Some men find their strength early. My grandfather flowered so far into winter that his bud barely opened till it was nipped. But there were reasons. For one, he never gave a hoot for his immortal soul. If he had, he'd never have married that fourth wife, Jessica Loft. Right there's a woman who could drag a saint straight to Hell. It was a power he gave her. I wouldn't know how. The fact is, she had it and he fueled her right up to the day he dropped over dead, at the front of the Larksburg, Inc. Golden Centennial Jubilee Parade.
Knowing now about the birdbath, I'd say his trouble was due to an artistic constitution. Not that it, by itself, was fatal, because my grandfather happened to be well into his nineties and you'd have to allow he was pretty well spent, even if he did manage to strut, double time, nearly a quarter of a mile before he gave up and expired.
We didn't generally count him except at reunions. I don't recall he was ever left out of a group photograph though, and in all fairness, my grandpa's lot in this world wasn't an easy one. Women gave him a bad time. Even now, his daughter, my mother, isn't what you'd call a straightforward person.
Not many could snap back from grief as fast as Grandpa Rex. He buried two wives by his fortieth birthday, then turned peculiar, marrying a traveling missionary, who first nailed his shoes to the kitchen floor and later got the call to convert the heathen in Venezuela, leaving him with a dirty refrigerator and a lifetime subscription to Ministry at a Glance.
About that time, Grandpa got himself a Deluxe Paint-by-Number at the local hardware that turned out to be a big auburn stallion galloping up a multi-colored mountainside. When he finished the fifth shade of blue in the sky section, we were convinced he had a knack. Near the middle of his third Paint-by-Number, a big-as-life red and black fighting cock, he got Jessica. I'm not sure where. Probably the next county. Grandpa had his own property that could have passed for a fort. The two of them might have holed up in there forever. No, not them. They marched up and down Eighth Street, Grandpa two steps ahead of Jessica, making faces so people would stare. He thought she was solid gold. She glided along behind in open-heeled plastic shoes with her chest practically out in plain sight. If the men on the corner so much as snickered, she'd level her gilded eyes, toss her carrot hair and spit in their direction. She had good aim. It's the only skill I ever saw her display.
Last April when the Mayor's Committee asked Grandpa, as the oldest citizen of Larksburg, to be Grand Marshall at the opening ceremonies of the Golden Centennial, anyone with an ounce of sense would have known they meant him to ride in a sidecar, and even before the day of the parade, his being selected caused a big to-do at the Chamber of Commerce luncheons. But the loudest voice in town against the decision to honor him was from my mother, his only child, who publicly stated she could not abide mashers, even in her own family, and wouldn't give a thought to a reception at the house after the ceremonies until she learned that Bret Lafferty, the television star, had been hired as guest celebrity.
"Go tell your no-good great-grandfather to trot himself over and get this place in order," Mama told my girls the morning she decided to do what had to be done for the sake of the community. That was a good week before the reception and two days after she accused Mayor Trilling of choosing Grandpa because his own father was next in line. The Mayor got embarrassed and offered city funds to Mama for food and his wife for serving.
"Go tell that pervert great-grandfather of yours to wash the paint from beneath his fingernails and high-tail it over here for instructions," she hollered again to my daughters. They turned to me. "Just tell him we could use a man, if he could spare a few hours," I whispered, so Mama wouldn't hear.
Well, the girls returned, finally, with two paper plates of marzipan, a bushel basket of sweet peas and no Grandpa. That was a week before the reception and set a pattern for the next six days.
On this end, Mama rounded up the Ladies Aid to decorate the house and got the Founding Daughters' Garden Club to agree to work on our yard, in spite of the long standing quarrel between us and the president, Eleanor Sparks.
Then again, Mama tried to get Grandpa over, sending off the message that she, herself, didn't judge it any feat of character to happen to live into the nineties, and that if he was up to dealing with Jessica Loft, he was as sure as sin equal to a day's housework, previous to his own party. I altered her thoughts for my daughters by saying we were all proud, no matter what, and wouldn't he please come by the house and show us how he wanted things arranged. That particular afternoon the children came back with a batch of panocha wrapped in colored tissue and Grandpa's collection of miniature piano benches he had formed himself from matchsticks and painted pastry dough. Mama stuck the hobby in the cellar and talked the Boy Scouts into cleaning the garage. In case of rain.
Then finally, the afternoon before the parade, when it became evident that Grandpa wasn't coming to help or arrange or do anything, Mama got worried that he might be strange enough to pass up his own party. So she sent the girls over with two different sterling cake cutters to ask which he liked. Not that she had any intention of letting his preference influence her choice. My daughters came back lugging three hanging art pieces made of different-shaped cat food and sardine tins. That load took two trips. Included was a palette knife for the cake, with a mother-of-pearl handle and a ring of tiny rubies set at the base of the blade. We still can't figure where he picked it up. Mama shoved the metal work in the attic and took the painting knife as a signal he intended to be present.
None of us slept much the night before the parade. Beginning at five in the morning, food and flowers and people started a heavy stream through the house that flowed right up till noon. The parade was called for one o'clock. By twelve-thirty Mama and me and the girls were dressed, in spite of the ice in the sinks and the bathtub, and crepe paper ribbons the Ladies Aid had tied to our closet doors. We had orchid corsages, with sparkle stuck to the petals and feathers and corkscrewed pipe cleaners. There were satin streamers hanging down. Mama's said "Father" on one and "Rexford Hufford" on the other. Both mine and the girls' said "Congratulations" in silver script.
About twelve forty-five when we were set to leave, but had to go back to the garage to show the men from the bowling alley where to set the juke box, in the side gate comes the three of them.
First is Jessica, dressed like a fairy princess with pink gauze wrapped around and around her body and arms and legs, and tucked in, Lord knows where. With a crown of camelias and a foil-covered cardboard wand. And red tapestry bedroom slippers. With a stuffed pillowcase. Orange. Thrown over one shoulder like a knapsack.
Next is George Van Lupe, who it turns out was sent as Assistant Deputy to escort Grandpa to the parade. George has nine children, the last we heard, plus a weakness for impetigo and is generally either rough-complected or covered with gentian violet. This day he is both and wearing an old police uniform that's rolled up a turn at the trousers and sleeves. And a brass sword strapped around his middle, hanging so long that he has to give it a quick lift with a knee before he can take a step forward. Wrapped around his chest, from the waist up over one shoulder, on the bias, is a scarlet sash. And he looks for all the world like last year's potentate.
Finally is Grandpa, decked out in a hair shirt and ragged brown undershorts, with worn sandals and long leather laces wound up to the knees like snakes. Centered on top of his head is a mushroom-shaped fur hat that looks like it might have been Jessica's. He holds a stick for a walking cane in one hand and a big hide pouch in the other. At the time I can't figure who he's supposed to be. His face is one continuous smile and he strides by the other two, puts down the cane and pouch, surveys the preparations and then says to Mama, "Where's the birdbath?" Meaning the one he gave us when I was born.
My girls run to hug him and Jessica. He is tickled and turns again to Mama. "I said, where's the birdbath?" Then he just stands there, grinning, waiting.
"Broken," answers Mama who is speechless except for the one word.
"Get the pieces," commands Grandpa, not raising his voice nor looking her way, but sort of surveying the yard, double-checking on the Garden Club.
George Van Lupe and Jessica are drinking in the place like it is their first reception and I am laughing. I don't know why. Maybe I am nervous from the morning. Maybe I've never seen my daughters hug a man, and I'm happy for them. There's been a shortage of men around our house for as long as I can remember. And especially ever since my husband deserted the strip mines of Ohio for the gold mines of Alaska, leaving me with two baby girls and no forwarding address. Or maybe I'm laughing because I know where the pieces are because I saved them myself, as a child, when Mama said to throw them out and I knew better. I believe it was the first time I ever had the sense to listen to myself.
Then Grandpa notices me and is pleased. I can tell by the way his eyes jump fifty watts in brightness. And he says, "You get the pieces."
So I go to the garage, take a ladder and step up to the rafters where I had put the jagged hunks of pottery, back in a sort of false corner that neither Mama nor my girls' father nor the Boy Scouts could find. And I bring them down to Grandpa, who when I take a closer look, resembles a hermit or maybe even St. Francis.
When I hand over the pieces, Grandpa is excited and says to Mama, "Get the mucilage." Mama's way of shifting her hands lopsided, from one hip to the other, spells out her feelings that you could never hold earthenware with dime store adhesive.
Grandpa sees her message and turns away. "Would you please get the glue?" he asks the children, who are gone into the house and back with it almost before he can remove the styrofoam horseshoe someone has set on top of the birdbath base. My thoughts go back to when I was a young girl and had a father and Grandpa had a wife and the two of us fed the birds daily and changed the water and charted migration by seasons.
Thank you, he bows. My girls make curtsies. Then he calls over George and Jessica. And he squeezes glue all around the edges of two pieces and gets George and Jessica to hold the ragged sides up tight against one another where the crack pattern fits. Next he motions to the fellows from the bowling alley, who are pretending to still be busy and peering out from behind the garage door during Grandpa's arrival. And he circles two more sections with glue and fits the pieces, with the men holding on, in next to Jessica and George. Mama and me are called next. Mama walks stiff, like she is hypnotized and doesn't say a word until Grandpa begins to work her in next to Jessica. "Oh no you don't, no, no . . . never," screams Mama, dropping her section of birdbath and running over by the children. Grandpa just bends down calmly, picks up the piece, applies fresh glue and then fits me in, sort of across from George and one of the bowling alley men. Next he positions one of my girls cater-cornered from Jessica, barely touching me.
Right about this time, Eleanor Sparks, president of Founding Daughters and an enemy of our family, comes yoohooing through the house and on out to the yard with two collapsible chairs under each arm. Grandpa instructs her to set up the chairs and come hold. You can tell Eleanor is wondering what in the world's going on. But she walks over and Grandpa glues up this half-moon-shaped slice and fits her and it around me and one of the bowling alley men.
He calls to my other girl and Mama next, there being three sections left and only three people to hold, counting him. My daughter comes skipping. Mama is lagging behind, her eyes digging toe-holes in the ground. He glues my girl in position, and then himself, and tells Mama, with hardly a chip as her piece, to just edge in sideways next to him.
By this time those that had been glued since the start were losing strength, having to reach all over and under with different crossed hands, like too many spokes in a wheel. We were crowded, ten of us, up close circling this three-foot birdbowl, which probably had to do with body heat and irritation on George Van Lupe's part, because Grandpa has no sooner got Mama slipped into the jigsaw than George forgot for a second, and needing to scratch, let go of his piece. At that the whole project fell apart. Different people tried to pressure against the next piece for support and ended up pulling away entirely or falling to the ground. Eleanor and Jessica started to cry. My girls, angry with themselves, blamed each other. George said he felt awful. The bowling alley men sympathized.
But Grandpa was steady, like nothing unusual happened and he says, softly, "We start over." Then he makes everyone take a piece to the kitchen sink and soak it in hot water, because the glue started to set and is holding grass and dirt in some instances. And he tells everyone to dry his or her section carefully and to flop wrists for circulation and meet back at the base as soon as possible.
From the way my heart is thumping, I can sense that this birdbath and this day and Grandpa's new role all make a world of difference to me, and even to my daughters. He has come into our lives with authority; he has finally come into our yard with such assurance that even the bowling alley men who are not getting paid anymore don't tell him to go you-know-what himself when he takes their time for his own personal project.
Mama is quiet, but with a frantic look on her face. She keeps staring at her watch because by the time Eleanor and George use the bathroom, it is ten minutes after one. Mama is sure the parade went on schedule without Grandpa in the lead. She is right.
When we finally convene, Grandpa says, "The children will be last," like he has figured out a master plan. And he begins the glueing all over again, with Jessica and Mama first this time. Next the two bowling alley men. And Eleanor and George. And then him and me and my two girls. You can see he is pleased with the job this second time around, so he says, "We will sing Love Lifted Me." And he starts a pitch so high that only Jessica can carry the tune. The rest of us fill in where we can. My girls complain that their arms hurt. Grandpa says he can hold their parts and relieve them, if George will move a thumb over two inches, which George does, and the children get a rest, because Grandpa states they need periods of freedom. But later, when he makes them come back, the girls are angry and I suspect that Grandpa is tempted to let them go on playing. But he catches himself and says, almost in a whisper, "We learn to finish what we start." And there is a big silence.
George and Jessica are shifting hands from top to bottom. Mama is standing up tight next to a bowling alley man. She switches direction and gets fact to face with Grandpa. My daughters are grumbling. Other than that, there is this huge silence.
Mama glances at her watch. Her arms begin to shake. She is looking down into her orchid as though she can see the reason for all this in the center of the flower. Grandpa kneels to help give Mama's piece more support from underneath. Then while he's holding both their sections from below, he creeps his top hand over Mama's. "I'm sorry," he says, looking up at his daughter.
Mama bursts into tears. She jerks her hand away from where Grandpa can safely touch her and hold onto his piece at the same time. And she swings around to face the bowling alley man again, who is still a total stranger.
Grandpa adjusts himself, straightens up and says to the back of Mama's head, "I'm sorry I ever corrected you."
"Corrected!" spits Mama, so fierce that the bowling alley man switches hands instantly and turns to face Jessica.
Grandpa continues. "You were so much like your mother that I . . ."
"Her mother was his first wife who died," interrupted Eleanor Sparks, explaining to the others as if she is announcing a play.
"I'm sorry," Grandpa says again, over Mama's shoulder. "I loved you. But the way you walked and held your head high, no matter what tragedy hit, I didn't think . . ."
"You can't count on looks," bawls Mama.
"His first wife," puts in Eleanor again, nodding toward Grandpa. "She died young."
"I wish you'd try to see," said Grandpa to the back of Mama's collar. "It was easier not to be around." His voice cracked.
"Will you listen to him?" hissed Eleanor, leaning over one of my girls and around George, so she can talk right at Mama. "Will you just listen? He loved your mother and he loved you, only he was young. Your Papa has seen a lot of grief. Now why don't you . . ."
"Shut up," shouts Mama. Which ended the first exchange of words those two had spoken in fourteen years. And there was this enormous silence again.
Then one of the bowling alley men said it was one-thirty and shouldn't Grandpa be at the parade. That reminded George why he was there and got him so nervous that he had to be relieved.
Finally, Grandpa announced we could let go. By then no one seemed to care, one way or the other. We did though, slowly. All broke away. Carefully. Wondering. And lo and behold, the birdbath stayed in one round circle.
So Grandpa made pie fluting designs on the little strings of glue that had come up from between the sections, and he squeezed fresh glue from the bottle into letters that said BIRDS.
In spite of George having conniptions, Grandpa took a minute more and got a handful of canaries from his hide pouch, ones he had made from clay. And he put them all around the rim of the birdbath. Then Jessica and George and he scooted out the side gate as fast as George could go, kicking a sword.
By the time I got my bearings, everyone had gone on to the parade, except me and Mama. So I went into the house, searching for Mama. I found her in the dining room, barefoot up on the table, straddling the punch bowl and hanging Grandpa's metal work of cat food and sardine tins from the chandelier.
"Some are cursed, stunted like dwarfs," Mama shouted at me. She climbed down and sighed. "Their April comes in May." I held my tongue.
We never got to see Grandpa head the procession. My girls told us though. So did everyone. They had held up waiting for him as long as they could. So when he and Jessica and George got to the formation site and didn't find anyone there, the three of them ran along the parade route till they caught up. They say it was a sight, watching them pick a path through the band columns and war veterans, and through the Salvation Army, and the drum and bugle outfits. The streets were lined so tight with people, there wasn't any other way to get up to the head of the parade.
They say George didn't bother with his sword. It bounced along the concrete, giving off light, like a match. And the sparks and the noise gave a start to every horse they passed, so that a good many riders got thrown. And they say Jessica's pink gauze came unraveled from about four ends, and that she got herself caught up by every tuba player and drum major she passed, so that finally George took hold of her loose ends and ran along behind, at her heels, like a chariot driver.
We believe what we want, so I'll only tell you facts. Every source I've spoken to has vowed that Grandpa Rex maneuvered through the parade like a professional half-back, that he side-stepped the pom-pom dancers in perfect form, never once breaking rhythm from one band to the next.
And they swear that through the entire episode, his face glowed, his shorts stayed shut, and his pouch lay flat against his back. Well, who knows?
The story goes that when the three of them eventually made it to the head of the parade, there was only space for Grandpa in the sidecar of Mayor Trilling's motorcycle, and because he wouldn't leave Jessica and George in the crowd, the trio double-stepped, on foot, nearly a quarter of a mile, until he dropped over and passed on. I wish I'd seen him. Mainly now because now I realize who he was supposed to be.
My girls said he scattered seeds all over the pavement. That's what the pouch was full of, seeds and clay birds. Jessica's pillowcase was stuffed with marbles and whistles and blue tops that she gave out to all the children along the sidewalk. My girls said, and Emma Watson backed them up, that after the marchers passed, people couldn't get out to the street fast enough to pick up the seeds Grandpa left for them. It was such a short time he got to lead and a shame not many received the benefit. Even of those who did, not many understood that he was Johnny Appleseed.
They brought the body to the house a few minutes after we got home. Jessica helped George and a fireman carry him in and because Mama fell apart and I wasn't in a condition to make decisions, they put him in the bedroom, where Jessica said he belonged. She ought to know.
Going right on with the reception seemed the logical thing to do, as a sort of salute, and also because guests were already arriving. Very few had seen him drop, and even those that had, didn't know the extent of his collapse. So Jessica stayed with the corpse in the bedroom and from time to time, during the afternoon and evening, we picked out the few friends we thought would care to pay respect.
My girls used bad judgement when they assumed that the celebrity, Bret Lafferty, would be interested in viewing Grandpa. By the time they mustered nerve to escort a movie star in to see their great-grandfather, coats had been piled on the bed to such an extent that Jessica was forced to switch the body to a straight chair by the window. All of a sudden this big actor came sailing out of the bedroom like a spaceship. And he spent the next half-hour alone, in the pantry. We've seen him face death a dozen times on Gunman. My older girl says the corpse was facing out the window and when they walked around the body to take a good look, Grandpa's hands moved. She says his arms lay folded in his lap and his hands twitched, as if there was still life in them. I asked Jessica. Her answer was typical. Grandpa hadn't finished the bust of her, the one he was sculpting, she said, smiling a smile that if it broke into sound, would have been a giggle.
Mama locked herself in her room and mourned all night. She'll heal. We all do . . . most of us. I didn't sleep either, but for a different reason. Bret and I got to dancing and enjoying ourselves, so when they took up the portable floor, we just moved to Pete's out on Route 17 and then on to the Para-Dice Cafe, and when they closed, we drove up to Lookout Ridge, and watched the sun come up and spread itself over Larksburg. I had never realized its power, how it sends liquid gold up over the hills, how it spurts at the horizon in little piercing spears and then floods everything with warmth and light, whether it deserves it or not. Bret likes the way his fingers fit in the crook of my neck and how I laugh. He's staying for the Alfalfa Festival.
I have more to celebrate than harvest. I have a feeling that because of yesterday, some of the sins of the fathers stopped here with me. I hope. That would make Grandpa very happy.
By and large the reception went well. There's always a letdown. Mine began with a call from Mr. Gordon at the depot, reporting that Jessica took off for Chicago on the 6:43 with an armful of Grandpa's Paint-by-Numbers and Mama's sterling cake cutters.
But then, there's the good, too. I didn't expect service from the birdbath, so you can imagine my amazement when I found someone had dumped a bottle of Dr. Pepper in it and that the soda pop sat all night and didn't leak or even cause the glue to soften. You can't count on the mended being like new. The real test will come with the first good rain.
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Warren Wedin firstname.lastname@example.org