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Raising More Than Chickens
My great-grandparents lived in Arizona. That’s all there was. I didn’t know them well and their distance from me acted like a barrier to love and laughter.
I talked about them, but my face did not light up with fond memories, like I had seen other children’s, for there were no memories to spark such an emotion. They did not call me on my birthday, they did not shower me with compassion and joy, they did not sneak me cookies at dinner time, they did not console me when I was sad, they did not scare away my fears when I had a nightmare, they did not hold my hand to cross the street. They did none of these things. They were just my great-grandparents who lived in Arizona; and they would always stay that way too. That would always be their identity to me. Until that summer, the summer of transformations; when all that changed, and they became more to me than I would ever know.
Only when our car pulled up the drive way did I begin to panic. What would I say to them? Did they know as little about me as I did them? What did they look like? How should I greet them? A hug? A handshake? My head was swimming with so many questions that I did not see the old man sitting, silently, on the porch, eying me suspiciously. If I did I would have thought he looked a lot like my mom. Strong facial features: wide smile, big blue eyes, large callused hands. If I had seen him, like a frail porcelain doll, frozen perpetually from lack of use, I would have noticed his look – wondering, with hidden wisdom and an intense gaze that could see right into your soul. If I would have just seen him, I might have been more careful as I walked up the old wooden stairs and smacked right into the screen door. Only then did I notice him as he laughed. A deep forgiving, friendly laugh that made me blush a deep red and run, like a frightened chick, back to my nest and mother who stood, waiting next to the car. She looked down at me, confused by my sweating palms and darting eyes, and as I tried to explain, pointing to my hidden monster, did I notice that the old man was gone. My mother, still confused, shook her head and went to the back of the car to help unload, while I, knees shacking, looked around the abandoned driveway for the old man; sure he must be some type of shape shifting ghost.
We walked in, my mother, brother, and I. A tiny old women sat on a floral couch in the middle of the room, knitting. She appeared to be part of the room itself. She was surrounded by, what looked like, fifty, just as tiny lap dogs; who were lounging next to her. Their ears perked up simultaneously, like a ripple in a pool, and the woman looked up, just noticing our arrival. I was surprised at how big a smile she had for such a small face, as her facial features changed from serious to utter joy, and her hunched little figure wobbled daintily over to my mother; who gathered her in her arms like the sky to a cloud.
When the embrace finally ended the women looked at my mother with wet eyes and began asking her questions about “how life was treatin’ her.” She smiled and laughed as my mother absorbed the women through stories of her life. When the conversation turned to my brother and I my mother gestured to her side, where we waited patiently. The women looked startled as she seemed to discover there were two children in her house. I felt like a stranger, a character in the wrong story, intruding in the women’s house; and I so wanted to disappear, to go back to my pages, as she looked at me like I was an alien.
“Um, this is Nolan and Regan grandma,” my mother’s voice broke the silence like glass as I was jerked back to reality and the uncomfortable feeling of un-want. I forced an unsure smile as the women looked again at the two of us. This woman was my great-grandmother? My mind flooded a second time with questions and explanations. Yes, now I recognized her, from that picture on the nightstand. Of course she was younger then, but the smile was the same; big and bursting with happiness. She leaned in and gave me a hug, but it seemed meaningless compared to the one she had given my mother. Just than a man walked in. He wore overalls and slipped silently through the house like a shadow. I immediately recognized him as my ghost and as I was about to warn the rest of the family of the deadly presence he opened his mouth and said my mother’s name.
I turned to face my mother. She knew this guy? But how? I watched, still confused, as the man and my mother embraced in a tight hug.
“How have you been grandpa?” my mother asked. Grandpa? So this was my great-grandfather? The women elbowed my great-grandfather gently and, when obtained his attention, nodded down to me and my brother.
“Ah, so these are them then?” he asked to no one in particular.
“Yes,” was the answer he got from both women as he smiled and leaned down so as to face us.
“Yes, I remember you now,” he said, trying to hold back a laugh. “The girl who bumped her head on the door,” he finished, drawing a snicker from my brother and embarrassed warmth to my cheeks. He leaned in closer to me, as if to tell a secret and whispered, “don’t worry there hasn’t been one guest to this house that hasn’t bumped his head on that door as long as there was a door,” he smiled again and apologized with his eyes for any embarrassment his story might of caused. I forgave him with a nod and slight turn of my mouth. He than turned to my brother, who was still snickering from my story of pain, but stopped when my great-grandfather turned to him and said, “Not one guest.”
He straitened up and turned to his wife.
“Well then we best be getting a bed for these youngin’s. They must have traveled for some time now to see us way out here.”
“In deed,” answered the women who scurried over to a closet, followed closely by the entourage of lap dogs, and pulled out a mountain of pillows. I ran over to her and grabbed the two top blankets, surprised by the strength in her skinny little arms she used to carry the heavy load. She smiled and waddled to the living room where she dumped the pillows and began laying each layer out until the sheets stood a few feet above the ground.
My great-grandfather came into the room and herded us outside for a tour.
“I bet ya’ll have never been on a ranch before, huh?” he asked us excitedly. My brother and I shook our heads and looked around the dusty landscape in awe. “Well than let’s get a move-on, there’s so much to see,” the old man said with such enthusiasm that he reminded me of a child in a candy store.
First he took us to the bull pen, where he explained how to safely observe the animal, and to never, ever, ever go into the pen when the bull was around. He than led us to the goat pen where my brother and I raced around like mad men trying to catch the frightened animals. We than trotted over to the horse stables where great-grandpa identified each breed- palomino, stallion, quarter horse-, each name ringing in my ear like a familiar lullaby. Finally, we visited the chickens where great-grandpa proudly explained that he and great grandma only ate the eggs their chicken’s produced, so they knew where they come from, and every morning great-grandma collected each egg.
“Can I help great grandma collect the eggs?” I asked, catching myself off guard. He looked a little surprised by the question but then, hesitantly, said, “Yes, of course, anytime you want”.
He led us into the house where a smell of sweet addiction hit me like a tidal wave. The table was set with shining plates and bright yellow napkins that reminded me of sunflowers and great grandma’s smile. Food was sitting, steaming, on each plate and I found myself drooling absent mindedly.
We sat at the table in an awkward silence and only the sound of forks hitting dish kept me from going completely crazy. Great grandpa, God bless him, broke the silence by turning to grandma and saying, “Well, sweetie, Regan asked if she could collect eggs with you in the morning and I said it was alright.”
“Oh course,” grandma answered, “though it might be a bit early for you.”
“I don’t mind,” I said hopefully, wanting to prove myself.
“All right, I’ll expect you at six o’clock out in the pen.”
It was cold at six I soon found out, but grandma’s words, like a challenge, made me drag myself out of bed and stomp outside in the chilling breeze to the chicken pen. I saw grandma from across the yard as she opened the screen door and walked steadily over to where I stood.
“Oh!” she exclaimed surprised to find me here; “I didn’t think you’d make it.”
“Yep,” I said proudly.
She hesitated again, as if unsure what to do with me now that I was actually out here. She handed me a tin bucket and led me into the caged pen where the hens lived. She explained to me how to “de-egg” a hen as she called it and I found myself confused at every word. Wanting to show her how brave and mature I was, I crouched down inside the miniature house and felt around in the darkness until I found a clump of feathers. I pulled up, but was surprised when the object jumped up and ran, like a bullet, out of the house and onto my head. I screamed and toppled over, sending the hen flying. I looked up, face burning, as I saw grandma laughing hysterically.
I continued this process of “de-egging” the hens each morning and every morning grandma looked less and less surprised by my presence until it became sort of a routine for the two of us. She greeted me and we began to talk and connect by an invisible force. We laughed at each other’s stories and whispered of hidden secrets we each shared. I learned my great-grandfather had fought in WW1. I learned my grandmother had met him in high school and that, well, the rest was history. I learned the two had moved to Arizona after marriage and had stayed there ever since. Each story told me something new about my great grandparents. Each story brought me closer to them until it seemed I had known them all my life.
Finally, the day came when we had to leave. I packed my suitcase slowly, as if in slow-motion. Time had gone so fast. I didn’t want to leave, not now when I was finally connecting with the people I had spent so much time blocked off from. Why did we have to live so far away? I still had so many questions and I knew grandma had more stories. How long would it be until I would see them again? I stood by the car, silent and un-moving. It felt like a movie. Like I was looking down on my body and I could just click the remote and it would all be over. But there was no remote and I was here; leaving my great-grandparents in Arizona. I single tear rolled down my cheek as I watched my mother and great-grandmother embrace for the last time. My great-grandfather came out, just as quiet and hidden as the first day I arrived. He squatted down so we were face to face.
“You take care of yourself now,” he said, “don’t be running into any doors.”
We exchanged a memory and a smile as he stood up and walked over to my mom. My great-grandmother came over to where I stood with wet eyes and a forced smile.
“Be good now,” she said on the verge of tears.
“I will grandma,” I reassured her as we hugged a true, honest hug, the kind I had always wanted and had finally gotten.
I got into the car, letting my shoe drag like a puppet’s string across the dusty ground, for the last time. I looked back over the mountainous landscape to the sunset, peeking out from the ground and turned to face my great grandparents. I shut the door and watched them fade away from sight until they were no more then tiny specks on the horizon.
Life went normally after that. I went to school, came home, ate dinner; and for the most part the summer almost lost it’s meaning for me, until my mother got the phone call. I could hear her crying from upstairs and tiptoed down to the living room silently. A chill went down my back as I caught the words “when’s the funeral” and “well, she’s in a better place now.” I scurried up the stairs, guilty of what my eavesdropping ears had heard. Who had died? Did I know them? I waited for her to reach my room. I tried to sound as innocent as possible as she asked if she could come in. The bed lurched as she sat at the end, hands clasped tight, with mascara clumped on her eyelashes.
“Regan, something…awful has happened,” my mother struggled, trying to find the right words.
“What is it mom?” I asked, knowing it must be something bad for her to want to tell me first before my brother.
“Your great-grandmother…she, she died.”
It is hard to understand someone’s loss if you have never experienced such a feeling yourself. For someone like me, the feeling was new and strange. The house felt empty and cold, like the inside of a dark cave. I felt guilty when no tears came. I felt awkward when she began to cry again. I wanted to hold her in my arms like she did every time I cried and tell her everything would be alright. My step-dad peeked around the door and when finding his wife disheveled and I, forgotten by her as she cried, he ushered me out of the bedroom like a bad omen.
“Mom is having a little alone time,” was his explanation for mom’s behavior since grandma’s news. Mom left for the funeral the next day. I had to stay home with my step-dad and brother. The house felt hollow and sad, like me. I moped around the house for days and everything took forever to do. Brushing my teeth was a week long process and you couldn’t get me out of the house for anything.
I only snapped out of my depressing haze when mom came back home. But she wasn’t really back, just her body was. Her eyes were not hers, but miserable ones and she moved through the house like a ghost.
“Sweetie, are you okay?” Her voice was so sincere that I crumbled and all of a sudden all those tears I had been holding back flowed out in a giant wave of sadness.
After a while the house felt full again and the memory of my great-grandmother brought a smile instead of a tear. Even though I will always miss her I know she is close in spirit. I will always treasure that summer, that summer of dreams, that I spent with my grandma, the summer where I learned more about my great grandparents than I would ever know. And they became more than just my great-grandparents who lived in Arizona, but two people who will always have a special place in my heart.