A collection of decades before I am born, I walk east on the pair of wagon-carved dirt ruts which will someday be called a road toward the next farm, toward he who walks toward me, and this day will hold my hand for the first time: he who will be my grandfather.
* * *
The fire has erased all. It has devoured what we call a life, but that is only killing. As if that weren't bad enough.
This fire has instantly aged letters and diaries, forced them to be ash long before their time. Photographs have shriveled like flowers under a merciless sun, collapsed upon themselves, then scattered, as insubstantial as discarded thoughts, drifting in breezes toward Forgotten, leaving a last whisper to fade from our minds. Imprint of light on eyes.
* * *
When the nightmare laughs at my cry, she arrives at the door, switching on the light.
What is wrong, Little one? Shush, you'll wake your cousins.
Monsters? Look around? There aren't any monsters here. Come on, come to Grandma. Shush. . . Tomorrow is Christmas. Shush. Come here, Grandma will tell you a story.
Her house upholstered with sleeping family, we settle in the rocker, a soft lamp beside. Four years old, on her lap, head on her shoulder bespeaking affection, not fatigue. When the story is done, she hums until my eyes quit opening with every sudden motion. The floor creaks in time.
* * *
In 1930, forty-two years before my birth, I'm eighteen and swirling in a barn dance, with hay on the ground and lanterns hanging from the rafters. The dress I made with Mother dances fancy, beautiful. I'm so happy. He and I spend the evening together, dancing with others only occasionally, even then maneuvering to keep the other in sight. We're in love and not afraid to feel it. Love isn't a terror here.
We ride home in the back of a wagon with three other couples. He tells the driver to drop us both at my door, that he will walk from there. A long sigh of evening passes, silent and expectant, though not tense. Then, the first spell we cast upon each other: a kiss. Calm and beautiful.
No lingering at the gate.
I watch him walk the someday road as his footsteps become one with slow-dancing corn in the wind; locust crooning and cricket melodies. No painting could contain this beauty. No canvas can dance, no brush can swoon in exhilaration like this humming behind smiling lips.
* * *
Where the walls were, borders of cinders protrude. A locket was recovered, but its snapshot nostalgia had been wisped to Elsewhere. Ghost breaths can do that: sweep away what really is theirs so they have something to cherish while they travel.
I would have liked the rose-petal rosary to remember her by, but fire snatched it down, bead by bead, like a snack. So greedy.
* * *
I ride my bicycle for half an hour to be with her on Saturdays. Across the bridge and up her side of town. Twelve year-old legs never tire.
Since Grandfather died, since she gave up the big house, she can't garden, she says sometimes. Not complaining, but mentioning. Like advice, somehow.
Go to the store for her, and the pharmacy, too. Homemade cookies wait when I return. Chocolate-chip. Still soft and warm. There is always something being baked at Grandma's. There is always hope spoken through eyes that have seen two world wars, a depression, and more ghosts come and go than I have yet known in my summer-running life.
There is always so much love there.
* * *
Married and moved to the city, we live well in a modest home, little more than a cottage, and dream of when we can afford one of the two-story houses we walk by after church. Dreaming is a goal, not a ravenous want.
I am three months pregnant, and though there will be work and care needed, there is no fear. This is something that will change our lives, yes: our lives will be so much more wonderful.
* * *
After her first surgery, I go more often, when I can. More bottles to be retrieved from the pharmacy for her. Sometimes she has me pick up a bag of cookies from the store. I'm sorry, Little one, but Grandma doesn't feel like baking. Maybe next week.
I don't need the cookies. I only need her. I need there to be less pills, because pills mean you're sick. And I need there to be just a little more hope, because hope is life, and I see it being supplanted by something she focuses on more and more, beyond my sight. But she isn't sad, isn't despondent. It's like she knows a secret more mystical than time, and is embracing it more every day, while medicine and prayers can't hold her here, anymore.
So much fear in the family, while she waits, rocking slowly in her chair, humming beauty we don't know the words to.
* * *
The blackened square of once-a-home is bordered by us, silent. Aunt, uncle, cousins, brother, me. How do you sift through a life to extract the keepsakes you call Her? Which of her belongings, when polished, or now, when charred, has her essence?
Come, Little one. Listen. I'll tell you a story. . .
The wooden coffin falling slowly is bordered by us, silent. Behind, a gathering of friends: all that remain of those who loved her. She had watched friends disappear since she was born. A rare sorrow at first. A boy lost to the river. A cousin taken by disease. Then more when the wars came and came and wouldn't go away. But even then, not as many as later. Cancer, cancer, heart attacks, and cancer. Soon a friend flew to Heaven every morning when she opened the paper and set the soul free with her eyes upon seeing the obituary.
It is not sad to see her leave us, for there are so, so many waiting to greet her again. One in particular.
* * *
I have my grandmother's memory. It's the only keepsake I could find -- though not retrieved from the ashes -- and the only one worth having. Given to me in the security of her arms, by the brooklet of her voice, long before a fear of death, through all my growing years -- what more could I want? What if people lose the pictures they think of as her? Here is something fire and storm, thief and vandal, change and adversity cannot wrench from me.
I shook the hand of the man who became President. Yet he died before my birth. I lived when Martians could be real, when cars were a minority, before Elvis took the throne, when people were the same as they are now, but could show it openly without being attacked. For all I have seen, I am not a cynic. I cannot be a cynic. I have listened to astronauts speaking from the moon. I have lived through the defeat of deadly diseases. I have witnessed the fall of a generation of fear as the curtain collapsed, and relieved nations breathed, "Thank God!"
I have walked to church with my grandchildren. Me.
* * *
Turn off the ignition and walk from here. Shut off the moon and put out the stars, I want to be alone. With her. Lines of attentive, patient stone let me pass through their ranks. Hello, Grandma. Only a name on a stone. Engraved numbers map the range of her life, but cannot suggest its scope.
I've been so angry so long, Grandma, and it won't consume itself. I've been so lonely so long, and it can't consume itself.
But don't you remember the farm, Little one? Smell the hay? Hear the chicks? It's all in you, now.
But I've never really been there. . .
Shush. Close your eyes. Feel the wind? What is more important?
Grandma. . . I keep walking in my world, and keep seeing yours. I can't tell if I'm traveling, or if I've always been there. I can't tell your memory from me. It's all so vivid. But everything's cloudy. Who and when and where. . . so vivid.
Shush. . .
I can't tell the two apart, sometimes. Not that I'm crazy, no. But I've seen the same fields, with crops in them fifty years later. I've watched children gather around firemen, amazed. I've seen hope so many places, even though people tell me it's not there, anymore. Grandma, I keep seeing love.
Shush. . .
But I don't understand. I wonder sometimes.
It's nothing to fear. Listen. . .
What's that you're humming, Grandma? What's. . . I wonder, sometimes. Sometimes I lay back in the field, smothering a forest of alfalfa, closing my eyes, yet still looking into the sky, somehow. I've been there, before, when the tall oak stood not a hundred feet away. Saw the lightning with my own eyes twenty years before I was born, shatter the branches, slash the trunk apart. . . Grandma, sometimes. . .
Shush, Little one. Shush. You are so beautiful. Be happy now. Stir through this well of memory with your finger. Dip your cupped hands and rinse your eyes. Oh, look at the world! Where have all the monsters gone? Look at the world. Be happy now.
words: Eric Prochaska, US (blog)
originally published in The Sidewalk's End (offline)
web archive pages: Keepsake / The Sidewalk's End (currently blocked)
image: Steve Wing, Florida (about & more)
original publication: 'Patina 4' / Perigee
another shared memory: Hidden (#11)