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 Came across this from an old journal . . . made me miss my grandfather all over again.

 

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It’s Wednesday.  I’m driving up U.S. Highway 55 North, Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World” playing out it’s pre-historic horror tale through the cassette player.  E sits beside me, alternating between fussing with the straps on her sandals and looking out the window at the overwhelming greenness of Mississippi streaming by.  S and H are fussing and giggling over an esoteric game they play that makes sense only if you are six and two and trapped in the backseat of an Isuzu Trooper for God knows how long.

 

We are headed to Missouri; first to my grandfather’s house, in New M-town, site of the famed New M-town earthquake of 18-something.  Only a few years ago, a seismologist of some reputation insisted that the second great New M-town earthquake was on its way, and the little town over flowed with reporters and scientists, only to be abandoned a few weeks later when the only earth-shaking occurrence was the local merchants filling their coffers from the expenditures of their visitors.  Now I am on my way there, expecting no earthquakes, just a couple of slow, leisurely days where my children will hopefully get a feel for the sweetness that is their great-grandfather, my Poppity.

 

After New M-town, we plan to go further north to F-town, a little, backward place, the county seat of Madison County, Missouri, where both my parents and I were raised, and their parents, too.  A lot of my family has died or moved on, but my father’s people, the Starkeys, are still there and holding a family reunion on Saturday.  I’m taking the girls and, again, hoping that in one afternoon they can glean something from being surrounded by people to whom you are tied by blood that will last them.  I don’t know if it will work, if it’s even worth the trip, but I’m going to try.  We’ll know in the years to come how it turns out, I guess.

 

 

The following Monday, we intend to head southwest to my Cousin P’s place in Harrison, Arkansas, forty-five minutes or so outside Branson, Missouri.  I’m excited to see her – we are very much alike – and a little nervous, too.  Maybe we’re too much alike.  She’s recently divorced and man-crazy, and there’s something about that combination that makes me jumpy.  Afraid of too much information, I guess.  Anyway, the girls are getting to go to Silver Dollar City, an amusement park set in the 1860’s, and maybe to The Shepherd of the Hills park, based on the novel by Harold Bell Wright who, I’ve read, outsold Hemingway and Fitzgerald at one point in literary history.  I can’t help but wonder if it’s Sherman Hemingway and Harpo Fitzgerald he outsold, but it is a book that made me long for a history, whose re-reading made me want to make this trip in the first place, so maybe.  From P’s, we’re headed homeward, a grueling 14 hour drive south that I am hoping will be fueled by an abiding desire just to get home. 

 

Now, however, home is the last place I want to be.  I’m road-tripping, that glorious phrase from my college years.  I started college seventeen years ago, and the words ‘road-trip’ haven’t lost a single shade from the delirious corona they sported then.  Road-trip then meant freedom and new experiences, it meant just maybe drinking too much and just maybe sex with just maybe strangers, it signified potential.  This road-trip has me driving north in an old Trooper with three little girls and a cooler full of bologna and cheese and whole milk for bottles, and the only just-maybe I’m aware of is just maybe getting into an argument with one of my notorious relatives over my father or money, both moot points, and just maybe getting to go out for drinks with P in Harrison.  But it’s still there, the old excitement, the unknown, leaving my own self behind and breaking new ground.  Even with an extra pacifier hanging off the rear-view mirror, even with the back seat littered with coloring books and plastic figures from McDonald’s.  My foolish heart knows no better.

 

Mississippi is a surprise; nicest rest stops I’ve ever seen.  Our first official stop has a Welcome Center, incongruously furnished with antique chairs and a china cabinet, paintings on easels.  Only rest stop I’ve ever been to where I was afraid the girls would break something.  But the people are nice, and the air is cool.  A white-haired man behind the counter offers E and S a soft drink, and S accepts, though I have to hunt her down to accept it once he has it ready for her.  She says thank you without prompting, but he talks over her, and doesn’t hear.  I give her the points anyway.

 

Outside, I let them run for a bit.  H takes off into a tree-lined clearing, and the big girls chase her. She’s delighted.  She chortles and runs faster, curved legs and blonde hair bouncing across the grass.  We get back in the car and I replenish drinks and snacks from the cooler in the back; we’re all antsy to get back on the road.  Even H doesn’t fuss at the buckles and straps of her car seat.  She wiggles and grins – “Let’s go, Mama!”  and we do.

 

Mississippi, the corner of Tennessee, Arkansas, then Missouri.  We’re getting tired now, and glad we’re close.  I plan to call Poppity when we hit the state line, but don’t.  Just want to keep going.  I find Locust Street easily, and his little house near the end.  I don’t really think of it as his house, still.  He and A have been married for twenty-five years, and I still think of it as her house, hers and Mr. S’s house, I guess.  As though Poppity were a guest who came to visit after Mr. S died and just never left.  When we pull into the drive, Poppity bursts through the front door; he’s been watching for us.  “Oh-ho!” he says, and hurries down the steps.  I get out of the car and come around to hug him, and he squeezes me hard, then pulls back and looks past me into the window where H sits in the car seat.  She looks at him for a split second, then grins broadly, and waves.  I’m tickled – I know this means a lot to him.  I go to get her out of the car, and S runs around the back, hugs Poppity, and they tickle and talk.  E gets out quietly, stands self-conciously, waiting.  As I pull H free and shut the door, Poppity turns to E and says, “Well, this must be our E!  Hel-l-oo, E!”  He hugs her, too.  I am relieved, and I know she is pleased.

 

We all walk up the stairs and into the house. I remember the last time my father and I visited here.  Dad, in his wheelchair, had become accustomed to waiting on the lawn of houses with stairs, waiting in the car, waiting all the time.  Dinner was ready when we arrived, and Dad was prepared to wait outside while we ate in the kitchen.  Poppity was mortified.  Over my father’s protests, he gathered the Sheriff from across the street and a truck driver from next door, and they lifted Dad, chair and all, up onto the porch, and assured him they’d bring him back down when he was ready.  My dad was pleased and embarrassed and grateful, and I remember thinking how humiliating it would be to rely on the passing vagaries of people that way.  I gave Dad the points then, too.  Now we open the full glass front door and step into the living room, and I am not surprised to see that virtually nothing has changed.  It’s a place out of time, with the ceramic basset hound under the end table, the swinging doors into the kitchen, the comfy old couch, the air smelling vaguely of fried bacon and A’S cologne.

 

The first time H is put down on the rug, Poppity opens his arms and she runs straight to him, snuggles into his neck.  He is visibly touched, and their bond is forged.  I remind him that she was named after his sister who died, and he tells people during our visit about this several times, changing ‘sister’ to ‘daughter’.  I correct him once, and then drop it – it doesn’t matter to people, and it’s still a nice story.  I’m thinking that he has his sister H confused with the tiny daughter, Patsy, that they lost. Poppity tries to draw E out a bit, but his real talent is with the little ones.  He brings out his toys – things that rattle and play music, roll across the floor, explode.  H is fascinated by everything, but he gets a little possessive when she starts saying ‘mine’ about his toys, and puts a lot of them away.

 

It’s still early evening, and A is playing Bingo at the Eagles Club, their home-away-from-home.  Poppity wants to take us there, to buy us dinner and ‘show us off’.  E is nervous, asks if it’s a bar, and I tell her it is, but not to worry.  Poppity drives us; I worry about his driving, but he appears to do very well.  We park outisde the building, and he tells us that people watch for the red flag on his car antenna to know when he’s there.   Inside, it’s the same as it was five years ago, probably the same as it’s been for twenty years.  We choose a table, and a friendly waitress takes our order – burgers and fries, grilled cheese for H, and beer for Poppity.  I don’t remember him drinking beer before, but it’s a nice change from Southern Comfort and Coke.  At least he might get some nutrition from the beer.  A dashes in from Bingo and greets us all; she seems genuinely glad to see us, and I am surprised to see that her hair is now nearly all white.  Poppity, at eighty-three, still has more dark hair than white, but A’S has faded fast.  She used to tease him and tell us that he colored his hair, but the way the white is distributed, I don’t believe it, at least not anymore.  Must be the Cherokee in him, I think.  She dashes back out again before the start of the next Bingo session. It’s an hour and a half ‘til her game is over, and I manage to wrangle H that long, but only with effort and help from E and S.  She’s fascinated with the juke box, and repeatedly runs to it and presses the buttons.  She also discovers a new ‘trick’, stepping up onto the carpeted foot rail on the bar and after much preparation and goading from us, making the daring five-inch jump off into space.  We all clap, and she claps for herself, too.  She’s very loving with Poppity, calling him Daddy and giving him hugs and kisses. E is very uncomfortable; has decided that everyone in the room is a drunk, and that they are all staring at her.  She’s a very pretty girl, and people do notice her, but in this instance I think she’s being paranoid, and it makes passing the time here even more uncomfortable having her talk about it. At last A is finished, and comes in for a single beer before we leave.  Back at their house, we bring in our suitcases and talk until bed time.  They pull out the couch in the living room for the big girls, and H and I sleep in Dan’s old room. S is thrilled to be a ‘big girl’ with E, rather than a ‘little girl’ lumped in with H. She throws on her pajamas and gloms onto E for dear life, and E allows it.  H-baby has a short episode of calling for her Daddy, then falls asleep cuddled against me.  I fall asleep wondering about H’s daddy, if he’s enjoying the solitude, if he’s thinking about me.

 

The next morning, A is in her chair, and gets up painfully to greet us.  She says she’s broken a rib that isn’t healing well, and every movement appears to cause her a lot of distress. Much later we will find out she has cancer, and it takes her life. Now we sit on the couch and make small talk.  Poppity and S sneak off together for his morning walk.  They are gone quite awhile, and when they return, Poppity proclaims that S is a ‘walking fool’, and that he could hardly keep up with her.  They have had a good time, I can tell – S’s face is flushed from exertion, and she’s hanging onto Poppity’s hand.  This is what I came for, I think.  This is what she’ll remember. A insists on making a big lunch, their only meal of the day.  They skip breakfast, have a large meal at eleven, then snack in the afternoon and, although she doesn’t say so, I know they drink dinner.  For lunch today, she makes green beans and new potatoes with bacon, fresh corn, sliced tomatoes, lettuce and green onions from their garden, sliced turkey breast in gravy, a few other things on the side.  Even E eats heartily . . . .

 

 

 

 

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It’s nearing 8am this morning, and everyone is safely out the door for the first day of school. As I do every year, as my mother did before me, I get up extra-early on this first day and head out to the yard, and sometimes the neighbor’s yard, to find flowers for the table. This morning I picked morning glories from my own backyard, and some weedy-looking plant that nevertheless has tropical leaves and lovely pale pink flowers. In the next door neighbor’s yard I broke off a few small low-lying branches from a flowering tree that drops its petals all over my car. I put them all loosely in a small tin bucket in the middle of the big round table, and then carefully set out the ruffle-edged plates, the matching saucers and delicate round cups of the First Day of School Dishes.
 
They have never been anything else to me. They have been on my breakfast table on the first day of school since I began kindergarten, and my daughters have eaten first-day-of-school breakfast on them since pre-school. The eldest moved away and on her own several years ago, now it is my 17 year-old, headed off into her last year of high school, and my 13 year-old, beginning her last year of middle-school. As the girls ate this morning – tomato and cheddar omelets and chilled mandarin oranges – our conversation about the dishes is the same one we’ve had since their respective first, first days of school. I begin by asking them if either of them can remember or guess how old the dishes are. This morning, the youngest one, H, offered, hopefully, “Fourteen?” whereupon the elder, S, told her that she was a) stupid and b) wrong, but refused to make her own guess. So I told them again about the dishes being a gift to my mother at her wedding, and that they were at that time extravagant, and are now at least 48 years old. And again, as they do every year, they pick up the little turquoise cups, and marvel at their thinness, their luminosity, their beaded handles. I tell them how my sister and I sat at breakfast tables and ate from these dishes, nervous just like they are (S interrupts to tell me she is not nervous at all, but I have H’s full attention) for the first day of school, feeling just like they do that this year, this year, will be the great one, the one where we are victorious, or popular, or simply the best at something. 
 

S finishes her tea (English breakfast with soy milk, this morning) and heads upstairs to finish getting ready, calling a “Thank you Mama” back to me as she goes. H looks at me with big eyes.
 
“You know exactly what it’s like,” she says. “I do want to be the best at something. And I think I am really going to be popular this year. Really.” I nodded, hoping to appear wise. “I think you can do it. I think this is your year,” I say. She thanks me for breakfast, too, and hugs me; she smells of Ivory soap. In a moment I hear her size 10 Vans half-stomp up the stairs after her sister.
 
I’m left sitting at the kitchen table alone with the First Day of School Dishes, remnants of omelet, discarded tea bags, toast crusts. And I want to tell my daughters so many more things. I want to tell S to suspend her cynicism if she can, try not to be in such a hurry to just-get-through this last year of school and take some time to feel the music that is inherent in every day, instead of rushing past it, pushing her way through to get to the other side. I want to tell H that I felt just like she does every school year of my life except the first, before I knew any better. And that it was never really my year, and it may never be hers, but that there are graces in every day and they can be enough.  But S wouldn’t be able to hear me through the rush and noise of seventeen-year-old blood rising and buzzing in her ears. It says, “Got to get out. Got to go do. Got to go be.” It’s louder than I can ever be. And the things I would tell H might make her more content to be who she is, if she could take them to heart, but it would cost her the dreams she carries with her, the hope in her heart, and even knowing it is likely that she will be continually hurt, that hope, as they say, is a thing with wings, and I don’t have the right to take that away.
 
I thought of telling all this to the First Day of School Dishes, so innocent in their strange, luminous, soft Paris-blue way. But they’ve been there for the long haul, and I suspect – no, I’m certain – that they already know. I washed them carefully, dried and put them back in their place where they will sit for another year, and wonder if they know, as I do, that it is likely only one set of them will see the kitchen table and the early morning sunlight come next fall, and several falls after, until my babies set the table with them for their babies, as my mother did for me.

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