“A Period of Maturity Verging on Decline”
(This is Autumn and Age)
( 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 them to me. 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 (to me) and she died ten years ago when my grandfather blacked out while driving his Crown Victoria out of a post office parking lot 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 go 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 shelled 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. She’d come in to hug me and her breath was always seeping in peppermints. I knew of it as peppermints back then but there 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. I’m not sure how it would feel to be so tall next to her now-a-days but I’m sure she would’ve gotten shorter by now, somehow. She always wore a t-shirt and farmer blue jeans and her voice carried on through my ears at night.
My grandfather loved buying jewelry for his wives (for his lady friend currently) 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 lady friend now, Phyllis. Every birthday, it might be Jade or Ruby, 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 peacoat 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 at him, simply listening. We call these 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.
The story of growing and aging and morphing into something we all always think of as so far away. Some people get arthritis, or they stumble and fall often, they lose their sight, they have bad heart conditions, or they may have, simply, bad memory. He remembers much from the past. He proves himself so wise because he checks his bank account each day and reads the paper each morning. I grab it when I leave for work at 6am or school at 7am, and if I leave it out one day, I get scrutinized for it when I come back home. He remembers my mother’s childhood just well as he remembers his youth but sometimes what happens in a present day, just goes straight through his mind. It’s this idea of continuity and what is important in our minds to remember, with the spaces we fill, and with these spaces we simply can’t. Minds get too heavy. He has a metal plate from a brain tumor when I was a baby, and he is still okay.
(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, 1 Garter snake, wonton soup, heart shaped fossils, half dollars shoved in a drawer, an upside down tub with long golden legs, horse hair stuck on electrical fences, John Deere, tall tall trees, heating lamps, a teal tub, 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. One year our Christmas tree fell to the ground because our cat climbed the branches midway, and it fell over, and her ornament was one of the few that did not break. It is a light baby pink with silver fading through the petals and the petals fold and the greenery of the leaves has faded as well. It’s only two inches big.
My mom goes to an energy reader a couple times a year. 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. When my mom can not cook because of work hours, I do, and I try to cook for the both of them. She was told Rosemary’s favorite flower will be a sign that she’s here and listening, and the next week my mom walked into our backyard in a tree covered pathway and the first thing she saw by her feet was a poppy. Poppies just so happen to be the symbol of remembrance. 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 had smoke wrinkles and she was short and she was dying. She was sitting on a salmon colored chair with white windows behind her.
My grandfather woke up and started to shift around in the bed, he hit something with his arm though, in the air, and Rosemary had her fists clutched together, her head facing him, and she wasn’t breathing. Her arms naturally rose up when she died in her sleep. 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 own. 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.
My Grandfather told me this story of a milkman at the kitchen table a couple weeks ago and I recorded it on my phone as he spoke. He said , “I would wait in the morning, every Monday, the sun hadn’t risen yet. I would wait for the milkman!” He laughed, and would sit there and think to himself, his eyes were staring at the table, and he would rub his hands together slowly. I’d hear him pat his lips together. That’s when I knew he had more to say, he took his time, he said, “I would hear his truck while I was upstairs getting out of bed, and I would walk down to the front porch and stand there and wait in my slacks and robe. One day I saw him delivering the milk across the street from me. This house, white house, navy shutters, an older business man. I saw the man sprint out of his house onto his front porch in his undergarments, no robe, and he bent down to pick up the paper and the milk. His derriere straight toward the sky. I had never met him. And he stretched and sprinted back inside. I had never seen a man in such a rush to get his milk until that day. I walked inside after I got my milk and Rosemary had already poured our cereal!” He was laughing, “She was waiting for the milk in my hands as I was laughing at the man in his underwear.”
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 at my dad’s mom’s cabin 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 next to me. I made up a song called, “Dancing in my Underwear” and I still know the words (everybody see me dancin in my underwear, dancin in my underwear on repeat). 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. My grandfather would stay at home and take care of the property on these days. We would park our 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 our 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 don’t remember much of my grandfather that day. I just remember her and her sisters. They were not kind. I remember looking up at my Uncle and my grandfather was standing next to him but there wasn’t much emotion from either although my uncle is the biggest prankster, it was understandable.
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. I’m so curious to see the note today, to read what I said.
I remember walking out onto the street afterwards and this town in New York, Franklin, was very tiny and old. The buildings were almost right up against the streets, all the buildings practically touched. The main street was cobblestone and I can not remember if it were raining out or if it were blue skies. I think there were blue skies when we walked in and rainy skies when we walked out. As we began to drive, we were stuck in a line of twenty or so cars with their hazards on for ten straight miles. I didn’t know where my grandfather was.
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. It was green, there were trees and willows, and the ground was soft.
August 15th, 2006
I remember blueberries.
(October 16th, 2015)
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 Sabra 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 my grandfather 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.
(notes from my phone)
I was driving my grandfather to his physical therapy appointment and I’m sitting in the parking lot. It’s chilly out and the leaves are falling and he’s happy. While sitting at a red light he turned the radio on to Sirius XM (Sinatras radio). He began to whistle with the music so soft, so he turned it up and began to sing along, “New York in June, how about youuuu”, he tried to look at me as the light turned green, “I like a Gershwin tune, how about youuuu. I love a fireside, when a storm is due.” So the rest of this day I keep repeating the lyrics in my head and I still am. He helps me remember the small things, the good things.
When I got home from work, I saw my grandfather sitting at the kitchen table and I poured him a glass of red wine and he took it. And now the sun is setting. This is autumn and age.