My brother wrote this piece a few years ago on another blog. I repost it here fondly.
Do You Mind the Time?
She was busy and I should have known to wait. “Do you have any gingersnaps, Gramma? Do you have any gingersnaps,” It snapped. It wasn’t the first skite that bounced off this eight year old’s head and it wasn’t the first skite she had dished out. “Quit that crying and wait on the porch. I have to get this dough rolled out before Daddy gets home,” She said it like she knew I would understand and I did, but not until long after.
The smell of spilled beer and drying tobacco juice on the poured concrete porch floor was overrun by the smell of gingersnaps before the screen door to the kitchen ever opened. Her arms were the first thing you noticed about her. Not a big woman, but big arms. A lot of firewood, a lot of hoeing and, I suppose, a lot of living had forced her arms to become, well, like they didn’t belong. So much strength, so agile and so quick to dish out a skite to the top of your head if you happened to snap at her.
For now, those arms carried a pitcher, two glasses and, I knew it, or hoped, gingersnaps. “Oh, it’s hot out here, it’s hot everywhere,” she said to no one. The green vinyl-covered couch creaked and groaned under the weight of her as she sat down beside me, “Are you over your crying jag?” she asked. I nodded and smiled up into her face, knowing that all was well again. Knowing that once again I would be loved. Hugged by those arms that didn’t belong and full of those gingersnaps that were so heavy with ginger that they burnt your mouth.
She put her arm around me, taking the time to show me that she loved me, but she didn’t have to. I knew.
I ran my hand across the back of her hand and up along her wrinkled forearm until I came to that spot on the outside of her elbow that formed a hole in the fat and muscle and wrinkles. Yes, a hole, just big enough to fit your finger in. “Gramma with the holes in her elbows,” I said. She looked into my eyes and smiled and again I knew.
“Can we go play in the barn, Gramma?” I asked. “No, I can’t say when Daddy will be home and you know he don’t want kids in the barn,” she said. I didn’t ask why, I felt no need to question and I knew I didn’t want another skite. It wasn’t the first time I had asked to play in the barn.
Do You Mind the Time?
The house stood on the edge of a creek bottom in a large valley. Large for this area, anyway. It had been cleared years before to create a farm and a place to live by my Grandpa. White pine, hemlock and spruce had covered the whole farm at one time, but those were axed to make room for what they hoped would be a farm. The land was flat, surrounded by hardwood hills with a good supply of water from the creek that ran through the property. Time had pushed its way down the creek bottom bringing with it whatever soil, sand and rock it could carry. Grandpa’s farm had been the first place that the soil, sand and rock had travelled over. The sand and rock settled on the farm. The soil moved on.
“If you’re looking for something to do, the garden could use some weeding,” she said. Again without a glance in my direction. Oh yah. There were always the weeds. “Couldn’t we fish instead?” I asked. “I’ll dig the worms.”
“It’s too early for fishin’ and we haven’t even checked the eggs yet.” She said this like we were wasting time. “Grab the hoe there and go down the row of beans,” she said, “I’m going to the outhouse.”
I watched as she made her way around the house, past the garden to the double-seater outhouse, where from her perch she could watch her weeds grow. I wondered to myself as I watched, whether I too would end up with her shape. The arms that didn’t belong and the space between her legs. It looked as if Our Lord and Heavenly Saviour had somehow forgotten to put the horse beneath her. Perhaps He gave her the big arms to hold onto that horse, if it ever rode through there.
I grabbed the hoe and made my way to the garden. I knew she could see me through the crack between the door and hinges of the outhouse. The weeds were thick, green and fresh between the rows of beans. Never given the chance to grow tall, but never giving up.
The garden did grow. Years of wheelbarrowing pig, horse, cow, chicken shit and whatever else might improve the soil had, in fact, covered what time had left her to plant on. People drove from all over to see her flowers. At least that’s what the people who never grabbed a hoe said.
She called me Tim, not Timmy like everyone else. She used my grown-up name before I’d ever even thought of growing up. “Tim. Tim. Run to the house and get the toilet paper,” she spoke from the crack between door and hinges. I set the hoe against the fence that held the yard from slipping into the gravel pit surrounding the farm. As I walked to the house I looked about and for the first time noticed that the farm was like an island set above a big empty sea. The surrounding hills ended midway down their slopes, cut off by the machines I never saw running. This work was done through the week when I was at home. I wondered what else went on when I wasn’t there.
As I rounded the corner of the house, my eyes followed down the fresh gravel road that connected the island farm to the main highway. A car was making its way along the road, across the culverts that let the creek escape to better soil, and up the long straight grade to the house where Gramma sat in the double-seater without toilet paper.
I ran up onto the concrete porch, kicked the screen door open, letting it slam behind me, and searched in the pantry that smelled of gingersnaps for the rolls of toilet paper. Back outside, across the concrete porch, a cat you couldn’t pet bolted out from between my feet and lurched towards the car that was sliding to a halt in the gravel in front of the house.
“Damn it, Johnny! Why don’t you get rid of all those damn barn cats,” the driver said, as he stepped from the car and up to the concrete porch.
“If you ever slowed down instead of racing up the driveway, you wouldn’t have to worry about running over a barn cat. Stupid arse,” said Gramma, as she brushed by me and headed into the house. “Don’t just leave him sitting in the car, put him on the couch on the concrete porch. And bring that toilet paper in here, Tim!”
The driver walked around to the passenger side of the car and reached in to help Grandpa out. It always amazed me to hear the way Grandpa talked to the people who carried him from the car to the couch on the concrete porch. “You useless son of a…” “All right, Jack, just a few more steps,” the driver said, “There you go,” as he let Grandpa fall back on the green vinyl couch.
I don’t remember the names of the drivers who brought Grandpa home. Maybe the names were never used, unless they were attached to a curse, and I was raised to pretend I never heard a curse. That was pretty hard around Grandpa. “Scobal, you goddam… Reach under there and find my can and…” His words trailed off into silence. It was like he was afraid to finish what he had to say. Or if he did finish, he would lose your attention. He never lost mine.
I reached for the can under the green vinyl couch, hoping it wouldn’t be full and spill onto my fingers, staining me for the day. Lye soap was the only thing that would take the smell away and it was just as bad. The can was full, but I had grabbed it by the sides so my fingers wouldn’t dip into the juice. I got the can to the edge of the green vinyl couch and pulled my hand away as fast as I could, but not fast enough. The juice hit the finger that I knew at some point in that day would wipe my nose, or rub my eye.
Before I could straighten up and make my get-away, he had me, pulling, twisting, pinching me so that it hurt every time until he could get me in his favorite hold and make me cry. He found the finger he liked and bent it in towards itself, squeezing to see how long I could go. Most days I’d hold out as long as I could, but today I thought I would try something new.
I knew he would be watching my face. Watching to see when he should let go. Watching for that first tear. I turned my face away from him and it worked. The laughing that had started the minute the tobacco juice had hit my hand stopped… Or perhaps just trailed off into silence. I had him. “You goddam… Scobal.” And then more laughing. I never even looked back. I wish I had.
I ran into the kitchen where Gramma handed me the bar of lye soap and told me to wash up, no cryin’. She came and stood behind me, pushing me against the sink as if to hold me in place. Like she was pulling quills from a dog. She took my hands along with the soap in hers and scrubbed and washed until they were red and sore. She spun me around in one motion and dried both of our hands on her dress and turned away. “Your Dad should be along soon,” she said, “It’s too hot to be in the bush today and the deer flies’ll eat him alive.”
“We didn’t go fishing two days in a row,” I said.
“There’s other days,” she said, “I’ve got to get Daddy his supper. If he hangs around long enough.”
Do You Mind the Time?
As a common hog, you couldn’t do much better. A good dry barn, lots of mud and three square meals a day. Sometimes, it could be four or five square meals a day, if he was nipping at the potato wine.
The barn had at one time, before I was around, held other animals. Logging horses had been tied there in the stables. I could see where they had worn the top rails of the gates that kept them in with their necks and shoulders. Much too high for a pig.
I stood outside the gate, clear of the flying hooves, watching Gramma milk what I thought was the boniest creature I had ever seen. It looked like the cows that I saw on the UNICEF commercials and I wondered what kind of a deal Grandpa had made to get her over here. This cow was kept at the far end of the barn, so as not to disturb the pigs.
Above all this, on the ground floor of the barn were the chickens. These too were kept well away as they were the noisiest creatures on the farm. I hated them. My Gramma, the egg collecting warrior that she was, could reach with both hands at the same time and come out with the eggs. No pecks, no double-grabbing, no fear. Grandpa had done this to me. “A banty hen is the quickest thing alive,” he said, “Wes Parks lost both eyes to a banty hen. Pecked them right out!”
I was careful. I was terrified. I knew I needed both eyes to see what he’d do next.
When you bought a pig from my Grandpa, you weren’t just getting a pig. You were getting a dinner and everyone south of Sabine knows that with a good dinner comes good conversation. Grandpa’s pigs had good conversation.
From the very first introduction of sow to boar, through conception and birthing and yes, right to the last squeal as they were dipped in scalding water to remove their hair, these pigs got good conversation.
Grandpa would stand with his crooked leg on the middle rail, or sit on an overturned pail and tell those pigs pretty well everything he knew. A lot of it was pretty much gossip, I suppose, but the pigs sure tasted good. I guess everything needs a little sauce. Grandpa’s pigs were spiced.
Three cups of gravel those French bastards had taken off his farm to build the highway he traveled back and forth to the Arlington Hotel. Two pinches of pulpwood he’d never seen the payment for, or maybe just couldn’t remember getting. And just a hint of the young lad who spilled Grandpa’s beer at the hotel, while trying to grab his hat. These spices and many more added to the taste of Grandpa’s pigs.
You would think such a bitter spice would taint the pork, but Grandpa evened it out. The nicest words I ever heard him say were to the pigs. Lovely songs no one else knew, dirty poems I shouldn’t have heard and, if the potatoes were ripe, a round of the peg-leg until his crooked leg tired and he had to sit down.
“Do they know what you’re saying, Grandpa?” I asked. “That’s the smartest animal Our Lord and Heavenly Saviour ever put on this earth,” he said, “He’s just fooling us, sticking them in the mud.”
Later, in the kitchen watching Gramma peel potatoes, I asked her if she thought pigs were the smartest animals in the whole wide world. She said they weren’t smart enough to run away. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I thought she was right. Just another thing to keep from Grandpa and his well versed pigs.
I looked out the window when I heard the tires of Dad’s truck on the gravel driveway and ran out of the kitchen door, letting it slam behind me without even saying goodbye to Gramma.
I wanted to get home and watch TV to get another look at that cow on the UNICEF commercial. Besides, there’s other days.
Do You Mind the Time?
I knew enough not to let my shadow go out across the creek where my worm was sitting and I knew I shouldn’t be making noise that would scare the fish away, but the blackflies were chewing my ears and Gramma was coming up the creek. If I didn’t get a bite here, she would go around me to the next bend and probably find the hole in the creek where all the fish were hiding that day.We fished together, but we also fished against each other. It was never said that I got more than you, but we knew. Sometimes we fished early morning, starting behind the barn and working our way toward the highway. If we went in the afternoons when it was hot and sticky, we started at the highway and worked our way back to the farm. I didn’t know then, but now I realize that this was done to make sure we were headed towards the house in the afternoons, when Grandpa might happen along on his way home from the Arlington. If we heard a car slowing down on the highway above us, we could step up out of the creek and onto the road where Grandpa could see us and pretend he was asleep in the passenger seat of whoever’s car he was in.
I never saw him drive, he never owned a car while I was alive. I guess it was pretty hard to drive when you were drinking for a living, or living for a drinking.
Gramma figured that if Grandpa saw us on the road, it would be hard for him to curse about us not being at the house. If we had fish, not as much cursing.
We used tag alder sticks with black, heavy winterline, a hook and a worm. To let out the line we just twisted the sticks in our hands until we had enough line out to reach whatever log or rock hid the next trout. It wasn’t really casting, sort of flipping the worm where you wanted it.
The new Zebco with the pushbutton release that my Dad had got me would sit behind the screen door in the summer kitchen until he came to pick me up at suppertime. I would go and get it and throw it in the truck when we left. I only had to lie once when he asked how the rod worked, after that I guess he thought I was using it.
I did use it when I got old enough to go with him. I emptied a lot of beaver ponds what that rod, but it was never as much fun as fishing with Gramma.
We never spoke while we fished. When she’d had enough of the flies, she would say, “Come on, let’s go.” I don’t remember ever saying I wanted to stay longer. The flies told me it was time to go.
She was in her seventies then. She must have walked that creek a lot of times with kids of her own and other grandchildren before me. Gramma either loved fishing, or loved us, or loved both. Feeding blackflies when you’re seventy, for a six inch speckle, isn’t done because you have to.
When we reached the green vinyl couch on the poured concrete porch, Gramma and I would sit in silence, resting in the sun. I don’t know what she thought about then, probably wondering why in the world she was still walking that creek, feeding flies at seventy. All I could think about was what’s next.
A storm was coming. I was only eight or nine years old, but already finely attuned to mother nature. I knew.
I was standing at the big double barn doors which hung a foot or so above the ground to clear the snow in the winter, kicking at the heads of the two geese who guarded Grandpa’s barn. They would stick their heads out one at a time hissing me away from the barn and I would kick at them to keep them in line.
We had already had our battles and now I was in charge. Oh, there were times when I would run crying to the house with a big white goose attached to my pants. But that was a long time ago, at the first of the summer.
It didn’t take me long to learn that a thick-necked goose was no match for a slab of hardwood.
They cornered me one day up against the barn, necks stretched out, hissing. I know they would have killed me if it wasn’t for the slab of hardwood lying there. Of course, having Rex, the terrified border collie at my side was of no great comfort. Or so I thought.
As soon as I swung the slab at the first neck aimed, I thought, at my inner organs, Rex was on them. He had spent his whole life, all that summer, hiding from, or running from those geese, I guess he figured that was what he was supposed to do. He must have been watching me. My first swing brought out all the courage that I knew he possessed and that Gramma hoped he had when he showed up at the farm. He had them half plucked before they made it around the corner and into the barn. We were very proud.
I stood scratching his neck in the driveway, watching his mange float in the sunlight across the garden, when the first crack of thunder hit. Like I said, I was finely attuned to nature. Before I could tell Rex that I thought it was going to storm, he was already across the driveway, up the poured concrete porch and had ripped a border collie-sized hole in the screen door. From there, I knew he would bolt up the stairs and under Gramma’s bed where it was safe from thunder storms and Mother Goose. I thought Rex was a good dog. Gramma said Grandpa was a stupid arse for bringing him home.
Do You Mind the Time?
The odd time, Our Lord and Heavenly Saviour would give me someone to play with. Gramma said He gave us everything. All the food we ate, the wood we heated the house with and even the blackflies. All I knew was that he wasn’t around to hoe the garden, or pile wood, or even make the itch go away from the blackfly bites. I never said this to Gramma, because I also knew that He could give out skites to the top of the head through one of His most devoted followers, my Gramma.
When He was in a good mood and when I had done everything I was supposed to do, He would sometimes arrange for me to have a cousin show up for a week or two. There was no shortage of cousins. In those days there was no cable TV, nothing else for my aunts and uncles to do, but make more cousins.
They always came one at a time. Gramma always had me there, so three of us would have been too much. Thinking about it now, I was probably too much.
I would lead them around the farm for the first few days, showing them all the wondrous things that Our Lord and Heavenly Saviour had given us that summer. There were the barn cats that had survived the last bout of distemper, a dead coon that had been lying behind the barn for three days, just ripe enough to poke with a stick, and many other things that would make a cousin from the city want to come back. I wanted them to like it there. I wanted them to wish they were me.
When I ran out of wondrous blessings to show them, Gramma would have to come up with something to keep us busy. That usually meant piling slabwood in the summer kitchen, or throwing potatoes in the basement window for the winter. She probably got her best days’ work out of me when the cousins were there, because I wouldn’t let them out-work me. They weren’t used to working and whined about it all the time, so I worked harder to show Gramma that I was her favorite. Gramma didn’t have time for favourites.
If we were lucky, she would let us go to the basement to smooth out the potato bin to make room for more spuds. It was cool and dark down there, a good place to get out of the summer heat. The walls were lined with preserves. Tomatoes, relishes, apples and canned peaches. The peaches were the best, but not to be gobbled up. “You think they grow on trees?” she would say. I wondered for years where they did come from.
In the corner, behind the door, was the most fascinating piece of machinery on the farm. It was a grinding stone you sat on like a bike. The faster you pedaled, the faster the stone went around. It was all the cousins could do to keep their fingers off that spinning stone. It peeled a lot of bark off a lot of fingers over the summers and I was usually doing the pedaling.
The basement was just one of the places we could only visit if grandpa was away for a good stretch. “The basement and the barn’s no place for kids,” according to Grandpa.
The basement was the place that Grandpa and all the uncles went in the afternoons during holiday dinners when everyone was home. It made them happy to go down there, at least they always came up happier. It didn’t make Gramma and the aunts as happy as it made them. I thought they were probably down there gobbling peaches.
The barn was home to the pigs and you didn’t want to bother the pigs. When Grandpa was away and a cousin was there, Gramma would open one of the two big barn doors and put a kitchen chair against it to prop it open. She would sit where she could keep an eye on us and one eye on the gravel road that led to the house from the highway. We only did this when a cousin was back and I often wondered why. I don’t think I could have jumped from the beams that ran across the loft to the hay below without some cousin from the city calling me a chicken. I guess she knew what she was doing.
Whoever put the roof on the barn, I guess it was Grandpa, didn’t bother to stagger the roof boards that sheeted everything in. This made the roof bend and twist where the boards butted up about every eight feet. Maybe that was why he said that the barn was no place for kids. The pigs were safe. The stone foundation was thick and strong and in the basement stables the pigs were kept. On nice days, when the deerflies weren’t bad, he would open the chute and let the pigs out for a run. They would run and jump and squeal like they thought they were little lambs. Like little lambs to the slaughter.
If grandpa was pulled away, or just had to get to the Arlington, sometimes he would forget and leave the pigs out. On these days we would have a hoot. Riding a pig that thinks he he is a happy little lamb waiting for his wool to grow in is a lot of fun. One cousin, after another bone jarring ride on Grandpa’s pigs once said to me that he hadn’t had that much fun since the pigs ate his little sister. We just squealed.
After that particular cousin went back to the city, I asked Gramma if he had ever had a sister. She said to grab a tea towel and to quit gabbing and that she hardly had time to count eggs, let alone grandchildren.
Do You Mind the Time?
In the winter time, when the farm almost shut down, it was like moving day at the foot of Selby Hill. There were still eggs to collect, a cow to milk, but the pigs, who had given themselves up, were in the freezer or the oven and wouldn’t have to suffer through the cold in that draughty barn. After a few good frosts and quite a few prompts from Gramma, the cookstove and the green vinyl couch would be dragged from the summer kitchen, over the poured concrete porch, into the main house. There were always the geraniums to bring in from outside and Gramma would line the windowsills with them to keep the cold out and to give us something to look at other than snow.
One window which faced the gravel driveway that led to the highway was always left clear of geraniums so that we could watch for Grandpa coming home from the Arlington. That window always seemed to be fogged up.
When he was home, he would lie on the green vinyl couch beside the cookstove where it was warm and he could keep an eye on things. He would sleep with his hat over his eyes, snoring and muttering to himself until Gramma would wake him for something to eat..
He would sit up, always with a smile and reach into his mouth, always with the same finger and pull his chew of tobacco out. Sometimes this would be saved, on the windowsill, or the arm of a chair if Gramma had her back turned. Other times, he would yell at me to reach under the green vinyl couch and pull out his tobacco can, “Scobal, get my can… You goddam…”
It was always good for a fight. Him grabbing, pinching, twisting me and Gramma chewing him out about being so rough with the kids. If I was quick enough, I could grab his hat, usually an old felt fedora, and pull it over my ears and eyes, making him laugh. It was really the only time he ever took it off, other than supper. Gramma would peel it off my head and hang it behind the door with the rest of his hats and make us sit down to eat.
He would sit with his back to the door, even though he trusted no one and wait for Gramma to serve his meal. I would sit at the other end facing him, watching him. I don’t really remember Gramma sitting anywhere. She just sort of ate while she cooked.
No one touched a plate until grace was said, not even Grandpa. I know he closed his eyes during grace, because I never closed mine even when it was my turn to say it.
He always smiled when he was eating. He was a very happy eater. It was always potatoes and meat, the stuff from the farm. I think that was why he smiled. It was a self-sufficient meal from his farm. I don’t really remember him doing much to be self-sufficient, other than sitting in the barn telling the pigs stories.
On the days when Grandpa was away, Gramma and I would stink the house up with all kinds of different smells. Woodsmoke was the overshadowing scent, because the pipes were never really hooked up the way Gramma thought they should be. I guess Grandpa figured they would have to be taken down in the spring anyway.
The hotter the stove got, the stronger the smells got. The heat brought out all the smells from the pantry and the kitchen. Gingersnaps, baking bread, lye soap, Grandpa’s tobacco can under the couch, the wet dog at the front door, drying clothes over the stove, the chemical toilet upstairs in Gramma’s bedroom.
While Gramma worked at whatever there was to do, I would wander around the house touching, smelling and looking at everything there was to be happy about.
There was a pump organ covered in plants and hymn books that she would let me play anytime that I wanted, if Grandpa was away. Sometimes she would play hymns for me. Chording by ear is what she called it, while I sat on her knee between her arms watching her twisted fingers press the keys. She sang, but I can’t remember her voice, only that it was in time. Even if the organ wasn’t.
It was a single pumper, the other side was broken, so in order to play all five or six verses of a real good hymn with lots of meaning, it took a lot of pumping. When she tired, we would sit and drink tea at the kitchen table, her knitting, always knitting, me burning my mouth with tea and gingersnaps.
“I wonder what’s keeping your Dad?” she’d say. I knew she was tired. “He’ll be froze with his hands in the water today. I know these old hands couldn’t take it.”
“Are they too sore to play crocinole, Gramma?” I’d ask.
“Get the board and don’t lose any of the pieces,” she’d say.
She always seemed to have it timed right, so that she wouldn’t have to play too long with her twisted fingers before my dad would pull into the gravel driveway that led from the highway.
I’d jump up and look out the one window that didn’t have any geraniums in it, to make sure it was Dad and not someone bringing Grandpa home from the Arlington.
“Grab your wet mitts off the stove and don’t forget that loaf of bread for your Mom,” she’d say.
“Thanks, Gramma,” I’d say, as I searched for my next breath as she hugged me hard enough for three or four kids.
“Love you, see you tomorrow,” we both would say.