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Sunday, April 29, 2012

We Gathered About Her

     Sherwood Anderson's story Death in the Woods (1933)  is that of an abused woman, yet one who continues to take care for those who ingratiate her with violence and unlove. The weight she carries on her back is not only that of food or supplies, but the weight of life's experiences from a young girl to the stooped shoulders of a tired old woman. When I read this story I think of my grandmother. When I read this story I think only of her each time, no one else and I don't think I repeat in my head, Hey- remember how this reminds you of your grandmother?

     My grandmother was a strong woman in many ways: mother of eight children, my mother being the oldest. She often sat at the head of her kitchen table although she was never quite in charge. She smoked a lot, one Marlboro after the next; constantly re-heating the same cup of tea, something she came to do when her children got her a microwave for Christmas one year. She always drank Red Rose Tea; she collected the tiny ceramic animals that occasionally lived inside the rectangular box. There was a whole menagerie hanging out with her spoon collection; a green sea turtle in Kansas, Noah and his Wife in Tallahassee, Florida. Her curation is truly memorable.  My grandmother was a woman very much like the old Grimes woman in Anderson's story: "People drive right down a road and never notice an old woman like that" (51). She walked many miles when she had no means to drive. Her soft voice was like a string orchestra in constant rehearsal. 

     People knew my grandmother, but for different reasons. Through family stories I picture her brother punching her husband in the face after he beat her. "They fought sometimes and when they fought the old woman stood aside trembling" (53). Long after divorce she wanted to work, but had never had a job. She worked as a nanny for a while, even went on a cruise with the family, I think. Then at a beauty company, although I am unclear in what capacity. She could not function in the day- to-day life of a working woman, whose children were grown and all but, maybe one, still lived at home. But soon he left, too. Hers was a life of stock pot cooking; she never got used to making a meal for one. In some ways the hard-working, worrisome Grimes symbolizes my grandmother's inability to work: "She had a few chickens of her own and had to kill one of them in a hurry. When they were all killed she wouldn't have any eggs to sell when she went to town, and then what would she do?" (53).

      My grandmother spent hours worrying about everyone, especially her children. She often worried about money, but usually got through each month on government assistance. She saved a lot of things like Johnny Cash records she eventually sold. When she spoke she was quiet and mumbling: "She had got the habit of silence... she went around the house and the barnyard muttering to herself" (53). Many times I listened, but seldom understood what she said. Silence is the aftermath of violent earthquakes; it comes between the push and shove, the verbal manipulations. I do not know of any of this first hand as her life in my palms is a hand-me-down, but I have a distinct memory, a muttering about "...that's what I thought love was..."  Her own unlove began in a field where Anderson's story ends.

     I think she was happiest taking care of others, whether she was appreciated or not. You could rarely escape her kitchen without a bite to eat, whether leftover spaghetti, or a scoop of chocolate ice cream with a dollop of whip cream. Her cabinets were filled with dishes, bowls, recycled corned beef jars used for drinking, or holding spider plants. She had sets for twelve, maybe more, but always drank from the same tea cup and used the same spoon, rinsing them between servings. She was diagnosed with stage four cancer a few years ago, and suddenly her body became lighter, "the pack on her back" (55) became lighter, and walks to town in bad weather were gone. I loved my grandmother, did not spend enough time with her. I experienced many emotional journeys, all the zigzag stitching I could handle. Before she passed, each of her children came to see her one last time. "The scene in the forest had become for me, without my knowing it, the foundation for the real story I am now trying to tell. The fragments, you see, had to be picked up slowly, long afterwards" (59). 

     I have read Anderson's story many times. I want to write about the men and dogs in that fiction as I remember hearing them bark down the street from my grandmother's house, but this isn't the right moment. My grandmother was a writer herself, always jotting things down on bits of paper, her own thoughts, or lyrics from the radio. She liked flowers we thought were weeds; she liked sitting in the sun.

Recommended drink: Red Rose Tea, tan with milk. Re-heat in microwave only.

Source: Charters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer, an introduction to short fiction, 4th ed. Boston, MA:  Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995.

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