For Alfred, Mabel and Lucy Sidman, my father’s parents and paternal grandmother.
They were like the dolls in my dollhouse—each one of them
positioned in their own place when my family (my mother, my father,
my older sister and I) arrived for a visit; but with the changing seasons,
they rearranged themselves. G.G., my great grandmother, usually sat
out on the porch in warm weather. When the air turned brisk,
she resettled herself in a red velvet rocking chair by the window
in the parlor. Grandma seemed too shy to go outside in any season.
She hovered like a hummingbird in the pantry arranging cups and plates.
Or, she sat at the upright piano in the living room, tapping each key stiffly
just after her quavering voice hit the next note of tunes like Celito Lindo.
She had learned these from her sister, Great Aunt Mina, who lived in Mexico City
and sent postcards of volcanoes, but never came to visit.
Grandpa used the dining room for an office, paying bills, thumbing through
seed catalogues. Only he ventured out in every season, although I never knew
him to take anyone for a ride in his black Ford (with running boards on the side)
that idled in the dilapidated garage behind the house. In winter
he went outside wrapped in a muffler to put suet in his many birdfeeders.
Come summer he would fuss with his trellised morning glories in the back yard,
or emerge from the root cellar bearing potatoes and beets. I wondered
about the beets, could they be the hearts of trolls that lived under the house
and were extracted secretly as I knew unwanted mice were from their traps?
Magnolias appeared every spring. They were what lured G.G. out
onto the front porch. When the hard buds burst open and the sweet,
unmistakable aroma of magnolia filled the front yard, she would call to me,
Dearie, come and see. Dearie, come and see.
From the magenta buds nestled in green waxy leaves, one beautiful flower
after another would appear dressed in the soft color of cream with a hint
of pastel pink. She would only stop talking when she grew tired of her own
question. Dearie, Dearie, aren’t they just exquisite? Aren’t they just exquisite?
Was it her age that made her notice everything? I knew I was her flower too,
but I couldn’t stop to answer her; nor thank my grandfather for the birds
he painted for me on my seventh birthday—an oriole, a swallow and a cedar
waxwing—each on it own pearly white, porcelain plate.
On one visit, in a hushed voice, my father confided in me that my grandfather
was an electrical engineer, and he had pulled electricity up the Amazon River
in his younger days. I imagined the river as dark as his attic. I couldn’t imagine
the rope of electricity. Nor that my grandmother had been firm enough to teach school, or that G.G. had seen Abraham Lincoln when she was eight. His picture
was in the living room. I thought maybe he had known, even then,
what would happen to him as his eyes were as large as sad lakes.
One day, on a very warm summer afternoon, my grandparents arrived
for a visit to our house. G.G. wasn’t with them. G.G. had lived on the third story
of the house, and once in awhile I was allowed upstairs. I’d follow
the carved railings of mahogany, the flowers entwined with vines
on Persian carpet runners, up into the dark hallways and closed doors,
but I never found G.G.
On rare occasions, I was sent to spend the night. I’d set my hair brush
and comb on the bureau next to the hand-painted pin boxes decorated
by Great Aunt Kate, another in a long line of relatives whose possessions
where everywhere, but who only lived as storybook characters this house.
I was always full of questions, but Grandmother never discussed “subjects”
with me, she just hummed under her breath and smiled. “Subjects”
were for school, other teachers now. I felt very small in the great four-poster
bed where she kissed me and tucked me in. It was the same bed that collapsed
on a visiting couple one Thurber-like night in my grandfather’s memory.
He loved to tell the story, chuckling about how he was awakened by the noise
and what happened next.
What happened next was that the pictured peaks of Mexico, the four poster bed,
the magnolia tree all vanished as did my father and his entire family. My house
of memory is filled with Victorian furnishings, old-fashioned people, dim light,
and I have—in my more careless life— discarded or lost most of the gifts
they gave to me; but, G.G., let me finally answer you—
The magnolias? Yes, they are exquisite, just exquisite.
Published in Over A Threshold of Roots, Sandra Larson, Pudding House Chapbook Series, 2007