Painting the Sunset
She was my father’s mother, and I called her Granny. She claimed to be four-foot-ten, a charitable height achieved by dint of the old-fashioned block-heeled laced pumps she wore for work or church. Around our 123-acre farm, she wore tennis sneakers or men’s work boots and dared anyone to crack wise or snicker. She was a one-room schoolhouse teacher in an age of strict discipline who had no qualms about tugging a miscreant’s ear, even if she had to stand on a stool to reach it. But I was her first grandchild and could do no wrong. She would no sooner punish me than miss a Sunday at the Methodist church in Geigertown, where she taught Sunday school and played the organ. She must have used up all her whippings on her students and her two sons, my father, and his brother Howard, because there were none left for me.
My earliest memory was of Granny pushing my stroller along the dirt road to our barn where the cows lived. They belonged to a neighbor who milked and fed them twice a day, but Granny had named them as if they were hers. The only name I still remember was Bessie, but I still recall their curious black and white heads stretched across the fence and looming over me, chewing their cuds thoughtfully as they regarded me with dull, bovine wonder. Their sheer immensity might have terrified another child, but not me: I had Granny to protect me.
She had been born on an Illinois farm in 1895, and had immigrated to Berks County, Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons in the ‘20’s. Shortly thereafter she divorced my grandfather Neal, a great drinker and carouser, and found temporary work as a substitute teacher, eventually securing the position of postmaster in Phoenixville, a fair-sized steel town in nearby Montgomery County. My father and uncle spent their teens bouncing back and forth between Phoenixville and Birdsboro, another steel town where their father had gotten a foreman’s job at Birdsboro Steel. He had bought a rundown farm for back taxes, plus a nominal mortgage, and lived there in rustic splendor with billy goats as house pets. Or so my disgruntled father often claimed.
My father and Uncle Howard, whom everyone called Bob, graduated from Birdsboro High in the early thirties, then moved back with Granny in Phoenixville. They found work in the area hosiery mills, a growth industry during the years when all women wore either skirts or dresses and would no sooner go barelegged than appear naked in public.
Then came the war and their old world ended. My father served as a medic in Patton’s Third Army and Uncle Bob sailed as an engineer in the Merchant Marines, narrowly escaping death from a torpedo. Granny, whose first name was Wilhelmina, chose to shorten it to a less Germanic-sounding Mina. She did her part too, serving as an air raid warden, walking the dark streets of blacked-out Phoenixville in her snazzy uniform, a whistle dangling on a chain, prepared to tug the ears of any violators, or if she was in a good mood, merely issue a meaningless warning.
My grandfather died during the war, and my father and uncle returned to learn that they had inherited the farm. They soon discovered that their father hadn’t paid any property taxes either, nor even settled the small mortgage. But with the money they’d accumulated during the war, they squared things away. They both moved into the two-story stone farmhouse with their wives and found jobs. My uncle built a new home on top of a hill a few hundred yards up the road, and Granny moved in with him and his wife, Margie, and found a job as a teacher at the nearby Geigertown one-room elementary school. I was born in 1947, and the cows left in 1950, soon replaced by a large flock of sheep, none of which ever earned a name from me or Granny.
During the Depression and war years, the farm had come perilously close to growing-over, but my uncle worked tirelessly to salvage the barn, repair the fences, and clear the hayfields. The sheep did a perfect job of clearing the pastures, although a few died in the service, as it were, by eating nightshade or jimson weed.
Granny had a large garden she dug herself with a shovel, and a large strawberry patch a neighbor farmer plowed and disked. There was a chicken house my grandfather had built from scrap lumber, chicken wire, and stucco, and she soon was in the egg business, her family the only customers. She amassed her bastard flock from disparate breeds she had bought from neighbors or at farm auctions. They were of different sizes and colors, but they all laid eggs, all that mattered.
Every morning she drove her old ‘36 Plymouth down to the barn and’ carried two pails of creek water up the hill to the chicken house. Greeting them with cries of “Chickie! Chickie!,” she scattered scoops of grain in the fenced-in yard, then went inside the reeking coop to steal their eggs. Hanging on the wall was a galvanized nesting box with twelve compartments, and on a good day she’d harvest twelve eggs. On bad days, less. She kept track of which hens were laying, and too many eggless mornings earned the unproductive hen an invitation to Sunday dinner. Then Granny sent my me and my uncle to escort the unlucky hen to her table.
Thirty yards from the chicken house was a flattopped cedar fence post, stained brown from old blood where we chopped off their heads. I held the frightened hen by her wings, resting her neck on the post. After a bit it always relaxed and stretched out its neck, blinking its eye stupidly and softly cackling. When the hatchet descended and the head fell to the ground, its eye still blinked in slow wonder as its light slowly dimmed. I wanted to release the bird and watch it run about wildly, but my uncle insisted that I hold it until it stopped jerking. He claimed that leaving them run loose bruised the meat, but I think he hated to kill them and wished to impart their deaths with a modicum of dignity. It was how Granny had taught him.
Granny could’ve done this herself, of course, but she believed in a traditional division of labor when it suited her. She gladly cleaned and picked it, cooked and served it, and even did the dishes without asking for, or expecting help. But the killing was the man’s part of the ritual, a time-honored responsibility not to be challenged. However, tending to her flock wasn’t strictly women’s work by her lights, and when I was old enough I inherited the job.
From the time I could walk, Granny took me on walks around the farm. Dressed in an old skirt and sneakers, usually wearing a pocketed apron around her waist, she led me through the fields and woods, introducing me to her friends, the flowers. “When I was little,” she wistfully recalled, “I didn’t have many playmates, so I made friends with the flowers. My mother taught me their names and told me to introduce them to my children someday.” She smiled tenderly and stroked my head. “Promise me you’ll do the same for yours.”
I promised, of course. Promises are easy to make when one is still a child, and it’s only later in life when one realizes how difficult it is keep them. But Granny and I were busy with each other then, and the future was yet a land undiscovered. We wandered the farm holding hands, and made friends with the world contained thereon.
It was quieter then. The road through our farm was still dirt, with the occasional Model-T putting past. The only traffic was the neighbors going and coming to and from work, and the milkman, baker, and mailman running their routes. Once in awhile a travelling salesman came by, or the junkman buying scrap, a dubious set of portable scales on his truck to weigh brass and copper and lead. In the winter, a fur dealer visited all the farms, seeking muskrat, raccoon, and skunk pelts, plus any deerskins or steer hides salted down in the barn. Except for visits by relatives, that was about it.
Airplanes were rarer yet; arid jets as legendary and unwitnessed as unicorns. The droning sound of propellers was sufficient cause to bring entire families running outside to peer skyward. My father knew the names of most of the military planes, but Granny knew none. Her universe was populated by quieter things, objects of beauty, and the unpleasant roaring of airplanes was an unwelcome intrusion into that peaceful world, one he never grew accustomed to.
“The worse thing man has done in my lifetime,” she once complained mildly, “was bringing all the noise into the world.”
Sometimes when she was especially upset, she would exclaim in exasperation, “Oh! It just makes me tired.” That was the nearest she came to swearing, although she certainly heard enough from my father and uncle when they were laboring to start their old lawnmowers or tractor.
“Must you curse so?” she’d scold, frowning as if it physically hurt her. She often threatened to wash out my mouth with Fels-Naptha soap if I ever began to curse, but even at the age of five, I knew this would never happen, just as ten years later I knew she would never tie me to the railroad tracks that bisected our farm and horsewhip me if I ever smoked or drank before I was twenty-one. Exaggeration was Granny’s version of the Cold War’s nuclear deterrent, and she could’ve held her own with President Eisenhower or Premier Khrushchev.
At the age of five, I began spending nights with Granny, sleeping in a twin bed in her bedroom. It was sparsely decorated with only two small prints of the South Seas hanging above her dresser, brought back from the Pacific theater by my uncle. Outside the only window was a pine tree, and beyond that the garage and the woods. During the summer nights tree frogs trilled incessantly in the towering oaks, and from the hay field across the road came the mournful cries of whippoorwills. In August, crickets and katydids sang out the summer, and year-round owls screeched eerily or solemnly intoned their ghostly benedictions. These were all friendly sounds, and I listened in the dark to their god-given nocturnes, watching through droopy lids the drifting sparks of lightning bugs until I fell asleep, often holding Granny’s hand between our beds.
My father had been teaching me the alphabet and numbers on a child’s standing blackboard. It had a paper scroll at the top, which turned with a wooden knob. On it were pictures of animals, each representing a different letter. I soon had them memorized, as well as the simple Golden Books, which my father had been reading to me. One night when I was almost five, Granny was reading to me in her bed, tracing her index finger under the words of a third grade reading book she had brought home from school. Probably bored with the familiar story, she began skipping words, hurrying through the pages. Thinking that she had made a mistake, I told her she was leaving out words.
“For land’s sake, Burl!” she said, using one of the quaint expletives she permitted herself. “Don’t tell me that you can read this?”
I thought she had known! I slowly read the story, occasionally pausing at the longer words and mispronouncing others. She gently corrected my errors, obviously proud as all get out, if I may borrow one of her favorite superlatives. From that night on, I read to her, eventually progressing enough to read my father’s favorite boyhood books: Nobody’s Boy, Peck’s Bad Boy, and Penrod and Sam. When she grew tired, she chased me into my bed, tucking me in. Then we fell asleep together holding hands. Thinking back, I wonder now if she hadn’t transferred some of her knowledge to me by a grandmotherly osmosis facilitated by her love.
Sometimes instead of me reading, she told me inventive stories about two fictional raccoons who lived in our barn, a pair of rascals named Smokey and Blackie. They performed the most outlandish capers and got into the most ridiculous predicaments while infuriating my uncle, scaring the sheep, and alarming the neighbors, but it was a harmless sort of hell-raising where no one was hurt and everything was neatly resolved. The plots of these adventures were quickly forgotten, but the characters weren’t, and many years later when I was presented with my own grandchildren, I resurrected the mischievous critters in a series of stories costarring them and the furry duo. And if they pass on the tales to their grandchildren, it will be proof that Granny’s love has survived death, and like the wildflowers who once were her friends, continues to bring happiness to the living and future pleasure to the yet unborn.
But all good things must end, and the night came when Granny no longer allowed me in her bed, neither to read nor to hear her stories. She had assumed the role of the mother bear who drives her grown cubs from her den. By then, however, I was reading myself to sleep in my own bed at home. But the whippoorwills and the owls and all the tireless insects still sang, and the fireflies were twice as numerous. And best of all, no one had yet brought all the noise into my world.
The year the one-room school closed, Granny took me with her one day. She plunked me down in a back row and told me to keep quiet. I forget what lessons she taught, and she hadn’t had to tug the ears of any unruly boys, but I remember the utter respect she got from all her students. Some of the older boys were several inches taller than she, but there was no question as to who was in charge. More impressive than the respect she commanded, however, was the evidence of their affection for her. I became jealous when her compliments brought bashful grins or radiant smiles. She’s only your teacher! I wanted to shout, But she’s my granny!
Riding home that afternoon in her old Plymouth, I had the unsettling realization that she was living another simultaneous life with other children and that I wasn’t the only boy she cared about. She never took me back, and I soon forgot about the competitors for her love. Once more I was number one by default, and as I saw it, by logic.
There was no kindergarten in my township back then, so Granny enrolled me in an all-day class in Birdsboro. Transportation was not provided, but in one of those predestined “coincidences,” when the one-room school closed, Granny had immediately gotten a teller’s job at the Bank of Birdsboro. In another stroke of “luck,” her work hours coincided with my class hours. She dropped me and a neighborhood boy off in the morning, went to work, and picked us up as soon as she balanced her till.
Our teacher read to us after lunch while we lay on floor mats. The plan was that we’d all fall asleep, take a nap. Unknown to her, I had stopped napping at the age of four, resenting what I considered arbitrary periods of unconsciousness. One day after all the other children had fallen asleep, I asked the teacher if I could read the book to myself.
“Prove you can read and I’ll let you do it,” she said, handing me the book. “It’s from the fourth grade library.”
I read it, and from that day on I read the other children to sleep, then was allowed to stay awake and read anything I wanted from the school library. The teacher may have read to herself or even gone down the hail to flirt with a janitor or sneak a quick cigarette. I wouldn’t know— I was lost in the world of literature, using a map my Granny had helped provide.
Granny played piano with a flagrant disregard for dynamics. For her it was always fortissimo, and how! Perhaps unconsciously compensating for her size, she attacked the keys as if they were the ears of wayward students. Miraculously she could span an octave with her small hands, and they hammered up and down the keyboard until the ghost of the dead elephant trumpeted its displeasure.
After Sunday dinners at my uncle’s house, he and my father and Granny often performed in the living room. As she played songs from her youth, my father accompanied her on his violin, and Uncle Bob sang with his strong tenor. As they thundered through rousing versions of “This Old House,” “My Grandfather’s Clock,” and “Abdul Abulbul Amir,” I sat quietly on the couch with my mother and aunt.
Sometimes I stood by the dark picture window and looked out into the night. Our farm laid spread below, and beyond that the Hay Creek valley, dotted here and there by the friendly lights of farmhouses. When a fire crackled in the fireplace, the reflected light seemed repelled by the outer darkness and I seemed suspended in a cocoon of security woven by love.
The piano, unplayed and out of tune, still sits at my uncle’s (now my cousin’s) house, and my dad’s violin that sat on top is gone. The after-dinner trio is long dead and only I remain. There are more lights it the valley now, but they aren’t from farms. No more fires reflect in the window— my aunt had the chimney sealed to keep out bats. She’s dead too, and the music and magic have ended. Now there is only the memory and these words that preserve it.
In 1953, the year my father bought our first television, Granny traded in her old Plymouth for a slightly dented 1950 Ford four-door sedan. My uncle saw this as a godsend. He didn’t own a truck because he didn’t have a driving license, and the reason he didn’t was because he occasionally had grand mal epileptic seizures. But he still drove anyway when he thought it was unavoidable. Soon he found it was absolutely imperative to remove the back seat from Granny’s car, stuff it full of sheep, and haul them twenty miles to the New Holland auction. My job was to sit next to him and prevent the sheep from jumping over the front seat. The rear windows were rolled halfway down for air, and we must have provoked astonished looks and disbelieving laughter as we zoomed by, sheep heads protruding like ugly dogs enjoying the breeze.
Another exception to Uncle Bob’s no-drive policy was the annual Wool Pool at the county fairgrounds. We stuffed the trunk, the seatless rear, and half of the front seat with the fleeces from sixty lambs and sheep, and hauled them to the sale. The highlight of the trip, besides being allowed to skip a day of school, was when I was allowed to climb up a ladder and jump up and down on the fleeces, packing them into a huge canvas sack. I ended up wet from sweat and greasy from lanolin. I never considered how Granny managed to get the lingering odor out of her car, and consequently out of her hair, but folks back then mustn’t have been as fastidious as they are today.
Shortly after she got the new car, she took a teller’s job at the Elverson bank, a small stone fortress with fancy wrought iron-barred windows. The interior was a splendid example of Victorian architecture, and she proudly stood on her stool behind the marble countertop, smiling at her customers through an ornately filigreed brass grill.
My neighborhood friend and I used to ride our bikes five miles to the Birdsboro Bank and go through their stock of penny rolls in order to complete our collection of Lincoln cents. Elverson, however, was almost ten miles away, too far to pedal. We continued going to the Birdsboro bank, but the tellers were no longer as amenable to our constant exchanges of rolls now that Granny didn’t work there anymore. We no longer got free lollipops and the bank president chased us from the steps where we had always examined the coins. Soon we stopped going at all, and I had an inkling of what a future life without Granny might be like.
In 1957, I was ten, and the center fielder on the Geigertown Little League team. I usually rode my bike two miles to the practice field, but one summer day I had a flat tire and had to walk. After practice, the assistant coach, an exacting fussbudget whom the players disliked, offered to drive me home. Because my pants were dirty from sliding, he wouldn’t let me sit on the seat, so I knelt on the floor, straddling the driveshaft hump. Halfway home, the music on the radio stopped mid song, and the disc jockey read a bulletin: The Bank of Elverson had just been robbed!
“My Granny works there!” I shouted, leaping up and staring wildly at the radio, as though it might morph into a television broadcasting a live report.
The coach, such a prissy wimp that he wore white Pat Boone-style shoes to hit fungo flyballs, told me to get back on the floor, Then he turned off the radio, as if he thought I was a little liar who needed a lesson, When he stopped in front of my house, I jumped out without thanking him and ran inside to tell my mother. But she had already heard from Granny, who had called home to assure everyone she was all right.
The police caught the two robbers at a roadblock ten miles from the bank. They surrendered meekly, dropping their unloaded Thompson submachine guns on the ground. When the newspaper articles appeared, Granny became an instant heroine, boldly refusing to go into the bank vault with the rest of the employees. Perhaps her only fear in life was to be slowly suffocated, even though she had been repeatedly assured that that was impossible. At any rate, she had her fifteen minutes of fame and then returned to her preferred role as a grandmother, a Sunday school teacher, and a friend to the world.
The bank has been closed for over forty years now, preserved as a historical building, its ornate plaster moldings, and marble floor, and counters dusty and unpolished. It sits preserved in time near the center of town, musing of a day when a great drama starring my Granny had been staged inside its ashlar walls.
It’s said that too many cooks spoil the broth and two women under one roof is one too many. It couldn’t have been easy for my Aunt Margie to live with an independently minded woman like Granny. Granny was an odd combination of an old-fashioned woman of tradition and a women’s rights advocate before most people even knew such a movement existed. Granny probably realized this, and decided to move out. In 1960, Uncle Bob bought her a small, one-bedroom house trailer and put it on a lot halfway between the barn and my parents’ home. The sheep had been sold, the chickens eaten, and the fields and pastures were reverting to brush and weeds, the surrounding woods encroaching tree by tree. This must have pained Granny, but I never heard her complain. My uncle had also bought her a small spinet, which she attacked with the same fervor she had used on its bigger brother. She had always kept “chicken hours,” to bed with the sun and up with the rooster, and in the winter when I checked my muskrat traps in the dark before breakfast, I often heard her pounding out spirituals, singing loudly as she played. Hers was a music rooted in God; her life an existence based on love. As I walked the grassy banks, my flashlight probing the dark water of the creek, I felt protected by her voice and music, comforted by a great intimacy. It was almost as though we were still holding hands in the dark.
She retired from the bank in the early sixties but slowed down not a bit. She remained active in the church and took various self-improvement courses at the Birdsboro YMCA. She was an excellent cook whose recipes were stored in her mind. She measured in pinches and dashes and just-a-little’s, and when she died, her cuisine perished with her. But while she lived, she entered and won baking contests all around the county, or as far as she dared to drive in her new ‘58 Plymouth. She had gotten rid of the Ford when the sheep were sold, the interior probably still reeking of their sour odor. The Plymouth was a huge boat of a car, quite a schooner to be piloted by such a tiny woman. But she managed, just as she had managed in everything she had ever attempted throughout her life.
In 1963, I was old enough to hunt by myself, and I brought her rabbits and pheasants instead of chickens. The old chicken house was crumbling apart, and the chopping post leaning aslant, hidden by weeds. If she missed her flock or the sheep or even the long-gone cows, she never let on. She was a woman who lived in the present and put paid to the past without regret.
When I turned sixteen in 1963, I used her automatic transmission car for my driving examination, afraid I might stall my father’s stick shift ‘57 Chevy. Within two years, she had stopped driving at night because of her poor night vision. Then in 1966, she voluntarily returned her license to the state and parked her car at the barn when the inspection ran out. For the rest of her life, she depended upon the kindness of friends and relatives. She had other grandchildren, of course, and as I grew older and drifted out of her influence, we didn’t see each other very much, and she turned to them more and more.
She still sang up the sun and watched from her porch as it sank into the trees behind the barn in the evening. When I was little, she had once told me that when she died she hoped that God would allow her to paint the sunsets. Now that I was older, I sometimes thought of her rocking on her porch alone, patiently waiting for God to summon her to heaven and hand her the brush. She was growing old as I was growing up, and our worlds no longer coincided.
The young are accidental tourists in the country of the eternal Now, unwitting Zen masters of the present who laugh at the Future as a rumor bandied about by grumpy old codgers tottering on three legs. Then one day they realize that time is like a butterfly: apparently standing still when it’s actually flying. I graduated from high school and embarked on my Kerouac phase, chasing his legend from Greenwich Village to Haight-Ashbury until I returned home, older, a tad wiser, and much more cynical. During these years, I had only seen Granny in passing. The boy who had snuggled in her bed and held her hand in the dark and walked with her through the fields calling out the wildflowers by name bad grown up, and the man he had become had not honored her memory.
I first learned of her illness in the spring of 1972. We sat side by side on her porch, listening to the furious quacking of mating wood frogs in the tiny swamp along the creek. She rocked slowly in her chair, her slippered feet barely touching the concrete patio. She appeared to have shrunken into herself, as though age was devouring her from within. When I took her hand, it felt cool and dry and so fragile that I feared it might crumble. All the Christmases and Thanksgivings and family picnics I had missed in the last few years had exacted a toll; for the first time in my life I felt awkward in her presence, guilty of neglect, an offense for which I could never atone. I had thought she would never grow old, never change, and I was wrong.
We were talking of nothing in particular when she suddenly asked, “Would you bring me a six-pack of beer? I can’t get up the courage to go in a tavern and buy one myself.” She attempted a smile, but failed. When she looked away, I noticed how her thin, white hair had receded from her forehead, revealing the shape of her skull. Her liver spotted hands, no longer capable of knitting, trembled in her lap.
“Beer!” I laughed, thinking she was joking. “Since when did you start drinking?”
“My doctor thinks it might help my constipation if I drink a can every day.”
I forced a chuckle, thinking that her constipation might be a symptom of a more serious problem. “Well, I never met a drunk yet who had trouble pooping.”
“Don’t joke so,” she chided. “You know that I’ve never so much as sniffed a glass of alcohol in my life. Just the thought of drinking it makes me angry.”
“I’ll get it for you tomorrow, I promised. We relaxed in our chairs, guarding our thoughts. A car swooshed past, then two more, causing the frogs to briefly stop quacking. After a few minutes of silence, a single risked a tentative croak, and within seconds the March air was alive with their cries. I turned to Granny and saw her looking at me with a strange expression.
“Is there something wrong, Granny?” I asked, sensing that something was amiss. “Have you been sick?”
“Oh, it’s just a little of this, a little of that. You know— the usual annoyances that plague us when we get old.” She smiled bravely, then resumed staring at the overgrown pasture across the road where nesting mourning doves were calling, their hollow, quizzical voices almost drowned out by the incessant racket from the swamp.
She’s lying! I realized. It’s more than that. But I kept my suspicions to myself and said nothing. When it became dark, I left. I brought beer for a month or so until she quit drinking it. She said it had done her no good. Of course it hadn’t. Even the most enthusiastic drunkard alive wouldn’t have the audacity to claim that beer could cure cancer.
I was twenty-five, a grown man, but it took all my courage to face the fact of Granny’s imminent death. I hated hospitals and hated what went on in them, but that’s where she was. I visited her shortly after her first and last operation. It had been a failure; the cancer had metastasized from her lungs to her entire body. She had never smoked nor drank and had lived a life of Christian integrity, and now she was riddled with poison, a mere husk tethered to this plane of existence by the IV lines snaking from her bony arms. When I entered her room, she was gazing upwards, already halfway detached from this world, awaiting the gift of death.
I slid a chair next to her bed and picked her hand from her chest. My touch brought her back from where she had drifted. Without ado, her dark, sunken eyes aglitter, she told me how she had died on the operating table.
“I saw the golden stairs stretching all the way to heaven, Burl, and when I had climbed almost to the top, they brought me back!” She closed her eyes in despair, tears trickling down her cheeks. “I woke up in this bed and I wanted to scream. I asked the nurse why they didn’t let me die, why they brought me back.”
“What did she say?” I was barely able to speak, on the verge of bawling myself.
“She said I had been hallucinating from the drugs.” She squeezed my with a surprising strength, shaking her head in denial. “I know what I saw, Burl. I saw heaven, and that’s where I want to go.”
I held her frail hand, tears running down my cheeks, dripping from my moustache. It was my first experience with human death and I was overwhelmed with grief. The woman who had seemed so strong, so indomitable, had been reduced to a prisoner of her own flesh, eager to flee. In the end she loved someone more than me, a mysterious stranger called Death.
“Will you do me a favor?” she asked, her burning eyes boring into mine.
I was freely weeping. “Anything, Granny, you know that,” I blubbered.
“Pray for me to die, Burl. Ask God to take me. I want to go home.”
I began crying. “I can’t do that,” I managed to say. “I can’t ask God to kill you!”
“Oh, Burl!” she wailed, crying now herself. “I’m so tired and hurt so much. I want to go home.”
I had to leave; I couldn’t bear her anguish. The woman who had taught me to read, who had introduced me to her friends, the flowers, was begging to die, asking me to be her accomplice in death, to petition God to steal her from me, take away the woman I loved. I was shattered.
I got up, then bent over her and hugged her gently, afraid to crack the fragile shell in which she lived. “I love you, Granny,” I whispered in her ear, my tears wetting her face, dripping on her pillow.
She tried to raise her hand and comfort me, but it fell uselessly to the sheet. “You have a strange way to show it,” she murmured, alluding to my rare visits.
Her accusation cut me to the quick, wounded me. I mumbled a goodbye and fled in shame, and despair, and fear. I never saw her again alive, and she died in a hospice a week later. God had finally taken her without my intercession.
She was buried on a cold but sunny November afternoon. I helped carry her to her grave, then stood in my uncomfortable suit and tie while the preacher droned on. I didn’t hear a word; I wasn’t listening. I watched the sky for an omen, perhaps a hawk or crow or a vee of geese to conduct Granny’s soul to the afterworld for which she had so yearned. But there were only stray white clouds being harried to the horizon by a brisk north wind. It was too late in the season for wildflowers, but sere brown and red sycamore and oaks leaves skittered across the cemetery lawn and blew onto the carpet around her bier. When the last words were said, I walked away by myself, dry-eyed, resigned to her fate.
I changed clothes at my apartment. I put on my hunting clothes and took my double-barrel shotgun from the closet and drove out to the country. I parked in a dirt lane, loaded my gun, and walked into the autumn fields of dead weeds and bare trees. Overhead I heard distant geese, but I didn’t bother to look; I was alert for the brown flash of fleeing rabbits and the gaudy explosion of pheasants. It was midweek, and I had the woods and fields to myself. Granny was with me, as she always would, but I didn’t think of her, not while I was hunting. There was only the thick cover laced with briars and the sun and the wind that blew the last leaves sideways across the blue, blue sky.
At dusk, I sat on a log and watched the sun go into the earth. Next to my broken and unloaded shotgun laid two cock pheasants I had killed. I held one up to the last of the light and admired the shimmering reds and blues and greens of its iridescent feathers. Its lids were half-closed, its irises dulled and fixed. On the very tip of its beak was a drop of blood, and I gently wiped it away with my sleeve. The western sky behind the lifted bird was a riot of color, which Granny had painted with her typical exuberance.