Last evening, I stood in my driveway chatting with neighbors from across the way, the husband of the two being a man whose mother still occupies his boyhood home five doors north of me. They live in a house across the street that once belonged to his uncle. We traded pleasantries, and discussed the departure to an assisted living facility of another long-time block resident, who had been born and raised here, and on this very block. Johanna never married, never had children, and never left. She grew to old age seeing the world through the eyes of her nieces and nephews, and the children and grandchildren of her friends. Her family possessions were auctioned off while I vacationed in Michigan this past week.
My vacation lulled me into a hazy sense of well-being. I undertook no task more vigorous than washing dishes. I read four books by European crime fiction writers and one by an American. I walked on trails, both high and low, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in the resort where my sister-in-law has a cottage that's been handed down through my husband's family for several generations. My son launched his new college year from Michigan, in a Blazer less loaded than in the previous two years, his dwindling requirements matching the predictions of his college's president at the convocation for Patrick's freshman class. I stood in the roadway as he left, and barely shed a tear. Life continues.
With the warm Michigan sun casting delicate rays on my face, I drowsed on the bench that faces the Lake on the beach near the cottage. I drifted in time, in place, with thoughts of my childhood swimming to the near-conscious portions of my mind.
When I was four, my parents loaded us into whatever station wagon my father had at the time for a trip to my mother's parents' house. I can't name the make or model of the car. I remember its color, sort of a muddy grey-green, and the rope attached to the back of the front seat which we gripped when my father accelerated. He never went very fast. The inter-state highways had not yet been completed, and the state roadways that we took to Gillespie did not require much in the way of speed. With Mom holding the baby, my brother Frank, and the other six kids in the bench seats behind my parents, we made our way over the Chain of Rocks Bridge into Illinois and eventually, to Nana and Grandpa's home.
We arrived late in the evening. No one stirred in the house. Groggy, grumpy and grubby, we filed out of the car and up the wooden stairs of their front porch. The door was not locked -- in those days, the soft, casual days of the late 1950's, no one feared intruders; we did not even have a key to our house until well into the 1970's.
My mother scattered us with various tasks. The older siblings helped the little kids into pajamas, guided our hands on toothbrushes, and herded us down into the living room for night prayers. We knelt for the closing of the day in a darkened living room. At home, we would have faced the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her alcove on the living room wall; at my grandparents' house, I think we faced a crucifix. We began the rosary. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. . .
Suddenly, a tall figure loomed in the doorway, and I felt a surge of panic in my chest. My father rose and moved with a rapidity of which I had not known him capable. I heard the harsh growling of male humanity, braced for catastrophe -- and then the room flooded with light.
My mother stood at the light switch, facing the front doorway. My grandfather, tall, broad and clothed in a green serge suit, holding a leather satchel, towered in the space near her, my father's hands clenched on Grandpa's wrist. Beyond this tableau, my small, blond grandmother hovered, confused, uncertain.
Relief coursed through my body and must have done its work in every one else, for my father stepped back and the set of my grandfather's shoulders eased. We didn't expect you until tomorrow, he said, with a mixture of reproach and relief. He shook my father's hand, and my mother stepped forward to embrace each of her parents in turn. We children rose from our knees and rushed forward, our nightly obligation abandoned. When each of us had received a kiss and a hair-tousle, and felt the warm caress of our Nana's hand on our newly-washed cheeks, we climbed the stairs to bed, while my mother settled onto the couch with my baby brother in her arms.
I don't remember if it was that trip or a later one in which my brother Mark and I got to stay longer than the rest of our family. We flanked our grandfather as the car pulled out of the driveway, early, on a Sunday morning, and then Grandpa handed a bucket to my brother and a basket of sandwiches to me. We followed his long, tireless stride down to the creek, and snuggled beside him as he fished, casting time and again over his head with a practiced ease more beautiful than a ballerina's twirl.
We ate the sandwiches that Nana had made as a late breakfast, under the shade of a tree, as the sun climbed towards the mid-day sky. We only caught one fish, with each of us wrapping our little mitts around the rod beside my grandfather's large, gentle brown hands so we could say we helped. Mark carried the bucket back to the house and hung it on the outside spigot, the fish swimming in creek water, my grandfather promising to clean it so we could cook it for dinner.
When we came outside later in the day, the fish was gone. The bucket swung a bit, as though it had just been moved. Must have wanted to go back to the river, my grandfather told us. He probably jumped out and wiggled his way down the yard, to the creek. Mighty strong fish you kids caught! We had chicken for dinner instead.
My sister-in-law and I drove home from Michigan last weekend, stopping in St. Louis to see my sister. As we drove west on 270, we passed the site where my father worked at a public pool, long ago, during the summer that I was nine. My brothers and I went to the pool on the weekends, and swam with many other kids in the crowded water while our parents sat on towels or webbed lounge chairs. Most of the other kids came from the city. Nobody I knew went to that pool. I can't remember what my father did there. But I vividly recall running on the wet, slick concrete on a hot Saturday in August, and slipping, tumbling into the deep end. A life guard pulled me out, and I lay, panting, spitting water, with the heavy smell of chlorine all around me.
The dust gathers under the dining room table, drifting in a haze of pet hair that I must eradicate. My husband and stepson have gone to play tennis in a charity tournament. I have a couple of weeks of laundry to do, and a whole slew of e-mail to read. Vacation is over. Fall approaches. The world keeps turning.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.
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