(Autumn Semester classes have begun here at The Ohio State University, and my MFA workshop in creative nonfiction is off to a fast start. We talked last week about writing vertically down into the material to find the story of the writer’s thinking. Using Naomi Shihab Nye’s brief essay, “Mint Snowball,” as our model, we came up with a writing exercise that asked us to begin with particular sensory details that we associated with someone from our lives, living or dead, and to see where those details might take us. Essayists should have no agenda when setting out, only to follow the trail of details to the things we didn’t know we had to say. We should arrive at moments of unanticipated discovery. Here, then, is the piece I wrote about my grandmother.)
My grandmother, my father’s mother, was nearly blind with cataracts. She lived in our farmhouse when I was a boy, and I found her to be short-tempered, severe, and sometimes unreachable. Not that I tried all that much. For the most part, I made sure I stayed out of her way. She slept in the big front bedroom where she kept her treadle sewing machine, her dresser and wardrobe, her commode of pink wicker because our house had no running water, no indoor bathroom. She never would have been able to find her way to the outhouse at night. As it was, whenever she left her bedroom, she felt her way to the kitchen with her fingertips. They skittered over the door jambs, the plaster walls, the edge of the pie safe, the tops of the ladder back chairs, the stovepipe, the pump handle at the sink. At one time, this had been her house. Now, in her old age, it belonged to my mother and father.
I watched her, imagining that she couldn’t see me. What would it be like to be blind? Sometimes, when she was in the kitchen, I hunkered down beneath the drop leaf table and closed my eyes. In that darkness, my other senses sharpened. I heard the squeal of the pump handle as she worked it and then the splash of water. I knew she was filling the tea kettle. Soon I heard the whoosh of gas at the burner, then the scratch of a match over the side of the stovepipe. I smelled the sulfur of the match, the gas coming up through the burner jets. I heard the kettle scrape as my grandmother set it down over the fire. She opened the pantry door. I heard it knock against something on the other side. Her fingers felt their way over the quarts of tomato juice, green beans, strawberry preserves, that my mother had put up in the summer. My grandmother was reaching for her jar of Sanka coffee, and when she had it, she came back to the kitchen, opened the cupboard and found the cup she favored, a cup made of hard pink plastic. I heard the lid scrape a little as she opened the Sanka. I could even smell it. I was never as close to my grandmother’s world as I was during these times when I closed my eyes and slipped down inside it the best I could.
Perhaps I’m who I am now, at least in part, because being around her taught me to be still and to pay attention. Maybe listening to her slow movements about that kitchen showed me the art of patience and invited me to consider what it was to live inside someone else’s body. I admit that my temperament sometimes comes too directly from my father, who unlike my grandmother, was always in a hurry, always a worrier, always trying to keep ahead of whatever he felt was bearing down on him. He must have been his father’s son, as I am his, which often led to my misbehaving and the lash from his belt.
One day, when my grandmother felt too puny to get out of bed, I somehow ended up there with her beneath a quilt now long gone, much to my regret. Had I known she was ill? Had I been like a family pet that senses that someone is in need of comfort and come to her in spite of my natural inclination to keep my distance? She told me a story about my father when he was the age I was then and some older boys threw his cap on the schoolhouse roof, and he was afraid to come home without it. It was a gray day in early spring, a light rain streaking the windows. I closed my eyes and listened to it. My grandmother smelled of Vicks Vapo-Rub and the Tums antacids she favored, and beside me on her night table were a box of horehound ribbon candy and a box of Black Draught Laxative. She went on talking, her voice nearly a whisper, as if she had all the time in the world. Can I hear it now? Can we call up the voices of the dead? Or are there only the sounds and smells they left behind to guide us? The Vicks, the Tums, the horehound candy, the Sanka, the match against the stovepipe, the gas jets. If I sit very still, I can follow the trail back to this woman, and the boy I was, and all she taught me when I thought she had no mind of me at all.
“Your father was so scared,” she said, “but I wouldn’t have spanked him. He was a sweet boy. Such a sweet, sweet boy.”
But her story of my father’s fear and dread was so contrary to the man I knew I could barely make room for it. For an instant, I seemed to drift away from that place to a world I could only dream might someday be mine. Then I opened my eyes. I was still in my grandmother’s bed, still in my house, which was an angry house so much of the time. My grandmother’s commode was still there, her wardrobe, her treadle sewing machine.
In a few days, I did something to anger my father, and he started to whip me with his belt. My grandmother, feeling better now, was passing through our living room, a fresh cup of Sanka in her pink cup. Somehow she found the bare skin of my father’s arm, and she pressed that hot cup against it, and like that, at least for the time, she saved me.
Is there a way now to see beyond the anger of my home? Can I take any comfort from this blind woman who for the most part scared me to death? Or am I still left to find my own direction? Can I trace the word, “love,” back to the word, “grandmother,” back to that day?