Branches of a maple against the evening sky.
I know my grandfather's world in the daytime. In the summer, if I wake early, I can be next door with him just as he finishes breakfast. He eats alone in the dining room of the old farmhouse, accustomed to his aloneness through the many years since my grandmother's early death.
Usually the dog is with him there, waiting silently with begging eyes for the last doughnut crumb to fall, for the last curl of bacon to be offered.
My grandfather takes the last sourdough pancake from the covered blue and white serving dish, spreads it thickly with maple sugar from the crock, folds it, oozing soggy sweetness and presents it to me. Lapping maple from my fingers, I follow him through his mid-morning chores. He comments on the size of the Hubbard squash rampaging over a mound of composted horse manure, one of his experiments with saved seed.
I trudge behind him up the uneven stairs to the shed chamber to sort through saved bits of old harness. We recall when last summer the calico cat hid her two kittens up here, nursing them in an old barrel softened with grain sacking. We had discovered them together--or so he let me think. They were people-leery; when I cuddled one to my cheek it cried and spat, tearing at my skin with tiny sharp claws.
Back downstairs, my grandfather mends harness, sweeps out the granary, sharpens a scythe. I tag him, contentedly listening to his measured talk, stowing away his tales, resting in the familiar ease of his steady pace.
"When can I stay overnight?" I ask, as I have many times before. The answer this time is a surprise:
"You can stay tonight if your Ma doesn't care."
My mother, petitioned at home during lunch, agrees as long as I come home first for supper and to bathe, since the indoor plumbing at my grandfather's house consists only of cold running water in the kitchen. In the early evening I appear, newly washed, trailing my seersucker pajamas over one arm. I find my grandfather seated on the edge of the back "stoop" his feet soaking in an enamalware basin of cool water which rests on the uneven slab of granite which serves as a step. He has shed his blue chambray shirt and his striped galluses dangle at his waist. His shoulders and upper arms which seldom see the sun, emerge palely from his white undershirt in contrast to his browned hands and wrists.
We sit together while small night creatures tune up unseen in the garden. Moths flutter against the screen door, swallows dart after insects. It is not quite dark when my grandfather rises stiffly and pads to the end of the porch to slosh the remains of his foot bath over the small peach tree which has taken root there.
The screen door slaps behind him, slaps again as I follow him into the dimness of the house.
I stand about, waiting, curious, as my grandfather carries out his bedtime rituals, a part of his day I have never witnessesd. A trip to the "outhouse" in the far corner of the woodshed; a dose of baking soda and warm water for indigestion; the winding of the old clock on the shelf.
Upstairs the spare bedroom waits for me. The bed looms hugely, its painted headboard reaching toward the low ceiling. The one light in the room is an old fashioned fixture hanging over the bed, a length of saved string is attached, one end to the pull chain, the other to the bedpost. A "one-eared kitty" [my uncle's name for a chamber pot] squats discreetly on a rag rug near the washstand. Everything in the "spare room" is white and stiffly clean in tribute to my house-keeping uncle's fondness for bleach and Oxydol soap powder.
Leaving my door ajar, my grandfather scuffs down the hall to his own room. I lie alone beneath the towering headboard, small in the crisp white sheets, savoring the strangeness, slightly awed by the reality of my long-cherished wish.
There is no sound in the house of other people, no rattle from the kitchen, no muted voices from TV or radio. My uncle walks the hills of the farm alone in the evening dusk. He will return to read in the kitchen with his small radio perched beside him, turned low for company.
Much later, still awake, I hear his light quick tread on the stairway. He pauses at my door, somehow aware that I am not asleep, asks softly, "You alright, Bunny?" His footsteps fade into the shadowy stillness, his bedroom door creaks gently open and then shut.
I wait for sleep, comforted by the small sighs of the old house enfolding me. A light breeze ruffles the branches of the maples outside the west windows; the starched curtains scratch along the sill as they billow inward. From the dark regions below the mantle clock announces the hour--eleven--and soon the half hour; it's dinning, almost unnoticed in the daytime, rolls in hollow tones up the stairwell.
Down the hallway the even rise and fall of my grandfather's snoring falters and breaks for a moment. He belches loudly and comfortably. The bed springs creak as he resettles and his snoring resumes, rising and falling, measured breath, in and out.
A bird in the maple utters a muted squawk, then the night hush creeps back.
The breeze freshens, moving through the open windows of my grandfather's quiet house, and we sleep.
Written at Writers' Retreat