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Jim Schepker

Grandma was wiry thin, bent over when she shuffled beside her bamboo cane, and dotted with brown spots on her taut neck and bony hands. Round, thick lenses in thin silver frames magnified her eyeballs.

“Grandma Grasshopper” one of my country cousins called her.

It was hard to believe that this tiny, stooped woman had birthed 12 kids. And she had done this pretty much all by herself because the babies “…always came in a rush,” I once heard my oldest aunt tell my Mom. That aunt had helped deliver the last eight of their siblings, my Mom near the middle of that batch. Grandpa was always out somewhere in the fields or barns, and always acted surprised to find what he found when he returned home at a long day’s end.

A third-generation, hardscrabble farm family, my Mom’s brothers and sisters and their swarms of kids ate four meals on weekdays and Saturdays as they assembled pre-dawn at the homestead to start the spring or summer day’s tilling, planting, or harvesting. The breakfast, served by the aunts in dark kitchen shadows, offered up slabs of crusty homemade bread slathered in mounds of butter and blackberry jam, with thick mugs of black coffee, even for the kids – but no bacon or fried ham, that was for Sundays. Next, the late-morning meal, five hours into the workday, included fried meats, potatoes, carrots, string beans, cornbread, and jugs of iced tea, often carried to the fields or barns by the womenfolk. A late-afternoon meal for the men who had stayed behind while their wives returned to their homes in town offered leftovers from the earlier meal, made into sandwiches served cold. And then the final meal of the day for the homestead residents and city visitors, after the hogs and dairy cows had all been fed and bedded, was another fried meat, joined by apple sauce, stewed tomatoes or beets, followed by strawberries or raspberries slathered over biscuits.

Grandma sat at the head of the table for these marathon meals. We city grandkids huddled at the far end of the long pine table, staring wide-eyed at the proceedings as platters and plates hovered and settled around us.

From Grandma’s commanding spot she spoke incessantly in a high-pitched, urgent voice strained by a lifetime of work and worries.

“I saw Baby Hagganoff today. Wonder how that rhubarb is doing. Better check the barns, make sure they’re closed up. I taste a liquor never brewed. Got to get some sugar on Saturday. Where’s Rita? And Sophie? I heard a fly buzz. We need to bring in some eggs, and bottom greens. Make some butter. We sure do want some rain. I like to see it lap the miles. Where’s Sophie? And August?”

We city grandkids, at the far end of the table, sat silent and baffled.

We were amazed at how the confusion and chaos emerging from Grandma’s mouth was so easily accepted and ignored by the adults and cousins around us.

The adults in our world were, after all, serious men and women of few words. And when they spoke, their sparse words were clear, concise, and commanding.

So, yes, we were confused – but we were never afraid.

We were not frightened because no one around us was ever alarmed.

Grandma was there – accepted, safe, special.

And that was pretty much enough for us kids.

But why did Grandma talk like that, we had to wonder? Why did she ask for Sophie, my Mom, who was sitting at her right elbow, gently spooning mashed potatoes or steamed carrots into Grandma’s mouth?

Since Grandma’s monologs made no sense to us, we provided one. The answer to our question, we concluded, was that when you got old, you lost your hair, your teeth… and your mind.

So you ended up crazy.

That settled, we just moved on.

Then one day I heard my Mom say to Aunt Rita “Mom seems more addled every time we come to visit.”

So Grandma had once been someone else, and not so long ago. But who was she then, and when?

“Yes,” said Aunt Rita, “but her hearing and eyesight are good, and she’s still got an appetite. And Teresa is here with her 24 hours a day.”

So that became our new explanation: Old people became addled, whatever that meant. It certainly sounded softer, kinder, gentler.

On another visit later that year for yet another country cousin’s wedding, things had changed. Grandma seldom left her bed now. She had been unable to articulate the searing pain that she had felt and, of course, there were no technologies then to do the proper detective work to detect her late-stage breast cancer. We would lose her soon, we were told.

As I watched Mom sit at Grandma’s bedside then, holding Grandma’s hand and caressing her forehead, I heard the usual gibberish, but delivered now in a raspy whisper.

“Are the gooseberries ripe yet? Foggy morning. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. Where is Albert? And did he ever marry that girl? My love is a fever. Saw a blacksnake just sunning itself on that fence rail today. It’ll be another hot one. A bird came down the walk. Someone better get some peaches up from the root cellar. The boys will be getting hungry soon. Those bottom greens should be ready now. I shall be telling this with a sigh.”

It was not until several months after her death that I really got to meet Grandma.

After Grandma’s passing Aunt Teresa was cleaning out Grandma’s room when she found an old photo album at the back of the tall, chestnut chifforobe that slouched in the bedroom corner. It was stuffed with dozens of rejection letters from New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco publishers.

“Thank you for your submission… We regret that we cannot… To purchase your own subscription… Again, thank you… Best wishes…”

There were no copies of her submissions because, apparently, creating and keeping handwritten spare copies of her poems – well, that would have been preciously time-consuming. And needlessly vainglorious. Better to just store them in her head.

Aunt Teresa also found snippets and stanzas from Dickinson, Frost, Whitman, Bronte and Shakespeare’s sonnets stuffed into the sleeves of the album, all composed in Grandma’s curvaceous cipherings.

And when we checked with the one-room library that shared space with the post office on Main Street in town, we learned that Grandma had been a frequent Saturday visitor, the day when trips were made to get mail and buy the few dry good necessities – sugar, salt, coffee and tea – that the farm could not produce.

From the library’s card catalogs, there in that familiar, flourishing penmanship, we learned that Grandma had favored poetry, and especially the work of mostly American authors.

Poetry. Of course it would be poetry. Poetry would have been digestible and portable for her. It would have offered both an instant escape and an enduring confirmation that her private thoughts and desires had kindred spirits out there somewhere in that distant, but connected, world.

And her zeal in submitting her work for publication, against all odds, was not, ultimately, a surprise. Even as I recalled that she had probably only finished the eighth grade in that sagging one-room schoolhouse nestled in a far corner of the family homestead, I hoped then that her passion for poetry had energized and elevated her above the grinding, suffocating routines of daily farm life. If she could concoct the best pies and jams in the county, and birth a dozen kids, then maybe she could compose the best poems, too. Or at least try. And just as those many blue ribbons pinned to her kitchen curtains confirmed her culinary honors, publication would do the same for her poetic passion.

I wondered aloud once, and irascibly, to my Mom about how she could not have known that Grandma was an aspiring poet. Didn’t Mom ever see poetry collections laying about, or scraps of paper with scribbled lyrics? “Thinking about it,” she responded “I did sometimes hear Mom’s voice late at night behind her closed bedroom door, just off the kitchen. I presumed then that she was just humming lullabies to the newest baby kept in a crib there, or the latest sick child who had taken up the cot at the foot of her four-poster bed.”

But now we knew better. Grandma was likely reciting poetry aloud while Grandpa’s snoring, she had hoped, would hide her efforts from the prying ears of children seeking late-night biscuits and sips of water in the kitchen.

And those Saturday canvas bags bulging with store-bought goods must have also hidden library books nestled in their bottoms, anthologies that were later secretly and temporarily stashed in Grandma’s bedroom closet or under her bed.

Years after she was gone Grandma often came back to visit me during my high school and college years. Lines that once startled me, like the one she had once inserted into one of her long soliloquys, “Don’t let him cut my hand off!” – I thought then that she was recalling the day Grandpa had gotten his arm caught in the conveyor belt of the combine and had that arm, and his life, torn from him on that hot September afternoon. But later, when I came upon that line in Frost’s ‘Out, Out –‘ I finally knew its origin. And that prize she sought…that was Whitman.

And so many others…. “I took the road less traveled...” “Because I could not stop for death…” …these once nonsensical lines, as well as those many abstruse references to cats and walls and liquor, greeted me now with new meaning and warmth.

Now I think I better understand the origin of my own lurkings and longings. Perhaps that passion of hers has been passed along to me through some deep, ancestral reservoir.

And it is now my private delight that I have, like Grandma Grasshopper, the satisfaction of exploring that passion….and perhaps some day sharing the results, and scores of scanned rejection letters, with descendants who may discover my efforts hidden here on this laptop.

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