As those of you who read my last blog know, my husband and I belong to a book club called "The Oracles." This year the theme was "family" – we read "Atonement" and "No Ordinary Time" and "Monkeys" (and more). (Ted Gleason, my Exeter teacher, made all the judicious selections.) At the end of the year (we're still following the school calendar) we have to write an essay. (If you heard the groans you'd think we were back in school.) This time I wrote about my Virginia grandparents and called the essay "Getting Away":
My cousin Mary, the musical one who lives on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle, sent me an email this week. She wanted me to know she’d found a good home (a senior care center) for the grand piano that had once been our grandmother’s. It made Mary sad to give up the piano – it must have been in my grandparents’ house for almost fifty years and with Mary’s family for close to thirty. But, as Mary said, the piano had been silent for too long – she and her husband Jim were too busy playing their guitars, banjos, and mandolins.
That piano has traveled a long way. When we were little, my grandparents lived at Sherwood, in Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. My sister and I spent at least a month there every summer and my cousins joined us for a good part of the time. My grandmother, the one we called Mamma, loved to play the piano in the late afternoon. The cousins (that would be Mary and her sister, my sister and I) would sing our hearts out. (Mary was the one with the really good voice.) There was a lot of Stephen Foster (Mamma grew up in Kentucky) and “Hello Dolly” and the Whiffenpoof song.
Mamma was a health nut – she mixed Tiger’s milk powder in her breakfast drink and ate health foods long before they became so popular. She was super fit – thanks, no doubt, to strict adherence to a Jack LaLanne Show’s routine. She made Pops (that was my grandfather) do his exercises every weekday morning while listening to the Jack LaLanne Show on television. However, Pops remained a hefty man all his life. Mamma taught us proper manners and good posture. She was far stricter than any of our parents on all counts, but what I remember most is being told to sit up straight and hold in my stomach.
Sometimes Mamma and Pops took us on long car trips – a picnic in the mountains or a summer theater in the evening. Pops loved to tell stories – they were all true, they all had to do with history, and they always lasted the entire car trip. Pops also loved to read and when he was home spent most of his time with a book in what I used to think was the most enormous comfortable green chair. (My sister has the chair now and it no longer looks quite so big.) If Pops was in a good mood we could climb into his lap and he’d give us what he called a Dutch rub – I have no idea where the term comes from. It refers to rubbing one’s knuckles (affectionately) across the top of a person’s head.
They also took us on long walks in the fields and through the forest to see the hidden graveyard. We cooked out in the stone fireplace by the lake – really a man-made pond but Mamma and Pops always called it a lake. Cook-outs were a big production as we had to transport the food (along with wire mesh contraptions to keep the flies away) down a steep hill.
In the afternoons we’d pile into a rowboat with Mamma at the helm, standing – the oar in hand. At five foot two she must have felt more in control if she stood. Once a summer we got to go skinny-dipping over by the dam.
The year I was turning nine Mamma and Pops asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I’d fallen in love with a tree, a beautiful willow with sweeping branches that reached out over the lake, drooping slightly so that the leaves skimmed the water, all-embracing. On a whim I said I’d like “a treehouse.” But I never thought for a second that anyone was about to build one So I added Nancy Drew books to my wish list.
When we arrived at Sherwood that summer there was a brand new shiny treehouse, tucked into the willow, freshly painted in a green enamel. When I opened the trapdoor and climbed in I found a box of Nancy Drew books. Talk about being made to feel like a princess or maybe “Queen for the Day” (a very popular TV show at the time).
If we weren’t in the treehouse we were playing Seven Steps Around the House and Kick the Can. Sometimes Mamma took us swimming in the neighbor’s pool. Mamma only did the sidestroke and, of course, she wore a bathing cap. On rainy days we played Nuts and Hearts. And, in the evenings, we watched the brilliant orange sun, round as a bubble, slowly dipping behind the mountains. We didn’t get to see that in Manhattan so the Virginia sunsets took our breath away.
The house was always full of flowers and there was a candy dish in the living room. We weren’t supposed to take from it but we did – just not too much. We drank a lot of iced tea with fresh mint. Sometimes Mamma and Pops gave big parties and the guests poured out onto the terrace. And once in a while at night after we were supposed to be in bed we found them dancing. The cabinet doors that hid the television were open and Lawrence Welk was doing his thing.
All this happened years ago, and yet it could have been just yesterday. Memory is a funny thing. Sieve-like, it makes the past present. But memory is also bludgeon-like – as it reminds us that the present will soon be past. “Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love and make haste to be kind,” the preacher says. Memory, an omni-present voice speaking mostly in a soft whisper. Every so often its volume rises. Clear. Deafening.