Fearful of showing more skin than was appropriate for my grandmother’s funeral, I pulled my black lined skirt downward for the hundredth time. The problem was, no matter how hard I pulled I couldn’t help but feel like the skirt was still riding up. I blamed my obsessive thought patterns on the humidity. I pulled at the skirt again. Couldn’t we sit down already? Christ, it was hot.
When the heat index reached 120 before the 2 p.m. service, the ushers went in search of four oscillating fans. Two were stashed at the front corners, between pews and walls. The other two fans lined each side of the casket, oscillating between Grandma and us. I watched with envy as the plants surrounding the coffin shifted in the breeze.
One Christmas morning, a pea-green, skintight skirt awaited me under Grandma’s sparsely-decorated artificial tree. The tree, occupying a small corner of her living room, was decorated with red garland and sparkled with gold, silver and red bulbs. Unfolding the skirt, I stood up and placed the pea-green fabric against my twelve-year-old hips, wondering when I would be able to fill out those contours.
“She is not wearing that in public,” I heard my Dad say. He was sitting at the dining room table, surrounded by my uncles. Crushed, I quickly folded the skirt back up. Really? Could he be any more embarrassing? I sat back down on the living room floor with the rest of my aunts and cousins amidst the discarded wrapping paper and bits of ribbon.
“It’s just a skirt, Wayne,” said Grandma, coming to my rescue from her recliner beside me. “She’ll look great.” She placed her thin, weathered right hand on my shoulder, giving me a gentle squeeze.
Living to Sit
“At the end of life,” the pastor said, “one must consider the sins we have committed, the wrongs we have done others, and the forgiveness necessary to reach that safe haven of heaven.”
What? Why the focus on sins? Is this what happens when a pastor’s too busy to write a sermon? In ninety-three years, Grandma had done her share of sinning, I’m sure, but for the past seventy-seven years or so, she’d also done her share of sitting right here, in this congregation. I would hardly consider that sinful.
Was it because Grandma sat towards the rear of the church, seven rows from the back, always on the left-hand side? It wasn’t exactly a front row seat, a tuned-into-God, feel the pastor spit from the pulpit kind of position. Maybe God only saved front row sinners. Inside the Missouri Synod, maybe those at the back of the church miss God’s divine purpose. Or was it just our particular pastor’s God who hated, discriminated, and judged us differently?
Grandma sat beneath the balcony where my family always sat. She’d look up through her large skin-toned glasses to see if we’d made it. Once she spotted us, she’d return her attention to the pulpit for a few minutes, then, when Mom and Dad weren’t looking, she’d glance back up to smile or wink at me. Then she’d pull her tan cardigan closer to her body and tune back into the pastor’s message.
“Only the privileged are allowed access to heaven,” I heard the pastor say. What about the rest of us, I wondered, as I doodled across the communion acceptance slip, blocking out the oath to God that condemned us to eternal damnation, if we consumed the body and blood of Christ without faith. Would I go to hell for using it as a blank sheet of paper?
After the church service I would wait for her in the narthex. Those who sat closer to God exited first. When it was Grandma’s turn to leave, she would pause in front of the pastor, repeating the required pleasantries like, “great sermon,” before moving on to encase me in a hug.
Plucking Swearing Chickens
“Swearing,” says pastor, “is a sin.”
No shit. Oops, now I had sworn in the house of God. This sermon was a sin, I thought defiantly. Grandma never swore. Swearing in her presence might land one with a meal of Ivory soap instead of the usual chicken dinner. We ate a lot of chicken, probably because grandma raised her own.
“You gotta stop those chickens from running,” Grandma yelled from her position across the yard, supervising the steaming hot dunk tanks and cutting boards shaded by oaks. “We don’t want bruised meat.”
Two of my uncles and my dad rotated positions between the chopping block and the coop, retrieving chickens. Six of the oldest cousins lined the plucking station, a contraption that looked like a makeshift clothesline, shoved over by the barn. Three of my aunts and my mother circled the dunk tanks and cutting boards. My job was to pluck the feathers from the course, prickly skin. The rusty iron smell of blood loomed like a heavy fog with a quarter-mile visibility. Wet feathers clung to the skin of my legs, between my shorts and socks. Bringing my shoe up, I slid the sole across my leg, but none of the feathers fell to the ground. I hate chicken feathers. When wet, they smell like musty cardboard brought up from a damp basement.
Swiping the sweat from my brow, I tried not to think of the chicken separated from her children and friends at the coop. Or of the thwaping sound of the ax as it penetrated the tiny necks, lodging itself in wood. The head lay motionless while the body jumped up to run. My uncle, swooping down to catch the bird, missed yet again.
“Catch that damn chicken,” Grandma bellowed.
“Coveting thy neighbor,” says pastor, “is the second unforgiveable sin we partake of in life.”
Grandpa died of heart complications long before I was born, leaving Grandma to finish raising six children, half of which were still in school. Grandma was fifty-eight when she took over the fieldwork, the pigs and the chickens.
Shifting in my seat, I wondered what Grandma might have coveted. Grandpa died of heart complications long before I was born, leaving Grandma to finish raising six children, half of which were still in school. Grandma was fifty-eight when she took over the fieldwork, the pigs and the chickens. I suppose she could have coveted a different outcome, except she seemed content to be alone. Maybe her lack of a second marriage, or her inability to turn over the reins of her farm to another man, made her a sinner. Instead, she’d held her farm in safekeeping for her sons, assisting them in the fields from 1976 until her retirement in 1992. Maybe independence was a sin. Maybe the pastor was insane. As for the seventeen grandchildren, we coveted her stash of Skittles hidden within the belly of her crystal rooster stored upon her buffet.
Grandma was notorious for saying, “There will be no spoiling dinner, so only take two or three Skittles from the rooster.”
I often wondered, why only two or three pieces? Why not a handful? Does it really matter? But it did matter. She obsessed over it. Grandma could hear the rooster’s back being lifted off its base from anywhere in the house.
Plenty of times my cousins and I waited for her to head up the stairs to go to the bathroom before we’d break into action. Tiptoeing across the shag green carpet, we’d head straight for the crystal rooster, our puzzles or books abandoned, tempted by the promise of unsupervised rainbow-colored candies. Gently, we’d lift the lid. We knew the slightest tap of glass on glass would land us a punishment like dusting or vacuum cleaning. From somewhere above, we’d hear, “Put those Skittles back!”
Problematic Glass Birds
The final unforgivable sin awarded to my grandmother at her funeral service was that of holding a “need to harbor ill feelings towards another.” As I stared down the pastor, I harbored a few of my own. Sweat ran down the sides of his face. He enunciated every word of this sin, twice, believing this would somehow change us.
When Brett’s department store in Mankato went out of business, I was in grade school. Grandma and I sifted through rows and rows of tables set up with clothes, knickknacks and shoes. A small red bird, about three inches high, with a white underbelly, long red legs, red neck, and a peacock tail, caught my eye. She encouraged me to pick it up. The cool softness of the glass bird caressed my hand. Mom never allowed me to touch glass items, but Grandma didn’t seem to mind. She grabbed a different glass bird. Hers was short and stubby, with a blue head, green body, and red tail; it looked like a small robin, standing maybe an inch and half tall.
“Let’s take these,” she said. We walked to the counter. The lady behind the register wrapped the birds in paper, placing them in a bag while Grandma paid for them.
In the car, I immediately unwrapped my little glass bird. Grandma suggested we should swap birds. I did so reluctantly. That chubby blue-green bird was not the one I wanted. He was so ugly.
“Why?” I asked, struggling not to pout.
“So we can remember each other,” she said, putting my bird back in her bag.
When we got to her house, Grandma placed my bird on a small wall shelf in her living room, where it remained right up to the day she entered the nursing home. Returning home to Morton at the end of the week, I made a place for the stubby bird on my dresser, inside my glow-in-the-dark nativity set. Mary and Joseph stood only an inch taller, keeping watch over their ends of the manger, Jesus, and the bird. At least he wasn’t alone. Jesus loves everyone, even ugly little birds.
Blueberry Pie Obituaries
When the pastor finally got down to the intimate details of Grandma’s life, he read them from her obituary. She wrote her own obituary during the late 1990s after a combine accident claimed her right arm, forcing her into retirement in ‘92. My revision on the day of her death, in July of 2011, consisted of trying to decipher the crimped writing of a newly left-handed woman: a long-standing member of our Lutheran church, employed during World War II as an accountant clerk for Montgomery Ward, a marriage to Grandpa, late to motherhood, six children, the Ladies Aid, the PTA, widow, hog farmer, crop farmer, long-standing Blue Earth County 4-H open class judge, a grandmother, and, finally, nursing home resident. While she was active in all of these positions, none of them truly defined her.
Cursed with temporary insanity during my sixteenth year of life, I asked Grandma for a blueberry pie, forgetting she’d lost her arm in a combine accident two years before.
“Are you insane?” my mother asked earlier that morning, when I had excitedly rattled off my expectations for a home-cooked birthday pie. “She can’t make her blueberry pies anymore. How the hell is she going to roll out the dough?”
Disappointed and ashamed by my lapse of memory, but unwilling to believe Grandma couldn’t do it, I waited outside the door for her to arrive. I could almost see the blueberries swelling out of the crisscrossed crust, golden brown with white sugar sprinkled across the top. Grandma’s silver pie tin would still be warm from the oven. More than anything, I wanted Grandma to prove to Mom she could still do it.
An hour later, I ran down the sidewalk to greet her. Opening the passenger door to her ‘88 Buick Regal, I smelled the sweet blueberries before I saw the silver pie tin. Kissing her on the check, I grabbed the pie tin and ran for the kitchen, yelling, “Mom, I got a blueberry pie.”
When the front doors of the church swung wide, a dense, hot fog of humidity assaulted us, pressing us to wait until the pallbearers navigated the steps.
As I stood for the final song, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” my hands automatically began to pull on my skirt. The start of the final verse was our signal to follow Grandma out of the sanctuary. When the front doors of the church swung wide, a dense, hot fog of humidity assaulted us, pressing us to wait until the pallbearers navigated the steps. As the casket was loaded into the hearse, I heard someone say, “That was a great sermon.” I didn’t look for who made the comment, even though I wanted to. I wanted to scream, “Bullshit. Her life wasn’t a sin.”
Six months after her funeral, on a crisp autumn Sunday morning, I went to my grandmother’s house for the last time. The aunts and uncles were assembled. It was their last day to go through Grandma’s things. Her bird collection was all that remained. I asked for the red, long-necked bird; it was the only thing of hers that I wanted.
When I entered her house, my nine-year-old son, pointing to the floor, commented, “That’s some green carpeting, Mom.”
While my children spread out to inspect the house, I noticed that all the tables were covered with birds. Almost all were robin-looking red birds, a few blue glass birds, and a green bird, but the majority of her birds were red. I mentioned this to my mother, but she was all business.
“Pick out your bird,” she said. “None of us can remember what it looks like.”
I scanned the dining room table and the two card tables extending out into the living room. For one paralyzing second, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to recognize it. As I walked around the backside of the dining room table, I noticed the long pink neck of a glass bird with a white underbelly. Was that really it? As my fingers clasped the long-legged bird, its cool texture caressed my hand, telling me that this was indeed the bird, and yet, it wasn’t red, it was pink.
“This has got to be it,” I said, “But this bird is pink. Mine was red.”
“It’s been over twenty some odd years since you last saw the bird,” she said. “It faded.”
After the funeral service, my two boys and I rode with my sister in her air-conditioned car to the cemetery. We got out of the car and headed for the steep embankment, which descended down to Grandma and Grandpa’s stone. Once by the gravestone, we noticed the image of a walleye engraved into the red-gray granite. We were told Grandpa loved to fish up at the Lake of the Woods. It didn’t appear as if there were any personal markers on the stone to signify my grandmother’s passions, only her name. There was a small cross in the upper right hand corner. Was that her emblem?
The last time Grandma and I talked, we were in the hospital emergency room, shortly after her heart attack. For having Alzheimer’s, she was fairly lucid, aware of who we were, my uncle, mother and I, as we sat in the small room around her bed. At first I said nothing, unsure if I were just a passing memory to her. Multiple bones in her chest were crushed. Violation of the “do not resuscitate” orders had resulted in severe internal bleeding. Her second death would be harder. My mom and her brother talked to Grandma like she would recover, but we knew she wouldn’t. Did she know?
My mother jumped on me: “Talk to her like you used to.” What kind of comment was that?
“I’m in college now,” I said. Fourteen years ago, Grandma and I had disagreed over my decision not to go to college. “Forget about those barns,” she’d said. “You need an education.” She couldn’t understand why I’d work for the factory hog farms. “They crush small farmers.”
“I know,” Grandma quietly said. “I’m glad.” Seconds later, we were strangers to her again.
Once the final words at the interment were said, my aunts allowed the grandchildren to each grab a flower from the casket spray. I stayed back, while my eleven-year-old son, escaping my attention, wove through the crowd of cousins, heading for the casket’s flowers. He plucked one of the few red roses among the pink and white carnations. When he returned he said, “Here, Mom,” handing me the rose. “It’s from Great-Grandma.”