His foot seeks to glide as it steps over the doorsill, easing into the grooves and pits and indentations that have formed through a century’s use. Each foot carries a story as it moves from one room to another.
A young girl, tremulous and proud as she carries her first cake to the table, intent on hearing words of praise from her father.
The mother, with hair escaping from her bun, carrying a wriggling body, holding the hand of another, steadfastly working her way to the tub of hot water steaming on the kitchen floor. She works to encircle each child and wash away barnyard grime and smears. She mutters “Church don’t abide with the dirty.”, repeatedly. “A clean body is a Godly body.” Trying to hammer those words into little minds. Her child squirming as she scrubs rough lye soap behind his ears.
Grandfather, eight decades old and climbing, clutches his chest as he slips slowly to the floor, one foot on either side of the sill, gazing one more time at the portrait of his beloved wife, long passed from his side. Her grave weathered and worn with a wee babe cross beside it, both mother and child passing in a mutual birth/deathbed, the last of seven pulled from her womb.
So many years past, the children sprouting, their homes popping like mushrooms on the rich, moist loam of the land. The old homestead still ringing with young voices as they crowd about to listen to stories of past experiences, of a dear woman, gone except for memories.
And now, beyond the years of aloneness, the grandfather slips down the frame, his legs buckling beneath him, as he smiles one last time into the eyes of the woman he is going to join. Now the childish voices have died down, the fireplace embers glow dull red and black, and wispy spider webs dance in the draft spilling over the sill and through the open door. His remaining moments, speeding past, knowing these are the times quick gone, are of reflection – of times long gone and those to come he will miss seeing – of trouble and renewals.
He remembers dances on the creaky barn floor, tables laden under the burden of foods thoughtfully prepared with pride of the family. A lifetime of training, from earliest times, watching his loved ones doing chores which honed them into the persons they grew to be, products of their generation.
In the moments of each morn, as the dew-kissed flowers and ferns, and steam wisped upwards in the burn off of the day, the family knew who they were, where they had come from, and what they would grow into from the stories of other times, teachers to the next generation.
Land was the place to grow one’s heart, a place to toil but find comfort in the repetitive workings of a farm – active meditation, the soul-soothing smell of animals and earth mingling into a symphony of the senses – the active clangor of day slipping into the ease of the night – the sounds and smells but a blessing to those fortunate to know its peace.
The grandfather leaned his bulk against the door, pain slicing through his chest but bringing a comfort, soon, soon it cried out, he looking out at the dusky twilight, the orchard where bees were lulled to sleep in their hive, the trees healthy and strong – planted and tended so carefully those decades ago at his wife’s urging. “Cattle and pigs are fine for a man, but a woman needs the smell of pears ripening, the fairy dance of apple blossoms as they drift to the ground, yielding their indolent fragrance to the soft spring breezes, the wild grape vines brought from the woods and trained to grow domesticated, berries in neat patches to be turned into Winter’s jam.”
And the grandfather remembered how bewildered she made him. The dreams of pristine beauty she held onto through driest drought and bitter blizzard storms. Of them all, crowded thick those early years, she had been able to tweak the earth, reminding it to offer up its riches, chastising it until it brought abundant yields.
It had been a bold extravagance for the portrait to be painted. Money was scarce the year the painter was making his way West, drawn by the untamed beauty he’d heard described. But after a night or two of lodging, grandfather asked for a picture of his beloved. She had been embarrassed but he had held his ground saying, “As surely as the painter sees the mountains ablaze in God’s glory, so I see the heavens in your eyes, lightening my sorrow, bringing joy. I come home to see your smile. Til’ the end of my time I want to remember that smile and carry it close to my heart.”
Life can be a cold, dark space where eternity seems trapped in the deepest of caverns, never to know the sun’s warmth again. The quiet reflection of her serene calm carried him through deepest fears and greatest sorrows for he knew she would always be near, in this world or the next, to lend whispers of guidance in moments of confusion or despair.
He smiled at the image of those Saturday bathing’s – each child dreading his turn because he knew he was not to leave before his skin glowed – sometimes from the rawness of the scrubbing. The children would huddle in a group, drawing straws to see who would be next in line, those with shorter ones begging and bartering, even threatening the others to relinquish their coveted places in line. Saturday scrubbings started early in the afternoon, extending well into evening’s dark and hell would be paid to the errant child who slipped outside for a few minutes of fun, dirtying himself after his washing up.
Mother never gave much thought to the fact that seven miles on a dusty, dirt road had the ability to wilt clothes and seep dirt back into crevasses dearly scrubbed. “It is the intent that matters,” she would say as they covered the ground to the white-washed, steepled church. “God knows when people try to do his will, and is pleased,” she would say as she completed her last tasks of picking the freshest flowers for the altar’s table and brushing egg whites on baking bread for the parishioners at service’s end.
It wasn’t until years later, as they were dragging their own children to the tub, that they smiled in understanding at her fierceness about this one ritual.
Grandfather thinks of the long years since her death, that terrible silence that comes from being truly alone and bereft of the company of the one he needed most. His blessings have been many. The door sill gleams with the shine of countless footprints – it was the heart of their home because each night, as they crossed the sill, they knew they had entered a safe haven where cares could be relinquished and joys celebrated.
And as he draws his last breath, straddled across the sill, he sighs and relaxes in the knowledge that he is both home and on his way to the home of his heart