My Dad’s parents weren’t prone to flashes of insights and epiphanies like the Catholic side of the family. They were content with patient improvement.
I found out this when I went to stay with Grandma Alice. Since Grampa Joe was in the nursing home, she lived out there alone, away from town, away from anything at all. She asked if I’d like to come and stay with her a bit because she was lonely, she said. If I helped her out she told me she’d give me room and board.
Living in town hadn’t working for me. People blamed my bad acting on the urban setting and thought that some country air would help. Alberta had made some feeble suggestion to have me move back home, but she didn’t want that any more than I did. Once you leave home you can’t live under the same roof with your mother. As much as she didn’t want me coming back, she got herself into a flap about me moving over to that side of the river.
“Alice doesn’t wear underpants.”
“Why are you telling me this Mother?” I thought she’d be happy somebody was taking me off her hands.
“I’m just saying she doesn’t know enough to keep her drawers on.” Alberta was basing this on some story she’d heard from JD. Apparently thirty years ago he was dropping off some cattle to Grandpa Joe. When he was unloading them off the back of the truck, he caught Grandma Alice peeing by the rose bush. He went around telling everybody that would listen that she didn’t wear underpants. That was a terrible rumour to start about her. If she wasn’t wearing underwear, it was because she had a terribly big rear end, and it was likely hard to find something to fit her. As for peeing outside, I don’t know why he would’ve cared. It didn’t hurt the roses any. They grew like weeds all over the south side of the house. But as I say, it takes family a long time to change their minds about you. It takes years before they’ll update their files.
Alice was poor. They lived in squalor but she had a kindness my mother’s family didn’t possess. Even though her heart had been broken a hundred times in life she didn’t go into the negative.
I went back and forth to the hospital, like a revolving door, but she never judged me for it; never judged my confusion.
“I don’t know why I do what I do. I am destined to be crazy.” I hoped she might tell shed some light on it.
“You’re lucky though, getting help at your age. Some people live a lifetime and don’t know they’re not right in the head,” she’d say. Then she’d cut the hospital bracelet off my wrist and get the flour out to make bread. Something about cooking always made me hopeful, especially baking bread in a wood stove like she did. You had to watch it, carefully. If you didn’t control the heat it would be raw in the middle and burnt on the bottom.
Alice knew how to cook, the way a fat woman usually does. She’d knead the dough into mini loaves. It was nothing for her to make ten loaves a day. We’d take it out of the oven and eat slice after slice slathered in butter, dipping each piece in the canned peaches she’d done up the year before; we nearly choked on the sweetness of the syrup.
“He had a screw loose too. Once when he was fourteen, I asked him to shovel snow out the driveway. When I looked out, he had made circles, creating patterns like snowflakes with his shovel. Nobody could’ve ever found our front door. I was some mad, so he hid in the barn the entire night. I had to get Joe to take supper out to him. I never appreciated that he could see things that no one else could.”
“He never saw me.”
“He bragged about you all the time. Tammy this. Tammy that. He was always talking about the one he wasn’t with. King tried too hard to make everybody like him. All the joking he did, but there was a terrible sadness following him from the time he was a teenager.” She said this like it was nothing to be ashamed.
“He had sadness?”
“Sure couldn’t you could feel it coming off him?” It was od to hear her say it. Dad’s people never seemed to have any knowledge of their emotions, but there she was Alice validating what I knew on some level my whole life. My intuition was right. I did sense the sadness in my father.
She continued, “He got sad after the fever. See when he was a teenager our whole family came down with Scarlet Fever. It’s not much of an illness to fight these days but back then the weak and infirm were taken out.”
“King was the only one who didn’t catch it because he had been haying down the road for days at the Clements. But all us ones still living at home came down with it, including Pansy, who was only four years old.”
“Who was Pansy? I asked.
“My baby girl.”
“I didn’t know there was a Pansy,” said I. He never told us anything about his side of the family.
“Pansy was a whip of a thing and didn’t have the strength to fight it when it came. She passed in the middle of the night. I wasn’t allowed out to go to my own baby girl’s funeral. The arrangements were left to King. He had to buy a dress for her down at the Sell Rite and pass it through the window. They dressed her and passed her body in the coffin out through the window and the funeral director took her to be buried. King was the only one standing there at the graveyard as they lowered her into the ground. I always thought he never got over that she died and he lived. He thought about things way too much. You’re just like him, with all that thinking.”
“I can’t help the ideas I have Grandma.” I felt I had to defend myself.
“I know doll, no one can help how their head works. But some ideas just plumb wear a person out. At least that’s what I’ve found. When Pansy died, my idea was that I would never be happy again
… and thought my heart was broke and I thought that was it. But before you knew it, Doug my youngest was born. God that child made me laugh and well you can’t be sad all the time when you have babies. You don’t know it when you’re as young as you, but life has a way of taking something away and then dropping something down to take its place,” Alice said. “Your Daddy found your mother two weeks after he buried Pansy. God took my Joe to town to the nursing home and took your Dad in the same year. And once again I was thinking I won’t be able to handle it out here, then I got the idea for you to come. What a gift.”
“I’d hardly call it a gift.” I laughed.
“All I know, life works out. And well right now for instance I got what I asked for. My head told me you wouldn’t come. My head said your mother wouldn’t let you. But I didn’t listen to my head. I went and asked you anyway.”
She stuck two slices of bread fried in lard in her pocket and waddled up to bed. I looked out the small dirty window of the house where he grew up.
With the wind blowing dead weeds across the field I realized my head had been holding me hostage. I thought because I was insightful on some accounts, that I should’ve been able to forecast outcomes ahead of time. I should’ve not told him off. When he said, ‘There’s your version of things and my version of things and then there’s the truth.” I should’ve known that it really meant which was“I am sick and dying and want you to come back before I croak.”
But how could I have known that? I was too busy being mad that I wasn’t his favourite; that King was public property and never rose up to save me.
There was too much chaos blowing around me to know what to listen to and what to ignore. And now he was dead and back in heaven with Pansy, another girl who needed him.
“I am sorry I was difficult.” I wasn’t grovelling when I issued the words.
“Forget about it Tammy. You’re a teenager. Teenagers don’t know shit.”
It wasn’t his voice. It was my own. There was nothing sentimental about any of it, but things started to inch forward.
( From a fictional novel Outrunning Crazy- published in 2011)
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