On Mother's Day
I was young when my two brothers and I would spend every day after school and at least nine hours a day with my grandparents during summer vacation. Both of my parents struggled to make ends meet and my maternal grandparents were retired; it only seemed logical that my parents would take advantage of the free daycare that my grandparents provided. My grandparents didn’t mind looking after us, to them we were a wealth of free labor directly at their fingertips.
During the summer months, my two older brothers and I were like migrant workers. My brother Mike would mow the expansive lawn careful not to run over the rose bushes and iris beds that dotted the lawn like fragrant land mines. My brother Patrick would busy himself trimming the hedges and pulling weeds, quite mundane and most of all, rather harmless tasks that would somehow lead to his eventual loss of blood. Patrick had a real talent for bleeding, and by the end of the summer, hundreds of dime-size droplets of his blood would splatter the front porch.
After the cut, gash or puncture wound of the day, Patrick would sprint to the front door gripping the bleeding extremity and crying for my grandmother’s help. She would answer the door, eyes squinting against the summer sun and holding whatever utensil she was using moments before for cooking. She would always ask in a smooth and even tone “Pat honey, what in the world did you do to yourself this time?” She displayed stoic patience for Patrick’s sobbing and the stream of blood running down his face, arm or leg. She would leave him lamenting at the front door while she made a path for him to walk on out of large black garbage bags. If there was one thing she would not tolerate, it was soiled carpet.
I would spend the summers in the house with my grandmother. She was afraid that Mike would run me over with the riding lawn mower and I believed her. Mike once had the plastic string of a trimmer break and hit him in the eye, so I wasn’t very confident in his vision. I would sit at the breakfast table and break green beans from my grandparents’ garden until my thumbnails were green and my fingertips throbbed. My grandmother would can green beans to use in winter for our Sunday dinners and she had strict specifications for how large each piece should be. Break a piece too large or too small and that was grounds for a forceful smack on the back of the head. She insisted that you do things her way and if she was satisfied with your toils, you earned your daily pay of tuna salad sandwiches and lemonade with angel food cake and strawberries for dessert.
My grandparents could not have been more different. My grandfather was jovial and kind-hearted and would often warn of the dangers of picking up wooden nickels. He would cry at commercials both happy and sad and any commercial depicting starving children would ensure that he would spend the next half hour with tears blurring his vision while he looked for his checkbook that incidentally was always in his front shirt pocket. “It’s always the last place you look,” he would comment while moving on to search for his glasses that inevitably rested on the top of his head. My grandmother, on the other hand, never shed a tear. I didn’t see her cry once when one after another of her nine older brothers and sisters died. She would simply shake her head and mutter to herself, “I hope they were right with the Lord.”
I realize now that she kept me in the house with her not because my brother was likely to mow me down literally, but because in me, she found a sparring partner that could match her harsh quips better than anyone could. One day when I was 11, sitting on my legs at the kitchen table breaking a pie plate full of green beans, she turned to me with a scowl and flatly stated, “If I find one piece bigger than an inch I’ll choke you.” Of course she wouldn’t really have choked me, but instead wrap her callused fingers around my neck to scare me into submission. I looked up from my pie plate and very plainly replied, “I will do what you want. But only because I know you’re not likely to live until next summer as old as you are.” She winked at me while she loaded her green bean packed Mason jars into the pressure cooker and asked if I wanted a piece of cantaloupe. Of course, she lived through the next summer, even if she was on the verge of death she would have pulled through merely out of spite.
A few years back she was close to dying. I remember sitting in the hospital holding my mother’s hand while my grandmother lay in the hospital bed motionless and hooked up to several beeping machines. By all of the doctors’ accounts, she would pass within hours. I went to her bedside wanting to tell her how much I loved her along with all the other things that she would have never tolerated me saying to her in the past. I put my hand on hers while tears began to sting my eyes. She turned and looked at me solemn and determined and said, “Con, now you stop this horseshit. I am not going to die, I haven’t made jelly yet.” She was right. A week later, she was discharged from the hospital and home washing raspberries to make jelly.
I was 16 years old when my grandfather died of Parkinson’s disease. He spent the last eight months of his life in a VA hospital 100 miles from where we lived. My grandmother made the two-hour trip to see him everyday for eight months; she never missed a day. I never once heard her tell my grandfather that she loved him, but actions speak louder than words, as the adage goes and if that is true, then a two-hour trip to sit next to man who barely remembered you for 10 hours a day for eight months speaks volumes.
After the funeral, my grandmother sold the house where she and my grandfather had spent 30 years together: Thirty years plowing, planting and picking. She couldn’t take care of the yard and the garden by herself, especially with both of my older brothers now adults and not as willing to work for tuna salad sandwiches. She moved into a small town house on the south side of town, but not until I relocated every last iris bulb from the yard from which she took such pride.
We replanted the iris bulbs in her new yard as my mother watched nervously afraid she might spot a worm in the soil. I still spent my summers with my grandmother, not because I needed the supervision, but because I enjoyed her company and loved her stories. When she was 18, she and her niece, who incidentally is a year younger than she, took a train to Calif. They soon found work, in addition to a group of sailors ready to be shipped off to war the following day. They danced all night at a club where Glen Miller and his band were performing. I loved to see her bright eyes and her mischievous smirk spread across her face as she recalled her youth, both of us knowing full well that she was saving a few details for herself.
I would beg her to tell me “the chicken story”, not because it was particularly pleasant, but I liked to dare myself to listen to the story in its entirety and not squirm from disgust. When she was about 15, she lived on a farm in rural Ill. Her mother had asked her to get a chicken from the yard and kill it for dinner. It was the first time she had ever killed a chicken, or any animal for that matter. She spread the chicken’s neck out on the chopping block and closed her eyes as tight as she could. When she opened her eyes again, the chicken was running around the yard while its beak lay to the right of the ax embedded in the wood. My grandmother darted to the door terrified of the beakless chicken that was perhaps ever so slightly more terrified than she. She would throw back her head and laugh with her whole body slumped over the arm of her burgundy Lazy Boy recliner and gasp between fits of laughter, “I was never asked to kill another chicken!”
I sank back in my chair gagging and appalled at the senseless carnage and wondering how she could just laugh it off. If a bleeding grandson, nine dead siblings and husband and a beakless chicken didn’t give this woman a moist eye then nothing would.
Later that summer after I had come into the house from mowing the lawn, I noticed that my grandmother’s cat had something moving in its mouth. My grandmother swatted at the cat with the wooden spoon in her hand when the cat released a small mangled, shaking rabbit. My grandmother scooped the frightened prey up into a hand towel, lowered her glasses from her head to the bridge of her nose and carefully examined the squealing rabbit in the blood soaked cloth. She determined that the poor bunny was indeed suffering and would not live. The rabbit needed put out of its misery. I trusted her opinion; after all, she grew up on a farm.
I began scolding the cat as my grandmother made her way through the sliding glass doors to the back porch with the rabbit still enveloped in her hand towel. She closed the door behind her. There was silence for about thirty seconds, then finally I heard the loud smack of a cement block crashing against the concrete porch. It was done. Moments later, she returned with tears streaming down her face. She walked over to the kitchen sink and moistened an old washcloth. She then started to clean the rabbit’s blood from the carpet while softly crying to herself. If there was one thing she would not tolerate, it was soiled carpet.