My grandmother was rarely in the house, and when she was, she was dusting, scrubbing, disinfecting, swatting flies, washing and starching and ironing and then baking all of our bread, pies, cakes, canning and pickling and preserving and then tatting, embroidering, crocheting.
I remember breakfast tables from my earliest childhood; sunshine spills across a blue-checked tablecloth stiff with starch and fresh air. Cut-glass bowls hold jelly and jam. The Concord grape and strawberry wriggle, seem to live a life of their own, nurtured by a slow, hidden heartbeat.
From my seat at the table, my father’s law books stacked under me, I saw, out the window, two cardinals flutter in midair. The larger bird was bright red, the smaller dull rust. The larger pecked the smaller. “Stop them,” I screamed. Even before the first word came out of my father’s mouth, the birds flew. My father said, calm down, the birds were making babies. Soon they would lay eggs and their pretty eggs would fill to bursting with baby redbirds. Maybe the birds built their nest in our poplars or maples or elms. Maybe the mother redbird plucked up my lovely hair from the day before, when we set me in the yard on a chair and trimmed my curls so my neck wouldn’t get so hot and sweaty. Maybe she lined her nest with my curls. “Imagine that!” my father said and smiled.
My mother then may have said to my father, as she often did, “Don’t fill her head with ideas. You’ll make her wild.”
I remember fried green tomatoes and fried apple rings. My father and mother dip a forkful of charred tomato or apple into the lake of marigold yolk. They bite down with huge fierce teeth. Butter gleams on their lips. They spoon yellow cream into coffee; the coffee instantly turns pale, the way people do when they hear bad news. I remember the glurg-glurg when they swallow coffee, their enormous heads thrown back, pale white throats exposed. My father leaves a coffee taste on my lips when he kisses me goodbye in the morning. Years later, at the movies on Saturday afternoons, I buy coffee Charms and suck them. Coffee-flavored liquid rises over my bottom teeth, pools on my tongue, floods my mouth with my father’s kisses.
These memories seem pleasant enough, even with battling cardinals and strain between my mother and father. But as I enumerated dishes that weighted breakfast tables in my childhood, I felt uneasy. One specific morning and a second, also specific, kept coming back.
Sun isn’t up, rain hits curtainless windows. The furnace is turned off, and the house is cold. I see my mother’s heart-shaped face and my grandmother’s doughy cheeks. I smell their newly applied makeup and deodorant and Bluegrass cologne. In the dim kitchen, their lipstick is greasy red and their rouge unnaturally bright.
My grandmother has spread the morning paper open under my bowl. I dawdle with my oatmeal, pat its stucco surface with the back of my spoon. Oatmeal splats against the paper.
My mother’s and grandmother’s faces loom, slowly expand, as a balloon being blown up will. My grandmother says we don’t have all day, we need to get on the road if we’re going to get to the farm before bedtime.
I ask why we can’t take my cat Zoe. My mother says Zoe stays, period, that’s it, no nonsense. The cat will find a good home.
Who will give Zoe the good home? Why can’t Zoe go to the farm and chase away mice in my grandmother’s barn?
“No more questions,” my mother says.
My grandmother grabs the spoon. She’ll make me eat. She sticks the spoon heaped with oatmeal in my mouth. I swallow. She sticks in another spoonful. I swallow. Another, another, faster and faster. The bowl is empty. The oatmeal rises up and out my lips and splashes into the bowl, onto the newspaper, the table, down my dress front. My grandmother slaps me.
That was the last meal I ate in that house.
They drag me into the dark bathroom, pull off my dress, my underwear, scrub, then dress me again, from the skin out, in clean clothes. They tell me if I want to do Number One or Two, I had better goddamn well do them, there won’t be any stopping every ten miles.
My cheek burns, and my teeth ache from the hard slap. I am shaky from vomiting.
My grandmother hustles me out the front door to the driveway. The rising sun breaks through clouds and splashes light across bare treetops and our house’s green shingles and bare dirt where my father would have put in his victory garden, had my mother not tossed him out.
The tan Packard sits low on its tires. Earlier that morning, my grandmother and mother packed the back seat and trunk, heaped the roof with boxes, and tied them to the car with clothesline. The boxes are covered with tarp.
Wind blows the last leaves off the poplars and maples and elms. I am knee-deep in wet yellow leaves; leaves stick to my bare legs.
My grandmother pushes me into the Packard’s back seat, wedges me between boxes stacked with pots and pans that will rattle all day through the long ride. When my grandmother slams the car door, Zoe tries to jump in. My grandmother’s blunt foot thuds against Zoe’s ribs. Even though they washed me, I can smell the vomit on my skin.
Memories come back to you in your mouth. Decades pass before I eat oatmeal; to this day, when I become sick to my stomach, I am terrified. I fear something more awful than vomiting. As an older child, when, for instance, I ran a 102-degree fever with measles and vomited myself empty into the pan my mother left on my bed, that morning came back to me. I was back at that table, newspaper opened out under the oatmeal bowl. Always when I was — am — sick, my body felt — feels— more than ache, sore throat, sick stomach; I felt like a sausage stuffed with sorrow.
That rainy morning I lost the life I was born to. I never trusted anyone again.
Then there is the second breakfast. After my mother divorced my father, I lived with my grandmother on the ramshackle farm Uncle Carl bought her before he joined the Navy in World War II. Uncle Carl was my mother’s brother, my grandmother’s only son. He said that if anything happened to him in the war, she would have the farm.
Hands on her wide hips, my grandmother stated, proudly, that on her farm she had “more land than the eye could take in.” How many acres those were, I don’t know.
How a woman, then in her 60s, labored 16 hours a day as she did, I still do not know. She was rarely in the house, and when she was, she was dusting, scrubbing, disinfecting, swatting flies, washing and starching and ironing and then baking all of our bread, pies, cakes, canning and pickling and preserving and then tatting, embroidering, crocheting.
When I’m talking about my grandmother and her farm, people sometimes ask me how I remember this so clearly, given that I was three and a half when I went there and almost six when I left. I say I was like someone set down in a Bible story where every event seems about to burst into a moral and every breeze is a wind of prophecy. I point out how alone I was, no children to play with and my mother and father gone. My only human companions were this old woman and her hired hands.
Her house sat on a rise that declined toward the gravel county road. Behind the house, outbuildings leaned in varying stages of repair and disrepair. A wood-framed barn held stalls for the fawn-colored Jerseys and black-and-white Holsteins that my grandmother and the hands, Bushels and Buckles, milked early morning and late afternoon. A ladder led to the hayloft above the stalls. I never once went there. You could break your neck. Be, my grandmother said, “crippled for life.”
Between back porch door and barn was the well house, where the pump pounded and surged, strong and steady as an athlete’s heart. The well water tasted like stone would taste if you chewed it.
A concrete-block milk house stood near the barn. In the milk house my grandmother separated milk and poured it into stainless steel jugs for the dairy truck that, daily, picked up filled jugs and left off empties. She kept some of the milk for us and some for the barn cats.
To the right of the barn was the hen house. Next door to the hen house stood the brooder house, where baby chicks were let out when they arrived, by mail, in boxes. You could hear the chicks peep in the boxes. And next door to the brooder house, inside a wire fence, was a shack where cockerels were fattened for market and fried chicken dinners.
One thing you learned on the farm was that chickens would not love you. All they wanted was the corn you scattered. If they thought anything about you it was that you stole their eggs. I don’t think they even thought that much.
Spring and summer, when you stretched out on prickly grass, you knew grass didn’t care about you either. Grass had a life all its own, trying to go to seed and make more of itself. The grass didn’t flinch when the cows left hoof prints. Nothing cared, not the hens, cows, the mule, alfalfa. Everything went about its business growing itself. Then my grandmother and Bushels and Buckles came along and turned it, animal or vegetable, to food. This hardened your heart.
Behind the barn, Bushels and Buckles lived in a windowless bunkhouse. My grandmother hired the two old men from the county poorhouse. They spit tobacco on the ground near their boots, chewed cigar stubs and orange rat cheese, the latter kept in the bib pocket of their overalls. In winter they layered on underwear; over their underwear and under overalls, they wore plaid flannel shirts. Frayed long-john sleeves stuck out below the shirt cuffs. They tucked their overall legs into unfastened rubber galoshes; the galoshes’ metal fasteners clacked with each step the two men took. You could tell where they’d been by the smell.
My grandmother traded a hog to a house painter from town who slapped white paint on the house. In exchange for a half-dozen laying hens, he also calcimined the chicken house. My grandmother said she got one over on him, those hens’ laying days were done. When my grandmother got one over on somebody, you should have heard her laugh. She threw back her big head and opened wide her big round mouth and clacked together her false teeth and cackled.
My grandmother tacked up a satin Blue Star pennant, a blue star against white satin, in the front window. You got one blue star for each son or daughter serving in the armed forces. If your son or daughter died, you took down your blue star and draped a Gold Star banner over your window and you wore a gold star lapel pin; the dead fighter’s mother was called a Gold Star Mother.
We drove the pickup to town on Saturdays to sell eggs and buy supplies. My grandmother cruised residential streets. She said she didn’t care how much goddam gas we wasted, she wanted to count gold stars. She wasn’t Catholic, but when she saw a gold star, she took a hand off the steering wheel, crossed herself, and said, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Uncle Carl was 41 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He had never married. Given his age and that he was a teacher of organ in a state college, the Navy made him a chaplain’s assistant, as they did many apparently homosexual men. Uncle Carl was homosexual, although he hid his homosexuality. He had his mother’s stocky German body, a strong chin, large blue eyes, and a flirtatious manner with both men and women. Single women invited him for dinners and to concerts and parties. He accepted their invitations, and then afterward, talking with homosexual male friends, he made fun of the women, their excessive use of cosmetics and perfume, coy mannerisms. Sometimes he spoke cruelly, mentioning their unpleasant female odors, terrifying ardor, attempts to kiss him, their desperation to catch “anything in pants.”
The Navy trained Uncle Carl in Norfolk, Virginia, then shipped him to Okinawa, along with an Armed Forces hymnal and a field organ, a three-foot-high console whose keyboard spanned four octaves. Players powered the organ by pumping two wide pedals, and the organ gave out a surprisingly robust sound. (I know because during the 1960s, Uncle Carl bought at a junk store a field organ precisely like the one he’d played on Okinawa.) Uncle Carl’s job was to provide music at church services held behind battle lines. “You had to play loud,” he said, “and had to be ready at the drop of a hat to pound out ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’
“World War II,” he later would say, “was the best vacation I ever had.” Then he’d wink, lewdly, add, “All that delicious fresh seafood, you know.” Years later, someone told me that “seafood” was in-crowd gay slang for sailors.
While Uncle Carl, as my mother and grandmother put it, was “fighting in the Pacific,” the two women, again, to use their language, “worried themselves sick.” My mother was at Eastman School of Music getting her master’s degree and taking singing lessons, so I don’t know what form her worry took. I do know my grandmother did much vigorous hand-wringing, twisting of apron corners, that her mood rose and fell with arrival or non-arrival of Uncle Carl’s mail.
She kept a world map thumbtacked to her bedroom wall. She’d put her fat finger in the blue Pacific and say, “That’s where my boy is, out in all that water.” Sometimes, she would shake her head, say, “That’s a goddamn lot of water.”
My grandmother was the oldest of ten children. All she ever said about her parents was that her father, A.J. Brooks, beat her and that her mother made her “slave” right alongside her, helping raise the children that came after her. My grandmother never said one kind word about her father or mother, nor did I ever hear her mention her brothers and sisters. Not one word.
Like others raised in her era (she was born in the late 1870s), she did not have a sentimental attitude toward children. Days passed when all she called me was “Young’un.”
“Young’un,” she’d say, “go get the mail.”
To get to the mailbox, you walked down a graveled driveway to the gate and took down the gate rails. Hail stones had battered the mailbox, and cattle rubbing against the pole to which the box was bolted had loosened and tipped the pole. They had left tufts of their stiff russet hairs on the pole.
If three days passed without a letter, I kept my distance. A disagreeable woman at best, my grandmother turned fierce when she worried. For the slightest slip-up, say, breaking an eggshell when I gathered eggs, she’d slap you so hard your ears rang. She was short and fat, and when she had hitting you on her mind, she moved fast. So I always hoped that when I stood on tiptoes to get into the mailbox that she’d have a letter from Uncle Carl, or at least a letter from my mother, of whom, alas, she was not as fond.
I wanted to love my grandmother. I didn’t. When I was older and my grandmother had been dead for years, I said to my mother that I had been miserable with my grandmother. My mother looked up from photographs of my children, costumed for a grade school play, that she had been studying. She turned her face toward me, the heart-shaped face lined and drawn downward, but still beautiful. She scooted to the edge of her chair. She inhaled. I could hear the warm air enter her. A small woman, five feet tall, slender and delicately boned, she was wearing an expensive knit dress, the yarn a clear red. She inhaled and her diaphragm enlarged, as singers’ diaphragms will. When I was a child, this slow enlargement frightened me. It was like something an animal does before striking.
She spoke in these moments with the careful enunciation she gave to a Puccini aria or Schubert lied. She grew cautious with dental consonants, fitted them tidily between the easy, open vowels. She said — sang, really — that I should thank my lucky stars my grandmother took me in. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips. “Do you think,” she trilled a thrilling crystalline vibrato, “that your father’s new wife would have taken you?”
Evenings after my grandmother and Bushels and Buckles herded cows into their stalls, milked them, strained and separated the milk, filled the cows’ feed boxes with feed and hay, got chickens gathered in, and hasped the hen house door against skunks and coons, my grandmother turned on the big cathedral Philco, settled deep into her plush easy chair, turned up her hearing aid high as it would go, and grabbed up her mending or fancywork. She’d say, “Shut up. I want to hear what they say.”
“They” were Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Lowell Thomas, Gabriel Heatter, Richard C. Hottelet, Walter Winchell. Even young children recognized the voices. We might not know, and I didn’t, what a world war was, but we knew the news these sonorous voices carried into our living rooms was about whether Japs or Nazis were going to stick bayonets through you. We listened and watched our grownups’ faces; their frowns or smiles or tears told you if news was good or bad.
My grandmother’s bedroom was crowded with heavy, carved furniture — wardrobe chest, vanity table, two smaller chests, and four-poster bed. Across the surfaces she’d scattered doilies she’d tatted herself, and atop those doilies she’d set out bric-a-brac she’d picked up in her travels — a hollowed-out armadillo, a pottery log cabin incised in gold with “Land of Lincoln,” a metal oil derrick, a wooden music box in the shape of a steamer trunk. The music no longer played. Roosevelt’s photograph hung on her bedroom wall. The photograph had been hand-tinted and had that odd pastel haze you see over pictures of saints. Tucked into the corner of that photograph was a smaller photo, torn from a newspaper: Winston Churchill flashing the V-for-Victory sign.
You read now in history books that Roosevelt was the first president to broadcast regularly over the radio. He gave what he called “fireside chats.” All over America, people sat in their living rooms, radios tuned, and waited for his “Good evening, my friends.”
Nights when President Roosevelt gave his fireside chats, my grandmother took down the map and draped it over her knees. “This way,” she said, “I can follow along with what President Roosevelt says.” She pronounced his name “Rue-sevelt.” She worshipped him.
“Now there’s a man,” my grandmother said, “who loved his mother.” Which was how you knew she was going to tell you the story of Roosevelt’s life. That his father was rich, older than his beautiful mother, that they lived in a mansion high on a hill above the Hudson River in New York in a town called Hyde Park. He was the only child because little Mother Roosevelt, the doctor said, was too delicate to have more children; she was small, in the pelvis. When young Franklin was eight, his father had a heart attack and lived for the next ten years as an invalid. Franklin was good as gold, my grandmother said, not wanting to do anything to set off his father’s heart or worry his mother. When Father Roosevelt died, Franklin was going to Harvard College, and after the funeral Mother Roosevelt was so lonely she moved to Boston to be near Franklin.
After Franklin graduated, when he was 21, he told his mother he was going to marry his fifth cousin, President Teddy Roosevelt’s niece, the homely orphan Eleanor, and it about broke Mother Roosevelt’s heart. But he married Eleanor anyway, and that marriage, my grandmother said, was about the biggest mistake in the President’s life, except for when he went swimming on a cold day and let himself take a chill that left him open to come down with infantile paralysis.
According to my grandmother, some people claimed that Mother Roosevelt was an “interferer.” Because she always stayed “right close” to the president, even after he married. “He could have told her to mind her own business,” my grandmother said, “if he’d felt like that. But he didn’t.” My grandmother believed Eleanor Roosevelt was such a bad housekeeper and hostess and careless mother that Mother Roosevelt had no choice but to keep close to her son to help raise the six children the couple had.
My grandmother didn’t have one good word for Eleanor. Mrs. Roosevelt had a column, “My Day,” that ran in newspapers across the country. When my grandmother read this column, she’d say that “Mrs. My Day” gadded around too much, that she ought to stay home in the White House, keep track of her children, who got married and divorced faster than you could count. She said the president should make his wife keep her big flapping mouth shut. She thought Mrs. Roosevelt “ugly as sin, what with those big horsey teeth jutting out.” She criticized Mrs. Roosevelt’s clothing as “Dutchy-looking,” a term that meant “unstylish” and “country.” She laughed at her hats. But the worst thing, according to my grandmother, about Mrs. Roosevelt, was that she encouraged “race-mixing.” She brought “colored” into the White House and entertained them “right there in front of God and everybody.” She was always trying to get the president to “do for the colored.”
My grandmother believed that after the war, thanks to Mrs. My Day and her “do-gooder” friends, the “colored” would no longer “know their place.” She said that while she knew “good colored people” and “clean colored people,” colored did not belong with white. No way.
My grandmother said that one thing Mother Roosevelt did that was wrong was that after the polio crippled up her son, she begged him to retire. He refused. He’d already been a big man in government in Washington, D.C., with President Wilson, as assistant Navy secretary. “A big man,” my grandmother said, “can never go back to being a nobody.” He fought the polio and got back some use of his legs and became governor of New York. Then when the Depression got bad as it could get and the Bolshies were about to start a revolution, he ran for president against that goddam cheapskate Hoover.
My grandmother saw FDR as personally responsible for the enactment of Social Security, and when she rummaged through her pocketbook for Tums, she sometimes slid her Social Security card from her wallet. “This,” she said, “will help keep me from the poor farm in my old age.” She’d talk about how although FDR was “rich in his own right,” he cared about the little man, the “forgotten man,” the workers and farmers. She’d say that when he became president, hardly a house out in the country had electricity, and now almost every farmer had electric lights. “Me?” she’d say. “I’d follow FDR through fire in my bare feet.”
My grandmother liked to tell about when Mother Roosevelt died, a few months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. She’d say that even though the president’s mother was almost 87, she was pretty as a picture. “She blued her hair,” my grandmother said, patting her own white hair, which she rinsed with laundry bluing, “the same as I do mine. That way it doesn’t turn all yellow.” The president knew his mother was sinking and got on the train to Hyde Park and was holding her hand when she passed away. After she died, my grandmother said, he didn’t come back to the White House for a long time. He just shut himself up there in Hyde Park. He got out the box Mother Roosevelt had kept with his baby shoes all bronzed up and his toys and some of his hair from the first time the barber cut it, and he held on to that box and cried his heart out.
When I was older and had young children of my own and wanted to understand my family, I read everything I could find in the library about Roosevelt. He seemed as much a part of the people I came from as my grandmother or Uncle Carl or mother or father.
When Roosevelt became president, he couldn’t walk. Heavy braces held his legs stiff. But he’d made it appear he could walk. If you look, now, at photographs of Roosevelt, you can see the tricks he used. He always had someone holding on to either side of him, and he’d grip their arms, and they’d propel him forward. No one talked much about Roosevelt being crippled. But they must have known.
My grandmother, like most Americans during World War II, hated the Japanese. So you won’t think she was unusual, here’s something Ernie Pyle wrote that appeared in papers all across America. “In Europe we felt that our enemies were still people. But out here in Japan I soon gathered that Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive. I watched Japanese POWs laughing and talking just like normal human beings. They gave me the creeps, and I wanted to take a mental bath after looking at them.”
When American pilots dropped ton after ton of incendiary bombs on Tokyo and Nagasaki, my grandmother beat on her knees with her fists and cheered. “They’re setting those Japs on fire,” she said. She beat her knees so hard that her fancywork fell to the carpet. But when news from the Pacific theater indicated that Japanese torpedoes blew up a U.S. ship or that kamikazes had dive-bombed a U.S. patrol boat, my grandmother went to bed weeping. Wearing the nightgown she’d sewn from pink outing flannel, she sat at the edge of her bed. She took out her teeth and dropped them into the glass of water on her bedside table. She pulled out her hearing aid amplifier from the yellowed nook between her breasts and the hearing aid button from her ear and tucked the contraption under her pillow. She sloughed off her slippers. Those nights her sobs rose and fell, throbbing through our bedrooms’ thin walls. She moaned the long, low moans that cows, enduring a difficult birth, moaned. I felt helpless to comfort her, and I was.
By 1944, FDR had been president for 11 years. My grandmother studied his photograph in newspapers, Life magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post. She shook her head, said, “Look at those bags under the poor man’s eyes. We’ve done worn him out.”
When Roosevelt ran for re-election to his fourth term, he dumped his old vice president, Henry Wallace, and ran with the senator from Missouri, Harry Truman. His Republican opponent was New York governor Tom Dewey, “a horse’s ass,” my grandmother seethed, “with a silly mustache.” No way, she told Bushels and Buckles, would Dewey win. He didn’t.
Harry Truman my grandmother hated and looked down upon as a failed farmer, which he was. My grandmother said we should pray Roosevelt didn’t die in office and leave us with Harry. Of course, he did.
The day in April when news came of Roosevelt’s death, my grandmother took to her bed. She didn’t cook dinner. She didn’t milk cows, didn’t gather eggs. Next morning, when she walked into the kitchen, her eyes were swollen from crying.
Pretty soon after Roosevelt died, my grandmother cheered up. Because the war was winding down. “My boy,” she’d say, “will soon be home.”
Lord, how she loved the A-bomb. The day that the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, my grandmother cheered. She loved, she said, the thought that all those Japs were finally getting theirs. She clacked her big false teeth and cackled. “Old Tojo,” she said, “I bet his old yellow feet are feeling the heat.”
Harry became her hero. We heard no more talk about Harry’s inability to farm. Harry became the man who “saved the lives of our American boys.” Bess Truman, castigated as a “bridge club priss ass” and “plain as an Irish potato,” became “the good woman behind a good man.”
After VJ Day, Uncle Carl was due to be demobilized. In his letters he wrote that he couldn’t say when he’d actually get out. “I’ll surprise you,” he wrote.
By then, potatoes were dug and taken down to the storm cellar in gunny sacks. The tight cabbage heads, outer leaves wrapped tightly around the head, veins sticking out, were also down in the storm cellar, with turnips, purple at the shoulder and ivory below, and beets and carrots. Canning was done. Baby chicks, arrived that spring in boxes, by then were pullets who filled nest boxes with eggs. When you got up in the morning and looked out the window, you saw frost on roofs and pasture.
About four one morning, I woke up. I was sleeping under heaped quilts. A dream woke me, I thought, or my grandmother, who called out in her sleep to people whose names I didn’t know. My room was dark. I got out of bed and looked out my window. I pulled aside the curtain. The sun hadn’t come up, the red-combed roosters weren’t crowing and scratching dirt with their yellow feet.
I heard a knock at the front door and a moment later, more knocks against the dining and living room windows. A voice called, “Mother, Mother.” I didn’t recognize the voice. I didn’t think to go shake my grandmother awake. I thought only of the voice crying, “Mother, Mother.” The person from whom the voice came sounded like someone in trouble.
I ran through the house to the front door. The top half of the door was inset with murky glass. I looked through the glass and saw a man. A white sailor’s cap tilted to one side of his head. I stood on my toes and snapped on the porch light. “Open the door,” the man said, “it’s your Uncle Carl.”
He didn’t look like the face that came to mind when I thought “Uncle Carl.” Years later, studying photographs taken before Carl joined the Navy and at photographs taken the afternoon of that morning he arrived at the farm, I see that Navy life thinned him down, left him appearing younger than his 40-some years. He looks boyish, hoydenish, and his blue eyes look larger, more open.
I threw the bolt and opened the door. Surely he hugged me, but I don’t remember. I do remember that he wore a navy-blue sailor middy with white anchors embroidered on the square collar. I remember that slung over each shoulder he had a huge sea bag and that once inside the door, he hoisted the bags off his shoulders onto the floor. The bags were filled with sea shells from the Pacific, many of them hand-size scallop shells that he used in years ahead for ashtrays when he gave parties.
I told him Grammy didn’t hear him knocking because she took out her hearing aid at night. He whispered, “We want to wake up Mother carefully, so the shock doesn’t give her a stroke or heart attack.” My mother and Uncle Carl worried their mother would have a heart attack or stroke because her blood pressure was high.
I don’t remember how we woke her up. I do remember she grabbed Uncle Carl around the waist and held on so tight he screamed, “You’re going to cut me in two, Mother.” Her head didn’t come up much further than his stomach. She cried until the front of her nightie was spotted with tears.
Uncle Carl wanted breakfast. He said that while he was on ships out in the Pacific and on Okinawa, he went to sleep nights thinking about her breakfasts. “The biscuits, Mother, the fried eggs, the sausage, your strawberry preserves. Oh, my God!” He rolled his blue eyes and told us that in the Navy they fed them powdered eggs and powdered milk and bacon from cans.
The enormous kitchen, painted bright yellow, had windows that looked out to the west and south. Along the west wall was the deep sink from whose faucets poured the medicinal well water. My grandmother was so short she stood on a box to get to the sink, and she often stood there, her fat, hard belly damp from dishwater, and gazed out onto her pasture. A four-burner, two-oven gas range was backed against the north wall. The kitchen table and four chairs around it took up all the space in a windowed nook that afforded a view into the vegetable garden and, beyond the garden, to the barn and hen house.
I know that table well, because after my grandmother died, my mother had the table and chairs that went with it shipped Railway Express to our house. She stripped off the paint and, evenings, wearing a mask because sawdust was bad for her voice, she sanded the oak smooth. When a guest praised the table, my mother ran her pretty hand over the table. Tears rose in her eyes. She said, “It was my mother’s table.”
I would remember my grandmother’s ugly face. I would think how, on her deathbed, she told my mother she never loved her as much as she did Uncle Carl. My mother walked into the hospital corridor and sobbed. Uncle Carl petted her shoulder. He said, “She’s out of her mind, she doesn’t know what she’s saying.” I always thought she knew precisely what she was saying and enjoyed the hurt her statement caused.
A pantry off the kitchen was almost as big as the kitchen. Shelves ranked from floor to ceiling around all four walls. My grandmother stored canning there, extra pots and pans, a fruit jar filled with pencils, canning equipment, mops and brooms, perhaps as many as 50 one-pound cans of Folgers coffee, sacks of sugar and flour and cornmeal, the Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs.
Next to the stove — my grandmother called it "the range" — was the refrigerator, which my grandmother referred to as "the icebox." Mornings, she kept her percolator coffeepot on the range. She liked coffee burnt black, and years later, while she was dying of stomach cancer, my uncle and mother whispered that the burnt coffee hadn't helped her any.
You don't see stove-top percolators much anymore. A straight-sided pot, fitted out with a basket into which coffee grounds were ladled and a tube that fitted through a hole in the middle of that basket and ran from top to bottom of the pot. You put the water in the pot and then set in the basket with its tube. The lid had in its center a hollow glass knob. You put the pot on the stove with the flame on high. Once the water began boiling, the hot water rose up through the tube and then down through the coffee grounds that sat in the basket, thus extracting their essence. When this process began, one said that the coffee had begun "to perk." At this point, the flame was turned low beneath the pot. You could see the water jet up into the glass knob on the lid. As the water recirculated, the water you saw through the glass became darker and the circulation increased its speed. The sound was chug, chug, chug.
That morning Uncle Carl came back from the war, my grandmother blew her nose and put on the percolator and stuck a match in the oven and lit it. She tied her apron on over her nightgown. She got out flour, baking powder, lard, and salt, and buttermilk. She poured the flour, the salt, the baking powder, without measuring, into the mixing bowl. She scooped out lard from the lard bucket with a table-spoon. She picked up the red-handled pastry mixer, the same one she used to make pie crust, and cut the white lard into the flour, until the flour turned to pea-size balls. Uncle Carl pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and sat down. My grandmother's broad fat back, apron bow tied and flopping above her monstrous, massive buttocks, faced him. Over and over, she'd stop in the middle of blending the dough, turn and say, "Oh, son, let me get another look at you." She stood, flour on her hands, and smiled.
I sat on the cold floor, on the black-and-white speckled Armstrong linoleum, at Uncle Carl's feet and stroked his dusty black boots. I wanted him to open his sea bags and show the seashells. I knew better than to ask.
Sun was coming up. Dirty brindle dog trailing behind them, Bushels and Buckles came up from the bunkhouse into the kitchen, as they did every morning. They brought their doggy, sour-washcloth, urinaceous odors with them.
She fed Bushels and Buckles every morning, my grandmother did, and that morning, too, they would have wanted coffee, their ham or sausage or bacon, eggs and pancakes and biscuit, gravy if she had some left from dinner the night before, slices of the day before's pie. Normally, she sat with them while they ate and sipped at her ever-blackening coffee. They talked about which cows were free, which heifers ready for breeding, a hog who seemed off his feed, a motor that needed oiling, an off-taste in the morning's milk, hat sort of thing. They talked, too, about the war.
But not this morning. My son's here," she told them. Uncle Carl stood, shook the old men's hands. surely, they congratulated him on his safe return, and he no doubt thanked them for being a help to his mother.
What I do remember is that while the three men talked my grandmother lapped together sandwiches made from old biscuit and thick slices of bologna. She told them to take their food and coffee on out to the barn and get started milking.
She had sharpened her favorite butcher knife so many times that its blade had narrowed to a thin steel sliver. That morning, I'm sure she used that knife as she cut thick slices of bacon off a smoked rasher from hogs she'd butchered. The rasher's exterior, rubbed with salt and sugar and spices and smoked with hickory in the smokehouse, had taken on the burnish of oiled mahogany furniture. She held up a bacon slice for Uncle Carl to see. She told him about the hog from whose side the slice had been cut.
I don't remember the hog's name, but unlike most farmers, my grandmother named her hogs, and out in the hog pen, she addressed them by name — Ben, Abner, Robert E. Lee, Stimson, Salvatore, Isadore, Pappy, Daisy Mae are names I recall hearing her use. (And years later, when I told my father some of these names, he said that at least two were names of my grandmother's boyfriends.) I do remember that she told Uncle Carl about butchering day, how she and Bushels and Buckles did all the sticking and bleeding and sawing apart bones themselves, that she worked right along with them, like a man. I remember that she sidled over to the table and bulged up her biceps and asked him to feel it. She would have said, as she often did, "Feel that, hard as a rock, huh? Hard as a goddamn rock."
I do know that while she cooked that morning, she cried. "For joy," she said, "for pure-out joy." I know that she had reached out so many times to touch her son that the shoulders of his navy-blue uniform were dusted with flour and imprinted with floury handprints.
She set the bacon slices to cooking in the high-sided iron skillet. She sent me to the pantry for red Winesaps that she cored and cut in rounds. She arranged the apple rings in a skillet whose surface burbled with freshly churned butter. She browned the apples and, using tongs, turned them carefully, then tossed handfuls of brown sugar over them and set a lid atop the skillet, so the sugar would caramelize over the tart Winesap slices. The bacon fried, its fats sizzling. After the bacon had cooked the way Uncle Carl liked it — not quite crisp, with the lean still soft—she broke open brown eggs on the edge of the iron skillet.
"Come here, son," she might have said, as she often did, "and look how high these here yolks set up." Then, she may well have told him which of her hens were the most prodigious layers and how many eggs they laid in a good month.
The biscuit, by then, put out its heated high-summer-wheat-field, floury aroma into the kitchen. The bacon's salty haze drifted across the kitchen like weather. And the apple rings' caramel sweetness bore down on us like July sunshine. My grandmother stood next to Uncle Carl. Her blued hair stuck out in oily strands off her big head. She placed her hands on her wide hips and she smiled. She'd forgotten to put in her teeth. Her lips encircled the emptiness. Her pink tongue emerged over glistening gums. Tears streamed down her fat face. She said, "Well, as far as I'm concerned, my war's over. My boy's home." She must have been happy many times after that, but never again would I see her as happy as she was that day.