Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Grandma's Golden Roses

 

1937, the Great Depression.  Daddy’s tombstone is on the eastern end of Cottonwood Cemetery.  From there I can look over the corn fields.  Far to the east is the big sandhill where the little road climbs over it, and the sun comes up in the morning.

There is no tombstone for Mama’s own daddy.  “We will build one,” Mama says one day. 

“Won’t work,” Grandma says.  “You’re just wasting time.  And money.  We don’t have the money.”

But Grandma helps.  She wishes it would work.

“We'll do it in that covered area next to the corn crib,” Mama says.

She buys the wood, and nails the form together and lays the form on some gunny sacks and mixes white cement powder from a big sack with water, mixes it in the wash tub.

“More water,” she says to me.  I hurry to the porch, carry out as much as I can in Grandma’s 10-gallon slop pail, the water sloshing over the top.

“It won’t work,” Grandma says again.  Grandma is stout and sunburned and her face is always like she has a headache.

“It’s not going to work,” Grandma says.

She’s right.  Three times it fails.  The cement doesn’t harden all the way through, and when Mama pulls the form off, the cement cracks.

“Ah, sugar!” Mother says.

The smell of the cement tickles my nose.  We stand there looking down at the failure.  The dogs watch from a safe distance.

“I guess you’re right,” Mama says finally to Grandma.  Mama sighs.  Grandma doesn’t say anything.  Almost sunset.  Cooler now.

Grandma looks sad.  This is for her husband, my grandpa.

“One more time,” Mama says.  She and Grandma are tired and blue.  So we carry out more water and Mama mixes the last of the cement powder.

“Won’t be enough,” Grandma says, frowning.  The sun is going down.  Shadows.  I am tired.  Everyone is sad and tired and angry.

We go in to the house to wait for it to harden.  I sit out front of the house on the edge of the porch.

“Waggles,” I say to my dog.

She comes to me, looks me in the eyes, puts her paw up on my lap.

“Good doggie,” I say.

The evening breeze is starting in the walnut trees.  A shiver, a sigh.  Green walnuts fall, plunk, to the ground.  The walnuts are yellowish green, hard.  A perfect size to throw.

I pick one up, lift my arm.

“Go get it!” I say to Waggles.

She runs happily after it, brings it back to me, then won’t let go of it, wants to play.

“Not now,” I tell her.  Things are too serious.

 

It is dark when we go out to check the tombstone.  Grandma brings the lantern.

“Mama?” I say.

“I don’t know,” she says.  “Maybe.  We can hope.”

When we get there, Grandma turns up the lantern light.  Shadows.  Mama gets down, pauses a moment.  Is she praying?

She releases the form.  We hold our breath—

“It’s holding!  No cracks, yet!”

“The inscription,” Grandma says.  She is breathing hard.

Mama hurries to the house, then returns with an old knife.

Grandma holds the lantern near.  Mama very carefully, very slowly—I can hear Grandma and Mama holding their breath—slowly, carefully, she carves Grandpa’s name into the hardening white cement.

“The dates,” Grandma says, her voice tight—

Mama carves the dates in.  Birth—Death.  1881—1928.

 

The next morning we come out.

“It’s hard!” Mama says, her face beaming.  I haven’t seen her so happy for a long time.

I’m happy too.  For Mama.  And the tombstone.  Even Grandma smiles a little.

“And no cracks, it didn’t crack,” Grandma says.  I’m happy for Grandma, too.  

 

Memorial Day.  Hot. The tombstone Mama made from cement, Grandpa’s white tombstone, is there, in the cemetery, near the flagpole.

I am marching in the town band, a strap around my neck holding my snare drum.

“If you ever hit that thing—and everyone else is stopped—everyone will look at you,” my Uncle Roy told me.  He is only five years older than me because Grandma had him late.

I am very careful.

Uncle Roy is in the band, too, with his cornet.  Mama got up early, washed, starched, ironed our white uniforms.

“Got to look your best,” she said.  “This is an important day.  And we’ll say hello to your daddy.  And my daddy.  And all the others.  Very important.” 

Uncle Roy and I have blood-red sashes around our waists and another sash from our left side to over our right shoulder, and we have black band hats with long dandelion-yellow plumes sticking up from front center.

We are playing “The Footlifter March” by John Philip Sousa, and it is too hot and everyone is looking at us as we march up and stop in front of the flagpole.

“—this day to honor our—” the preacher says.

“—never to forget—” the priest says when it is his turn.

Six men with partly gray hair, in World War I uniforms, are now standing there rigid in the hot sun.

They lift their guns, shoot— “Blam!  Blam!  Blam!” into the air, a salute to the dead, and the birds stop twittering for a blank second,  and—

“Smell the gunsmoke,” the drummer next to me says very quiet.

And then I hear the beautiful trill song of a meadow lark and people are crying, and afterwards Mama and Grandma and Uncle Orville and Uncle Roy and I look at Grandpa’s new white tombstone.

“Yes,” my grandma says.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” my mother says.

Uncle Orville looks almost like a tear is coming.

Then we go to Daddy’s tombstone.  And on his grave are the most rich, glowing roses in the world.  I grab Grandma’s hand and kiss it.  She is so surprised.

“Dinty?” she says.  That’s her name for me.  No one remembers where she got it. 

Everyone looks at Grandma’s hand-made roses on Daddy’s grave.

“Just beautiful,” Mama says.

"Yes," I say.

Every year Grandma prepares for Memorial Day, weeks ahead.  Making dozens and dozens of make-believe roses, yellow like the sun, purple, orange, white, coal black, rich golden roses like on my daddy’s grave.

“What you can do with a little tissue paper and wire,” my mother says.  “You’re an artist.”

No one like her, she makes our heart-breaking rainbow roses—and every year she says—

“Dinty—you get first pick.  For your daddy.  You get the best—”

From all the roses—first pick of the best of the best roses, for my daddy.

Daddy is here under the ground.  He is not coming back, ever.  He is in a box.

“Six feet under,” Uncle Roy told me last year on Memorial Day.  “Just like my daddy.”

Uncle Roy was my exact same age, almost, three and a half, when his daddy died.  Why is that?  Does he miss his daddy like I do mine?  His daddy, my grandpa, Grandma’s husband—died one year before I was born.

“While I was pregnant,” Mama says, “When I first knew.”

“The worms eat our daddies,” Uncle Roy says.  “And rats.  And there would be only bones and rotty flesh and clothes if we dug them up,” he says.  “I don’t even remember my daddy.”

I will never forget my daddy.  Only maybe, I only know, remember, what is in the album.  The pictures of Daddy.  Did he love me?  Does he still love me?

Today I have given him Grandma’s best most precious roses.  One dozen golden roses.

I look over the corn fields to the big sand hill where the little road rises high to the east.  East to Omaha, Chicago, New York, then Paris.  I will go there someday, but now I am here at my father’s tombstone, aching for him to come back, knowing he is gone forever.  But there are the golden roses, and now there is a new tombstone for Grandpa.

 

Grant Flint has appeared in Story Quarterly, The Nation, The King’s English, Poetry, Weber, Amelia, Slow Trains, Common Ties, and 37 other print and online journals.  He was memoir winner in the 2007 “Soul Making Literary Contest,” and appeared in the 2007 “Writer’s Digest Short Story Competition Collection.”  He was nominated for the 2009 Pushcart Prize.  More importantly, he is 82, does stand-up comedy, improvises jazz on the keyboard, is currently dating seven women in the personal ads, and is modest, like all boys born in Nebraska.