Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A sentinel of summer memories

By Elaine Shein

As the summer temperatures rise, and dry winds tickle the leaves and whisper through pine needles, an image floats back to my mind: my grandfather peacefully sitting in the shade of a backyard evergreen tree that loomed over the small house he called home.
Grandpa loved summers best. He’d shuffle across the lawn with his cane to his weather-battered rusted lawn chair, ease himself down and lean his cane on the arm of the chair or else against the tree.
“Oy,” he’d say, catch his breath, gaze at the large garden he weeded only a few days earlier but which already wrestled with eager thistle.
The front and back yards spanned more space than the house on the lot, but he didn’t complain. Instead he’d complain about his health, frigid winters, crime, my grandmother and anything else but the garden with its abundant crop of hardy vegetables that stored well for the winter.
With his straw hat on, he’d push an old mower whose blades had long lost their sharp edge, and patiently reverse over the same grass again to catch the stubborn ones that resisted the first cut.
In a part of the city known more for crime, poverty and abusive addictions, Grandpa each morning shuffled to the front yard, slowly bend to gather any abandoned beer bottles and fix any loose boards knocked from the fence by inebriated teenagers during the night.
“Oy, oy oy,” he’d sigh and shake his head.
The hours of exercise outside provided escape from the confines of the modest house on Avenue J South.
That tiny house was all he could really afford in ’69 after he sold a small farm almost 100 miles away that had more trees, rocks, ponds, geese and deer than good pasture for his small herd. The cropland often froze. It had been tough to raise a family of four young kids as a widower for several years after his wife had died of breast cancer before she even reached 40.
He didn’t remarry until almost the time to auction the farm and move to the city. By then the kids were gone.
They returned for the auction, gathered in a tight group far from the chanting auctioneer, smoked cigarettes and carried young children in arms. Neighbors fanned themselves, drank Fanta and Crush pop from a cooler than had been moved specially to a porch that day, and watched a ring of children chant “Ring around the Rosie, pockets full of Posie.” An outburst of giggles accompanied when they all FELL DOWN, and drowned out the rising bids and auctioneer’s declaration of “SOLD!”
The neighborhood in the city hadn’t been that bad in 1969 when my grandparents first moved there. A lot of eastern European ethnic groups similar to their own had settled in that part. Knowing little English, my grandpa walked or caught the bus to the businesses that often served him in his native language. The bank, the credit union, the meat shop, the liquor store, some restaurants, doctors and lawyers: usually each business had someone to help people like him who had immigrated decades before but had found English too difficult to master.
As time passed, fewer businesses had such employees. Life became tougher to comprehend and to survive for Grandpa, but relatives and neighbors helped with the taxes, the bills and the pile of mail on the hallway shelf that sometimes sat unread weeks until someone could translate.
In 1969, a young evergreen tree in the backyard had welcomed my grandparents to their new home. Only a few feet high, its sappy spine aimed straight to the sky like my grandfather’s posture. Right from the start, Grandpa loved that tree. He watered its roots in summer droughts, knocked snow off branches after winter blizzards, and gravitated towards its kind shade for special occasions.
Each summer, he gathered near the tree with family and friends as they came to visit with cards, cakes and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The top of the cane was worn from bearing the weight of the proud but poor retired farmer who always dressed up in his best dress pants, ironed shirt and his hat when he had company.
Patiently sitting in the lawn chair, he listened as grandchildren babbled excitedly in English about school, weather, pets, friends, TV shows and anything else. With the few words he knew, he struggled to participate when a silent pause from the kids demanded response.
“For sure?” he asked, and raise a heavy white eyebrow. “Son of a gun. Son of a gun.”
Weather always interested him the most. “How the farm?” he’d ask with a heavy accent. “And the crops? The cows?” He’d smile and nod when he heard of bumper crops, but shook his head in sympathy when he heard that another frost, another hailstorm, another drought or downpour had ended a season’s work too early.
Years passed: Grandpa’s weight dropped, his pace slowed, his hair grew whiter, his eyesight dimmed and he bent over a bit more while the tree stretched beyond neighborhood rooftops and dwarfed the house.
An electric mower replaced the push mower. Grandchildren tackled the grass, picked the bottles and fixed the fence. The garden grew more weeds, and relatives casually wandered through the crooked rows, plucked the offenders and pretended to just gather berries and vegetables for supper.
Each afternoon until his early 90’s, Grandpa ventured to his favorite spot under the tree. He could no longer read and sometimes could barely see who visited him, but he closed his eyes and listened to the robin’s sweet song, planes overhead, thunder in the distance. He smiled when he heard the gate open in the front yard and recognized familiar voices of relatives and friends coming down the sidewalk along the side of the house towards the tree.
After more than nine decades of experiences, Grandpa shared what he marveled the most in life: how he and the tree were still around, and how long they enjoyed each other’s company on summer days.
The lawn chair is gone. Years have passed like the summer breeze through the branches. The tree remains a solemn sentinel whispering my grandfather’s memory.


Anonymous said...

Wow Elain, this is really beautiful. I think you ought to write a book someday.


Digitalscrapperbecky said...

Incredibly beautiful story, Elaine. The love you had/have for your grandfather is so evident!

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