Saturday, November 13, 2010

S'mores in the Fire Pit: Summers in the Berkshires

Still inspired by my last post, I decided to write about the other set of Grandparents. This piece I wrote about two years ago and came back to it this weekend. This is a home my Grandfather has owned for upwards of 55 years, in an area where he grew up. There is no running water, no shower, no indoor toilet, but there is laughter and memories from my mother's childhood and ours. And I love it there.

This piece is something I'd love to perfect, because I know it's not quite there. So any advice would be very welcome!! (Photo credit goes to my Aunt Pam and Uncle Sean.)

North Chester, Massachusetts

As you arrive you have to honk the horn so everyone knows you’re there, even though yours is the only car to have passed by that afternoon. You honk and everyone puts down their books or their rakes or the wood they’re collecting for the fire and comes up from the yard or out the screen door that closes hard against the doorframe, BAM, which echoes across the road and gets soaked up in the field of ferns.

Grandpa says Heeellllllloooooooooo! And waves and smiles, just as you knew he would. And you can’t help but grin, because that means you’re really there, finally arrived. You pull onto the grass and turn off the motor and the quiet pours in through the car windows. Suddenly even being near the car feels wrong, like you’ve brought some newfangled contraption into a time and place where it doesn’t belong.

The grass smells damp and Grandma takes off her gardening gloves and gives you a kiss, saying ooooooooooh, it’s good to see you! And Grandpa holds your shoulders tight and tells you how good you look and calls you honey. You carry in your bags and your cooler and you fill up the fridge, so old it has a long handle and round door. You bring your bags upstairs, the wooden handrail rattling with each step, the smell of mothballs and cedar and stovepipe surprisingly satisfying.

Later, once people have picked up their books again and settled back into the chairs on the porch, you wander out to join them, still not used to the lull, the calm that covers the field in front of you, slips off the apple trees down by the outhouse.

You sit and hold your hands together to slow yourself, take deep breaths and sip lemonade from a paper cup.

Grandpa holds his hands together in his lap, as you are, and asks you questions. You tell him about your work, about your love, about your drive up, and he nods strongly and says Good. Good. He smiles his proud smile, because he can’t help but be proud, and that makes you glow warm inside, makes you want to go home and do even better.

He points out past the meadow and tells you they saw turkeys, and a porcupine. Your Mom, petting the lab’s head, tracing his nose with her finger, fills in the rest of the story as Grandpa nods. An ant crawls over the tablecloth. You ask if the river is cold, and everyone makes excuses, saying that it’s not so cold once you get in.

You all go down to the river later, out the screen door, BAM, and down the dirt road to the swimming hole. You listen to the water streaming through the dam, the rocks gently knocking against each other in the current. The dogs wade into the swimming hole, lapping the water, stirring up the moss.

You lay your towel on one of the rocks, longways or sideways depending on how you feel about the sun. You sit and open your book and a dog comes over, coming closer and closer as you tell him no, no, go back! He loves the attention, licks your face and shakes water and sand and dog all over. Your sisters and your love laugh.

When your soaked suit is finally dry, when there are no more snacks in the canvas bag, when the light moves from yellow to a deeper orange, you decide to trek back up to the house, where dinner, like an inside picnic, is waiting on the other side of the screen door, BAM.

As always, Grandpa says, Gooood dinner, Ruthie. And even though Grandma has plates full of cookies, everyone knows its time for s’mores. And as always, Grandpa says the fire is just right now, but he slowly rises to go make sure.

Your arms full of graham crackers and marshmallow, you head out the screen door, BAM, and find Grandpa across the road at the fire pit, carving long green branches to a point. They have to be green, he says, then they won’t catch. You all roast marshmallows in the fading light, swatting mosquitoes, blowing out marshmallow infernos, tummies and eyelids getting heavier, until the only light is from the embers and the rivers of stars overhead.

And it feels like midnight but really it’s not so you all snuggle back on the screened porch with candles and flashlights and books and a faded deck of cards. And you have been doing this for as long as you can remember, since before there was even a screened porch to sit on, since before you remembered to remember the sound of the screen door closing hard against the doorframe, BAM.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A visit with Grandpa. And Grandma.

My grandfather is 92. He moved last week into an acute care facility, from his apartment in an assisted living home. He was getting disoriented, falling down, and landing himself in the hospital time and again.

My grandfather's name is Bernie. Bernard Stanton Crone. He's a funny man, and spent most of his years as a traveling salesman. My father has stacks of postcards from my Grandfather's travels. Grandpa Bernie had the most meticulous garage I've ever seen. I remember visiting him, sitting in the garage with him, looking at every tool, every nail, every nut, tucked into a jar or hanging on a peg board. I remember exactly how the garage smelled--like a mixture of oil and wood and pine needles. Grandpa Bernie had a martini every single day, at 5 o'clock. He used to keep his gin, vermouth, and olives in a little gray carrying case with a black handle. He calls us sweethearts, and has the most distinct voice: low and soft and gravelly.

My grandmother, named Margaret but known to my sisters and me as Muma, passed away about 10 years ago. When I think of my Muma, I think of her softness. Everything physical about my Muma was soft: her graying red hair, her hands, her smile and eyes. But she was strong-willed, had strong opinions, a spirited giggle, and a fierce love for chocolate. She wore a lot of amethyst, and had several diamond rings that she would point to and tell me would someday belong to me and my sisters. Muma did a lot of needlepoint, and had a love of birds. Especially Cardinals. She had Cardinals on her sweatshirts, on her window thermometer, on her needlepoint. She gave amazing hugs.

My grandparents met, around 1935 or so, when Muma got a job at a department store. She began to walk to her bus stop every morning, which was on a corner with a gas station. My Grandpa Bernie worked at this gas station. And she caught his eye, getting on and off the bus each day. He finally asked her on a date, and they eventually married and had two sons.

I'm not sure Grandpa Bernie remembers any of this right now. I know he does in his heart. But I'm not sure what is in his head.

I went to visit him yesterday. He asked me, often, what time it was. I would tell him and he would seem surprised, but would nod. I joked that I would try to sneak him a martini at 5 o'clock. And he smiled and laughed.

He said, several times, "So much has happened...".

And it has. But I don't think he knows exactly what.

I held his hand, and he would sometimes turn to look at me. Sometimes he was surprised and confused as to who I was. But twice, twice, he looked at me and squeezed my hand. He said, "thank you, sweetheart." Or "love you, dear." And he would squeeze my hand. And I would squeeze back. That's pretty much all I can do right now. That, and not letting him see me cry.

This morning was gray, and cold, and I made tea and toast and sat at the table, looking out the window into the backyard. Seconds after I sat down, a brilliant red cardinal landed in a bush, directly in my eyeline. It was stunning. It sat there, looking at me, looking away, and back at me.

I know that was my Muma. I know it was.
And because of that, I know Grandpa is going to be OK. Whatever happens, it will be OK. She will hold his hand, and he will call her sweetheart. And they will fly off, together.