With fists, with words, with kindness
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I stole home soundlessly last night when no one was awake.
It is 1 in the morning in California, where I live now, 4 a.m. in North Carolina where Grandfather sits in the kitchen. Through the screen door, past a curtainless window, I watch him before entering. His blue oxford-cloth shirt is buttoned up to his neck; his cane — which he has had to use since doctors found two kinds of cancer in him — is propped against his knees. Even though it is dark, he has begun his day. In bed before the sun sets, he is up early to see it rise.
Grandmother is usually with him, if not dishing up their breakfast — red jello with marshmallows and peaches — then lying on the daybed, fully clothed, in the back room off the kitchen. Today she is in the front bedroom, sleeping late. She may have talked in her sleep all night, perhaps saying as she did once before, Let me hold you on my hip, child. No, don’t you hide under the bed. When she talks out loud, she doesn’t rest well.
I step in the back door, never thinking that I might startle him. And I don’t. He gazes at me calmly, then speaks in his vibrant, tight voice: “It’s good to see you, Kassie. It’s been so long.” I smile my widest smile but do not touch him. He has a way of leaning toward me before I speak, as if to catch the meaning of my words before I know what words to say. His face is still: his cheeks smooth, set in a straight line from the ridge of his cheekbones to his jaw. This control is a part of how he listens, an invitation to strength and safety.
“How far away did you say it is?” He asks the familiar question, one that he repeated every time I visited before Daniel and I moved to the West Coast. The West Coast. It’s funny, now that I live in Kern County, California, I think of East and West, and say I’m from the East Coast. When I was home, there was no question in my mind but that I was from the South. When I say South here, people think Los Angeles, San Diego, on down to Mexico.
“How far is it? . . .” his voice audible again.
“Almost three thousand miles. Seven days’ travel if we stop over to see Daniel’s grandparents in Tennessee.”
Grandfather traces the wood whorls of his worn-shiny cane. “Seven days’ travel? Seven days. You aren’t so far away that you forget Grandmother and me back here, are you?”
“No chance of that,” I say quickly, hiding the panic that shakes me when all his stories tangle together and I’m not able to reach for one, to pull it smooth as a length of ribbon from my mind. I think of them often. Yesterday Daniel and I were served a fluffy, sweet square of bread that tasted like yellow cake at a Bakersfield restaurant. “This isn’t cornbread,” I whispered to Daniel, and I pushed my portion over to him. I longed for Grandmother’s recipe: stone-ground white cornmeal combined with just enough hot water to form a flat cake, and then fried to a brown crisp in cast iron. Was it this yearning that sent me home toward comfort?
The miles have never kept us apart; the tie between us stretched, then was strengthened when I returned home, first from college and then from work, to look in on my grandparents. The day Daniel announced our move, Grandfather pressed up from the kitchen table and left the house. We all knew he was headed for the gas pumps that fueled Baseland Farms’ vehicles — his place for weeping whenever the time approached for visiting family to leave.
Living all the way across the country, I couldn’t drive home in an hour when my mother called to say Grandfather was back in the hospital for glucose.
“Did you ever know Dee Andrews?” he asks suddenly. “My second cousin.” His eyes are fastened on the smoky pink door of the refrigerator as he begins to recite slowly.
“Eight months after I came to work at Baseland Farms — your mother was a baby, Kassie, and Grandmother looked after her like a lost kitten — Dee asked for a job recommendation.” His eyes narrow as though he were seeing his words in small print on the refrigerator door. With the same concentration I listen to what I hope will be a complete story.
“I didn’t feel right about speaking to the superintendent. How was he going to react to Dee’s spoiled ways? But since Dee needed the job bad enough to ask, I talked it over with him and Dee went to work.”
He glances at me. “You know, we even boarded him for twenty-five cents a day. Three meals, and every one your Grandmother took out a pan of hot biscuits, fresh from the oven.” Sighing, he slumps toward the front of the house where Grandmother is sleeping. She stirs, the bedclothes rustle, as though she has caught his message, the reason behind his sorrowful resignation. The doctor had to order Grandfather to eat only canned biscuits, chewy and smelling of tinfoil, because he would eat an entire panful of homemade biscuits, with butter and sorghum, when Grandmother baked them every day.
“Anyway, twenty-five cents for all the pleasures you could find anywhere was such a little, but Dee never would act grateful — he was tight. When he had enough money, he bought a store and filling station on old Route 83, at the base of the hill. That was when he left us.”
Grandfather pauses to take a long, restorative breath. The tongue-in-groove boards that crease the outside walls of this house groan in their shifting, or perhaps Grandmother is uttering prayers in her sleep.
“Dee lived in the back of the store, slept on an army cot, ate cold food — Vienna sausages, when he’d been eating stewed venison with us. During World War II my friend Lyson Turner sent word from up the country that I could have two pigs if I would go and get them. Which wasn’t a sure thing since we worked six days a week. Saturday didn’t used to be a different day. I went on a Sunday morning, with my fingers crossed that I had enough gas to get to Lyson Turner’s and back home. After I picked up the pigs, the car popped twice going down the hill to Dee’s filling station. Dee was in the store, his car was parked right outside, but he didn’t come out. I slammed the car door shut. No sign of him. You know, he never would show his face until I knocked on the windowpane. I let him see my three-dollar coupon and asked for some gas. He said, ‘I don’t draw no gas on Sunday.’ I told him my pigs were getting hot in the trunk and could he draw some from his car, to help a friend, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I said, ‘Well, take your gas, and I won’t ever stop here no more.’ ”
His anger spent, Grandfather doesn’t reproach me with the words that I add in my mind. “And you stayed with us. Then you left too. All the way to California. Leaving us for college was hard enough.”
Surfacing in my memory is his goodbye before I crossed three counties for the university. “Don’t get near those people who wear bell-bottoms. They’re Communists.”
Whenever I came home from school, hoping someone would notice the changes I’d experienced — which must have shone in my eyes like love — Grandfather treated me as he’d always done, as his student, a person to teach right from wrong. One weekend in particular he was ready to instruct before I even sat down with him by the wood stove. His face stern as an encyclopedia cover, he asked me if I’d seen her. “Who?” I wanted to know. “That woman,” he said. “That Fonda woman. I saw her in the news up at Chapel Hill. I didn’t see you though.” I told him I’d had class and hadn’t had time to go to the auditorium where she was speaking. I said this to relieve him. It didn’t. Words spurted from his mouth: she should be flown overseas, she should not be allowed back in America. To him, a woman openly critical of her country was more disloyal than a man.
Another time, my grandparents, Daniel, and I were eating supper in the kitchen. No one spoke. Grandfather was listening to, instead of watching, the wrestling match blaring from the television in the living room — simply one more joy the doctor denied him. Grandfather always got carried away; he had stomped a hole through the linoleum to the wooden-slat floor. That Saturday evening he was restless, tapping the edge of his knife against the table. He didn’t have to see Haystack Calhoun sit on Swede Hansen. Without saying a word, Grandmother left her chair and turned off the television.
He set the knife down beside his plate and stared through the doorway between the kitchen and living room. The web of veins across his cheeks reddened, but he didn’t want us to know how irritated he was with her. Finally, he looked over at Daniel and said distinctly, “I think television should only have shows that are true. Not like that one about the woman who twitches her nose and her baby is dressed to go to town. That’s not real, it’s made up.” Neither of us said a word. He was referring to the witch who made Grandmother grumble, “If wrinkling my nose would get the work done, I’d be all set.”
That Fonda woman and the pretend witch. Neither played the part of any woman Grandfather knew.
Since telling Dee Andrews’ story he has been silent. He doesn’t ignore me for much longer.
“But when will you come back?” he asks, knowing as well as he knows my name that I cannot give him a definite answer. I say the only thing I can, “I am back.”
“Not like this.” He seems to point to Grandmother’s presence, to her sounds that swirl uneasily overhead. I want to tell him that I am home to stay, to be like the faithful woman he admires, his wife of sixty years.
At the time of our grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary, Aunt Oma’s daughters were selling Lady Koscot makeup. They decided that Grandmother should be powdered and rouged for the Golden Anniversary party, the only occasion on which flowers were ordered in for the dining table. Makeup was to be their surprise gift for Grandfather. On the day of the party, they came over early and took Grandmother to the bathroom. They applied moisturizer, and ivory-bisque base (although her skin was the color of worn khaki), then gingered-rose lipstick, and violet eye shadow. Grandfather found them and, without a word, picked up a washcloth and began wiping her face. She sat peacefully on a tall wooden stool, the light chips in her green eyes softened with amusement, while he rinsed out the cloth several times, holding it to his wrist a moment before he would put it to her cheek. When the made-up face had been washed down the sink, he looked at her reflection in the medicine-chest mirror. “I want you to be as pretty as you were the day we took the wagon to Fayetteville and married,” he said. She said, “I knew that.”
Now her mumblings hover over my dream. This tiring night will not let her sleep deeply.
Grandfather does not hear her. His gaze is fixed on the darkened windowpanes, as if a new experience awaited the sun.
Nearly sixty years ago he accepted employment on this ten-thousand-acre estate owned by the Murdales of New York. During the first week of his job, he planted the pine trees that now line the dirt roads leading to the lake, to the Murdale houses, and to the stables. “Kassie, you have to tip your head way back on your neck before you can make out where the trees reach the sky. The boys down at the tank house have to pump in the sunshine, the trees are so thick.”
He knows these trees. The oldest tree stands one hundred feet up from Sanders Spring. Pine seedlings should be planted where rye was harvested the previous spring. Sizing the length of chain needed to pull down each tree during timber-cutting time takes a man who can picture the tree fallen.
This last skill he tried to teach Mr. Stone, who supervised Baseland Farms off and on for forty years; but as Grandfather put it, “Thim Stone was the stubbornest man in North Carolina.” On one occasion Mr. Stone was directing a crew of men to pull down a diseased pine near Sanders Mill. With one end of a fifteen-foot chain encircling the base of the tree, the men had just attached the other end to a tractor when Grandfather drove up to the site.
“Now I have to be careful when I advise the boss.” His words weave through the fabric of my dream. “I tried to think how to tell him nicely, but my mind was on that Indian on the tractor. Gary Longstreet helped me with tobacco every summer and never complained when we worked into the night. So I went up to Thim Stone and told him it was the wrong size chain, the tree would come down on the tractor and the man driving it. Mr. Stone looked at me hard and said that’s the way he did it before and the tree came down as easy as a dead branch in a storm. I never argued with him over it. If he couldn’t believe it when I said it once, there wasn’t any sense repeating it. But I did warn the Indian to jump off the tractor the second he heard the tree crack. And he did jump. The tractor was flattened and Thim drove off without saying a word.”
Intent on recapturing this memory, I do not notice that Grandfather is gone until his cane clacks on the linoleum floor in the back room. He’s beginning another story as I sit down on a ladder stool at the foot of the daybed: “I don’t know whether I’ve told this one to you or not, but let me get through it and we’ll know.” He sinks deeper into the daybed, dark brown like damp soil, and clasps his hands across his chest. “I didn’t want to ride with David Townsend after he pulled out that jar of still liquor. He had most of it drunk before we could get out of the yard good, and he ran into the side of the pigpen. All the pigs got loose, and I had to hunt them down the next morning because David was sick.”
I nod, expecting more. Grandfather shifts toward me. “Did I say whose yard it was? Where was I going?” I tell him I don’t know. He closes his eyes and his jaw slackens. What stays with me is a vision of the empty quart jar and pigs scurrying over a broken fence.
His memories are becoming mine and I dream of the old Englishman, a man who worked in the stables when Grandfather first came to Baseland Farms. One night, as they walked home from watching over a fire near Hutton’s graveyard, it began to rain, washing away the blindness that he said came on a man after staring at white flames in the night earth. They were hurrying along the firebreak to find shelter in a vine grove when up ahead a huge rock that jutted over the edge of the sandy bank glowed like cat eyes. The old Englishman stooped to look, and underneath were dozens of lightning bugs, fluttering to avoid each other. Several knocked together, and the brilliance leaped to lick the raindrops green and yellow. “I’ve been to Africa, but that was the best sight, the best sight,” the old Englishman repeated. “All those lightning bugs in one place, squeezing light one to another.”
The old Englishman and Grandfather were friends. Some men who came to the Murdale estate did not show him kindness — one in particular, a man also in his eighties, an expert in international affairs whose advice is still sought by politicians in Washington. Grandfather was once the airport driver, picking up the Murdales and their friends who flew into Raleigh-Durham from New York and Connecticut. This task suited him well. The two-hour drive back to Baseland Farms was a perfect time to renew old friendships or to become acquainted with new arrivals. Perfect for any but the expert from Washington. “He wouldn’t say anything to me from the moment he got off the plane until I pulled up to Mrs. Murdale’s house. He wouldn’t even say he was going to sit in the back. He just stood by the car door until I opened it and pushed the seat forward.”
Grandfather rarely took a breath before he followed this story with another one. “Now his brother, he was different. He got off the plane with his hand out, ready to shake mine before I could get to him. He’d ask me to stop in Lillington for a dish of soft cream and we’d talk and talk like we had all day. He wanted to know about my children and said they grew faster than the abelia planted outside his window, what did we feed them? And his wife, she was a glory. She’d give me a five-dollar bill and say please beg Grandmother to sew her up one of those beautiful dresses, the kind with a box pleat in front. It was the simplest dress to make, Grandmother whispered to me, she could stitch one up in an afternoon, and a five-dollar bill! Why, that was a fortune during the Depression.”
Grandfather has not spoken since he forgot a part of the pigpen story. His eyelids look as relaxed as the eyelids of an infant asleep. In the front bedroom something falls, a thud so essentially soft it can’t be Grandmother. She says something I can barely make out, a hoarse Get back here, then a pause before she mumbles mournfully, You’ll be sorry if you don’t pay me any mind.
On cold winter nights, when Grandfather came home late from the airport, he would bundle up his four sleeping children in quilts and carry them to the back seat of his car. “We’ll do our own visiting as a family,” I hear him say. Off they would go on the fine, straight road through pulpwood country. “We’d stop and pay a call on David Townsend and find him drunk as a field hand, pretending he was Jesse James and begging us to take him to Sanford so he could walk the streets and show his face to the world. People in Sanford knew who he was and some played along. They respected the man who occupied David Townsend’s mind when his stomach was full of whiskey.”
During those trips, the children asleep under worn quilts, grandmother nodding at his side, Grandfather saw things he couldn’t explain away. Like the hand as tall as a person he saw near Cropping Ear Creek beside Danny Bandel’s wagon. Danny’s horse Blackbird saw it too, five fingers standing at attention, and raced away with the wagon, over the ditch and into the woods, where the wagon overturned, throwing Danny Bandel clear. Grandmother insisted it was their car that scared the horse. Grandfather wouldn’t accept that account. “Blackbird didn’t get upset by a car. He never did before that night nor since. He saw what Danny and I saw and forgot about being a trained wagon-horse. That something was the enormous hand. I know it as good as I know you.”
One other night, when he was walking the railroad bed back home from Sanford, he saw the most puzzling thing of his life. He was resting about half a mile up the track from where the Stropers, a black family, lived at the old railroad station. “I heard this noise like a train braking explode from the house, and I looked up and coming toward me was this ball of light. A mulberry branch was between us, and lit up just as plain, like a claw hand ready to catch that light and toss it back to the Stropers. I must have shut my eyes because it was gone before I had time to be scared. Then I ran to the house and knocked on the door, and this wild-eyed woman, Mrs. Stroper, opened it and screamed, Oh she’s gone oh she’s gone. Thurston Stroper was sitting next to a bed. I asked him what was wrong and he told me his little girl Elaine just died. I didn’t tell him about the light coming at me. It must have started moving when his little girl died.”
That light traveling toward him. I imagined things about that light, felt its brightness illumine me, after my sister called. Seven in the morning for her in North Carolina, 4 o’clock here in California. Her slow, easy voice saying he passed on seemed less real than what I was hearing in my mind, the words he said over and over a few days before he died: Come on Lord, Come on. I tucked his last words away for now, behind the story of the ball of light, to recall later when my own grandchild, perhaps a seed within the life I carry under my heart, asks for a family story.
My sister told me Grandmother refused to go home. She was so used to that hospital chair she decided her own bed, without him lying on his back close beside her, would never feel comfortable again.