My grandmother died the day I got my doctorate, so I flew there for the funeral with my son. After landing, I rented a car and we checked into a hotel. Looking at my grandmother in her maroon casket, Johnny clung to me. I hugged my grandfather and my aunts and uncles and my new stepfather, Bill. Then I hugged my mom. She seemed to have no real reaction.
Jesus was at the altar. Things were like before: stained glass windows, wooden seats, people mumbling, standing. I attended grade school here, sang in Sunday services, and Wednesdays during Lent. When I was a child, on an autumn morning, while singing something bright nearby a window, I remembered leaving, the brown carpet, down the aisle. It was when my father had a nervous breakdown.
After the funeral service, I stood in line in the church basement, the tables filled with milk and silverware and dishes. Food was arranged along the counter, and the women of the Ladies Aid scurried, making preparations. Some people looked familiar. Johnny was thirteen. He pulled my hand and said, “I can’t contain all my emotions.”
“You can cry,” I said.
He cocked his head. I arranged his curls with my fingers.
He said he was going to the bathroom. I inched my way closer to the food. I scanned the tables, saw my grandfather sitting with my mother and her siblings. My uncle pushed up his glasses, and my aunt pulled at the bottom of her shirt, covering her belly. My stepfather Bill sat by my mother—her hair was thinning, and even across the room, I could see the sagging of her skin, the lines that formed distinctly in her face. Her lips were dark, her brown eyes matched her hair, and her red glasses matched the flowers of her cotton dress. She sat beside my late grandmother’s pastor.
I looked at the strawberries in the green container, took two and put them on my paper plate. I got some mashed potatoes, and loaded them with gravy, then took a glass of water, and for Johnny, one of milk, and I tried to balance everything while walking to a chair, and then I sat across from a distant, younger cousin.
Johnny came back, saying he was finally hungry. I gave him my plate and I got up to get something for myself. When I was a teen, my mom took me to counseling after I passed out because I was throwing up everything I ate. After two weeks of therapy, I was still vomiting, so my mother said she wasn’t going to spend her money if I wasn’t getting better.
I looked up and saw everybody talking. I looked at my mother. As I returned to my chair, she smiled at me. I said, “You get enough to eat?” She nodded, said, “Yeah, and you?”
I sat and sipped my water. I looked around, remembering school events and gatherings with family. I’d put on a puppet show once for the Ladies Aid, and every year before the Christmas program, I would line up with the other students in the basement, ready in our Christmas clothes for the procession, to march down the upstairs middle aisle, singing softly, “Silent Night.”
* * *
After the funeral and the meal and the procession, we all went to my grandparents’ place, where my uncle still lived. My uncle found my grandmother dead, lying on her bed, after she went to take a nap. My grandfather never slept well, and he used to keep her up, so she'd made a room up for herself with her favorite things: a piano, her sewing machine, the one she used to patch up all my ragged clothes.
The floors creaked, just like always. The home was on the Century farm. Now the place was messy. I took a walk outside. The flowerbed I remembered was covered in tall weeds, the tree that held the tire swing in the back had been uprooted in a storm, and the branches and the leaves and trunk remained scattered in the yard. There used to be a garden, where my grandmother and I would pick raspberries and tomatoes, and we’d weed it every day, and eat peas straight from the pod, severing them from vines, and a rhubarb plant grew nearby the garden, and my mother would take stalks of rhubarb home, and make them into bread, desserts, and Jell-O. There was once an outhouse by the garden, but now there stood a red machine shed that housed my uncle’s farm tractors. The chicken coop was empty, and I remembered my grandmother leaning over a tree stump with her red bandana tied around her head, and she’d held a chicken by its feet, securing it down with her heel, holding a fist over its head, then slicing through the chicken’s neck. We’d spent hours butchering her chickens. In the pasture far away, there stood Holsteins and brown Guernseys, and I used to pet them, calling them by name. Now only the smell reminded me of their existence. Wild cats still roamed around the yard, and I remembered them daring to come near when I set out a dish of scraps left over from the table.
Back inside, I found Johnny in the living room, looking at the pictures that my grandmother had posted of her offspring. Johnny looked at his two-year-old self in the silver frame that I had given my grandmother one Christmas. “I hate that picture,” Johnny said. I looked at the photo, at his toothy smile and rugged dimples, and told him it was pretty.
My grandfather sat on the sofa and started talking, as if there was someone sitting next to him. He couldn’t see well. My mother and her siblings went into the kitchen and I sat there with my grandfather. Johnny turned on the TV, to Nickelodeon, watching Sponge Bob Squarepants, and inside my head, I hummed the melody, satisfied that I remembered that annoying tune, telling myself it was pathetic that I was glad to get the notes right.
My mother stepped into the room. “Hi, Mom,” I said to her, and she looked around the room, then sat in a rocking chair staring out the window. I tried to imagine what she might be looking at, and thought maybe it was the neighbors, who were outside across the street, tending to their farm. Then I thought maybe my mother was thinking of the days when she was younger, when she and her mother tended to the garden. Or maybe taking a walk along the road when it was only gravel. Maybe my mother was just sad. Maybe she was thinking of nothing. I sat on the floor next to her, and Johnny said he was going to the basement, to see if my cousin might want to play a game of pool.
My grandfather was still telling me about things like his last visit to his physician, about the neighbors he saw at the local IGA, and about the song the last time my grandmother went to church. He turned his head, seemed as if he was looking at me out of the corner of his eye. “Happy Graduation,” he said to me.
I smiled, saying, “Thank you.”
“Got a job in Minnesota.” In three weeks, Johnny and I would move to Minnesota because of my new job, teaching art history to undergrads at a rural private college.
I looked at my mother, and she was still staring out the window.
“You OK?” I said to my mother.
She turned away, looking out the dirty window. I tried to think of something good enough, and as I gave up, I glanced at my grandfather, who looked as if he might be staring at the ceiling. I wondered how far up he could see.
“Do you feel bad,” my mother said, “about the last time you were in Wisconsin, when you didn’t visit her?” I thought about the things my grandmother used to do with me, like show me how to plant a flower, how to make peanut butter cookies, and how to can her summer pickles. In her later years, when I talked to her about my students, my studies, and my life, she seemed to drift away, getting up to do her chores, like cleaning the yellow curtains, or picking crumbs from the wooden counter.
I wanted to be honest. “No, I don’t,” I told my mother, thinking that wasn’t the right answer. “I don’t feel bad.”
Bill stepped into the room, sat by my grandfather. They said nothing to each other, but seemed comfortable in their ordinary silence. I imagined Bill as my father, having a normal conversation with my mother’s father, and they would talk about things like the stormy weather, or dirty politicians, or about the mechanics of a Honda. Bill had married my mother just last year. He met her seven years ago when he was looking for a house.
My mother got up to help her siblings sort out all the meat. I pictured them trying to figure out who should take the ham home, and who should take the turkey. There was roast and chicken too, pork chops, venison, and potato salad.
* * *
I went to the attic. The stairs creaked, and everything was musty. I saw mice droppings, cobwebs. Boxes sat along the walls, and an old accordion rested on a bluish hammock. I loved going up there with my grandmother when she did her cleaning. She’d sweep the floors, and clear out all the cobwebs, then bleach the tiny windows. She’d open up the boxes. She let me wear my grandfather’s army hat, which he’d worn in the Second World War, and she told me not to mention it to him. I’d tried on her wedding dress before I understood weddings, and then even after I did, and the dress was always way too big, but I’d pictured myself in it, imagining what I’d look like when I was older.
I hadn’t known that I wouldn’t get married in a dress—I wouldn’t have thought that I’d have joined the Army, met my fiancé in California. I hadn’t thought I would have eventually gotten orders overseas, and then I’d soon get pregnant. I hadn’t known that he would beat me. I hadn’t known that I would eventually leave him. I did know my mother would say things to me like, “I told you that would happen,” and “You just should have listened.” I struggled with the possibility that maybe she was right.
I turned off the light and went downstairs, where everyone was praying. After the Amen, I sat on a chair next to Johnny, and he looked at me and said, “I guess your father isn’t coming.”
“You think he would?” I said.
“You didn’t invite him?”
I put my hand on Johnny’s head and said, “No, I didn’t.”
* * *
My father lived a couple miles away in a small apartment. I didn’t know what he’d been doing, just heard from my aunts and uncles and their parents that he’d been arrested a few times for speeding and then running from the cops, and other things I wasn’t sure of—I tried not to pay attention.
I knocked on my father’s door while Johnny waited in the car. My dad lived in a place with wooden doors, and bedraggled-looking shrubs surrounded the entire walkway. He’d lived there ever since my mother divorced him. I figured he was lonely, thought I could make him feel a little better, thought if I did, maybe I would feel better about myself.
“He’s not there,” I said to Johnny, starting up the car.
“I didn’t want to see him, anyway,” he said. “He’s strange.”
Then my dad ran out. He stopped and waved, stiff, as if he were on a float, hailing spectators with a generic movement.
“Look,” I said to Johnny.
Johnny had only seen him a couple times. My visits to my father were often short, and seemed pretty aimless, but they gave me a sense of the reality around me, reminded me of where I came from, who I was. Sometimes I identified myself simply as the daughter of a crazy father.
As I got closer, stepping toward the door, I noticed the scar that ran crooked on the left side of his face from when he was a boy and fell from the hayloft. I studied it, and him, and his scar looked somewhat wrinkled. His gray shirt and pants were just like the clothes he used to wear when he was working in the barn. I pictured him milking cows, spraying each udder, scraping all the stalls, his clothes covered with manure, him lifting up the bales of hay and tossing them onto the wagon, and I wondered if he was still capable of lifting anything of substance.
Johnny and I sat together on the sofa. My dad sat on a rocking chair. On TV, he watched bowling, something I remembered, him sitting in the living room every Sunday after church. I loved being in the same room with him then because he always smelled good, still in his church clothes.
Johnny rolled his eyes. I pinched him. I would never tell Johnny what my father did to punish me.
My father fell asleep. “I’m bored,” Johnny said, and I told him to watch TV, but not to change the channel. Some bald guy on TV made a winning strike, and everyone was cheering.
On my way to the bathroom, I saw my senior picture hanging in the hallway—I wore a peach-colored sweater, my arms resting on a prop, and my head was tilted to one side, my face so thin, you could see the detailed framework of my cheekbone.
In the bathroom, I looked into the mirror, and thought my face looked a little fat, remembered the control I used to feel when I stepped on the scale and saw the numbers drop below 100. I looked in my father’s closet, which was stacked with rolls of toilet paper. I found his scale in the corner on the floor and I stepped on it, read 114, which was my ideal weight, and that gave me an odd sense of reassurance, yet I had an urge to weigh almost nothing.
I put the scale away, and then I washed my face, cleaning off my make-up. My face was pale, my lips were pinkish-gray, and my eyes were big and dark like Johnny’s. Maybe I didn’t look bad. I dried my face with a flowered towel.
My father was still sleeping. Johnny was watching MTV. I turned it off, and left a note, saying, “Dad, we had to leave.”
In the car, Johnny told me that was weird.
“He’s ill,” I said, driving down Pullin Road, watching the trees swaying far off. My father had always been strange. It was something I could count on.
* * *
My mother answered her door in her flowered blazer. Her hair was up in rollers. When she saw Johnny and me, she said, “Bill’s taking a nap, can you come back later?”
I said, “Want to go somewhere for coffee?”
“I should be here when he wakes up.”
In the car, Johnny looked at me and said, “I guess she really loves him.”
“No kidding,” I said.
At the wildlife sanctuary, we fed the ducks and seagulls. We watched the skunks behind the cage, and I wondered why we couldn’t smell them. “I bet the rangers have their odor taken care of,” Johnny said.
We walked around the trails, and I smelled the trees. Johnny said he loved being around nature. I told him how my grandmother showed me how to milk the cows and feed the chickens without being crowded and invaded. I told him we used to collect eggs. Johnny said that sounded really cool. I wanted to tell him all these lovely things, but I also wanted to just lay down on the ground, collapse to the lowest portion of the land that I could find, and just let go of everything.
* * *
Bill was up. My mother made coffee. Johnny and Bill sat on the deck and watched ducks the pond, and I guessed they talked about things just like they did when we used to live nearby, about the Green Bay Packers, about fishing in the river. My mother and I sat around the table, sipping coffee. She always drank hers black, and I took cream and extra artificial sugar.
“I wonder how Grandpa is,” she said.
“He’ll be OK,” I said.
She held her cup inside her palms, crinkled her thin trimmed brows. “When he talks about grandkids, he only mentions you. He never talks about your cousins.”
I thought about his talks with me, repeating his stories about his trips to his physician, about his medication, about his macular degeneration, and about his stories of the war that he said were somewhat secret.
“He tells everyone you went to college.”
I thought about being at my graduation, about maybe tossing up my hat, how happy I might have felt, Johnny running up to me, and I would tell him “See? You can do anything.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I worked really hard.”
“Yeah, maybe,” she said, swallowing her coffee.
She got up and got more coffee, looked inside the fridge, asked if I wanted some chocolate pudding. “No,” I said to her. “I don’t want any pudding.”
She got out a container and dipped the spoon into the pudding, and I remembered making faces in my pudding just like in the commercials. I remembered how she used to soothe my head and rocked me when I wasn’t feeling well, how I could tell her how scared I was, because I was so shy and afraid of doing something wrong, and somehow, just telling her made me feel OK. I thought about how frightened I was when I hid from my father. I always felt that panic.
“You think he’s proud of me?” I said.
She said, “Does it matter?”
I thought about getting in my rental car and driving back to Alabama, where I wouldn’t feel like a little kid. “Maybe not,” I said.
Bill walked in the room. My mother put on her biggest smile, and looked at him directly, getting up and moving toward him, and I imagined her floating in the water, him pulling her toward him to save her since she didn’t know how to swim. She tilted her head, and looked up at him like a child asking her parent for a piece of chocolate candy. Johnny ran across the room, saying he was getting ready to catch a winning touchdown. Bill pretended to get Johnny for a tackle, missing him, then landing on the floor in an extraordinary thud. Johnny laughed with him. My mother and I watched them.
“I saw Dad today,” I said to my mother.
She got up and threw away her pudding.
“Mom,” I said.
She said she had to use the bathroom.
Bill looked up, saying, “She’s your daughter.”
It seemed so easy to just say whatever you wanted. I wished Bill had always been my father.
I looked at my mother. I kept looking.
Some aspects of this story are based on real events, for instance, memories of my grandmother. And of the church. All other aspects are fiction, heightened beyond reality in my hopes to provide drama.