by Lonnie Martin
This is where I am from, the place of my father’s birth. It sits on the edge of a valley, surrounded by mountains older than the generations that have lived and died in a land claimed as their own. I was not born here, nor was I conceived here, nor did I grow up here. I did not take my first steps on the ground of this place. I did not first speak in this air. My first swim, first kiss, first mistake all took place far from here, yet everything I am began in this place.
I have come here to . . . to what? Write? Rest? Learn? Search? All of the above, or perhaps none? I sit in this house atop a mountain that holds the secrets of the pasts of others who are unknown to me. My mind is a cacophony of thoughts that make no sense, even to myself.
I am so tired that I sleep past noon. My body, mind and spirit are so exhausted from endless days and nights where there is no time for true rest. Yet my slumber is restless. My dreams are a haphazard collection of anxieties that I attempt to toss and turn to oblivion. I awaken feeling like I’ve wasted the day, but knowing that for the first time in ages, I truly have nothing to do but what my heart desires.
I work out, taking my body to it utmost limits, listening to music that is usually familiar and calming, but somehow alien to me in this place. I leave this house on the premise of getting food and supplies, yet in my heart, I know the places I will go, the things I will seek to understand.
I drive down roads of my father’s youth to the place where his father lives. Never have I been there by myself. There is a fear that I will find strangers there. And in a way those fears are soon confirmed.
My 91-year-old grandfather with whom I share a name stands to greet me as I lightly rap on the door of his home. His wife, not my grandmother who is long dead, but his wife, announces to visitors already there, ‘It’s Tom.’ I walk into the house and the eyes of two strange women examine me. They are bathed in the light of Christ, and I feel myself burning with pity beneath their eyes. The unflinching, unsaved soul of the damned in me must be painfully obvious to them.
My grandfather takes my arm with a strength that surprises me. He begins to introduce me to his wife. ‘He knows who I am,’ she says, and for a moment I flash on the Alzheimer’s that turned my grandmother into a raving, incoherent shell of a woman. He beckons me to sit, and I do. My grandfather’s wife introduces me. ‘This is a grandson, he’s a Tom also.’ The women seemed amused by this. ‘Tom, this is our former pastor’s wife and his daughter.’ The mother smiles politely, bathed in the glow of her holiness. The daughter tries not to meet my eyes and makes a half-hearted attempt to conceal her wedding ring.
I let myself listen to their conversation about old friends, old churches and the things in their everyday lives that seem to have some bearing on the present. I contribute little unless I am asked . They are the saved, whose reward in heaven will be great and eternal, and I know not the light they share, nor do I want to.
‘I have a little laryngitis,’ my grandfather’s wife explains, ‘I’ve had it for about two weeks and I just can’t seem to shake it.’ I’m not surprised for the woman talks incessantly. It shouldn’t bother me, but it does. When I ask my grandfather a question she answers for him. I want to give her a cold eye when she does this and tell her that I wasn’t speaking to her, but it is no fault of hers. She is a woman in love, in love with Christ, in love with my grandfather, in love with knowledge that after waiting so long, she finally has the love of the man she always wanted.
My grandfather sits quietly through most of the conversation about jobs and banks and relatives, and I get the distinct impression that he is as uninterested as I am. Once he tries to speak , to add to the conversation and the ladies have to make themselves be quiet to hear what he says. It’s as if they are only listening to humor him. It infuriates me, but I stay silent.
Soon, the two ladies and my Grandfather’s wife rise to leave. ‘We have a wedding to go to,’ my grandfather’s wife explains, ‘We’re giving away one of our girls today.’ I almost say, ‘How merciful of you,’ but good sense and manners prevail. She puts her hand on my shoulder and says, ‘You have a good visit with your grandfather,’ wearing the same smile I’m sure she wore while she waited for my grandmother to die. I do not hate this woman, yet I feel distanced from her, I remember my father’s distaste for her, and the pain of the betrayal he felt when my grandfather married her.
She is rumored to have been my Grandfather’s lover for years before my grandmother died.
They leave and I am alone with my grandfather. Strangely, he begins to open up, as if he’s as happy to have her out of the house as I am. The talk we make is small, but it’s a connection, a place to start perhaps, for here is a man whom I have known for almost 27 years, but really do not know at all. He knows the child that once played in his yard, but not the man who is sitting before him. I know the man that sits before me, but not the person that he was before.
We talk of the common interests we have, yet I feel myself pushing deeper. I begin to truly understand the need in me to know his past, to hear the stories of his life from his lips before he had not the breath to speak them. I am surprised at the small bits of information of a life that I never knew. ‘Only time I was hurt in the mines was when I broke my thumb. Compound fracture. Sat outside the mine a week and got paid for doing nothing so they wouldn’t have to give me workman’s comp . . . Worked in a Dodge plant in Detroit for two weeks. This was before I was married. Held strips of metal with tongs as big as I was while a blacksmith banged them out. You want to talk about hard work.’
I sit and listen and press softly for details, but there is fear in me. I do not know if it is a fear of asking something I shouldn’t, fear of upsetting my grandfather, or fear of what I might find out. The old hide their secrets well, and often they wait for the right ear to bend. There is wisdom my grandfather holds that I believe I am destined to have imparted to me, yet at this time he has not the intuition to tell me, and I have not the courage to ask.
I leave on the pretense of getting food, which I actually need , but it feels like a lie. It feels like an escape hatch. ‘Stop by anytime,’ my grandfather says, and I know I will. The need to know the truth, his truth, is far stronger than the fear of making an old man cry at his memories of the past. It is this last fear that kept me from asking the question that I realize was the real reason why I had come to see him in the first place.
I light a cigarette and call my father. We talk about his house that I’m staying in, and I hear the joy in his voice that I am walking the paths of his youth. Finally, I ask him the question I could not ask my grandfather.
‘Dad, where is Granny buried?’ I ask. My father tells me, and I confess to him that I couldn’t ask my grandfather.
‘You should have asked him,’ my father tells me. ‘He’d have been happy to tell you.’ This eases my mind a bit. It tells me that the doors are not as closed as I fear they may be.
I drive through the decidedly rainy weather that somehow seems fitting until I come to a place that I have only been twice before, once with my father six years ago, and of course the time before when I first had cause to go there. Memories, long stored away, begin to flood through me.
‘You’re going to be a pallbearer, Tom,’ my father explains. ‘All the grandsons are. You have to carry the casket from the hearse to the gravesite.’
‘What if I drop her?’ I ask, concerned.
‘You won’t,’ my father says.
I remember carrying her and I remember the words of a holy man, but I do not remember what he says, and I do not remember what the sky looked like, and I do not remember crying. All I can think of is the image forever burned in my mind of my grandmother lying in a coffin, looking better than I had ever seen her. I wait for her to open her eyes, wondering if it was all a trick or a game.
I get out of my truck and walk through the rain into the cemetery, hoping my scattered memories will serve me. I walk through the markers in this garden of the dead, looking at all the names carved in stone, memorials to the ones that had come before me, and a reminder of where I am headed.
Then, there it is, a single stone with my last name emblazoned upon it. On the right side of the stone is engraved my grandmother’s name and the dates of her birth and death. I look upon where she lies and lose myself in the past. I kneel down and touch the cold, wet stone.
I am sitting on the floor in my grandfather’s house, a thirteen-year-old boy who is confused by the entire world and his place in it. Around me is the bustle of people cooking and preparing for a party. It is my grandmother’s birthday, the last she will ever have. She sits in a chair in a corner, eyes staring blankly around her as if she’s not sure where she is or even when she is, or perhaps most frightening of all, who she is. Everyone ignores her, as if not speaking to her will make the awful truth of her deterioration go away.
She looks around the room, and her eyes meet mine. There is no recognition in them, or at least none that I can see. Yet she is alive in there. Somewhere deep beyond the rotting of her brain, she is screaming. The end will be a relief for her, more so than those whose pity for her make them silently and secretly wish for her death almost as much as she does.
I stand, staring at my grandmother’s grave, feeling a chill that I tell myself is only the rain. I glance over to the left of the gravestone and see my own name looking back at me. I remember the first time I saw it, feeling as if I was literally walking over my own grave. Yet, I know that this spot is not meant for me. It is for my grandfather whom I was christened after. His date of birth is inscribed on the stone, but there is an empty space beside it that reminds me there is still time. Time to see if my grandfather and I share more than just a name. There is always time if you take it.
Finally, I leave, wondering in my heart if I have laid some ghost of the past to rest, or awakened another whose reign of haunting has just begun.