grandfather, who died in the war.
Marie created worlds with her words, her tapestry that space between them on the back porch. Sipping lemonade, listening to the sharp call of the cicadas.
Marie’s memory had faded much later, slipping away quietly into the night. On days like today, sitting in the cheerful courtyard, Brinna knew that Marie did not remember her at all. Brinna was a stranger to her grandmother, and her grandmother was a stranger to herself.
Marie stirred, and she gripped Marie’s hand. Her eyes flickered with something that might have been recollection. Brinna was never sure. A single tear fell down Marie’s weathered cheek.
“It’s all right,” Brinna said to her, gripping her hand gently. “I’ll remember the stories for the both of us.”
She told Marie a story about the girl in the painting, sitting in the bright sunlight on a summer day, feeling the heat on her face and the grass tickling her legs. Her grandmother smiling at her from the easel, paint smudging her face.
That little girl in the painting is me, Brinna thought. She will always be me, but this will be our story.
And I will remember for the both of us.
Shearing off close, following the line of the last swipe of blonde abundance now flopping to the floor, the barber moves at a steady pace; back to front, back to front again. My nine-year-old son is motionless; gazing down at the worn checkered floor to keep the falling hair out of his eyes. His pale forehead and neck reveal the outline of summer’s first sunny days.
I choose a creaky chair in the waiting area, move newspapers and comics aside, lean my head against the wall, arrange my elbows on the sticky vinyl armrests, and cross my legs at the ankles. The warmth of the afternoon settles into the smells of lotions and aftershaves, and I close my eyes. From each barber station comes the rhythmic hum of the clippers. The swarm of sounds rises and falls into the aggregate of friendly deep-voices set against the background of soft street noises flowing through the screen door.
And I am a boy again; staring down at the black and white squares of linoleum from the elevated barber chair, feeling the vibration against my scalp while my father waits in this same seat, and I receive that “˜summer cut’ that marked the beginning of fun and freedom each summer of my youth.
The summer cut always meant it was time to get down to the business of enjoyment. And enjoyment was all about “˜preparedness’ to Dad. “Cut that boy’s hair up close so he won’t need another haircut “˜til school starts again.” “Cut that grass off short so we won’t have to mow so often.” “Patch that old spare tire for the bike so we can ride out to Cutler’s tomorrow.” “Clean out that tackle box so we’ll be ready for some fishin’ tonight!”
Dad was planning ahead alright; he was making time for us to play. My summer days were nearly all the same; scheduled around the garden’s daily call and the anticipation of the sun’s steady heat. Dinner seemed tangible right from dawn as I would grab my cut-offs and shirt from the bedpost, pull them on, and stumble out to pick beans, strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, or watermelon for our evening meal in the cool of the morning air before breakfast.
By noon I would be pared down to cut-offs, dirt, and freckles. I faced my summer days unfettered by the social equivalencies of cleanliness and godliness. A simple release from the rope as I swung out over the pond would rinse off the heat and grime of the day. Later, from our perch on the dock, Dad and I would fish the evenings into dusk. We sat together in silent awe of the gold and auburn sky mirrored in the water below. I felt sure that our love for this magnificent display was so close to what we called “˜worship’ on Sundays, that I needn’t ever be concerned with being clean. We would come home to “settin’ time” on the front porch while the house was opened up to the slightest coolness of an evening breeze. Air conditioning back then had been the old metal fan on “high” and a glass of iced tea set down in front of it. Then out came the stories, while we brushed the dog and listened for the kitchen timer ticking away the minutes until a Lemon Meringue pie would blossom from the oven. A symphony of lawn mowers, the “˜clank’ of horseshoes, and the staccato of lawn sprinklers accompanied the graying evenings on our sleepy hometown street.
Those summers of my youth return to me now through the droning of the clippers, the whir of the fans overhead, and the slap of the wooden screen door as the next customer enters into the shop.
I open my eyes to meet my son’s grin as the barber swivels the chair around for my review. Blue eyes shine with anticipation from below newly exposed brows. Paying the barber, I quietly pray that I can provide my son with his own collection of summer memories in the intentional way my father gave me that same gift.
I can almost see Dad’s smiling face in the spattered mirror behind my son. “C’mon Son,” he would say with a wink, “we’ve got a whole afternoon and a bucketful of nightcrawlers waitin’…”
It’s now my turn to take the lead. I smile as my son jumps down from the chair. “You’re lookin’ like a fisherman, Son. Time for us boys to go out to play.”
We gather here to celebrate you for all you’ve done
For caring for your granddaughter and your grandson
You took on this awesome task that no one else could do,
Because no one loves and cares for your grandchild quite like you.
You had the courage to start all over again
Raising your grandchildren at an age when
You thought you might retire, travel and rest
But the children needed caregivers, and they needed the best.
Some came to you in pampers and most in tears
Needing nurturing and someone who cares.
Others came as toddlers, exploring the world on the run
You couldn’t believe this happened – after you thought that you were done.
Still others came at school age, when they needed guidance and direction
Science may have you baffled but you are great at giving affection.
And some of you have teenagers, oh my, what can I say.
Just keep reminding yourself that they won’t stay this way.
We know it has not been easy – often quite a heavy load
And there have been many bumps along the road
You’ve been misunderstood, labeled and denied the services you need
Often criticized and not recognized for your labor or your good deed.
But we are here to honor you who have done so much
To change the lives of children with your special touch
We thank you grandparents: we thank you once, we thank you twice
And know you are appreciated for the rest of your life.
Thank you, grandparents.
1934 Pages of Time
123.com Company, Millersville, TN), p. 3.
Ibid. , p. 11.
Lolo – grandfather
Lola – grandmother
Apo – grandson