Sunday, September 24, 2006

Real Good

If you’ve ever experienced the death of someone you love, you know that, even years later, grief can pierce your heart, like an arrow shot by a marksman laying in wait. That’s how it happened to me two months ago when, without much advance planning, we decided to harvest our apple tree, sauce the apples, and can the sauce. Never mind the fact that we'd never canned before in our lives, we had none of the supplies necessary for successful canning, we only allotted one day to complete the task, and we have three children under five. We armed ourselves with an irrational dose of ambition, and hit in search of canning jars.

We found a listing: Wilber’s wife answered the phone with a wobbly voice, and said that she could get Wilber for me but it might take a while. A few minutes later, Wilber and I conversed about the canning jars—nothing out of the ordinary—just how many, the price, and when and where I could retrieve them. After we’d settled the details, Wilber unintentionally shot the arrow: “okay, real good,” he said. I hung up the phone, slumped down onto the couch, and cried hot, burning tears that left me with a dull ache in my head and a dark hole in my belly. Before then, I wasn’t even conscious that the phrase “real good” had been favored by my Granddaddy, who has been gone since 1999. Wilber sold me six cardboard boxes, containing countless canning jars, lids, and caps, neatly packed with newspaper and styrofoam peanuts in the fastidious way of a World War II veteran. But he left me with a longing that no amount of saucing and canning could satisfy.

If you lost a Granddaddy like mine, you’d still be missing him, too. From the perspective my childhood, he was one of those rare breeds of grown-ups who instinctively knew how to make me feel secure and competent. He let me do things as if I was really able to do them. He was a carpenter, and a farmer, and he let my sister and I participate in the best of both those professions. He’d say to us, “all right, time to go change the pipe.” Sis and I would strip down to our underwear, and pad after him, “helping” him lift the irrigation pipes and move them into the right ditches. Granddaddy gave us toolboxes for Christmas—not the kind of cheesy plastic toolsets you see at toy stores these days—but real tools made for real, albeit miniature, carpenters. We sometimes visited him for lunch at his jobsites, and he let us dangle our legs over the 2x4s, like pint-sized versions of the famous “Lunch on a Skyscraper” print ( He shared his canned cherries with us, piercing each one with a nail and handing it over for us to eat.

Sis and I got to spend each Friday night at my Grandparents’ home, and we’d often forget our pajamas so that we could wear one of Granddaddy’s old t-shirts. They were holey in the back from exposure to sun and rubbing against overalls, smelled faintly of Old Spice and detergent, and they epitomized coziness, safety, and warmth.

Granddaddy had a wonderful way of making me feel like a co-conspirator of an inside joke. He only had nine fingers because his brother had accidentally chopped off the pinky on his left hand when they were chopping wood as youngsters. My Grandmother would pray before each meal at their home, and while we held hands, Granddaddy would tickle my hand by wiggling his little stub of a pinky, just daring me to laugh out loud.

Granddaddy excelled at comedy, but not in a grand-standing, showboaty way. He had an understated, pithy way of delivering hilarious one-liners: I played cards with him and my Grandmother an average of once a week until I moved away to college, and Granddaddy rarely failed to mention that “it is a pretty poor scorekeeper who can’t win the game.”

I was watching a video of my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s wedding when I got the call that my Granddaddy had died. I was comforted to think that we had just seen him in the film as a wedding celebrant-- his lips pursed and his face ruddy, blowing a bubble wand to create iridescent bubbles that floated upward at the outdoor reception. My heart imagined that his spirit had left his body and floated up, up, in the graceful, dancing motion of a bubble, at the exact moment that I’d seen him on the screen.

I’ve often thought that grief’s counterpart is gratitude, the benevolent, white-hat-wearing personage of death. Just as the sharp sting of grief sometimes ambushes, gratitude can quietly settle in like a child who sidles into your lap, ready for a story or snuggle.

That’s how it happened to me yesterday morning, when, in the cool, crisp morning of fall, we ventured outdoors to pick our plums. It is hard to capture in words the beauty that was our day. Tobin patiently supported Eleanor (age 4 and ¾), and then Sylvia (age 3), as they took turns climbing the ladder to reach the plums. The girls collected the plums in their Easter egg buckets, which they had decorated with glue, stickers, and all manner of happy shiny things last April. We annexed a white plastic toy box for our plum-washing station. The girls plopped the plums into the water, and stirred them up with wooden spoons. “We’re making plum soup!” Eleanor announced to Sylvia. I laid out a blanket on the front steps, where Sylvia helped me de-pit the plums, carefully copying my paring-knife technique with her own butter knife. “First I go like this,” Sylvia summarized, plunging the dull knife into the ripe plum and cutting it down its seam, “and then, oooopen it up, and there’s the pit!” “I’m running out of clean plums,” I’d hint, and Eleanor would run to deliver another batch from the cleaning station, her face scrunched and her eyes gleaming with the importance of her task.

Sitting on the steps, settling into the rhythm of the paring, watching my family in its cooperative, peaceful state, gratitude descended on me, and the warmth of it spread through my being like a drop of water on a coffee filter. I remembered making apple cider with my Granddaddy and Grandmother: how I threw the apples into the hopper, feverishly turned the crank of the press, and watched as cider magically emerged from the grinder, all amid the affirming sense of my Granddaddy’s approval. Yesterday, I saw in my children the same feeling of competence as I gazed upon them with admiration. And I thought, thank you, Granddaddy. Real good.


Another Zerb Lover (AZL) said...


Grief and Gratitude…how could we have ever imagined that these were differing entities – disparate emotional archways. What could be grieved that does not also demand our gratitude? The terms give themselves to each other not so much as counterparts, but more as colliding metaphors. In that sense, everything that I am grateful for, truly grateful, I am already grieving. It seems to me that the moment I rest in gratefulness marks the event of my grieving. They’re not the same notion, they only call to one another, yearn for each other. This all fell out of the back of my head when I read that Granddaddy tickled you with his “stub,” daring you to laugh. In the space of that one sentence, I needed a new word to tell myself. What could I name the simultaneous sense of admiration and loss. In one sentence I conflated grief and gratitude. But that’s just it. That’s what you made me realize. Grief and gratitude hide behind each other. Think or say one and the other is secretly given. It is the grief within the gratitude that intensifies the feeling we can only name love. Wallace Stevens already said all this in six words: “Death is the mother of beauty.”
Thanks for your thought and for the beauty of your Granddaddy.

Ronan Jimson said...
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