Thursday, June 8, 2017

There is nothing more quiet than the sound of a heart breaking. It sounds like my grandma's dinner rolls being tufted apart by the greedy, plump hands of my tiny cousins. Rent into pillowy pieces in seconds, after hours of kneading and rising and rolling and rising and waiting. When those rolls come hot from the oven, slathered in butter, steam wafting from the their glistening tops, it's impossible to savor them. They are devoured without a second thought. They never stood a chance.

My grandma fed me my first meal, in a cramped hospital room. She loves to tell the story of it. My mother, after hours of labor and an eventual C-section, was hardly fit to sit up, and the rest of the family had went to find a meal of their own. So, my mother watched as her mother-in-law gave her firstborn their first bottle. Mom will never say she begrudges this right, but I have my suspicions. My grandma loves that memory so much though. It makes us both smile every time she tells it.

My grandma has never stopped feeding me, either. It's a point of pride with her. My parents divorced before I was ten, and I spent weekends with my dad. Rather than be burdened by the rigor of breakfast, we'd go to my grandparents' house every Saturday morning. My grandma makes tiny pancakes. They're never more than four inches across, but they're dense, butter soaked, and mildly sweet. I'd gobble them down and she'd refill my plate, always offering to mix up some more batter, even when I'd eaten so much I could scarcely breathe.

She grew tiny strawberries in her garden each year. Those berries are still the single most delicious thing I've ever tasted - hot from sun-warmed vines, often more sour than sweet, and sometimes gritty if I was too hasty to brush off all the dirt. My grandma picked gallons full, and would wash and top the extra before freezing them with just a little sugar. We'd have strawberries all winter long, thawed hastily in the microwave, sweet and soft from the sugar. I'd spoon them onto biscuits or toast for makeshift strawberry shortcake.

One year, my grandpa decided to turn a portion of their farm into a pay lake. It's really more of an oversized pond, but I was small, so when I first saw the empty pit I was awestruck. My dad let me walk the length of it so you can say you've been in the bottom of the lake. Mud caked to the bottoms of my bright white Keds as I eased down the slope, but then slicked off in the bottom where the ground was soupy from the rain. It was slow going, but I made it to the other side, and managed to climb out without ruining my clothes. The shoes, however, could not be saved. Mud had seeped through every inch, slithering inside to coat my toes. My mother was exasperated. But hey, now I can say I've been in the bottom of the lake.

The pay lake was a hit in my little hometown. My grandparents hosted tournaments on warm summer weekends when the weather held. If I spent Friday nights with them, I'd wake Saturday morning to find the entire front lawn already covered in cars. Dozens of men would sit elbow to elbow with fishing poles cast into my grandpa's giant pond, hoping to catch the prize fish - a tagged catfish longer than a grown man's leg. My dad would compete sometimes, and bring what he caught for my grandma to cook. She'd roll tiny slices of the fish in breading, and then fry and fry until we had a small mountain of crispy golden fish. She always warned me to watch for bones, but I never once found one.

Grandpa's pond seemed like a magic trick. I was amazed at the dozens of fish hauled up from its depths - surely it was impossible for one pond to hold so many. But every weekend, men left with glowing red skin, muddy boots, and brimming buckets of fish. My grandpa spent most of his days in the bait shop, where wide windows overlooked the pond. There, along with the requisite bait, he sold soda in icy cans, candy bars, bags of peanuts, bright pink pickled eggs and sausages that looked like thick snakes coiled in their jars. My cousins took what they wanted, but I was shy. I'd always hang back until grandpa said, Want a pop? Go on Carrie, take one. You better take some to your grandma to have with dinner, too. So, last to leave, I'd hurry back to the house, my arms loaded with gurgling sodas to be doled out at dinner time.

My grandparents have always seemed like a magic trick, too. No matter how long I go between visits, nothing changes. I never knock at the front door. (You don't knock at grandma's, Dad always says.) I walk into the living room and my grandpa is snoring in his recliner. My grandma emerges from the kitchen, drying her hands on her shirt front. (With four children, seven grandchildren, and more great-grandchildren to feed, she is perpetually washing dishes.) Well, here's Carrie! she says, and my grandpa startles awake. Carrie! he says, and then he asks me if I'm still liking my job, and if my car is running okay. And I sit, and we talk a bit before grandma starts rifling through the kitchen to find something to feed me. I'm not really hungry, I say, wanting her to sit down and rest. But this is a losing battle. I know I'll be eating those sugary strawberries before I leave.

They're not magic, though. I know this becuase today I walked into a cramped hospital room with a hastily prepared meal for my grandmother tucked under my arm. I watched her hold my grandfather's unsteady hands in hers and whisper Shhh, shh, you're okay. Just be quiet and rest a while. And I was suddenly aware that everything has changed. I don't know if it was a trick of the light slanting in through my grandma's blue curtains, or if  it was a slight of hand, when my grandpa traded in his fishing pole for a cane, and then a walker. I don't know how or when it happened. But time slipped by while I wasn't looking. And in the silence of that hospital room, the only sound is my grandpa's steady breathing, and the quiet shredding of a heart between greedy fingers.

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