West Plains, Missouri

When I think of summer I think of my grandma’s house and the mimosa tree in her yard. It was the perfect climbing tree. The tree had a solid base and easy footholds for climbing, and climb we did. Hours were spent inside that tree, Kara and I half hidden from the world, covered by the fern-like leaves. There was one branch that was just about the best branch ever. It was substantial, knotty, and a little green. I would climb out onto the branch and hold tight with my knees. Dropping backwards, I would dangle upside-down and see Grandma’s house from a different point of view. Upside-down, with my shirt tucked into my shorts, I could see the porch off of the kitchen.

That porch was the slimy porch. It was where buckets of soapy dirty dish water were thrown and where my grandfather would whittle and sizzle. He never whittled the wood into anything, no animals or whistles. He just shaved away the meat of the branch, slowly and methodically, until there was nothing left. As he sat there on the slimy steps of an old farmhouse, he “sizzled.” It was somewhere between a whistle and a hiss; teeth slightly parted and tongue pressed against the backs of his teeth, he would press air out making his odd noise. I was only about six when he died and this is one of the few memories that I clearly remember. This, and a memory of us sitting around the kitchen table getting ready to pray before dinner. As everyone bowed their heads in prayer, I would watch Grandpa to make sure his eyes were closed. Everyone knows that prayer works best when your eyes are closed. After the prayer I would tell the table that he didn’t close his eyes. I think it was a game he played with me.

When he died I remember family coming to the farmhouse in West Plains, Missouri. I remember it to be wet and chilly. I have no idea if that is accurate or if it is the manifestation of the emotions of the adults that were around me. In the grayness of the farmhouse there was a box of donuts and one had pink icing and sprinkles. It shined in the box like a beacon. I wanted that donut. I remember the want but I don’t remember if I ever ate that lovely pink treat. I sat with my cousin Jill in her parents’ car and listened to Billy Joel’s You May Be Right on the stereo. These are the memories I have that surround my grandfather, incidental memories surrounding a fabled man.

We visited West Plains many more times over the years. Sometimes it was Mom, Dad, Kara, and me, and others it was only Mom, Kara, and me. We packed into whatever car we had at the time and made the four hour drive to Grandma’s house. Sweaty naps were taken in the backseat, with faces smooshed against the vinyl seats. It didn’t matter how sleepy or groggy we were, when we neared Poplar Bluff we would wake up, because we knew a bathroom break was going to happen at the McDonalds. Long legs would spill out of the car and take a long stretch, backs and shoulders would be rolled to remove the stiffness. Inside we would use the bathroom and wash our hands. The begging for a Happy Meal would be incessant. Mom’s reply would be, “Smile at your hamburger.” Once I made the trip with my Uncle Leroy, and when it was time to order, I asked what I could order. He said I could order whatever I wanted, so I ordered a McRibb. It was a mistake and tasted terrible. I don’t remember ever ordering it again.

The times spent at Grandma’s house are now some of my best childhood memories. We once saw a snake in the grass and ran to get Grandma who swore it was only an old branch from the mimosa tree. Kara and I knew different, and for the next couple of days, every step we took was cautious, each foot was planted with great care. At the old farmhouse Mom made us take baths in a quarter inch of water, so that we didn’t deplete the cistern of water. In West Plains the soda came in glass bottles and was colder than cold. In West Plains I couldn’t get out of bed at night because everyone was aware that if you stepped on the dog’s (Booger) tail, your leg would be eaten off. It was in that house I played pretend with my Mom’s old baby dolls and her Barbie dolls. It was in that house that I read bags of Harlequin romance novels. I fantasized about being “taken” in the barn, all pulsing members and velvet sheaths.

Eventually the house was sold and Grandma came to live in Paducah. I have memories of that house too and of reading her Star magazines. According to her, you could trust Star but the National Enquirer was just full of lies. I loved my grandparents, they were quirky and interesting, and loved us a great deal. Tonight when I go to sleep I will hunker under a quilt my grandma made, a quilt that is never too heavy and never too light, and I will close my eyes and say a prayer for those that are gone. I will close my eyes when I pray, because everyone knows that prayer works best when your eyes are closed.


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