Nonfiction | December 01, 1998
Out of the Garden
This essay was a winner of the 1997 Editors’ Prize.
My grandmother crouches in the garden, dress flecked with mud and grass stains, pulling weeds and telling stories. I am seven and frightened; I can’t always decipher her accent and my father has disappeared. “Tomates,” she says, and she means “tomatoes.” She looks up toward the house. “Where father go?” she says, meaning “Where did your father go?” I am alone with her. “What?” I am always asking, “What?”
Suddenly she is talking of soldiers, waves of armies. “Farm in Europe,” she says, meaning Eastern Europe, Lithuania, her uncle’s farm. “Prussians then Russians,” she says, “stomp through fields, take food, take animals, take garden.” I picture men in green fatigues marching over hills—scenes from the World War II movies my stepfather watches on TV. “Then must make bread,” my grandmother says, “put in jar.”
She is on her knees now in the straw-covered row between the tomato plants, intent on her weeding. The plants rise up to my waist. I snap a small shoot, lift it to my nose, and smell. Pungent, like the tomatoes picked fresh from her garden, but with bitter undertones. I drop the shoot so she won’t see that I’ve broken a plant, and raise my fingers to my nose to catch the lingering fragrance.
“In night,” my grandmother says, “run through fields to forest, bury jar in bushes.” I picture the forest. It is dark, primeval, like the forests in the illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales my mother reads to me at night. “Then cook in dark,” she says. She stands up and wipes her hands on her apron. She wears a dress, always a dress, small floral print this time, tiny pink flowers against a cream background. “Hard to cook in dark,” she says, “but soldiers don’t see smoke.” I move closer to her, the way I edge over to my mother when she is reading, when Puss in Boots almost gets caught, when the giant spies Jack’s beanstalk. My grandmother looks at me hard. She lifts her glasses, closes her eyes, pinches and rubs the bridge of her nose. We are nearly eye-to-eye, for she is stooped from years of gardening, and even at full height she is barely five feet tall. She sighs. “But you are an American,” she says, “you don’t understand.” Her words stun me. Silently, she returns to her weeding.
But I do understand, I think, following along so closely when she tells me stories, imagining myself there in the woods, hiding from soldiers. And because of her stories, I frown every time we drive past the intersection where men from Eastern Europe have parked a flatbed truck full of mock gravestones, one etched with the name “Lithuania.” But now I stand accused of being an outsider to all that pain. And I had thought that she was the stranger. People who know—my father, my mother, my other grandmother—call her an immigrant, alien, even peasant. Although they speak in praise of her hard work, stamina, and all that she has endured, it’s clear that my grandmother is the one who doesn’t belong.
I’m confused. In my first grade classroom I rise each morning to say “The Pledge of Allegiance” and sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with my classmates. Each spring, I go to the Memorial Day parade and watch marching bands, row after row of battered veterans from World War II, all the while anticipating the baton twirlers and the chance to buy a bright balloon, happy for shorts and the arrival of spring. One minute, being an American means being part of a crowd. The next, it means being a stranger, cut off from my grandmother’s stories, thrown out of the garden.
Dusk now, and we move inside. My father and grandfather sit at the round kitchen table, the silver rim, the gray and white Formica are scrubbed clean with homemade soap. My grandfather nods, rises silently, and leaves the room. My grandmother makes tea, pours me some milk, and then we sit in awkward silence with my father. “Tell her how we came to America,” my father says. Either he hates the silence or knows I like the stories.
My grandmother’s hands lie quiet on the table. She looks past me, but she tells it again, the story I have heard in bits and pieces. In it, my grandmother is the young woman in the picture over her couch, dark hair pulled back, mouth pressed in a firm, grim line, holding two frightened children one cold January in 1930, first crossing borders in a train, then descending into a lower berth of the S.S. George Washington. Storms brew on the Atlantic, and she heads into the future dizzy, sick, and tied to the bed in that rocking ship. She farms out the daughter to other emigrants and ties her son to the next bed. My father crosses the Atlantic bound and abandoned, seeing his mother but unable to reach her. As for my grandmother, any thoughts she has—when she’s not too sick to think—would light upon the husband waiting across the Atlantic, a man she hasn’t seen for three years. The ocean rises and falls, the boat pitches, she spins and spins; this is the only passage her husband can afford after three years in a New England rivet factory. She is still Elena Sophia Bartoska Bartkeciene—a name that bespeaks her past—lying between lives in the hold of the ship. She tosses and turns in that wretched cocoon, about to emerge on the far shore as Helen Bartkevicius—a name that means nothing, a mere replica of her husband’s. She is so shaken by the waves and the stench that, poised between a small familiar village in Lithuania and a small industrial city in Connecticut, her only desire is death.
But the ocean liner docks at last. Dry land calms her stomach, restores her practical mind. When my grandfather brings her to Railroad Avenue in Milford, Connecticut, a neighborhood where other women speak Lithuanian and Polish, she quickly learns the ways of her new soil: how much lime to sprinkle from her stocking to keep insects off young plants, how newspaper can substitute for straw in garden rows, what mushrooms grow down behind the railroad tracks near the stream that runs through the woods. Soon, she can go out into a field and come back with dinner. She picks through poisonous mushrooms and fills her apron with edible varieties. She grows potatoes for pancakes. She grows horseradish to grate and mix with vinegar, and serves it with pan-fried eels bargained for at the dock. She scoops seeds out of fresh tomatoes, boils the pulp into juice, and carefully dries the seeds on the windowsill for next year’s garden.
She makes soap from fat, pan drippings, and lye. She feeds her family all year on a backyard garden, a few chickens scratching between rows of vegetables, a couple of trips to the small market and docks.
For years she carries on just so. And then World War II breaks out. While the neighbor women do laundry in wringer washers and stir up Betty Crocker cake mix, my grandmother cans bread and runs out into the night to bury it beneath the trees.
We move to her scratchy gray living room couch, and I open the photo album. Faded, gap-toothed people stand before unpainted weather-worn buildings, hungry-looking hounds beside them. An old woman poses with her arm around a gravestone. A handsome young man sits rigidly in a military uniform. “Petras, brother,” my grandmother says, noticing my interest in the picture. “Die in war.” I ask her to tell me the story, but she tells another: “We sleep in field,” she says, “by horses, legs tied, hobbled. They walk, we wake, bring back.” Her clipped words and sentences never change. I forget that in the garden she called me an American who would not understand.She becomes the stranger, and I sit at the kitchen table saying, “What? What?”
In the deepening dusk, in the forest, my father drives too fast down narrow Transylvania Road, winding along the edge of a cliff. It is summer, 1967, and my father is going back to the land and taking me with him.
For an hour, we followed a river the color of his Marine fatigues, heading north out of industrial southern Connecticut. The river’s wretched smell permeated the closed-up car. “Tire factories,” my father said. I looked outside and saw a thick, oily layer of green along the river, smokestacks in the distance. Soon we left the highway and followed a narrow, winding road west, away from the river, away from the smell. Factories and strip malls tapered off, and we raced past farmhouses and open fields. Now, I look down on treetops as he speeds toward some farm up for sale, talking about living far away from the factory, about putting money to work. At the bottom of a long hill surrounded by tall grass and bushes, he slows down. “The pond must be in there,” he says, consulting a hand-drawn map. At the hairpin curve he realizes we’ve passed the overgrown driveway and backs up fast, transmission whining. He turns in; plants and rocks scrape the floorboards.
We wade through waist-high grass between a bramble of berries and a crumbling stone foundation. “The house burned down,” he says. We walk between a dull brown barn and sheds barely visible in the fading light. Bats and swallows swoop in and out of a gaping hole in the top of the barn. I reach for my father’s hand. It’s spring and crickets chirp, much louder than in Milford. A higher chorusing joins them as we walk, a sound I don’t recognize, for the frogs that must once have inhabited the marsh behind my mother’s house have been gone for as long as I can remember. My father lets go of my hand to open the barn door. He struggles against the rusty horseshoe-and-wheel contraption until the door slides open. Musty damp smell, the sweet redolence of decay. He steps tentatively into complete darkness, then immediately withdraws. I hear a noise down the hill near where the pond should be: something walking, parting grass. My father walks toward it, hushing me. The remaining sunlight fades to nothing. He holds a flashlight but won’t turn it on.
I take his hand again. Tall grass clings to my pants, scratches my naked arms. Stars become visible in a sky I’ve never seen before. At home, lights come on at dusk—streetlights, house lights, headlights, factory lights, landing lights on low planes descending to the airport across the marsh. But here, in the deep dark of the country, as we walk down the hill toward the pond, I can’t see my father even though our hands are touching. I can’t tell if my eyes are open or shut.
My father buys that hundred-acre farm and lives there for the rest of my childhood, in a small log cabin built from native hand-hewn logs. He trades in his gold Mustang for a sky blue Chevy pickup and makes a red and white label for the dashboard: Transylvania Farm. “‘Transylvania’ means ‘through the forest,'” he tells me, “‘trans’ is through, ‘sylvania’ is like ‘sylvan’—forest.” But to me, Transylvania means Bella Lugosi, blood-sucking bats, the dark mysteries of Eastern Europe.
At the farm, my father becomes the Marlboro cowboy with an Eastern European twist; he follows a ’60s hippie impulse with the flourish of an ex-Marine. He buys cowboy hats and boots for both of us at Dan’s Western Supply Company. He scares off copperheads to draw water from a stone well, and when I ask for the bathroom—until he gets the electricity connected and the water pump going—he points to the old oak behind the cabin. He buys a miniature John Deere tractor with a sickle bar and cuts wild grass around the barns and cabin. He buys two hard-mouthed, half-wild, former rental horses from a Connecticut cowboy with a Western drawl. He buys a machete, and I walk behind him picking up the young trees, weeds, tall grass, and bushes he hacks down to clear trails to the pond and through his woods. He buys lumber for split-rail fences and spends a weekend wearing dirty Marine pants and a sweat-drenched undershirt, slamming the posthole digger into the earth. Over and over, around the barns, down the hill to the stone wall at the pond. He measures carefully, then digs, measures then digs, before setting pine posts into the holes. I help him guide the long rails into post notches. At the end of each day, our blistered hands smell of pine.
He gets a cattle farmer with a real tractor to cut and bale hay and takes a quarter of the yield. Prickly hay pierces my skin, and sweat stings the tiny punctures as we stack forty-pound bales into the back of the truck. I ride on top, higher than the pickup’s cab, swaying over uneven ground as my father drives to the barn. Afterwards, we jump into a river a few miles down the road, climb the banks to soap ourselves, and jump back in again. We pick blackberries for breakfast and eat them on the cabin’s back porch, horses sniffing us through the screen. I run around barefooted with country neighbors who teach me to climb a rope swing and tell ghost stories in their dark shed. I learn to ride horses and to race them. We don’t hobble the horses or sleep in the fields beside them, but we do tend them, filling buckets with grain, using long, slender pneumatic pumps to coat their bodies with insecticide. Horseflies subside, but botflies fat as hummingbirds persist, laying yellow eggs in the horses’ fetlocks. I swat the flies and comb and pick at the tiny eggs. From the tall roan’s back, I nearly swat a hummingbird as we ride through high lilies. My father shoots woodchucks to keep the horses from stepping in their holes. To protect the hay from droppings, he teaches me to shoot bats with a BB gun. I learn to love animals and to kill them. I learn to love the wild woods and to hack it down.
My grandparents’ house becomes increasingly remote. Our time is filled with long drives out of Milford, the work the farm demands, and rural adventures (riding horses through the woods, searching for fossils, scouting out animals, like the muskrat swimming beneath the ice of the frozen pond, the woodchuck in the oak tree, the bobcat in the field). But when we make time for a visit, I watch my grandmother read through a stack of tissuey letters with foreign stamps, incomprehensible words. I’m mystified by the newspapers and conversations in that strange other language that my father knows too—though he responds in English. I ask for lessons and they teach me a greeting: what sounds like “Kapetowanis” How are you. And the appropriate answer, something like “Garrday”—Fine. Everything is fine, and they keep the rest to themselves.
Though I don’t know the language, I practice the accent, and when my mother overhears the imitation, she urges me to perform for her. “No,” I say shyly. “Come on,” she says. And so I parody my grandmother’s accent and her work ethic too, the way she objects to my small frame (a legacy of my mother’s family). “Too teen,” I say, instead of “too thin.” When my mother laughs, I’m inspired to exaggerate her praise for my bulkier cousins: “Beek, strrronk like bool. Vwerrrk many hours in fielt.”
Though they seldom turn to such mocking, even my grandmother’s own children, intent on being Americans, shun her ways. They wear store-bought clothes with a vengeance, and refuse to plant gardens, cook potato pancakes, make homemade kielbasa, or bake cookies without sugar. They eat steak and potatoes with salad. “Ma!” they say, and roll their eyes because she’s once again saved every scrap of fat trimmings for her homemade soap. They urge her to get a private phone instead of a party line, to get a hot water heater, to buy prepared food at the supermarket, to live an easier life.
Three names on a plaque near my grandparents’ doorbell: Bartkevicius, Bartkewicz, Barker. “Barker is for convenience,” my father says. “Use it to make reservations, drop off your film, talk to people you don’t really know.” Bartkewicz is harder to explain. With a serious expression he tells me a story I can’t really follow, all borders, politics, betrayals, and allegiances. I ask him to teach me Lithuanian—he went to kindergarten with a neighbor’s note pinned to his shirt: I do not speak English. But now, while he can understand his parents, he has lost his tongue for it. “Kapetowanis,” he says. “Garrday.” I beg for more, and he teaches me a little Polish rhyme about a boy who tells his mother about droppings in a chicken coop.
At school, kids tell Polack jokes, and my Polish schoolmates blush silently. I force a smile and worry. I know that Poland borders Lithuania, that of the three names under my grandparents’ doorbell, one is Polish. But no one from school goes to my grandparents’ house. And I take comfort in my schoolmates’ ignorance of geography. “What kind of name is that?” they ask occasionally. “Lithuanian,” I answer, and watch them shrug.
All that summer, the Summer of Love, I move between two places: my mother’s house in Milford (and the nightclub she helps my stepfather run) and the woods of Transylvania, a place lit by stars, moon, and fireplace or not lit at all, a magical darkness once frightening but now increasingly familiar. At Transylvania Farm, I leave behind what seems to me the essence of Milford: poisoned beaches, factory smoke, trucks, cars, trains, planes. I revel in the difference, playing Joni Mitchell and Neil Young albums, all about getting ourselves back to the garden and country girls. I wear patched jeans and ride into the forest on horseback or race the paint horse through the pasture at night.
On long walks through the woods, my father and I try to name what we see. Silver and white birch. Pine. Frogs and toads. Deer in the woods and fields. Raspberry bushes along the old foundation. Horse chestnuts, inedible. Apples, full of worms. Blackberries, thick and tart, on thorny bushes along the edge of the field. Field mouse in the grain bucket. Copperhead in the well. Black snake sunning itself on the stone wall. Chipmunk disappearing into loose piles of fieldstone. Woodchuck in the field, bat in the barn, both doomed to be shot. Barn swallows sweeping the evening sky.
The next autumn, my grandfather dies in the hospital elevator on the way to have his chest pains examined. I am in a church play that day, and I sense my father’s uneasiness, but he waits until the play ends to tell me what’s wrong. The funeral is stiff and awkward, everyone sitting quietly in black. Afterwards, I follow my grandmother out to her garden. I want something, but don’t know what it is. When she moves around to the side of the house to trim the bushes and trees, I thrust myself into a spectacular yellow rosebush. My eyes fill with yellow and I can almost feel the flowers’ roundness. She coaxes me out, and I let her soak the infected foot I’ve refused to let anyone else touch. I watch quietly as she mixes powders and herbs in a bucket. She rolls a thick needle over the infected bulb of pus, then pierces and drains it. She hands me a little silver piece, a New York subway token from years past. I don’t ask what place it holds in her memory, but accept it as some kind of promise, a gift whose value I will someday understand.
When the sun sets we sit on her front porch, gently rocking together in her green metal glider, watching the cars race by and the street lamps light up, listening to ambulances rush past.
In Milford, I stare out the window of my mother’s car and dream that underneath beer cans and broken bottles lies a clean white beach, that underneath concrete, asphalt, and block buildings is a vast farm with fragrant black soil. “What do you do at the farm on a Saturday night,” my mother and stepfather tease, “throw rocks in the river?” I laugh, but their comment stings. I know how they love their nightclub, how they believe that “civilization”—lights, cocktails, and music—means excitement, while “wilderness” means animals and boredom. The closest they get to nature is driving the Buick to the coal dock on the Housatonic River and parking between the tall cement towers that elevate Interstate 95 and the railroad tracks. Together, we sit on the hood watching power boats and barges. Or we go clamming and stand waist deep in salt water where the sun sets behind POISON signs posted along the shore. When they tease me about the farm, I feel a torn loyalty to my father’s place. I miss high school dances and parties when I go to the farm. I miss Saturday nights dressing up to work at the nightclub—live jazz, jokes, dancing, dazzling lights, money to make and people to watch.
Saturday night at Transylvania Farm we read and sit by the fire. In the morning, we ride the horses for miles. We ride into town for ice cream, and on the way back take the horses swimming in the river.
Just after Woodstock, even my father’s small town crackles with excitement. The oldest neighbor kids have gone to Woodstock and returned with long hair, leather pouches of pot, and stories the rest of us hang on. Even my father is intrigued, and he considers a proposal from local concert producers to run a similar event on his farm. The small town doesn’t want to be a second Woodstock, and it suits my rebellious streak to see our name in the local newspaper.
My father revels in the stir. He plans out the concert; he wants to use a local motorcycle gang as bouncers. We talk it over on horseback, returning from the river. About three miles from the farm, we cross a neighbor’s land. The owner comes out, pretends to admire the horses, and gets right to the gossip. “Listen Mr. Barker,” he says. “have you heard about that Polack down the road who wants to run a rock concert?” (These more distant neighbors have never heard our real last name.) My father pauses—for effect, perhaps, or to wrestle with his conscience. “I’m that Polack down the road,” he says, turns his appaloosa, and rides away. I smile, half meek, half bold, and turn the roan and follow: Hopalong Bartkevicius and his little sidekick riding off into the sunset.
When our concert doesn’t come off—too much opposition, expensive insurance—we distract ourselves by finally planting a garden. My father digs up hard soil with a long spade, and I dig compost from the bottom of the horse manure pile. We plant carrots, onions, and tomatoes. When the tiny green plants appear between rows of hay, instead of spraying insecticide, we shake lime from a stocking as my grandmother does. I carry my organic carrots to school and crunch them theatrically in the lunchroom while the cheerleaders eat tuna sandwiches and make comments about “that girl with the carrots.” When it’s cold I wear a fringed leather Western jacket. When it’s milder I wear my father’s Marine jacket with a peace sign sewn on. Transylvania Farm becomes the vehicle for my adolescent rebellion against my Republican hometown. I tell stories of my father and his log cabin, of our brush with rock-concert celebrity. We could have been the second Yasgur’s farm.
In my back-to-the-land fervor, I ask my reticent, elegant mother if she breast-fed my half-sister and me. She gasps and looks offended. “That’s for animals,” she says. Stung, I retreat with the sketchbook I’ve kept since childhood, and look over old portraits of my mother, sketches of cartoon characters, and a series of drawings of the yard. A birch tree sketch brings to mind a similarly disappointing exchange with my mother. Halfway done with the drawing, I’d noticed wires running from the utility pole through the tree and to our house. I asked her if she would draw the wires. “Of course I would,” she’d answered, “they’re there.” Suddenly my decision was clear: I would not draw them. “You’re a Romantic,” she’d said, as if it were something bad.
In Milford Center, in the fall of 1973, I’m hanging out downtown with my best friend, Joan, talking about high school graduation, wearing faded, patched dungarees and army jackets. In school we’ve just chosen slogans for our yearbook pictures. Mine is from Easy Rider:“Like a true nature’s child, we were born to be wild.” Stripped of the raucous music and vision of motorcycles racing down the street, it loses much of its appeal; roaring rebellion is reduced to a sentimental rhymed couplet. But I haven’t been able to think of anything else. I like the incongruity—flower child with the flourish of a biker gang member—which I don’t recognize as a legacy of my father. I like how it will irritate the cheerleaders I’m so bent on opposing.
Suddenly, just ahead, my grandmother appears—the first time I’ve seen her away from her house or yard. She is tiny, frail, formal, and foreign, a little old woman in a dull cloth overcoat and kerchief tied babushka style. “Grandma,” I say. She stops, turns, and looks up at me. Jeans and tie-dye dresses hang in the shop windows behind her. Cars race by. Joan chuckles softly. My grandmother and I stare at each other as if we were strangers, and trade forgettable pleasantries.
As she walks toward home, and Joan and I head the other way, I turn and look at her over my shoulder. She has a short stride, a slight waddle. I watch her disappear. “That was your grandmother?” Joan asks.
In all the years my father owns the farm, my grandmother never comes to visit. She likes home and the circle around it: the market, a friend’s house, church. She never learns to drive. Nor do I ever see her in a car, although I know she gets rides from the Polish neighbor who, like her, prays daily at St. Mary’s Catholic Church several miles away. Long after her neighborhood has turned commercial, she maintains the house she and her husband bought a few years after her arrival. While long-time neighbors sell to doctors—Milford Hospital is just a block away—my grandmother hangs on to home and walks to the Grand Union, to Cumberland Farms, to the post office, to Grants Department Store. As office buildings rise up around it, her small brown house looks like a relic of the 1930s, increasingly frail and diminished.
Before I leave for college, my father and I sit in her spotless kitchen, and I look down at the burnt orange linoleum floor everyone says you could eat from. She serves her specialty: thick, nearly sugarless cookies, something between sweet biscuit and dry cookie. She busies herself making tea, moving from the table to the old-fashioned, deep white sink, to refrigerator, to stove. “Tell me about Lithuania,” I say. She repeats the familiar stories: sleeping beside the hobbled horses; putting bread in jars, crossing the Atlantic. But she is in a good mood, mischievous. She rummages through her pantry, finds a Mason jar she’s saved since World War II and sets it on the kitchen table. I look at the bread inside—not the thick, homemade bread I’ve imagined, but thin slices of store-bought bread, Wonder Bread, perhaps. “Yes,” she says, “I make when war start, like in Europe. I think same. Neighbors laugh. I stop.” She laughs and turns the jar. The bread is pure and white, not a trace of mold.
After a silence, she says, “Story about father.” He glances up from his newspaper. “Second baby,” she says, nodding her chin at him. “Cry, never stop. Old woman with a stick walk from village to village, my baby cry and cry, my husband work in America to send money and she walk and walk many days to farm. Old woman says, ‘you miss husband.'” Hwahsbund, my grandmother pronounces it. She pauses and looks at her hands. “Old woman says, ‘Miss husband, sadness goes into milk. Baby feeds at breast, sadness goes into him. Do not feed from breast when miss husband.'” My father blushes and leaves the room.
She shakes her head. “Another one,” she says, and speaks of a distant moment held in memory: A young Prussian soldier rides his horse up to her gate. “I am thirsty,” he says, in her language. Young, unmarried, alone that day near the house, she dips into the well to get him a drink. Even though he might come back in the night to pillage and kill, she brings him a pitcher of water. She stands at the gate as he drinks, mounts his horse, and rides away.
More memories rise up; I can tell from her hands, moving slightly on the table. Her eyes shift, she lifts her glasses, strokes the bridge of her nose. The stories lie behind there, just beyond reach. When I ask, she waves her hand, waves me out of her past. Her hands, spotted and old, strong and callused, have ceased tending the garden out back, ceased canning anything, making kielbasa or other fresh foods. The cookies are the last of the old ways, and soon they will stop, too. In years to come, when my grandmother starts to speak of dying and my father and I remind her that her own mother lived to be 104, she shakes her head. “That was Europe,” she says, “Difference, all difference.”
And her illnesses come on like a prophesy.
In a prefab log cabin, in the winter of 1990, I sit across from my grandmother in the mild terror that has gripped me since childhood whenever I’m left alone with her. It has always been the same: my father and I arrive for a visit; he leaves the room; I am alone with her accent and small voice, afraid the words will die between us.
“Did he brinck machine?” she asks.
“What?” I say.
She has moved, and we sit in her special day room at the side of my cousin Donna’s new house. Donna is abundance, a big woman, a Madonna in the making, pregnant with her third child, in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies. With the wide bones and round face of my grandmother’s early pictures, my cousin looks Lithuanian. My grandmother sits upright on the scratchy gray couch that stung my legs when I was a little girl. Beside it, in the old house, was a polished cherry end table with a green glass ashtray rimmed in silver. But now no one smokes anymore, not in houses, anyway, and there is nothing beside the couch.
Above her hangs a wedding portrait: she and her new husband sitting for a photographer in Lithuania. Stern-faced, they do not touch. The photographer has added peach to cheeks and blue to eyes. My grandparents look bright and ruddy against the steel-gray background that obliterates all sense of place. But even in art they are not happy. And in the photographs in her album, bound by black-cornered triangles to thick, yellowing pages, they are still not happy. In the portrait, as in the snapshots, my grandmother stands upright, stiff, to her full five feet. She is young, has not yet left her home-grown foods, has not rocked and pitched her way across the Atlantic, has not tasted pesticides and herbicides, has not eaten white bread. Now, at ninety-three, when she pushes herself up from the couch, her spine, though still straight, tilts forward fast. Her torso and head fall, and her chest is parallel to the floor unless she catches onto something. She sits back on the couch. Her legs do not reach the floor.
“Did he brinck machine?” she asks again.
“The machine?” I ask. I can decipher more sentences than I could as a child, but now she asks unanswerable questions.
“Father say he get machine so I walk again by myself,” she says. I try to imagine what she could mean.
“He did?” I ask.
“Yes, for Christmas.” She rolls the r softly. She blushes.
“I don’t know,” I say, “Let’s ask him when he comes in.” It doesn’t sound like she means a walker or even a wheelchair, but I’m afraid to ask, and she’s afraid to ask him. I wonder if she is afraid of him or of disappointment. Is there some part of her that no longer trusts her own memory? She sits up straight, back propped against the chair. Her glasses are thick; I can’t read her eyes, or see them, even. I remember, or imagine, them as blue.
She holds out a Whitman’s Sampler because this is America and because, anyway, she can no longer stand up in the kitchen to make her confections. “And you,” she says. I think the words are part of the offer, but even after I take one and bite into the dark chocolate, she continues. “And you, you want my bread.”
“Yes,” she says, “you need for stories.”
I figure she means the bread from World War II, that one jar she’s saved. I don’t know if it’s an offer or an accusation. But my father comes back in, and we can work on the machine. “Grandma wants to know if you’ve brought a machine to help her walk,” I say. The words are ridiculous once he’s in the room. Of course there is no machine. So I pass the blame over to her, make it something between the two of them. “She said you’d promised to bring something.”
“No Ma, you dreamed it,” he says. “There’s no such machine.” With her severe osteoporosis, she wants to become a cyborg, a woman with a brand-new back. It should be possible here, in the industrial belt of the Northeast. My father works at the aircraft plant, building engines for military planes. Why should a small portion of a back be any more complicated? But my father settles into his usual strategy with her. Where I evade, he refuses. There is no such thing; you imagined, you dreamed, I’ve heard him say, crushing her belief, whether in magic (Lithuania) or technology (America). She has a look of disappointed diffidence. Glancing down, child-like, she laughs. “Oh,” she says, “dream,” with her nicely rolled r.
It’s not magic she wants, just what was once hers: straight posture, a smooth walk. “I can get you a walker, Ma,” he says. “Walker?” she looks hopeful. “You know,” he says, “a metal stand you hold yourself up with.” She shakes her head. “No, no, no,” she says, “for old people.”
By the time my grandmother dies, my father has sold Transylvania Farm. High tension wires were slated to run through it. And anyway, it was the season—as The Byrds sang, turn turn turn—the end of the ’70s, the beginning of the ’80s, the end of the garden, the beginning of investment property and zero-lot lines. The horses are gone, our garden dies out, and the cabin stands empty. The barns begin to fall apart, and the grass grows tall again. In Milford, my grandmother’s house is gutted by a doctor who builds an office and turns her long back yard into an asphalt parking lot. The downtown council considers turning the town green into a parking lot, too. And at the beach nearby, houses are torn down to erect condominium complexes, and POISON signs line the shore.
Just before my grandmother died, when I asked to see her photo album again, she couldn’t find it. Though my cousin says she has never seen it, some of the old photos hang on her walls, valued, it seems, for their sepia color; valued like the Americana she buys at antique stores—old signs, baskets, photographs of people she’s never met—things my grandmother called “junks” and spent a lifetime getting rid of. For a while, I imagine that because what I’ve wanted from my grandmother is stories, my notion of value is somehow superior. But I catch myself romanticizing. In an effort to move closer to the Catholicism that was so much a part of my grandmother’s everyday life (but that I was not raised in), I buy a rosary in an antique shop on the premise that it belonged to somebody’sgrandmother. I buy a guidebook on Lithuania, which claims that of all Europeans, Lithuanians held on most tenaciously to a “pagan past,” a magical notion of place. It tells the story of Vilnius, a capital founded and named for a dream of a wolf. When I buy the book, I have recently dreamed of a wolf myself, and I imagine it is a prophesy—a magical connection with a land I have never seen.
Over her lifetime, in addition to her stories, my grandmother gave me a plastic biscuit cutter, an old New York subway token, two chiffon scarves, and, in a gesture I never completely understood, when I married, some of her clothes—skirts and sweaters that, given the difference in our sizes, could only have been symbolic of some sad divestment. The meaning of these gifts, like the meaning of her stories, lies somewhere just out of reach.
In the Midwest, in the fall of 1982, I learn to backpack and canoe, portage and hike, sleep under the open sky. In the forest, on a remote and narrow trail, I realize that I am a stranger in this world. To compensate, I carry small guidebooks in my increasingly heavy pack: guides to North American trees, wildflowers, mushrooms, animal tracks, birds, mammals, weather, the night sky.
A few years later, on Isle Royale, an “international biosphere” and wilderness area, I sit on a boulder sketching a wildflower from a guidebook. The day before, in a storm, I crossed Lake Superior by ferry, and while the other hikers huddled in the cabin’s warmth, I stood alone on the deck in the rain, leaning over the rail to be sick. As the waves rocked the small boat, I became increasingly dizzy and disoriented, and leaned over the side until the spray of the waves hit my face. Rain poured down on my body. I thought of my grandmother on her passage across the Atlantic, and knew for the first time what it means to be so nauseated that you begin to dream of death.
Dry land calmed my stomach, and now ten miles into the island, I am alone. My friends and I hike separately, at our own paces, meeting each evening at designated sites to set up tents and cook. For miles I walk alone, stopping frequently to observe and sketch. I page through my guidebooks and struggle to identify the unfamiliar trees, mushrooms, flowers, and birds. I finish sketching an eastern columbine, pluck a small sample to put between the pages where it appears in the guidebook, put everything in my pack, turn to go, and wonder which direction I’ve been headed. Even with a compass and a stack of books I am lost in this world.
I hear loons chorusing on an interior lake. At a turn in the trail, I surprise a fox, who immediately jumps into the air like a cat, tries to stare me down, then turns to run. A pair of pileated woodpeckers lands on the tree above me (I recognize them by their call, like Woody Woodpecker’s laugh). At dusk, I step out of the tent and walk into the path of a circling bat whose wings lightly brush my ear. Moose stomp around our campsite but run off when they see our shadowy shapes. In the middle of the night we hear a howling that could be loon or wolf. Gray wolves are present, but remain hidden. In the morning, a snowshoe hare darts out before me on the path. I hike past berry bushes that resemble the blackberries on my father’s farm. I am weary of the dried fruit I carry, but even with my books, I can’t identify the berries with certainty. And so I pass them by. I kneel before a bright orange mushroom, but don’t dare even to touch it.
After a week of hiking, we return to the edge of Lake Superior, near the ferry pickup. That night, a ranger leads us to the edge of a clearing, and we stare into the darkening forest at a woodcock. The bird flies straight into the sky and flutters back down in swooping circles, emitting a haunting call. The ranger talks softly as we wait for the woodcock’s next flight. “If you ever get lost in the wilderness,” he says, “remember that nearly every part of the pine tree is edible.” The woodcock flies again, and the ranger is silent. But after a while, he begins pointing out stars and constellations, rattling off Latin names I find vaguely familiar. After another flight of the woodcock, the ranger starts in with new stories and names, drawing lines between different stars, attributing this new cosmology to several Indian tribes. I confess that Orion is the only constellation I can recognize, having seen it on a grade school trip to a planetarium. “Why don’t you make up your own?” he says. “Why accept the sky of the ancient Greeks or Romans or even American Indians? Draw your own lines,” he says. “Make up your own stories.”
Later that night, in my sleeping bag, I think of my grandmother. I envy her ease in the forest. Yet I must remember how that ease came from violence; being tied to the land meant being forced out of your house, beaten back into the forest, desperate for survival. I look up at the night sky. There are no lights for hundreds of miles, and the sky is darker and filled with even more stars than at Transylvania Farm. I locate Orion. But the rest of the sky is an unknown sprinkling of planets and stars. I am lost in it. I can study scientific guidebooks or even stories of the night sky handed down by one or more cultures. Or I can invent a fictional cosmology of my own. But the fact remains: I can negotiate a grocery store, but not a forest.
In the morning, we make breakfast on a portable Coleman stove. We light fuel with a lighter, boil water, and mix in instant oatmeal with raisins. Though we’ve dipped into the lake for water, we have carried in packaged food. As I eat from a metal bowl, I feel a tug on the back of my shirt. I turn, expecting to see one of my friends. Instead, a red squirrel stands on the rock I am leaning against, begging for scraps. In the island’s interior, where few hikers venture, wildlife fled when they heard us coming, but here along the shore, closer to civilization, even the animals aren’t quite wild. Like the red fox that stood in the near distance as we cooked the night before, this squirrel would rather share our processed food than scavenge on his own.
I stand up, turn my back to the lake, and look out into the forest. I am hungry, but I don’t know what I hunger for. Before me is a forest floor with medallions of mushrooms, but I don’t know which ones I can eat.
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