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by Nan Leslie
The package arrived by Federal Express on Christmas Eve, no return address, no name. A black and white photograph, elaborately framed, and penciled in at the lower right-hand corner of the cream matting in a hand I did not recognize: July 1, 1929. I stared at the image a moment, then matched the two little boys at the forefront dressed in miniature versions of standard army issue, circa World War I, complete with worn leather boots that reached their knees and the proper insignias on their sleeves; my father and uncle with my grandmother behind them, her arms tucked in the "at ease" position, her three hired hands staring off to the right as if they felt they did not deserve to be in the picture. Two of them, both men, had adopted her same attitude and the third, an elderly woman with wire-framed glasses and a canvas apron tied round her waist, contained the barest trace of a smile, tightlipped and forced. Forced, perhaps, by the necessity of having to run the register six days a week when she should have been spending any years she had left at her particular pleasure. They stood in a semicircle in the middle of my grandmother's store, a small spindly building that hugged the riverbank, squeezed in-between a cannery and a seafood shop that smelled of quahogs and lobster pens.
To the left of the two boys, in prominent display, stood a stand of Hart's Seeds with the caption FOR BETTER FARMERS painted on the front of a plywood box. Behind that on a table covered with a red scalloped tablecloth were boxes of Wonder Pan Rolls, Jane Bamby Rolls, and Kre-Mel, AMERICA'S NEW DESSERT. And behind those the little luxuries: bars of fragrant Camay soap, jars of mincemeat and Kitchen Bouquet, tins of Carnation evaporated milk. In the background the polished wood of the icebox gleamed under posters for Blue Tip matches, Fig Newtons, and Toasted Cheese Bowties. Shelves lined the right wall filled with jelly jars of apple butter, maple syrup, and homemade
preserves of every variety, my grandmother putting up her garden with a pressure cooker during the hot sticky days of August and early September. As a child I loved the smell of my grandmother's kitchen, the air heavy with sweet moisture, her pin curls covered by a clean bandanna, that same canvas apron she always wore wrapped round her potato-pancake waist and sagging bosom. My grandmother was all kindness and fruitfulness. From her hands flowed delicate puff pastries filled with cream, apple strudels, baklavas dripping with fresh honey, strawberry tarts, chokecherry pies, and my weakness--raspberry-almond cookies. Tucked behind boxes of National Soda crackers and Super Suds detergent stood small bottles of liquor she sold for "medicinal purposes," the exception being my grandfather, who nursed a permanent cold while monitoring river traffic from his favorite chair in the back room. King Malt Supply Company kept an icebox full of beer on the premises. Come Friday the regulars stopped off on their way home from the factory to cash their paychecks and chugalug a couple of bottles before surrendering their pay to overanxious wives.
The two hired hands hauled blocks of ice and unloaded trucks, trimmed meats and slopped floors, their greasy blood-soaked aprons marking them. The younger one wore a beret, his shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal thick forearms, while the older one had on a brimmed hat made of felt or wool, his big head stuck on such a skinny frame as to make him appear perpetually hungry. My grandmother stood among them like a commander of troops, her plain plump face scrubbed raw by harsh soap, her dress fine as gauze from too many washings, her thick white stockings tucked into black-strapped Mary Janes with just enough heel to be respectable, but not showy. My eyes returned, as in an involuntary action, to my father as a young boy, not more than ten years old, his six-year old brother standing so close to him that his left arm was obscured from the camera lens. No grins from either of them, yet they both looked proud that someone was taking their picture; you could tell by their serious eyes and stiff military legs. What were they doing there that day? Maybe sweeping where bins of flour and cornmeal had spilled over onto the floor that looked like a mixture of dirt, cement, and cobblestone. In the background a slab of marble stuck on top of an old operating table was used for butchering-- it looked big enough to birth a calf.
I had heard it said by my father so many times, the words themselves took on a reverberating syncopation, like a ham operator accompanied by a dramatic organ score. No free handouts because your parents owned the store. Every penny counted. I ran the milk bottles up and down the walkways at five in the morning-- or cut lawns for a quarter, banking milk bottle tops for a penny a case. And you learned early on that nothing in life was easy, not your youth, not the parents who fed and clothed you and were too worn down to care about much else. Whose heavy hand laid across my father's back with a belt, breaking skin to teach lessons never learned but sorely imitated two decades later-- and finds me sitting on my front porch with tears staining my necktie for the father I disowned years before he died? My mother still mouthed excuses for him, but my gentle nature naturally recoiled from violence, ran from confrontation, gave merit to motive rather than action-- a child who saw how he hated hawking over the price of pigs' feet and worrying about the Teamsters, and then went home with it all built up inside until it came pounding out in a rage that could only be calmed by the heat that radiated down on my back.
When war came, my father signed up with the Pacific fleet, then returned home to his store and my mother and the five boys they would soon have to feed. He never talked about the war, but he drank just like his father, connected for all eternity in my mind to a bottle of scotch and our fight for the shiny spoon-- a shirt without holes in the underarms, a new pair of jeans. But then a thought born straight from the eyes of a child revealed a harshness in his pursed cheeks that I had failed to recognize, a serious failing for a boy his age-- dressed for war as if his future called out dies funestis1, when in his child's mind soldiers merely played at war, and wars and fairy stories still existed side by side in their sentimentality. And sadder still, that by the time I am born he had already tired of life. If my education set me apart from him, then why had I always gauged him with such acerbity that I now needed to see the world through his eyes? I took off my glasses for nearsightedness and held the picture up to my face under the lamp so I could memorize every detail of his face.
Alcoholics spawning alcoholics, the experts warned us long ago, citing genetic risks like we were made-to-order suits. I heard on the news last night that soon we'll be able to double our life span, live to be one-hundred and fifty, reach a mid-life crisis at age seventy-five. I don't think I'd want to live that long; I just want to reach a time in my life when I can let go of the ghost. The last time I saw my father he was sitting in his favorite fake-leather recliner, propped up by pillows and covered with an afghan my mother had knitted, pulling on a cigar with one hand and sipping from a scotch glass with the other-- slowly drinking himself to death. There's no meanness in that young face, I thought, pouring over the picture one last time, polishing the glass with my shirtsleeve. I could have made friends with a boy like that-- maybe just like me at that age.
1Dies funestis: "day of death."
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Document last modified on: 12/10/2000