Monday, September 20, 2010

Wisconsin, Part IV

Friday night, after the funeral, we gather back at the farmhouse. There's a cousin picture to be taken, so we line up on the hill in front of the barn, as always. Does no one remember, Mark asks, when Grandma called out, "Everyone smile and say 'shit'?" We laugh, smile, squint into the sun.

We're in a bit of a rush; Rachel and Orlando's lives in Indiana are beckoning. These are the first goodbyes.

We've all changed into jeans and sweaters; free from the constraints of skirts and suits and heels, we wander the house, drifting together to watch a heated game of marbles at the kitchen table, falling away to study black-and-white portraits of ancestors who have been gone so long that their very names are lost. We look for resemblances -- can't you see Uncle Don in this face? Doesn't Sara have this exact chin? What happened to the curly hair gene, anyway?

We dine on leftovers from the funeral luncheon -- white bread, cold cuts, pre-sliced cheese, some fantastic salty-sweet German potato salad. Julie (sister of Sara, our somewhere-down-the-line cousins) brings over wine -- her own vintage. The kids, too exhausted to sit still, pad from one room to the next clutching rubber duckies in their fists.

Mom and I sit down with Omi's diary, which someone has unearthed. It's a multi-year diary, each page a date in the calendar year, the lines encompassing Dad's grandma's life between 1957 or so and 1973, the latest entry I can find. Sometimes her entries are solely practical -- "very cold" and "snowstorm" show up repeatedly. Mondays are clearly her wash-days. Birthdays are noted, as well as who came to visit and who left to visit elsewhere. Aunt Caroline's death three months after a terrible car accident is recorded; later, heartbreakingly, Omi writes of the death of her husband: "Dad dies in hospital in Manitowoc -- sick only one day."

"I remember that day," Dad says, prompted by the entry. It was the only Sunday that his grandpa didn't pick him up for church; during the whole service, Dad worried that something bad would happen.

Later, the girl cousins wander through the bedrooms, opening drawers and reminiscing. Our fingers trail over dusty surfaces; we're all aware it's our last time in the house. In the downstairs bedroom, Beth asks, "Remember the fruit candies Grandma stored in here?" I do; once we discovered their existence, we snuck into the room at every possible moment. It didn't matter a bit that the candies were stale, hard and possibly years-old.

In an upstairs drawer, we find a stash of Grandma's costume jewelry which leaves a greasy residue on our pawing fingers. We're mystified by the flapper-length necklaces, but instantly remember the white plastic beads. I can even conjure up the dress Grandma wore with them -- navy polyester with a white geometric pattern, a strange square apron-like flap of material in the front. Grandma's clothes were removed years ago; only Grandpa's shirts and dozens of ties hang sadly in their closet. In other drawers, we find dozens of crochet hooks and knitting needles; Heather finds a "charge plate" to the Boston Store -- the tiniest, oldest and coolest credit card any of us has ever seen. Kim discovers an old camera; it occurs to me that there might be film in it still, forgotten moments from our fathers' lives. "I've got to get going," Mark says, for the dozenth time -- he's got a drive ahead of him tonight. But he follows us anyway, gagging at the sight of his feathered hair in 80's-era photos.

Eventually, working our way in a circle around the upstairs, we reach the attic door. "You go first," I say, pushing Beth ahead of me. I've had many a private nightmare about these narrow stairs, the wooden door that creaks slowly open, the floorboards that aren't use to a footstep weightier than a rat's. All I need is to have someone pull shut the door behind me and extinguish the light, and I'll go crazy, Grace Poole-style.

If possible, the attic is more terrifying than it was when we were children. The overhead light illuminates only a tiny circle of stacked boxes; the rest of the room is hidden in inky blackness. But we're smarter than we were as kids, or possibly only more technologically advanced. Armed with flashlights, cell phones, digital cameras and the impressive flash on Heather's camera, we inch our way around the space. "I found a drum set!" Beth calls from a recess under the eave. I lift a plastic bag to reveal a telephone table which I proceed to fall in love with. "Tons of Christmas stuff over here," someone calls, and Kate asks, "Wouldn't it be cool to have one of Grandma and Grandpa's ornamenets on our trees?" A minute later, Joel calls out, "I found a gun!" "Put it down! Put it down!" we shriek in a chorus of female hysteria; this is how accidents happen, this is how a cousin gets picked off in the dark. "Relax -- it's a BB gun," he says. "I wonder if it's the gun," a few of us say, simultaneously, remembering the pellet once plucked from the white of my dad's eye. Other treasures slowly emerge: a rocking chair covered inch-deep with dust, the long-fabled fainting couch, covered feet-deep with empty boxes.

It occurs to us suddenly that the protesting floorboards may not be cut out for our collective weight, and that at any moment we might be whooshed downward in the fashion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, through the second-floor bedrooms into the first-floor living room.

Overwhelmed by so much history, exhausted by the day's events and fearing the development of black lung, the cousins abandon our noble quest. "I'm really leaving this time," Mark says, and after a round of goodbyes, does. Kim and Heather have a drive ahead of them, too; Joel and Kate (who successfully and admirably navigated the treacherous attic steps in her high heels) have children to send to bed. I'm exhausted by the mere mention of their plans - to leave at four in the morning for a day-long trip back to Georgia.

One by one, we splinter away. Aunt Barb is making airport runs on Saturday; Uncle Ed is proceeding with a planned trip to Haiti. Uncle Don and Aunt Myrene are the next to go, taking their leave on Saturday afternoon. I fly to San Francisco on Sunday morning, ungraded papers and unwritten lesson plans looming. Beth and my parents, catching flights from Milwaukee on Monday, are the last to go.

I should have been used to it, the chain of goodbyes. By the end, I should have been prepared. But the second my feet were on the back porch, my hand on the metal railing, I felt the lump rise in my throat. Goodbye, Grandpa, I thought. Goodbye, house. Goodbye, apple trees and cellar steps and towering barn. Goodbye, childhood second home. At the car door, I turned around one last time and whispered, "Goodbye, farm."

I know Dad heard me. I'm pretty sure that's why his hand came up and brushed against my back at that very moment.

Goodbye, goodbye.

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