Write On!

Portraits of Heart

In Responses on June 1, 2012 at 8:40 pm

by Tara Wiley

The ancient attic stairs sagged and grieved with Grandma, whose sighs grew more audible with each steady step towards a roomful of memories. I cleared my throat anxiously as I followed her, ready to offer another escape, but she waggled her hand behind her to shush me.

“No, no, I may mutter and sputter, but this must be done, dear.” Her voice came firm from above. “And there will be good in it, I just know. Things to remember—“  sigh, step, “- things to put to rest,” – shove to the door, another sigh,  “-things to pass on. It must be done.”

A few cobwebs wrapped the tiny room, and in my fanciful mind, their presence added to the nostalgia of this occasion. But Grandma pragmatically dispersed them with another waggle of that strong hand and hustled over to the box closest to the eave’s window.

“We’ll start here, Hannah. You’ll enjoy these.” We spent the next hour immersing ourselves in the 1940s. Grandpa’s full Army dress uniform with all the brass still pinned in place was only partially attacked by moths. A certificate of commission. An old leather satchel Grandpa had used to transport documents, one of his many duties during the war. He had hated not going overseas, but the Army found plenty for him to do stateside. Grandma didn’t know many details. Back then, men didn’t share much about such things, she reminded me. Plus, they weren’t married at the time, only engaged, and that was long distance.

“It was a bad time to be a German in America,” Grandma reminisced. “I couldn’t help my name, my face, my parents. But Frank and I, we both did all we could to prove to ‘em all, we were on the right side. I left home, went to Omaha to be part of the female workforce. Oh, we needed workers back then! All the boys gone to war.

“Then there were the boys from over there, brought back and forced to work alongside us. POWs, they called ‘em, prisoners, but they didn’t look like prisoners to me. Dressed kinda sloppy, yes, indeed, but fed well, lived well, seemed to me…” I shifted my gaze from the contents of the box to Grandma’s face. She was far from me, sitting at a stool assembling who knows what with a gaggle of farmgirls on each side of her and a slew of foreign men across from her.  

“Oh! Look! Here are a few pictures my girlfriend Olivia took at the factory!”  I leaned in close to find in my grandmother’s younger portrait my own coarse, curly hair pressed into place around my squared jaw. There were my own lips spread into a cheerful grin under that strong German nose, not unlike the noses of the men standing behind me on the other side of the assembly line table.  It was hard to tell from where I sat, looking over Grandma’s shoulder, but the man just beyond Grandma didn’t seem to be looking at the camera so much as he was looking at her. Despite her angularity, she did have that strong confident look that some men find irresistible.

“Lord have mercy, seems like yesterday and forever all together! Look, there I am – and, oh my. Oh, my!” Grandma quickly turned over the picture, ready to see the next one in the disheveled pile on her lap, when a yellowed paper filled with small, neat handwriting slipped from between the photos.

“Well, I’ll be, what is this – Oh!” Grandma stood abruptly, her head connecting with the roof beam with a sickening thud.  As suddenly as she’d stood, she was back on the floor again. She struggled to rise at first, but her body refused to comply. Shocked, I watched the color drain from her face as she slowly slumped over and passed out.

“Lewis! Lewis!” My alarm reverberated through the old farmhouse. My husband and son’s footsteps echoed through the halls and up the stairs, and the next hour became a blur of frantic movement, phone calls, and discussions with the neighbor one farmstead down. His doctor-son just happened to be visiting that weekend, and yes, he would come right away to see her. He was sure we would need to take her in, for safety’s sake, but he’d be certain she was okay for us to transport. Of course, Grandma woke up and made all the fuss that much more trying with her stubborn resistance to any care.

Hours later, we tucked Grandma into bed at the hospital for the night – “just for observation,” the ER doc assured, and she insisted we return to our comfortable beds and let her be. Not a woman to be argued with, we gave our kisses and goodbyes and returned to the farmstead.

Though the concussion was mild, Grandma insisted she didn’t remember any note, nor any reason for her sudden rush to stand. My scouring of the pile of photos found nothing. The photo of the assembly line, also gone. I have my romantic notions, but I suppose I always do.

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