Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Was it the mention of water that launched the story? Electricity? Refrigeration? Somehow, when these stories start, it's as if we're on a boat tied up at the dock, and then without realizing, we set sail. "The water from the well was only for washing," she says. "We had to carry water from the spring for drinking and cooking." I imagine her and her twin sister carrying identical buckets and setting them at their mother's feet, but before I can ask how the water was carried and by whom, she tells me that the spring was their refrigerator, too. "My dad kept his beer cold there," she says. "And it was a great place to chill a watermelon."
"How did you keep things from floating away?" I ask.
"There was a big tank," she says. She tells me the goats and horses drank there, too.
"I guess they never bit into the watermelons," I say.
"They never drank the beer either," she says. She laughs her old lady laugh then. This laugh is different from the way my mother used to laugh. It's a succinct "Ha. Ha. Ha." Slightly unnatural. Which may have something to do with keeping her upper plate adhered to the roof of her mouth. Somehow we get onto the subject of the horses then. Babe and Vince were their names, she says. Only her brothers could ride Babe. Temperament troubles, she tells me. That left Vince for the girls to ride. But mostly the horses were meant for work.
"What happened to the mules, Duke and Nancy?" I ask. I'm referring to the glossy black animals in my favorite photo of my grandfather where he stands smiling into the camera in a white shirt and tie, a fedora cocked just so, a mule on each side of him.
"The mules came before," she says. "That was when he had the farm. Before the crash. Millie and I were babies then." She remembers hearing how he loved those mules. And I recall my grandfather's sister tell me years ago how proud he was of them. She was the one who told me their names. I want to ask if they were lost with the farm, or did he sell them, one by one, trying to hang on as long as he could. But somehow the story bobs and weaves again. I've heard this part before. How the kids used to play in the attic in the house they moved to, crawling after one another in the narrow dark spaces. "I fell through the ceiling," she says. "Fell right next to the stove where my mother was stirring the soup. It's a wonder that she didn't have a heart attack!" In this re-telling I learn that my mother was only five years old when she fell.
"Didn't you get hurt?" I ask. She tells me that she was perfectly fine, but that she was always clumsy as a kid. But not afraid. It was her twin that was afraid of heights. If she climbed a ladder, someone would have to go up and bring her down, my mother tells me. "The attic was boarded up after I fell," she says.
I'm on my second glass of wine by then, and we are sitting in the unlighted dining room, the light outside beginning to fade, the boat dock lights reflecting off the water. Now my mind has set its own course. I remember how my father boarded up the clothes chute in our second floor hallway the very same day we moved into the hundred-year-old house my parents bought when I was five. I remember the horses that grazed just beyond our garden fence--land that, I only recently learned, was owned by my parents and rented out to the guy with the horses.
My mother and I watch the huge clouds stacking up over the mountains. The evening blue beneath the towers of white make us wonder if it will rain again. We talk about the recent wild fire south of us, mostly subdued by yesterday's rain. I thought I'd have to argue with her about staying indoors due to the air pollution when the fire was at its worst. "I wouldn't think of going out," she told me then. "I hate fire." That night I heard about the grass fires during the dust bowl. How the whole family would be sent outside to rake the dirt over the grass as the winds blew the fire closer.
How much is there to know about a person, I wonder. How wide are the stories? How deep?