Cucumbers

I remember my grandparents’ garden from my childhood. I remember following along behind my grandfather, sent out for tomatoes, while I “helped” by pulling fresh cucumbers off the prickly, hairy vines. Wiping the vegetable off on my tee shirt, I chomped into it right there where I stood.

My grandfather was a staid mountain of a man. He didn’t talk much to his family; he frequently responded to my grandmother in grunts or one-syllable sounds. When he sat down to eat, he really tucked into it:  seconds were certain, thirds were not out of the question. I never knew him not to eat what my grandmother set on the table, but he drew the line at cucumbers.

When my brother, my cousins and I discovered this, we were giddy with unexpected knowledge. We were between six and seven years old and our shrill little giggles must have sounded like the munchkins in Oz. Our secret-telling was, no doubt, conducted in theatrical stage whispers. We couldn’t believe it. Grampie didn’t eat cucumbers! We had to clean our plates, but now here was this revelation.

And so at every meal shortly thereafter, we took turns offering our grandfather helpings of the cool disks marinating lightly in vinegar with a hint of sugar and generous salt and pepper.

“Would you like some cucumbers, Grampie,” we asked choking on our hysteria. In the spirit of humor moderated by solidarity, Grammie hid her smile until it wore off and even she spoke sharply, telling us to leave our grandfather alone. But it was irresistible to tease the unteaseable, to ruffle the unruffleable.

“How about a cuke, Grampie,” we asked, until finally he pounded the table with one open hand.

“I don’t want any goddamn cukes,” he thundered before slamming downstairs to his woodworking shop where a half-gallon of vodka was kept cool under the stairs.

What he didn’t know, sadly I think now, is how nicely good vodka goes down with a bit of gently muddled cucumber, fresh from the garden.

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Selfish

“Aunt Kay, why didn’t you have kids?”

I look at my nephew, his hair bleached from summer sun, his limbs long and sinewy from growth spurts and non-stop play. He is eleven and reaching the outer edge of his wide open face and honest questions. Next year, or the year after that, he will become a virtual stranger for a time, whose aloof hovering, mumbled sarcasm, and slouchy posture will make me want to run away screaming. I don’t want to squander the last bit of eleven I might get. I pause and inhale.

“There are lots of answers to some questions, sweetie,” I say, my mind running down the list of which ones might be nephew-approved.

“Well, tell me one of them.”

“Aiden, you know what it looks like when your mom is knitting and the yarn gets all tangled in a big knot?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s what the reasons look like. It’s hard to see where one ends and another begins because of all the knots.”

“So you can’t tell me?”

“I will, but it’s not so simple, ok? It’s all tied up.”

He nodded and looked like he was thinking about what I’d said.

The heart of the matter was that we had liked our life as it was and wondered what such a big change would mean. Although we didn’t know this was the bottom line at the time, eventually we realized it was the reason.

“You know it’s hard being a good mom. Think about all the stuff your mom does, like making lunches, washing clothes, cleaning house,  and plain old having fun with you. I figured I would be a better aunt than a mom. Do you know what I mean?”

“Not really.”

“You know how you played pitcher and catcher and short stop before you realized you were better at pitching? It’s like that. We all do our part on the team.

My answer at last seemed adequate and our attention turned to the chocolate chip cookies needing to come out of the oven.

I looked at the back of his neck as he scraped the cookies from the pan. His hair line rose an an angle from the left up to the right side of his neck, just like my brother’s and mine and it made me wonder again at all I was missing.

Siblings

My brother sits on the couch in his living room, his face illuminated by his phone in the dark room that’s illuminated by a large television screen. Earlier, he’d put ice cream in bowls, poured his best whiskey into his best glasses and adorned the drinks with carefully made balls of ice. He was glad to see me.

To cut the sweetness clinging to my tongue and souring, I roll the smoky liquor around in my mouth. I want to scream into the noise of the unwanted television. I sit and the minutes pass. Feeling like there’s sand in my eyes, spiders in my hair and ants in my shirt, I reach again for the glass.

I remember the last night I spent with Dad on my first trip home after moving cross-country. I hadn’t planned to spend the night, but he kept asking, “Sistah, why don’t you stay?”

The night had progressed as I knew it would. After dinner, my father, his third wife, her 30-plus year old son who lived in my brother’s old room, Dad’s psychotic Dalmatian that was built like a brick house, and I retired to the living room. They all sat where they always did and I perched on the end of the couch closest to the television.

The television came on, the lights went out, Dad leaned back in his lazy boy and started to snore. His wife selected the show she wanted to watch and the room flashed with the changing scenes. Internally I raged against myself for falling into this trap. An adult voice countered soothingly, “Somewhere inside that snoring man is a heart that knows you stayed. Do this for him.”

I’d kept my face directed toward the television until the spiders in my hair had compelled me to move, saying goodnight to the strangers who shared my father’s house. The night after this, when I’d returned to the comfort of familiar friends hours south, my father died of a massive heart attack in his sleep.

I look again at my brother’s illuminated face across the room and break the familial code of solitude with company.

“So, mon frère, how are things?”

Vacation

I am trying to explain to myself why I am not in Maine today, because not being there is a physical pain. It’s my first day of vacation and all I can think of is sunfish.

A freshwater sunfish at the end of your hook—no matter how big a fish it is relative to other sunfish—is too small and bony for a fisherman, who must scorn it before throwing it back into the pond.

On the other hand, to a young swimmer, nervous about the Loch Ness monster, about octopuses, whirlpools, and mucky pond bottoms, to a swimmer who keeps an eye on her bare feet under the water until she can’t reach the bottom any longer and so has to float like a board on top of the water, keeping her feet as far as possible from the murky depths where a disembodied hand might rise from the mud to grab them, to this sort of swimmer the sunfish may be a gentle friend.

Not concerned with bones and eating or catching and releasing, the swimmer can delight in the flat fish that shimmers in the sunlight. The sunfish might nibble on a leg at rest in the water—tasting its surface as it might a sunken log—so lightly that the person might not notice it at all if in conversation, in thought, or otherwise distracted.

On the other hand, its nibble may startle and become a tickle and gasp affair that sends the sunfish darting to the safety of a shadow or into the plume rising up from the pond floor, stirred by feet dashing for shore, where they will be safe from piranhas pretending to be sunfish.

Once on shore, it’s difficult to ignore the instructions from a nervous grandmother, who can’t swim and lives in fear of drowning grandchildren, grandchildren who should not swim past the floating dock in front of the camp, but who do so while pretending to be deaf to her admonishments. The dock marks the spot where their grandfather can wade, hurling his mass through chest-deep water—because he can’t swim either—in less time than it takes to drown, a race that’s been tested just once, but he won it and we’re all still here as a result.

“Put that life jacket on right instead of standing there fussing with it,” one of several adults says as he pulls, tugs, clamps and clicks it into place.

 

“My god, I can’t breathe you’ve got it on so tight.”

 

“It’ll loosen up in the water, so forget your complaining, miss. You’ll be lucky if you can float with all the potato salad you ate. Without that lifejacket, you’d sink like a stone. Now go on with you.”

Bellies protruding, we grandchildren hop across hot stones, throwing ourselves into the pond, kicking up walls of water in our wake to discourage any would-be pursuers from following too close behind. They can’t follow us into the pond or they would ruin their freshly curled permanents, their new sundresses, and their hearing aids. They would lose their new contact lenses that would float away from their wide-open eyes to be nibbled by curious sunfish under the dock.

Maternal Family Tree

Steaming bowl of cream of wheat,

which I hate,

sat before me, pocked with grape jelly,

which I love and pick out.

The phone rang. Morning dark made

the jangling ring jarring.

I was ordered to keep eating.

 

So H.C. died, did he? Maybe

Grammie will live a few good years after all. 

Mama coughed a hard laugh into the phone,

and turned to me, Keep eating.

 

Snowball the cat got eaten,

by a fox. Champie the dog was shot

after biting my little brother.

Now H.C., the old man who scowled from beside the stove

spit into margarine cups

and exposed himself to nurses in the Home

was dead.

 

When Snowball and Champie died,

me and Mama cried.