“A Period of Maturity Verging on Decline”
(This is Autumn and Age)
The furthest point East is Lubec, Maine. The sun rises and hits the edges of the coast; trickling down to the water’s edge and the ocean brings in the light each day at dawn. As soon as it hits the tree tops on land in October the leaves change drastically from North East to the South West and we know this as the first day of autumn. It’s like an invisible line that drags its’ fog over the mountains and the hills at night through Lubec to Orrs Island across Highway one to Burlington and Afton to Schenectady, Saratoga, and Phili, to Chicago, to Indiana, and Bozeman, to Moab and Seattle and Portland to San Francisco and San Luis Obispo, giving us the best days of golden light. But, Afton, my friend.
( Wellington George Fountain)
He’s been in our house with us since he was eighty two and I’ve noticed that between eighty and ninety you really start losing your livelihood, your manhood. Every day I realize how much longer he’s been sitting at a kitchen table than I have. 101,835 times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner but knowing everyone that skips full meals, especially him, it’s more around 95,286 times. How many bowls and boxes of bran flakes he’s gone through and how many black coffees with stevia my mom has poured for him, beats me. Every morning, right as he sits down, he has to get up to go to the bathroom. None of us know why he doesn’t wait until after breakfast to take his water pill. We’ve reminded him several times but, that’s just how it goes. He’s home alone all day and when I’m home with him I start feeling what he’s feeling, trapped, sometimes sad, but it depends on the day.
I feel bad to leave him alone like I can’t do anything for him. I don’t know what to say at the kitchen table sometimes because it’s always a story from Ford or General Electric, working at an ice cream factory or his grandfather’s pastry shop, war. It’s random stories from his entire life and I think I am the only one that loves hearing them as much as he loves telling me them. He’s got a lot in ninety two years to listen to. I took him to the foot doctor the other day though and there wasn’t much said in the car other than him dancing with his hands to Frank Sinatra and telling me they cut off a callus at the base of his toe again and again and again and, he’s feeling good. When he dances in his seat he clutches his fists and moves them in circles like some kind of slowed down chacha. He’ll tap his foot and laugh or whistle. And he tries to sing along but he’s always two words ahead as if he wants me to know he knows the lyrics from 1930. I do, I do want to know. He’s six foot-four and walks extremely slow with a walker. It’s hard to imagine a man that tall being ninety two but oh yes, he is.
We got back home and I said “I’m going out” and he said “ You should stay home with your cough.” and I say something along the lines of how I get restless at home, staying in the house too long. And he said, “ At least make yourself tea before you go running out the door.” And I said, “Okay, well is there anything you need before I leave?” and he said, “ I’d like some tea.”
He’s gone through two wives. One in which was my mom’s mom, Rosemary, she died when my mom was twenty two from lung cancer and the other was Marion who was my Muna and Grammy and she died ten years ago when my grandfather blacked out while driving his Crown Victoria out of a post office in Afton, New York. At the time his Crown was dark red. He hit a tree and the airbag blew and stopped Muna’s heart.
He’s had seven Crown Victoria’s, all dark blue and red. He’s been obsessed with cops since I’ve known him. I would come to his farm house in upstate New York, two hours from our old home and I would walk in through the backdoor to find him in the tv room in the same chair as he was every visit. It was a green lazy boy and he would have a fresh brown paper bag full of peanuts and behind him was a glass bowl of chocolate m&m’s, of course, while watching cops. Muna always met us at the screened door in the back of their home when we would visit on Algerine street and she’d come in to hug me and her breath was always seeping in peppermints. I knew of it as peppermints back then but their was a strong undertone of something else. In later years I found out she was a smoker, just like Rosemary. She smoked Chesterfields and peppermints were her saviors from us knowing anything at all. Her hugs were warm and she was very short so I felt compatible for her hugs when I was seven. She always wore a t-shirt and farmer blue jeans and her voice carried on through my ears at night.
My grandfather loves buying jewelry for his wives and his lover and for himself. He wears a signet ring and a massive jade stone on his thumb. When he was able to walk easier he had my mom drive him down to Tiffany’s and for the last ten years I’ve watched him give sterling silver bracelets every Christmas to his lover now, Phyllis, and every birthday, it might be Jade or Ruby, but he knows what Breakfast at Tiffany’s is. He’s from New York City and he really is a Man of Manhattan . He likes them “straight up, room temperature, with no ice.” Ever since I was three he would give me the cherries from his manhattans and I felt it back then so if I had one today I would probably drink through the days of his life like it was my own business. When he drinks, his cheeks get rosy red like some people with wine, sweet sweet wine. And he starts up with his sweet laughter and it makes me imagine him when he was my age and what he was saying and wearing. I imagine long tan slacks and a leather belt with a short sleeve button down and leather penny loafers, pretty much what he wears to this day. He smiles so big when it arrives and by the time we leave he’s ready for bed. If I were to drink a Manhattan I would have to do it properly in the town of and I would need a dark green leather and wooden bar stool in an underground location with jazz playing in the background. I would need it to be winter and I would need to wear a black p coat and a hat and act like I’m freezing until I take the first sip of the Manhattan. It would be liquid gold, silk, burning and running down my tongue. I think that must be what he feels each drink he’s had. And it’d take me back into his memories of war.
He was in a trench in Italy, he said, in the fields, and there was one cottage around. The isolation outnumbered the men sitting along the side of this trench. They were on “break” and talking and pausing and thinking and making conversation as they could where they were. Out of nowhere he said “A man came sprinting towards us! He was carrying a bottle of wine.” The man passed it to my grandfather as a “welcome” and a “thank you for what you do”. My grandpa looked at the bottle and it was from Schenectady, New York. That is where my grandpa was from and the Italian man wasn’t so italian because he carried with him, his New York accent. He wasn’t Italian but he was a gift from whomever knows best.
After sitting at the table with my grandpa for a while I offered him a glass of wine, he didn’t take it.
I’m always trying to figure out what his faces mean while he tells his stories. He’ll tell me one thing and smile a bit. I notice his eyes and how white the outskirts are. The color stands out so heavy, it’s like his eyes know the entire story too and they’re listening along in remembrance of everything that’s happened. Almost as if his eyes are spacing out and he’s having a conversation with whomever he was talking to from the past. Then he’ll look up at me with a big smile or to see my reaction to something like the wine story and I just smile with my eyes back simply listening. We call this his episodes. Sometimes he does space out like this and he’ll think I’m Rosemary and my mom’s Muna and my sister is his sister and what not. It happens when he doesn’t take in enough oxygen, but it’s okay because this is all still part of his story.
(Afton, My Friend)
Chesterfields, tree swings, miniature ponies, plastic grapes, brown bags of hard shell peanuts, m and ms, paint by numbers, hop frog pond, jam and preserves, feeding the horses, bob cats, cops, Homemade perfume in a sand bucket, and bread, and pie, and baking those with toe head blonde hair in my blue underwear on a stool with the biggest smile, twigs, fall, dandy, Missy, May, JR, bonfires as tall as ten feet, millions of dandelions, gardening, Algerine street, Green Acres, where I learned how to bike, peppermints, crown Victoria’s, tadpoles, Binghamton, Chinese food, Vincent’s, cheesesteaks, the Memorial Day parade, the VFW, Ed Romada, my first Shirley Temple, blueberries, 2 black kittens, Garter snakes, heart shaped fossils, half dollars shoved in a drawer, an upside down tub with long gold legs, horse hair stuck on electrical fences, john deer, tall tall trees, a short old woman, Muna, papa , a two hour drive, in upstate New York, chesterfields and so on.
( Cemeteries )
My grandpa hasn’t been back to Upstate in ten years. So this last weekend my parents flew him with them to Albany and he visited schenectady and he visited Afton and he visited Saratoga and he visited Rosemary and Marion. All my life I wish I had more to say about Rosemary. I’ve known of her love for clip on earrings and fake jewelry. Her love for real rubies and for my mom. Her love for cigarettes and her love for dancing in jazz bars. I know her hate for flying. When my grandfather went to Egypt for the telephone company my mom visited him instead of Rosemary because she was scared. I know of an antique Rose ornament my mom puts at the top of the Christmas Tree each year because it was Rosemary’s favorite. I don’t know much more than that. I know that when my mom went to her energy reader she was told her mom wanted to see her in the kitchen more often, which was true. Turns out I’ve been in the kitchen more as well. She was told Rosemary’s favorite flower will be a sign that she’s here and listening, and the next day my mom walked into our backyard in a tree covered pathway and the first thing she saw by her feet was a poppy. She told the energy reader to tell my mom that she’s proud of how my sister and I turned out and that we are beautiful and she is happy. And I cry when I hear that because I wish I could say the same about her other than from photos. Most photos of her are from when she was really young and in love and when she fell sick. The last photo taken, she looked fifteen years older than she was and she was wrinkled and short and dying. She was sitting on a salmon colored chair with windows behind her.
My grandfather woke up and Rosemary had her fists clutched together, facing him, and she wasn’t breathing. I think sometimes that’s the reason he dances to Frank Sinatra the way he does. He clutches his fists as if her hands were in his. I know he loved her the most.
My mom tells me she remembers her body being taken out of her home in a body bag.
And today my mom sent a photo to our family group message standing next to her grave stone and her text read, “thirty years ago on halloween is when my world stood still.”
I just thought of what Rosemary said to my mom in the energy reading and how much of her was in that photo that we couldn’t see.
When they left the cemetery they sent a photo of a covered bridge. I remember bats in the bridge and this same bridge connected to where we buried Muna. The bridge cut off most of the light from the day when we passed over to the other side. I don’t have much to say about that funeral other than it was the first I had ever been to and the only one. Her casket was open.
When we found out she died, we were in Minnesota as a family and immediately left for New York.
We drove back from Minnesota, through Chicago to pick up more clothes ,and straight to Franklin, New York where the funeral was taking place. That drive I focused out the front window the entire time. She was only seventy something. I was imagining my grandma’s horses from her farm and thinking of where they would go. I hadn’t thought about where my grandpa would live, I hadn’t thought about what family members I would be meeting for the first time, if her casket was going to be open or closed. I was thinking about baking homemade bread in her private, teal, kitchen at home in my pink or blue cotton underwear and pixie cut. I smiled so large in a photo taken there and I had the biggest gap between my teeth, I was a little German boy. The wood on the cabinets was always stripping off. I was thinking about dressing myself in flour and there was a picture of me looking exactly like that while she kneaded the dough. I made up a song called, “Dancing in my Underwear” and I still know the words. I was thinking about her collection of homemade jams deep on the shelves in their basement. Their basement still had a fireplace from the early 1900’s and that bath tub was flipped upside down next to it. The gold was faded from oil and dust. The only thing from recent times was her jam and a collection of half dollars. I found them in the back of an antique bedside table sitting in the corner of the basement while cleaning out the farmhouse after the funeral. My grandpa never knew about the coins but we counted over five hundred dollars out just in half dollars. I was thinking about their fake bowl of fruit in the center of their kitchen table. I would rip the plastic grapes off their stem and suction cup them to my neck and fingers, my forearm. I’d get yelled at each time but the feeling was sensational back then. I understand decorating with fake fruit but it was just an excuse back then to give me another toy, I know it. I remember Christmas in the old house and presents and my pajamas covered in ice cream cones. And I remembered Easter and sprinting around the entire farm house looking for eggs and my sister beat me each year of my life except for the year I turned twenty. My basket was always hidden in my grandfather’s office under his brown chair on wheels.
My parents gave my sister and I note paper in the back seat. They told us to write a letter for Muna to put under her arms. I knew then, that she had an open casket. I wrote about blueberries. “Pick one, eat one, pick two, eat two.”
I remember stains drenched down the lines of my fingers. Fingers are thick lines of bone, layered with flesh, and skin, tissue. Each divot in the skin, my calluses soaked in maroon juice. Maroon juice seeping into lines that trace out who I am from the tips of the fingers to the horizontal lines that cut off my finger bones, then it’s the palm.
I took the end of my sleeve and wiped the layer of blueberry juice away. Drying from the sun, the color of my skin was turning a light purple/pink.
When I was little, I used to read a children’s book called “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey. The book was based in Northern Maine and my grandparents estate was in upstate New York. I dreamt of picking blueberries for Sal but instead I did it for Muna’s preserves.
She took my family and I blueberry picking each Summer. Back in Afton it was just a dollar per bucket full. You would park your car in a “lot” covered in grass at the top of the hill , take a few yellow buckets and a wagon, cover the buckets in plastic bags (on the inside so the berries would hold together and not juice to the base of the bucket) , and take a few hours out of your day in the orchard to find the perfect ones. These blueberries were like grapes. They were high in density and thick skinned, totally different from the wild ones up North. It took my grandma and I a good three or four hours to fill only two buckets because by her and my moms rule you, “Pick one, and eat one”, this was the style of New York berry picking and it took well more than twice the time each year we got older.
Muna and my mom didn’t look alike, they weren’t blood related. Muna was 5’3” with short and curly gray hair. She always wore short sleeved t-shirts and brown or grey corduroys with a belt to hoist her pants up and short cut leather boots. Her boots were constantly muddy with carrot scraps at the base from caring for her horses. She wore a pair of silver wire glasses that were too big for her face and she had such a raspy but soft voice in the way she would speak to my sister and I. She was the grandma we knew. I remember hunting for garter snakes in the stables which then made me hunt for snakes when I wasn’t at the farm. One time I found a rock in the stable with a bolt stuck in the center and it was shaped like a heart so I gave it to her. We’d have bonfires in the center of the field that would reach ten feet tall and it all just stopped.
Seeing her face was surreal in certain ways and she looked like a figure from the wax museum. Her face was heavy with makeup and her hair was slicked back and curled. She was in her favorite black velvet dress and her silver wire glasses were on. I realized she didn’t smell of peppermints and Chesterfields. I was imagining her eyes opening so I kept looking away. Her old arms were crossed on her chest like you imagine someone looking when they die in their sleep. I didn’t recognize anyone there. Her family was distant, always. I was holding the note in my hand, it wasn’t in an envelope, just folded up neatly in my hands. My mom walked over to my sister and I and took our notes. I told her I wasn’t going to watch her touch Muna’s cold hands. I couldn’t help but turn around though. I questioned so many times in my head how my mom had the courage to touch a dead woman’s body. She slowly grabbed her right wrist and raised it up an inch or two, then raised her left wrist and placed the notes underneath. My sister and my notes followed her into the ground. After she put the notes under her arms, she put her hand on her chest and walked away.
She was buried next to her first husband, in a cemetery relieved of trees. My grandpa had a first love and didn’t want to ruin his ideal burial ground, so he placed her there. Just a few miles away from a fruit orchard and right in the middle of a town dispersed of horse farms and antique homes. And just a covered bridge away from himself.
August 15th, 2006
I remember blueberries.
( Sunday, October 16th, 2016)
I was in work today and I opened the place at seven a.m. The first woman that walked in said, “Hi I’d like fourteen blueberry almond pound cakes and that, is all.” and when she opened her mouth to speak I smelled Chesterfields and peppermints for the first time and if Muna was still around they would look around the same age. It was raining outside and I felt fall and I felt Afton and the smell was with me for the first time in ten years. It’s the same day my parents and grandfather visited the graves. The sun rose and my mind traveled back to Algerine street and the leaves that covered the tall pines. My mom sent a photo last night of what their home looks like now and the white farm house is covered by orange and red and yellow trees. They hover the home and the home looks like a painting done by Sobra Field. I have yet to see one done by her in the fall though. And when my mom sent that photo I knew it would linger in my mind for a few days full of memories. In another photo she sent you could see the red, rusty, gates at the entrance into the field and they were still hung lopsided. One is higher off the ground than the other. I remember climbing on them, peering over the fence, waiting for JR to come over and say hi, to feed him some carrots. I would never actually feed him the carrots though because I was scared of the horse’s teeth. The only horse I would pet was the one Muna bought me, Dandy. She was a miniature pony who stood in a stable on a hillside behind the garage. I would stand over that fence and I would watch my grandpa set up the ten foot tall bonfires. He would make himself a Manhattan and sit on the tree parts he used as stools around the bonfire while he waited for the small winds and the flames to get taller. He stood with his shoulders straight back, and now they’re rounded. And you could tell how long his legs were underneath his slacks but now you can tell how much they’ve shrunk and now his feet are purple and full of water and he’s ninety two.
When I got home from work, I saw my grandfather at the kitchen table and I poured him a glass of red wine and he took it. And now the sun is setting.