Thursday, November 16, 2017

To Grandmother's House We Go

Sir - N- Oma's Illinois "Farm"

In the morning, by the pond with its blue gills and peepers, we picked wild strawberries, made clover chains and plucked at morning glories rambling across a cattle fence. Looking at my thumbs now, holding my book, I can see the stains under my fingernails -- brown, green and red -- that Grandma commented on before supper, sending me to wash again before I came to table.
Mom ducks under the doorway and says, “I need you girls to help me. A glass is missing.” As we slide off our beds I ask, “whose glasses?” noticing that Mom’s are on her face.
“Not glasses, a glass. A drinking glass.”
“What?”
(sigh) “Grandma and I just put away the dinner dishes, and she says, there’s a glass missing.”
Imagining our cupboards at home, I ask (puzzled), “How can she tell something’s missing?”
“Let’s just find it, okay?”
“Yes ma’am.”
(My mother a Texan and my father an Air Force officer, Ma’am and Sir float across our child-sized lips as naturally as our own breath.) 
Descending the narrow staircase connecting our sleeping quarters with the rest of the rooms, we begin the search. The original house was built centuries before and generations of additions have yielded a home filled with surprises: in some parts of the house, soaring ceilings and massive doors; in others, tiny doors and low ceilings.  Windows open or don’t, staircases appear where you least expect them; it seems there’s a door in every wall.

Light Farm in Gettysburg
Grandpa Light purchased the farm after he retired from the Air Force in the 1960’s, just outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, one county over from where he attended grade school. Every day since they came here, he rises early, bounding off to his tractor or to tend his steers. Grandma wakes just as early, diligently keeping all the household accounted for. This morning as we put away the crab apple jelly, she shelved each elegantly labeled jar, chirping, “soldiers in a row, soldiers in a row.”


We need to find that glass.


The Light Grandparents visit us in Omaha - dressed for Thanksgiving Dinner
Maybe it was walking across battlefields, the stairs to monuments, and the long tours of dead presidents’ houses that tired Mom out. In addition to this house, my grandparents have an apartment in D.C. close to the Capitol Hill Club, where Grandpa was treasurer. On the wall are pictures of Grandpa with Mrs. Nixon, Vice President Ford and his wife, Betty. Dad takes the photos down to show us and says, “This was taken where we’re going for dinner tonight. Grandpa and his friends have helped our President, and in this picture, they’re thanking him.” Mom says, “Behave.  There will be Senators and Congressmen at the club.” We are good, and Grandpa gives us each a tiny box after dessert. In it is a gold animal pin. I’m disappointed we’ve all gotten the same one – elephant, elephant, elephant, elephant. “Thank you, sir.” (4x)
Back at the farm, the weight of the glass … gone AWOL is heavy. We finally find it in the small bathroom off Grandpa’s study, under an elegantly framed print of dogs playing poker. We blame our brother, wash, dry and return the glass to its barracks. 
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The next family vacation is to Texas. Once more the station wagon is piled with suitcases and a cooler filled with Tab soda, Ritz crackers, squeeze cheese in a can, and apples. When we reach Aransas Pass, relatives spill out of Mammaw’s house like clowns from a clown car. Mammaw puts us to work on the back porch, snapping beans and peeling potatoes while she tends the frying pan. Later, Uncle Frank gives up his bedroom to Mom and Dad, heading to the bed of his pickup, under its camper top. Aunt Lucille and Uncle Johnny, who drove over from Sour Lake, sleep in Grandma’s little pull-behind travel trailer. A gaggle of cousins spread blankets across the floor, filling the house with sticky breathing, and finally Mammaw’s snoring lulls us all to sleep.  
Mammaw as a Young Teen Eula Gladys Garner (later: Stewart, Farley)
Mammaw’s dish cupboards can’t be inventoried, their contents are in constant circulation. “My daddy built these cupboards,” Mom says as she pulls down more glasses and chipped plates. “He built everything we needed, including this house.” I know he died before Mom graduated from high school and that the bathroom we are all sharing only got indoor plumbing a few years before that. Floorboards creak under the weight of family stories untold.
From stories Mom has shared of my fourth grandparent, I picture him like a ghostly St. Francis statue out in the yard by the ancient live oak, his hammer tipped half limb lifted, a wild bird perched upon the anvil of it. Life was hard for a one-armed boat builder on the Texas coast, but she remembers him feeding squirrels from his one fleshy hand while his self-fashioned leather carpenter’s sleeve was off, giving his sawed off right forearm a chance to breathe. He made for himself everything they ever needed.
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Grandparents. Now I am one, though none of my five grandchildren carry either my Texas or Pennsylvania-Deutsch blood. And what do kids really know about their grandparents, anyway? I only ever saw my paternal grandparents as reflected in the eyes of my ever-attentive mother. The wealthy, powerful General and his elegant wife, both forged in formality that felt to her less than familial. Not the hungry children of German immigrants, certainly not the small boy sent away from his parents at age 8 to work on a relative’s farm, because a farm always has food.
Grandpa Light enlisted in the infantry in 1927 with only a grade school education and an American dream. The Great Depression, a second World War, and technology which put our military in the sky made him the man I barely knew. Grandmother soldiered on at the home front, ordering a family that fashioned my father who passed on those Light characteristics to me.
Mom in the arms of her favorite Live Oak
Mammaw’s people can trace their history back to the colonies. English, Scottish, French, this-and-that-and-the-other Texans by way of Louisiana and everywhere else. My never-known maternal grandfather read poetry to Mammaw and their many children at night, let them dream lazily on the wide stretched limbs of the live oak tree, and gazed up with them at the big Texas sky on clear country nights. My mother’s eyes come alive each time she remembers him back into being for the grandchildren of his seed which he never saw.
Mammaw stitched together an expansive tapestry of family through seasons of marriage, divorce, single-parenthood, remarriage, step-parenting, widowhood, and single parenting again. With tiny stitches she sewed toddler clothes for my sisters and me; with gentle arms she cradled my baby brother. With stalwart courage she flew alone to the AFB in Okinawa where my mother was raising us, and even after breaking her leg once she got there, she flew on to Hong Kong before returning to Aransas Pass, saying “when will I ever have a chance like this again?”
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My Grandma name is “Oma”, an aspiring Tex-Deutsch GroƟmutter, drawing upon the strengths of all four of my grandparents.  Gazing at my grubby cuticles, as fingers dance across the keyboard, I see they are once again stained from pulling morning glories from fence rows by the cow-barn which Grandpa-"Sir" and I are trying to save. 
Grandsons gathering eggs at Sir and Oma's farmstead
I don’t know what our grandchildren will remember of this farm, or us, in the end. But when the table has been cleared, and our house breathes with the sleepy chatter of our grandchildren (until we’ve snored them all to sleep), I am rising early the next morning, reenlisting all the AWOL glasses for circulation in a new day.