When Dad called about Grandma, it was a weekday late in the afternoon, not the usual time to get a long-distance call from back east. I had just walked in the door from school, loaded down with papers to grade. His words were clipped and short, his voice flat, the way he spoke when news was bad. “She just gave up, I guess...just wanted to be with Grandpa.” I asked him how she had died. “Heart attack,” he said quickly. I imagined him on the other end of the line, pursing his lips as he often did at times like this. I asked him how he was doing. He was fine, he said, just fine. Maybe I heard a little relief in his voice.
In spite of Dad 's protests, I insisted on meeting him in Indiana for the funeral. He lived in Rochester, New York, and I was living in Denver, Colorado at the time, May of 1986. It was Thursday and the funeral was Saturday. After we hung up, I sat on the couch, thumbing through the phone book until I came to the airlines section. I tried not to think about Grandma. I would have to line up a substitute teacher and get some lesson plans together. Most of my students would be happy I was gone for a few days. Some of the students, the kinder ones who would take the time to ask me what happened, would be genuinely sorry.
Claribel Nash neé Wiese had been a school-teacher, too. For a time in a one-room schoolhouse near Cumberland, Indiana, she taught Music and Arts to children from six to sixteen, all in the same classroom. She was only twenty years old herself when she started teaching. In winter, the mailman would take her to school in an open horse-drawn sled, tucking a red wool blanket around her for the long trip. The schoolhouse had a potbelly stove and an entire wall of blackboard. Her students were farmers’ sons and daughters and during harvest time school closed, all able-bodied workers being needed at home.
Rex Isaac Nash, better known as Doc, a veterinarian who had studied in Indianapolis, met my grandmother when he was twenty-four and she was twenty-five Following his return from service in France during World War One, he proposed to her, taken as he was by her wise smile, her solid, no-nonsense ways and her love of work. She gave up her full-time teaching job and helped Doc build up his veterinary practice in Point Isabel. Later, they moved to Fairmount. Doc was a handsome, square-jawed man who had sported a crew-cut ever since his time in the army. As a veterinarian on the Western Front, he cared for the horses and mules that pulled the cannon through northern France. He worked with the cannon as well, and after a year at the front, lost his sense of smell, the sulfur from the explosives burning it right out of him. He used to tell Grandma that he loved the taste of her apple pies, he only wished his nose could enjoy them also.
They had one son, Charles Rex Nash, my father. Doc was a rowdy man when my dad was a baby, drinking beer and carousing. One day, Claribel packed her bags and told him that she was going to leave him if he kept up his boozing. He took a turn of heart, gave up beer and, along with his wife, joined Fairmount Friends Church, a Quaker congregation. Members sang at the meeting house, and Doc loved this outlet; his rich, resonant voice had earned him the reputation as the best bass in Marion County. Years later, during his funeral service, a recording of him singing “How Great Thou Art” was played at the end. My dad told me that even the funeral director, Mr. Humboldt, cried.
Humboldt Funeral Home was right across the street from Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The building looked forbiddingly cold to me when I was young, with its white aluminum siding and fancy wrought-iron work on the front steps. My grandparents' wooden framed house, with its graceful porch was a safe place from which to watch the comings and goings at the funeral home. Grandma declared one day that she felt good, knowing that it was the Humboldts who would be burying her when the time came.
Until I was about eleven, my family would visit my dad’s parents at the end of every August, when the intense summer heat of the Prairie had just begun to taper off in the evenings. But the locusts would still buzz all day, making the air seem hotter. My favorite pastime on these visits was sitting on the big porch swing with my two older brothers, Rex and Phil, and shucking mounds of fresh corn. With a paper fan in her lap that she never actually used, Grandma would relax in a padded metal rocking chair, the kind that rested on springs. We’d make a game of corn shucking. Some of the big ears had little ones inside, tucked away in the silk and whoever found the first "baby ear" was the winner. I don’t recall what we won, maybe Grandma's approval. She’d check to see if we had removed all the silk. “They're looking real good,” she'd say, admiring the stack of shining, light-yellow corn. Then we would clean up the porch and bundle the husks up in old newspapers. For our efforts, Claribel would give us nickels for popsicles at the Ben Franklin five-and-dime down the street. My favorite flavor was blueberry.
After the last of those family visits to Fairmount, about sixteen years elapsed before Grandma and I were back in touch again. Our family had gone through some rough times in between. My parents had divorced and Grandma telephoned my mother one day and called her a whore for kicking out Dad. Claribel had ‘disowned’ my mother, whatever that meant. Grandpa, in his passive way, consented to these actions. When I chose to live with my mother after the divorce, Grandma interpreted my actions as treacherous and she and I no longer saw one another, or even exchanged letters.
My father was very much in the middle during this ordeal, trying to appease all the women in his life. He kept in touch with Grandma and visited her about once a year but never brought up her name to my mother. After I left home and moved to Denver, he would write to me about how his parents were doing; ‘updates’ he called them. Claribel and I got back in communication after my twenty-seventh birthday, for which she sent me a card. I don 't know what motivated her to start writing again but she never acknowledged the years of silence. Her letters were very different from the ones I received when I was younger, more pained and lonely sounding.
Claribel had been a remarkably strong and sturdy woman in her day and had made a fine horse doctor's wife, joining him in the middle of the night for emergency calls. She used to write to me about those late-night missions and the deer hunting trips she and Doc took up to North Dakota every fall. They would send us gloves for Christmas made from the hides of the deer they’d shot. Sometimes we used to visit them at Thanksgiving and they'd send us home with piles of packaged venison in dry ice. Doc even gave a set of antlers to each of my brothers. Deer hooves went to the glue factory. I had such respect for the two of them for the care they took that nothing from the hunt went to waste.
Now, however, her letters contained a chronicle of her ailments: a broken hip, arthritis, heart problems, failing vision. I thought she was actually doing well for ninety. She wrote to me, on her Emeraude sweet violet-scented notepaper, that since Grandpa had died, she prayed every day to join him soon. To pass the time, she read The Bible and crocheted brightly colored afghans for the Indians on the reservations in Dakota, sending them off with specific instructions: a mother must get the soft green one, a baby girl should have the pink and white.
She'd write about Dad, too, wishing that he would get some time off from work to visit her. Yet she’d still close her letters with an ominous message, perhaps something like, “I’ve always loved you, Dear, even though your mom did what she did.”
A few months after she got back in contact with me, I decided to visit Claribel in Fairmount. I had suddenly noticed with quiet alarm that she was the last of my living relatives outside of my immediate family, both of my mother’s parents having died several years before. The revelation was not a comfortable one. Why hadn't I reached out to Grandma? Sixteen years had passed by and I’d missed that many of the years she had left. Since it was the end of the school year, I was planning to drive home to Rochester anyway, as I'd done every summer since my move to Denver. It was more than 1,400 miles, but this time I would make a side trip to Indiana, a mere 300-mile detour. I wrote Grandma about my plans, telling her I could spend a night or two with her, if that was all right. She wrote back and asked whether I wanted to stay the whole summer.
To avoid the punishing daytime heat, I used to drive well into the night, the glow from my dashboard and the semi-truck drivers around me keeping me an odd sort of company. They were kind to me on the highway; it was a foggy night and they “escorted” me for a few hundred miles, their bright beams cutting through the dense mist. I gave Grandma a call about two hours outside of St. Louis. I had always made a point to pass through St. Louis at dawn; the Gateway Arch by the Mississippi glows with soft oranges and reds at sunrise. I told Grandma that I 'd be seeing her within the next four hours, depending on traffic; I just had to finish a short traverse across the southern tip of Illinois, then turn up to Indianapolis and finally Fairmount.
I loved these trips alone, crossing roughly half of the U.S. I felt free and independent behind the wheel, and felt convinced this time that my eastern sojourn would somehow tie our whole family closer together, by my re-establishing contact with Grandma in Indiana and taking the news on to Rochester, to my brothers, my dad, and even my mom. When I reached Fairmount in the late afternoon, I drove as slowly as possible down the quiet oak-lined Main Street, with its solid wood and brick houses. I was amazed how little had changed since I was eleven years old. The town seemed, strangely, too quiet, like a movie set that was waiting for the crew to turn up. Two boys leaning against a storefront stared at me as I drove by. I stood out as my compact Japanese car and Colorado license plates were a novelty there.
Claribel's house was on South Henley Avenue which intersected Main Street at an angle. In the grassy triangle that was formed by the two roads, there was a small war memorial park. The World War One cannon was still there, the one I had played on as a child, the one I had imagined was the very cannon, with all its smoke and sulfur, that had robbed Grandpa of his sense of smell. She was waiting on the front porch. She smiled and waved as I pulled in, her beautiful blue-white hair perfectly tucked into a hairnet. She wore a cotton shirtwaist dress with a lavender flower print, support stockings and brown, thick soled shoes. She was stooped and her breasts sagged to her dress belt. We hugged each other and kissed. She felt so frail, but her hold was still strong. It was as if I were that eleven year old child again. “Oh, you made it, you brave girl,” she said.
After I unpacked what I needed from the car, I sat with her in the kitchen and took in the surroundings, looking at Claribel amongst her knick-knacks, and suddenly realizing how much I had missed all of this: her talcum-powder smell, the rows of violets along the window sill, the delft-blue tile above the sink, the pantry, aromatic, when I was a child as well as now, with a freshly baked pie, stacked with jars of her own pickled cucumbers. She insisted that I eat a big piece of apple pie she’d just made as a snack before supper. I don't know how she managed to bake with her clumsy walker in the kitchen. “Your Grandpa loved my pies, you know,” she said self-confidently, adding, “and you do too, don 't you?” I nodded but I could barely taste it; I was quietly experiencing another kind of sensory explosion. I wanted to slip back into childhood and poke around her house unselfconsciously, as I had done years ago.
It was a still, hot evening. Grandma started talking about my dad, whom she had always called Junior, even though his name is Charles: Junior the chess champion of the five-county region, Junior the football hero of Purdue University, Junior as a member of the US Army Air Corps during World War Two. We took a slow walk around the house after that, and she pointed out the items she wanted me to have when she was “gone.” I protested when she talked this way. It was only after that first summer, when I returned for another visit, that I realized it comforted her for me to be there as the listener, the receiver. “You’ll get the china, the silver and the cherrywood bedroom set, she'd said with authority. I don’t want my life spread out like a garage sale, like what happened to Maxine.” Grandma shook her head. "You know what the auctioneers did? They put out all her beautiful china on picnic tables. She had no kin and on the day of the sale; it poured down rain. Do you think anyone bothered to take the stuff in? Oh, it was a sin, a real sin.”
Aside from my morning runs out by the cornfields and short walks into town, there wasn't a lot for me to do in Fairmount. As a child, of course, the possibilities seemed endless. I could ride one of the Shetland ponies at Wilkinson 's farm outside of town or go to the paw-paw patch and sing with my mother while we collected the fruit: “Pickin’ up paw-paws, Put ‘em in your pocket.” I’d also tend the rose garden with Grandma, or go with Grandpa on a call to the hog farm. But at twenty-seven, single and restless, Fairmount was not a place I could visit for long. The boys racing up and down Main Street in their souped-up Firebirds, the old movie theater that reeked of cigars and beer, the Ben Franklin store, dreary with its rows of mannequins sporting the latest in mix and match polyesters, I found these sights depressing. The only refuge was Grandma's house.
At the end of the visit, Grandma helped me load up my cooler with leftover chicken, jello, and three-bean salad. "They’ll just go to spoil," she'd said. I would never refuse these gifts, never. On the front porch, she gave me a kiss and pressed a ten-dollar bill into my hand. “Your Grandma loves you," she told me. I held her tight to me and told her I loved her too. Then I got in the car, after two days in that small town where time had passed so slowly and headed east to Rochester, my speed picking up steadily the further I got out onto the open road. I knew why Dad and Mom left Fairmount, the same reason the actor Jimmy Dean, who is buried there and more or less grew up there, did. It’s a peaceful, beautiful place, but you walk around thinking, there must be more, I know there's more.
Claribel was satisfied with ‘enough’: Enough food, enough good folks at the meeting house to organize community suppers, enough money for annual hunting trips to Dakota, enough time to knit and write letters and read the Bible. Her funeral was that way too, nothing extravagant. Dad and I sat in the front row of the chapel room of Humboldt Funeral Home, with its walls in light blue moiré, the French Provincial chairs covered in dark blue velvet. I remember thinking that everything should have been done in shades of violet and lavender, Grandma's favorite colors. Across the street her house stood empty now. My great-cousin, Sterrett Nash, was there with his wife, Grace, as were about fifty other friends who had known both Doc and Claribel. The organist played some of her favorite hymns, the chords rolling in great sweeps, the kind of organ music she loved. Dad and I held hands throughout the service. I cried off and on. Twice, Dad shook off a sob, squeezing my hand tightly.
Grandma was buried next to Grandpa in Park Cemetery outside of town. Their graves are not far from Jimmy Dean’s. There's an inscription on her stone that reads “Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there.” When she requested this to be chiseled into the marker, I wondered, for whom did she intend those words? Dad and I spent the next few days packing up her house. He asked if I’d mind tending to her bedroom and I was very touched by this. While, he busied himself with items from the home he had grown up in-- vases and plates, the brass lamps, two cherry end tables, and the sturdy mantel clock that no longer chimed the hour-- I packed up three small afghans she had made, each wrapped in plastic. They were intended for my brothers and me, to have for our own children. She had pinned a note to each one: “To my great-grandchild.” Those I would take to Rochester. Then I carefully folded all her clothes and put them into a large box, destined for charity. The scent of Emeraude still clung faintly to her Sunday dresses.
Deborah Nash Ott is a retired English teacher from Rochester, New York. She holds an MA Ed from the University of Colorado at Denver, where she also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has lived and taught in both the United States and Switzerland. Over the years, she has participated in several writers’ groups and led workshops of her own. She loves to write and has done so all her life. Her guides have been the authors she has read and taught, and the women writers who have mentored her. Although her work is informed by a love of nature, her travels, and her life abroad, her subjects are often based on her own family. Her articles, short stories and poems have been published in small presses in both the United States and in Switzerland. She now lives and writes in Simsbury, Connecticut.