Grandmother sits in the fraying white wicker chair on a warm September afternoon, on the wraparound porch, a few feet from her open, screened front door. She sits on the comfortable cushion she made, covered with material from a pair of faded curtains printed with bluebells that used to hang in the spare bedroom. Now, the bedroom windows have lace curtains instead. The lace is yellowing but it lets in more light than the old curtains so the room is more cheerful and inviting, Grandmother thinks.
Grandmother’s glass of sugared tea, in her favorite glass with the stenciled lemon slices, rests on the white wrought-iron table beside her next to the Mason jar filled with fragrant lilacs she picked this morning. The ice in her tea has long since melted. She sits with eyes lightly closed, slumped against the curving wicker backrest, her head with its swept-back silver-white hair tilting downward, chin resting between the top button of her dress and the yoke of her apron, her ample breasts sloping toward her soft belly. Grandmother made the green gingham apron, too, with its emerald piping, the one she usually wears these days to protect her favorite housedress.
Her veiny hands, with large molasses-colored spots, the skin soft and translucent from a twice-daily slathering of Porcelana, are nested in her lap where one of her many embroidered handkerchiefs has come to rest, slipping from her gnarled fingers.
Grandmother floats easily between worlds, most of them pleasant, none of them in as sharp relief as they used to be. When she was just a little girl, born in this very house, Luther’s family lived in a fine Georgia-style plantation home up the road. There were only five houses along the entire road then. Just a gravel road into town, interrupting the limitless prairie, with the houses set back a piece. Luther’s home looked out of place despite the stately old sycamore in the front yard, “Not a decent prairie home at all,” her Ma would grouse from time to time; “I guess some folks just need to put on airs.”
All the other houses except Grandmother’s are gone now, replaced by fancy ranch-style homes strung out along a broad paved boulevard with a center divider planted with ornamental pears. Most everything had changed after the War. The missile defense base with its underground silos a few miles away brought new schools, a large shopping mall, and hundreds of houses on streets and lanes branching off the main boulevard. It is Grandmother’s house that now looks out of place.
There isn’t much left of the old town anymore. The dull brick City Hall and the marble-faced Midland Bank Building, now home to a small law firm and a title company, still stand facing each other on the north and south sides of Pioneer Square with its four WWI canons pointing outward from a central bronze statue of “The Pioneer Woman” with babe in arms and two children in tow, striding resolutely westward.
From the east side of the square, the fine neo-gothic Methodist church and campanile, built of limestone quarried in neighboring Kendall County, keep watch over The Pioneer Woman and her brood on their sojourn. But most of the businesses that thrived around the square during Grandmother’s youth have long since closed up shop.
Luther’s family had one of the first Plymouths ever made. Luther’s father was generous, offering rides; but Ma and Grandma always declined, “No, thank you kindly,” they would say. And later, as they walked along the edge of the road, they would repeat a familiar litany. “Too fine a day for riding around in that car,” even if the weather was a bit unsettled. “A little rain (or snow, or wind) never hurt nobody. Prairie folks got no need for such fancy automobiles,” they would say; “Nothing wrong with riding shanks’ mare.”
Luther’s father would sometimes pass them along the road on his way into town, where he worked at the bank, and toot the horn and give a cheery wave as he passed by. Sometimes, when Luther got older, his father let him drive the Plymouth on a weekend as he coached from the back seat. Luther would wave and Grandmother would pretend not to notice.
But one warm autumn day like today, as Luther was driving the Plymouth into town, this time without his father, he passed Grandmother walking by herself along the gravel road. He stopped the car and waited for her to catch up, “Rose Marie,” he said, wearing a goofy grin, “I declare I have asked you time and again to take a ride with me. You gonna break my heart again today and keep on turning me down?”
“Luther Goodson,” Grandmother said not unkindly, “I reckon I’ll take a ride into town with you today if that will stop you from pestering me.”
Luther’s soft brown eyes twinkled as he smiled and held the passenger door open for her, “I ain’t makin’ no promises,” he said.
Grandmother settled herself into the soft leather. Luther got in beside her and started the engine, “Not too fast now,” she said; “I wouldn’t like it if you went too fast.” Luther motored gently along the road.
“Where you off to today, Rose Marie?” Luther asked.
“I’m just going to the Five and Dime for some more crochet thread. I’m almost finished with the pillow slips I’m making for Ma’s birthday next week and I’ve run out of her favorite blue.”
“I’ve got to pick Dad up at the bank,” Luther said; “We could give you a ride home when you’ve finished your shopping if you want.”
“Now wouldn’t that be something,” Rose Marie said, “You driving me up to the house, my Ma looking out the window. I don’t suppose I’d ever hear the end of it once she finished sputtering about what came over me. Thank you kindly, Luther. I’ll walk back home same as I always do.” Luther just grinned, pushing a stray lock of hair off his forehead.
Grandmother remembered looking at him more closely once or twice during the drive into town. The fact that it was her first automobile ride hadn’t stopped her from noticing that Luther had missed a couple of places shaving. And there was no mistaking the scent of his father’s Bay Rum. A little too much, she thought, but not altogether unpleasant. He was handsome, she thought. She remembered it all to this day: the intoxicating scent of the aftershave mixed with the smell of the Plymouth’s elegant leather upholstery, the steady hum of the engine, and the crunch of the gravel beneath the tires.
Luther managed to find other opportunities for Grandmother to ride with him. One evening she was sure that she saw her Ma staring at them disapprovingly from behind the lace curtains on the front window. Her Ma never said anything about it, though. Nor did she forbid Grandmother to ride in the Plymouth. But she thought it her obligation as a parent to pass along a little wisdom about life’s pitfalls to her daughter every now and again, “Just remember, child,” these admonitions would often begin, “We’re not their kind. They’re rich folks.”
Warming to her task she would say, “They seem nice enough but they’re not workin’ people like us. His daddy’s bank’s got the mortgage to our farm. And you know that Scripture says it’s harder for rich folks to get into heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Of course, The Psalmist sings to ‘Both low and high, rich and poor together;’ so I’m sure Heavenly Father has a plan for us all that we won’t fully understand until we meet Him in Glory! Not that we’re poor. The Good Lord always provides but sometimes I wonder why He has to cut it so close.”
Then came the Senior Dance at the District 11 High School gymnasium and a magnificent corsage. A tentative first kiss and the heart-stopping scent of gardenia and Bay Rum. More frequent and more purposeful kissing in the weeks that followed and several clumsy attempts at going further, rebuffed, politely but firmly, as was expected of a young woman of Grandmother’s upbringing, though her heart was not in it. Finally, the summer after graduation, came an awkward proposal of marriage, accepted without the slightest hesitation.
They lived with Grandmother’s parents after they were married. In those days, the house sat on much more land with well-tended walnut and fruit trees in abundance. Luther surprised everyone by becoming an eager and accomplished orchardist.
Her father died unexpectedly the following winter. Her Ma, unable to bear living on the farm without him, moved across town to live with her sister. Grandmother and Luther became the new owners of the house.
The arrival of Luther, Jr., and two years later the twins, Emma and Hanna, all born at home, multiplied their happiness. Then Luther went off to war and a man was hired to help Grandmother look after the orchard. On a snowy Saturday
afternoon, two men from the War Office delivered the sad news of Luther’s death in combat. Time passed. The kids went off to college and settled in big cities across the country. Grandchildren joined the diaspora, visiting over the holidays and during school vacations. And now, the grandchildren had children.
“Ah,” Grandmother smiles without looking up from her reverie, “Here comes Cletus with the mail.” The almost silent electric delivery truck pauses up the street, three houses away at the Yoshimotos, then two doors up at the Hollisters, then finally in front of Grandmother’s house; “Sounds like he has forgotten his push-cart again,” Grandmother thinks; “That man’s going to ruin his back with that heavy bag.”
Ruby Mae opens the gate in the low wrought-iron fence, “Afternoon, Grandmother,” she says, climbing the painted concrete steps to the wraparound porch.
“Oh, Luther, is that you?” she asks softly, not opening her eyes, “I thought I had lost you. Have you seen the Jewel Tea man? He’s usually here by this time with our groceries.”
“It’s Ruby Mae, Grandmother, with the mail. Not much to deliver today. Here’s your Capper’s Weekly and the advertising flyer from Rexall. I’ll just put them here on the table.”
“The table’s just fine, thank you” she says slowly opening her eyes; “Luther will mix it all up if you take it inside. Is Cletus sick today?”
“Cletus retired over a year ago, Grandmother. He’s doing fine. Moved away with his wife to Arizona and left me to carry his route. He sent me a Christmas card last year with a Kodak of the mobile home park where he lives. Has a nice, nearly new trailer out there. He said to take extra special good care of you.”
“Cletus is a nice man. Tell him I hope he feels better soon and can get back to work. A man has to feed his family. It’s so nice of you to help him out until he’s better.”
“You take care now, Grandmother,” Ruby Mae said; “Is there anything you need?”
“No, I’m just fine. Got everything I need right here. Just waitin’ for the Jewel Tea. He’s such a nice man. Reminds me of my Luther. So handsome!”
“Okay, then, Grandmother. Tomorrow’s Sunday so I’ll see you again Monday afternoon.” Grandmother closes her eyes softly as Ruby May closes the wrought iron gate. Ruby Mae’s mail truck glides down the road and stops in front of the Singhs.
“Luther,” she says quietly, “You should come out here and sit on the porch with me. It’s such a beautiful evening. We can just sit for a minute and then I’ll go inside and fix your supper. I picked the last of the tomatoes today and there’s some of my special cornbread in the skillet. There’s leftover ham hocks and navy beans too. We can come back out here later in the cool and have our peach cobbler with cream before bedtime. I got a good scald on that last batch of peaches I put up.”
Grandmother sits in the lengthening evening. The setting sun gives way to flashing fireflies and the songs of crickets and cicadas, then to the midnight moon and stars. Grandmother takes no notice.
“It’s so good to have you back, Luther. I’ve missed you so! How nice that you brought me my ice tea in my favorite glass. You always did know just what I liked. But, you know, I think I’d better go up now and rest in bed. Lots doin’ tomorrow, what with Church and all.”
Grandmother sits with her eyes closed on a bright Sunday morning, slumped in the fraying white wicker chair with the bluebell cushion on her wraparound porch. The screened front door is still open. Her undrunk tea, in the glass with the stenciled lemon slices, still rests on the white wrought iron table, next to the Mason jar filled with the fading lilacs she picked yesterday morning. She does not see the hummingbird hovering around her petunias, darting from blossom to blossom, sipping nectar. Nor does she hear the distant bell in the campanile overlooking Pioneer Square summoning the faithful to worship.