Tuesday, November 18, 2008

For My Grandparents (Part 7), Rabbit In The Grass: The Haunted Mandolin

I have always been a passionate lover of nature, especially in the fall. As soon as the leaves begin to change color, and the first hint of winter's chill hangs in the air, my thoughts turn inward. I think back to the times I spent in blissful communion with the earth, and try to reconnect with that unbridled wonder I felt for nature when I was a child. Inevitably, the backward glances turn to memories of Nanny, my grandmother. She more than anyone else shaped my attitude toward the natural world - not so much by what she said - but by who she was. Nanny, whose birth name was Louise, was one of those women who seem to embody the earth itself. She and Poppy, my grandfather, lived atop a sunny hill in a little clapboard house whose field stone foundation, and many walls were the product of my grandfather's back - breaking labor. The property - 17 acres of typical, rocky, New England soil -was connected at one corner to my maternal aunt's 40 acres - an enchanted place that had thick oak woods, and ponds with fish that jumped, and bullfrogs that croaked. Through the back of her land it was a short walk to an old, abandoned quarry, and a stretch of quicksand that was purported to contain the sunken remains of a freight car. Behind my grandmother's house, and in a low-lying field on the far side of the next door neighbor's land, my grandfather grew an abundance of produce: corn, tomatoes, pole beans, squash, potatoes, onions, a variety of herbs, grape vines, and apple, pear, and peach trees. Throughout the summer and fall we feasted on fruits, and vegetables plucked straight from the garden.

My grandmother was also skilled at growing things. Her handiwork could be seen in the mad jumble of flowers that engulfed the borders of her front yard - a triangle of grass graced by a towering flagpole in the center, and a scattering of white Adirondack chairs that gleamed in the summer sun. Family members swore Nanny could stick a dead twig in the ground and in no time it would sprout green leaves. Also, legendary was the St. Francis-like effect she had on animals. I once saw a vicious dog that would attack anyone in sight, roll on its back in front of Nanny, waiting for her to rub its belly. And then there was the rag tag band of cats that haunted my grandmother's property. I used to love seeing Nanny step outside the front porch door to feed them. Strands of her long, silver-white hair - escapees of her tortoise shell combs - would flutter in the breeze as she cried: "Ki dee. Ki dee. Ki dee. Ki dee." Upon hearing her, cats of every description would swarm her feet, and curl around her legs, as they waited anxiously for her to lower the bowl of cat food and table scraps. No creature ever went hungry if Nanny was around.

After my grandmother's death, when the family was dividing up the more valuable items in her estate, I asked if I could have just one thing of hers - a fluted, green, glass jar with a soft metal lid in which Nanny used to store her coffee. As I sit here writing, that same jar stands on a shelf in the window above my left shoulder. It's a symbol of the treasured times we shared. As a child I spent many weeks during the summers living in my grandmother's cheerful, sunlit house - the exact opposite of the dysfunctional, and often scary home of my parents. Each morning after waking to the crowing of the rooster, I'd push aside the brown rock that kept the bedroom door from sliding open, and enter the kitchen. As always, my grandmother was already up sitting with her back to the big iron stove with the emerald green, and creamy white, ceramic finish. I didn't have to be told what to do next. I knew the drill. I went straight to the sink, retrieved the green jar, and brought it to my grandmother. She'd then scoop up several spoonfuls of the fragrant grounds, and deposit them in the basket of the coffee pot. From my side of the kitchen table I could see the amber liquid pulsing up and down in the little glass knob in the lid. While the coffee perked, Nanny and I would eat out favorite cereal -Wheat Chex. A heartier breakfast followed at mid morning after we'd worked up an appetite outdoors.

On one such morning as she was pouring cereal into her bowl, my grandmother said something that demonstrated to me just how aware she was of our kindred natures. She said:

"You know, Glen. You're just like me. You have to live alone, because, when you live by yourself, you get up when you want to get up, you eat when you want to eat, and you go to bed when you want to go to bed."

How prescient were her words. In her simple, direct way she spoke volumes about my core being. Perhaps if I had heeded her advice I might have been spared a lot of drama in my life. As it turned out, all of my live-in relationships were stormy, to say the least. Although I'm a faithful, and loyal person, I understand how challenging it can be to live with my personality. My contemplative mystic, and exuberant artist sides can be difficult for one person to accommodate. I've often joked that if I wanted to achieve domestic success I'd need a different compatible lover for each of my two halves - one for the maniac, and another for the monk.

I should explain here that my grandmother lived independently for a long period of time - bringing up her three daughters without the support of a spouse. The man I referred to as Poppy was my step grandfather. My grandmother's first husband died when their daughters were very young. By all accounts, my biological grandfather was an abusive man who drank heavily, and gambled away the family's money. Nanny didn't remarry until her girls were all in their early twenties, and did so, only after Poppy had courted her relentlessly for many years. Although I have no doubts that she loved Poppy very much, I know a part of my grandmother sometimes craved the quiet, uncomplicated life of a single person. Nevertheless, I'm very happy Nanny remarried. Otherwise, I would never have known Poppy - a kind, hard working man who adored Nanny, and greatly enriched the lives of her daughters and grandchildren.

In addition to our shared love of independence, my grandmother and I had something else in common. Like me, Nanny had one one foot planted firmly in the spiritual world at all times. Exactly sixty days after his death, [the period of time prescribed by family tradition], my grandfather visited my grandmother. She said he came to her bedroom window, in what she described as 'flowing' colors, and said goodbye three times. That moment was supposed to signal the completion of Poppy's passage into the spirit world, but ,by no means, did it mark the end of his visits. Several months after my grandfather's colorful farewell, my sister Susan was cleaning my grandmother's bedroom when Poppy made his presence known. While Susan was dusting the furniture she heard a sharp "Ping!". She looked up and saw that one of my grandfather's mandolins that sat on top of an armoire, popped a string. My grandmother, who had been sitting just outside the bedroom door saying her afternoon prayers, [Nanny was religious, but not in a dogmatic, or overbearing way], peered into her room, looked at Susan without commenting, and went back to her prayers. A moment later a second string broke. Again, Nanny looked at Susan, said nothing, and resumed her prayers. When a third string popped, Nanny said to Susan:

"The mandolin is yours. Poppy wants you to have it."

The day my grandfather died I was at home in a place I was renting on the beach in South Wellfleet, Ma. My roommate, who knew my family well, and was very fond of my grandparents, sensed I was feeling sad, and said to me - out of the blue - "Do you want to go home to your family?" Without a further thought we left the house and headed down a long sandy road that ran beside a tidal creek next to where we lived. From there we made our way across open marshland, and through a moonlit forest of scrub oak that led on to the highway. At the time there was only one bus on the extreme end of the Cape. It came and went just twice a day - once in the early morning and again at night. We set foot on the highway just in time to hail down the last bus that could have taken us to Connecticut that day. My roommate and I decided to make a quick stop in Hartford first, in order to visit my sister Marie. It was bitter cold when we left the bus station and walked the mile or so to my sister's house. When we showed up on her doorstep Marie was shocked to see us because it was late, and neither my roommate nor I had thought to warn her about our arrival. After visiting for a couple of hours we were driven to the bus station where we boarded a New York bound bus that stopped in my home town. When we got to my parents' home, before we even had a chance to take off out coats, the telephone rang. My uncle phoned to tell us that Poppy had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance. A few minutes later a second call informed us that Poppy had been pronounced dead on arrival. I found out at his funeral, that my grandfather had made the rounds of the family the night before he died. He appeared in several peoples' dreams, and was seen by my Uncle John running down the staircase in his home. The day after the funeral, Nanny gave me Poppy's pocket knife, for which, (according to custom), I had to pay her a penny before receiving it. She also gave me his gold signet ring, which I wear to this day.

I was the last family member to occupy my grandmother's house before it was sold. I'm embarrassed to say I did everything I could to discourage the sale of the property. When prospective buyers would come around I would point out all of the defects - even hinting that the house might be structurally unsound. My aunt who was the executor of my grandmother's estate got wind of what I was doing, and I was forced to stop.

Finally, the dreaded day arrived. It was the tail end of autumn, and the air was piercing cold. I had decided the night before that this would be the day when I would end my occupancy. In less than a week strangers were set to move into my grandmother's house. Awakening at the dusk of dawn, I snapped open the shade of Nanny's bedroom. The sight that greeted me was breathtaking. There was white frost on the lawn, and sunrise was just a heartbeat away. Thinking it was the first snowfall of the year, I reverted to a childhood practice, and walked outdoors in my bare feet. Delighted by the crunching of the stiff, and glistening grass, I waited for the magic I knew was soon to come. And there is was. In the distance, beyond the huge Chinese elm, where the rounded edge of the lawn sloped downward, following the path of the tree-lined drive, the sun burst over the horizon. In a flash, a blast of gold lit up the frosted grass, igniting countless dewdrops into blazing diamonds. It was a sight I will never forget.

When I returned indoors I began the painful process of gathering up my belongings. This would be my final departure from the place that had been my childhood sanctuary when I needed to escape from the unhappiness at home. After I finished packing I decided to lie down down on my grandmother's bed and take a short nap. I fell asleep briefly, and was awakened by the sound of heavy footsteps in the attic overhead. Intuitively, I knew it was Poppy. Deciding to investigate, I went into a tiny closet off the parlor where a skinny ladder led to trapdoor in the ceiling. I mounted the stairs, and threw open the hatch. It was pitch dark up there. I climbed a little higher until my shoulders cleared the attic floor, and began feeling around the perimeter of the hatchway. Suddenly, my hand struck an object, and I heard the resonant sound of strings vibrating. Even before I grabbed hold of it I knew it was my grandfather's other mandolin. Clearly, Poppy wanted me to have it. I hope some day to honor his memory by learning to play it.


owlface said...

I love your grandparents story! I haven't finished it though as I don't want it to end. I really was in your nannies kitchen in the a.m. Love you!

SisterJulia said...

This was so beautiful to read. Such wisdom and love.