Saturday, May 9, 2009

grandmother stories part 1

Tomorrow is Mother's Day.

I haven't written my mother's story yet, only alluded to some parts of it in the last short story I posted. It is not ready to be told.

But my grandmothers stories need to be remembered.

This is the essence of who they were, who they are. My father's mother died when I was eleven, my mother's mother is still alive.

Although this post and the next are works of fiction. my fiction is always rooted in the truth of a life, a moment, an object, a person.

These stories are both long, but well worth reading till the end. I will post the second one tomorrow.

Enjoy. And for all of you who mother - mother children, pets, family, friends, the earth....have a wonderful day tomorrow.

Unraveling


As cottages went, the little pink dwelling was neither the prettiest nor the quaintest in the neighbourhood. The curled shingles on the roof flapped in the wind, and the once-glossy black shutters were peeling and faded. The interior was dated, cozy and unmemorable. But a family like Anneke’s could easily afford a week’s stay.

Even the cottage’s location tucked away on the fringes of a tiny tourist hamlet, did not lend itself to popularity. There were few neighbours for socializing, and it was a ten minute walk to Georgian Bay through an overgrown stand of pine and poplar.

Anneke loved the tiny cottage. She had visited here time out of memory, playing near the brook, and falling asleep to the haunting moan of pine trees that surrounded the house. A dilapidated bridge was a spot for daydreams, close enough to the house that her mother could see her, and far enough away that the sound of distant waves muted the shouts of her younger brothers.

Anneke’s grandmother had come to the cottage this year for a few nights of respite, finally consenting to leave the farm work to Grandpa. This morning, Anneke had Grandma almost to herself. Her mother and father had gone shopping in Midland, taking the two younger boys with them. Only Billy and Anneke remained, and Anneke was hopeful that her younger brother would be too busy making messes to pay attention to what she and Grandma were doing. Shortly after her parents’ car left the driveway, Billy disappeared to build a fort in the woods. Of course Grandma gave him permission. She let them do anything they wanted.

Grandma sat at a picnic table in the back yard, gazing quietly across the lawn. Anneke snuggled in beside her, laying her head on Grandma’s arm, pulling herself as close to the older woman as she could get without actually sitting on her lap. When Grandma finally spoke, it was in Dutch instead of English. Anneke wrinkled her face in confusion.

“Grandma, you know I can’t speak Dutch. “ Anneke gently pushed her shoulder.

Grandma smiled. “So you can’t,” she said in heavily-accented English. “I wished you a good morning, my little one.”

Grandma’s hands were chubby, yet covered with a criss-cross of wrinkles, reminding Anneke of the honey-dipped doughnuts they both loved so much. They were ornamented with clusters of freckles and age spots, unadorned except for the wedding ring that gripped her fourth finger a bit too tightly. No polish or lotions softened the hardworking hands, with short, brittle nails and roughly calloused palms.

She did not dress up often, and Grandma had not dressed up for her trip to the cottage. She clothed herself in the same utilitarian garb she wore on the farm. A stained, brown cardigan with a rent in the elbow. A shapeless, floral shift that reached her mid-calf. A pair of nylon stockings were rolled around her untanned ankles. A bib apron in a contrasting print, which she wore as a part of her dress. Her apron was such an essential part of her wardrobe, except for during church on Sundays, that she occasionally wore two at once.

Ever since Anneke could remember, Grandma’s hair had been white, thick and wavy. It was seldom styled or combed. Often it stood on end, a result of Grandma’s constant habit of running her fingers through her locks when she was nervous or distracted. Her gait was heavy, but persistent. She moved slowly, shuffling her way through her daily routine, and hummed dreamily as she worked. At home she milked the cows, fed the chickens, and responded to minor farm emergencies with the same deliberate slowness.

“Grandma, come walk with me.” Anneke begged.

Grandma pulled herself up and grabbed the outstretched hands for balance. Anneke led her to the bridge, walking slowly down the sloping lawn, and carefully guided her Grandma across the uneven grass.

“We could go to the beach,” Anneke suggested cautiously. She could see herself leading Grandma over the rocks, feeling the spray of waves in her face as the sun scattered warmth over the icy blue surface of the bay. They could hunt for fossils; they could pretend they were castaways, stuck on a deserted island all alone.

“I’m coming too!” Billy shouted, and ran wildly towards his sister. Anneke had forgotten about him.

“No.” Grandma said with a frown. “No beach today. I don’t like the water.”

Anneke remembered another trip and a different beach, full of sandy ripples and broken shells. Grandma had worn a polyester swimsuit with a short, flowered skirt. She hugged herself tightly, unused to the exposure of bare flesh. She walked cautiously into the water, disconcerted by the sucking wet sand that pulled at her feet. She stood quietly for a few minutes, and watched the waves advance and ebb with a force she could not understand, and could not counter.

“I’ve had enough now,” Grandma had said. Five minutes later she was restored, normal in her cotton dress and worn oxford shoes with knotted laces.

“I’m bored!” Billy announced.

“Go away and play in your fort,” Anneke muttered.”

“It’s boring when I play by myself. I want to do something else. I want to make waffles. Grandma,” Billy pleaded, “Can we make waffles?”

Anneke frowned and crossed her arms. She was the oldest; she was supposed to decide what they should do next. “She can’t, silly. She didn’t bring anything with her except her clothes.”

“Of course I make waffles,” Grandma responded. “I need to get my bowl and my waffle iron.” Grandma turned towards the cottage and shuffled to the back door, which opened into the kitchen. The children followed; Anneke moved quietly, and Billy exuberantly, with whoops of joy.

Grandma must have packed the cast-iron waffle maker in her suitcase, because Anneke knew it had not been unloaded with the other cooking supplies. Perhaps Grandma had kept it a secret, to make waffles as a special treat.

Waffle-making had begun in another farmhouse, in another country, years before Anneke was born, It began as a ritual of survival, of preparing small cakes of grain, water, butter and soda, when not much else was available. Served hot, they were both a staple and a delicacy, a testament to Grandma’s talents as a baker. Her waffles were oval, flat, and chewy, not at all like the Belgian waffles sold at fairs and market stands. Much better. As the grandchildren arrived, Grandma included them in the proceedings. Small hands poured flour and cracked eggs against the yellow stoneware bowl. Children helped to mix the ingredients, the wooden spoon giving way to hands that shaped the pliant mixture.

Grandma kneaded the dough, working out its roughness with her plump fingers. Her body knew the recipe, it was an intrinsic recollection born from years of repetition, a secret passed from mother to daughter, to granddaughter. Anneke could help knead, although her rhythm was still awkward, and she could she could shape the dough into yellow sausages, to be tossed onto the iron and pressed flat. Sometimes there were three or four tins of leftover waffles in Grandma’s cupboard, to be eaten cold, but there were always more waffles to be made.

Grandma looked around the kitchen with its lemon-yellow cupboards, gas stove and old refrigerator. Anneke and Billy sat expectantly at an arborite table with wobbly legs. Grandma filled the aluminum coffee percolator with water and set it on the stove. She fiddled with the stove knobs, turning each one on, and then off, and then on again.

“Coffee first,” Grandma muttered, and began a search through the cupboards, pulling out a flour canister and a tin of peanut butter. She frowned when she discovered a box of tea. “That’s not mine,” she said, and dropped the package into an open garbage pail. As she ransacked the kitchen, she began to sing in Dutch. Grandma did not know the words to any English songs, even though her grandchildren tried to teach her nursery rhymes and other simple melodies. Nevertheless, she sang whenever and wherever she could. In the cottage kitchen she vocalized enthusiastically, punctuating her music with a tablespoon-tapped rhythm. Absorbed in her singing, she abandoned the cupboards and began to sway in time to the music, egged on by the delighted laughter of her grandchildren.

“Dance with me Grandma,” Billy cried, and joined hands with her He began to spin, pulling Grandma with him, laughing and screeching as they spun around in circles. His feet left the ground and bumped the table, the cupboards, and the stove in the cramped kitchen. When Grandma let go of his hands, he fell to the floor laughing, red-faced and teary-eyed. Grandma herself laughed so hard that her body shook, and her chest jiggled back and forth.

With Grandma, nothing was off-limits. She allowed her grandchildren to carry out every possible experiment, from mud pies in the barnyard to jam-making with squished gooseberries and sugar. Cupboards and closets, trunks and drawers full of buttons, old photos and treasures were turned out and wondered over. Meadows and fields were explored; flowers were gathered along the gravel road. The barn was a playground, full of dusty crevices, cows to help milk, and tiny mewling kittens. All these adventures were a natural consequence of a visit to Grandma’s farm, with Grandma always an enthusiastic conspirator.

Anneke’s mind was full of warnings when she arrived at Grandma’s for an overnight stay. Don’t play with the berries. Don’t make too much noise. Don’t get your clothes dirty in the barn. By the time her parents had left, the messages were lost in a jumble of plans – a wade in the creek, eating wild strawberries on the sloping meadow bank, and a walk through fields waist-high with growing corn stalks. Ominous warnings were instantly forgotten, only to be guiltily recalled upon her parents’ return.

Anneke knew that her parents would never allow waffle-making on a hot day like today. “Don’t bother your Grandma,” they would say. “Go and play.” It would be better to begin making the waffles right away, so they could be well-started by the time her parents returned. She climbed off her chair and tugged t Grandma’s hand.

“Are we making waffles soon?” she asked.

Grandma dropped the spoon on the table. “In just a minute,” she replied.

Grandma resumed her rummage through the cupboards, methodically overturning packages of macaroni, tuna cans, and tins of green peas, so that they sat upside-down in neat rows. She rearranged the plates and bowls, switching their places, forming pyramids of upturned dishes. She began carefully to examine the glassware, running her index finger along the rims to look or chips. Grandma moved slowly, her brow beaded with sweat, and showed o inclination to hurry in the languid afternoon.

“Something’s wrong, Billy. It smells funny.” Grandma continued to inspect the glasses, not noticing Anneke’s voice.

“Yeah. What is it?” Billy pushed a small car along the crack in the table.

“I think it’s the stove, but I’m not sure. Maybe we should go outside.”

“Okay.” He put the car in his pocket.

Can you take Grandma out? I’m going to look at the stove.”

“But what if something happens?”

“Nothing will happen. I think I need to turn it off. Just go outside.”

Anneke slopped off her chair and tentatively moved towards the stove, where the smell was stronger. She heard the persistent hiss of gas from the opened valves. By the kitchen door, Billy was trying to persuade Grandma to go outside. “It’s really fun. I want to show you.” Anneke fiddled with the black porcelain knobs. If she turned them to the left, the sound grew stronger; if she turned them to the right, she could make the sound stop.

With the burners off, she stood for a moment in the silence of the kitchen, hearing only her own uneven breathing. Grandma had played with the knobs when she was trying to make coffee and then forgot about them, like Anneke sometimes forgot to put her bicycle away after playing with it. Mistakes like this happened to everyone, even adults,

Anneke moved slowly across the kitchen. She pulled open the screen door and sat on the cement step. Grandma and Billy were playing airplanes on the lawn. Anneke watched them fly towards each other with arms outstretched. Billy provided most of the movement and all of the sound effects. Grandma inched her feet along as Billy careened wildly towards her.

“Now you have to catch me!” he challenged.

Silently, Anneke drank in the image of the old woman who played like a child. She was only fifty-five, but her white hair and ponderous gait made her seem much older. Sometimes Anneke’s father grew frustrated with grandma, maybe because Grandma played with the children too much. On their last visit to the farm, Grandma had been so preoccupied that she had served boiled vegetables without draining the water, and had never even noticed. Anneke scuffed the earth with her bare toes and closed her eyes.

“Grandma, when are we going to make waffles? You promised!”

Billy was being a pest. Couldn’t he see that the moment for sharing the ritual was gone? Anneke’s eyes half-opened and she was preparing to end the discussion when she heard the stinging, unmistakable sound of flesh meeting flesh. She jumped to her feet and ran down the slope, where her little brother was crying, holding his hand over a red mark on his cheek. Grandma was raging, spewing a string of Dutch and English words at Billy. She loomed over him with her full height, preparing to strike again.

Stepping between her grandmother and her brother, Anneke threw her arms protectively around Billy. She looked up defiantly and shouted “You leave him alone! Leave him alone!” Her voice cracked and she felt her throat close with tears. Anneke ran to the bridge, pulling Billy with her, and sat down with her legs dangling over the edge. Billy sat close, almost touching her.

“Doesn’t Grandma like us anymore?” he asked.

I don’t know. I think she does. But I don’t know why she’s so mad.

“Maybe I should say I’m sorry.”

“Maybe.” Anneke wasn’t sure that Grandma would understand.

Anneke shifted so that she could see Grandma in full view. She stood on the lawn, in the same place where she had struck Billy. Her arms were outstretched and her lower lip trembled. Grandma began to call out in a plaintive voice.

“Gust! Gust! Els! Het is tijd voor het avonmaal!”

Anneke whispered in Billy’s ear,”I think she is calling Daddy but I don’t know why. He’s not here.”

Grandma wandered around the yard and continued to call out names and words in a language that Anneke barely understood. Anneke was frightened by this new being who inhabited her grandmother’s body and made it do silly, strange things. She wanted to run to Grandma and explain that they were the only ones here. She wanted to make coffee for Grandma, and cover a slice of white bread with the thick, cold butter curls that Grandma loved so much. She wanted to run into the woods and keep running until she reached the shore, where in the cool water she could think about all the confusing, terrible things that could happen. She wanted to travel back in time, to half an hour ago, so that she could do things differently. Maybe if she had not yelled, Grandma would not be acting so funny right now.

“Let’s go,” she said, and stood up on the bridge. Billy did the same, holding Anneke’s hand tightly in his own. She walked to Grandma, dragging the reluctant Billy behind her.

“Don’t worry,” Anneke reassured him. “It will be okay. I promise.”

Anneke hugged her Grandma around the waist, pressing her face into the older woman’s soft middle. Grandma’s hands entwined her dark hair, and she bent low to place a soft kiss on Anneke’s cheek. It was as if nothing had happened: no sap, no yelling, and no ghostly cries for grown-up children.

“Where have you been, Anneke?”

“Just on the bridge. Are you hungry? I can make sandwiches.”

“look at the big girl, making sandwiches for her Grandma.” Her grandmother cackled with delight as she slowly pulled herself up the slope towards the back door.

Anneke followed close behind her, wary of letting Grandma get too far ahead. She squeezed her brother’s hand protectively, and sighed. In her mind she could trace the passage of forgetting, from the date, to names, to the making of waffles, even to the extinction of one’s own existence.

5 comments:

Propane Amy said...

Anna, Your writing is brilliant. I love to read your posts.

Avril Fleur said...

I know you've shared this story with me before and that it is "fictional" based in reality. But you've captured the essence of Grandma as I remember her in your writing. Grandma's waffles are her enduring legacy for us and we enjoy them every year at Christmas, courtesy of my Mom. They are still wonderful and don't last long around our house. I guess I could say they go like "hotcakes"! lol! I was pretty young when she died, around 7 I think, but I have lots of memories of still and when I think about her I can feel the love she had for me, regardless of the devastating effects of the Alzheimers, which I didn't truly understand until I was much older. I just though that Grandma did "funny" things sometimes. Like feeding my brother and I chocolate, which unfortunately for us turned out to be chocolate Ex-Lax. My Mom didn't quite catch her in time before we'd had a chance to eat a few pieces. Not a fun night, that night! :)

Anna said...

You, most of all, would know what's true and what is fiction. The setting is real, she is as real as I could make her, given my age at the time. But Grandma, even when she was really unwell, would never deliberately hurt us...if I've captured her essence, and the feeling of freedom she gave us as children, then I've done her proud.
Thank you!

Anna said...

Thanks Amy!

Earth Muffin said...

What a beautiful story. Thanks.