Friday, October 16, 2009

Brick and Mortar

In her later years, my grandmother told stories about trains.

In one, she was being carried under a mountain by a train late at night with her brother and sister. She thought this had happened the evening before, and she had phoned us, she thought, to tell us about her trip through the tunnel. We hadn't received a call, we said. At this she paused, raised one hand, and threw it at us dismissively as if we were the ones telling tall-tales.

As she turned her head from us and frowned, the oxygen line running to her nose settled into the shoulder-folds of her flower print.

The train memory made her tired and a little scared too. But she also seemed to treasure it. I understood her nostalgia for trains, but, since I was attuned to her failing mind, these stories seemed psychologically-loaded as well.

Had there been a moment in the past when she was on a train with these beloved people who were now gone? For my widowed grandmother, was this innocent mountain-trip a yearning for the married love a train might somehow represent? Or might there be a more haunting reason for her imagining?

The story gave me a strange feeling. Because it was clearly fantasy, I felt like a nurturer when she told it. I responded with an “oh yeah” that wasn't as much patronizing as it was what I might say to a little girl who was talking about eating spaghetti on Mars. I didn't want to ignore what she was saying; I wanted to know more. I wanted her to spelunk the crumbling caves of her memory. On the one hand, this mild bit of dementia might remind her of an important family connection, and might help me understand her history.

On the other hand, though, the story put me on edge. It brought to mind images of the holocaust—of the strong, the weak, and the weak-minded whisked away on death trains, brothers and sisters together. My grandmother did identify strongly with the Polish people and might have been empathizing with the suffering that occurred in the homeland. Maybe she'd even discussed the atrocities with my Grandfather Joe, who'd been in Germany three weeks after the liberation.

Was her train-under-mountain experience, then, a moment of frightening attachment to her lifetime's worst dream? Did the train represent Death the Nightmare as well as Death the Reuniting?

My dad said that she told the train story pretty often and we both agreed it was weird. What we didn't say was that her journey-to-the-center-of-the-earth dreams must have had something to do with her inevitable rolling away, her desire to leave this station for the next.

One of my favorite stories of hers involves a train, too. In 1953 (or was it 1954?), my grandparents set out to build a house on Rocky Hill Rd. in Hadley, Massachusetts. It's the house I spent holidays in. The rooms of my memory that that house inhabits will always smell like boiled cabbage and cigars. The rooms are a warm place.

It was a modest brick house, but my grandfather built it with his own hands, so it was their pride and joy. When my grandmother first told me the story of its construction, I could immediately tell that those days were the golden ones of her life. In the Autumn (or was it winter?), a train came up the Connecticut River bearing the bricks which would become their security.

I imagine her gleeful impatience as the train slowed. She would have been dressed to help with the lifting, but might have allowed herself a touch of makeup—left over from their New York honeymoon—to celebrate the day. She would have been stoic in the face of the challenge. But I see her bouncing on the balls of her feet, too, indulging in a squeeze of my grandfather's war-strong arms. They were deliberate people, not prone to excitement; but this day they spent together must have seemed like their fifteen minutes of local fame. A new house in Hadley brought validation among the Polish farmers. And it brought out the neighbors to help, to gossip. Vicki and Joe were celebrities!

Perhaps the train arrived at 11. No matter when it came, my grandmother would have been up before dawn, would have been hours early to the station.

Perhaps my grandfather put on his hat and tweed suit to go to the credit union that morning. Perhaps he peeled a series of bills off a clean wad to pay the brick wholesaler. Perhaps my grandmother had never seen so much money, felt embarrassed and proud at the same time. Perhaps the sun shone on the green paper.

Perhaps the men pumped hands roughly. Perhaps they clapped each other's backs as the merchant showed my grandfather his new house, a pile of rich-red bricks in a train car: two bedrooms, one bath, a porch from which to shine a light.

My father, at three, stood by in purple-puff snow-pants, ready to take one brick at a time from the train to a borrowed Chevy. He'd have been red with the effort, boogered and beautiful. He'd cradle each brick in his hands. Through his thin, wool gloves, he'd feel the stubble of it, the grit. He'd have looked at his father expectantly.

“Go, boy,” says Joe. And my father feels, for the first time, the limb-enlivening goodness of—back-and-forth, piece-by-piece—work.

My grandmother tells me this train story on her 89th birthday. She tells it with great detail though she can't remember the rules to the card game “Pitch” that we've played on every visit for the last ten years. She claims she's never played the game, certainly not since she moved to the new house. She scolds her daughter, my Aunt Joanne, tells her this is a new-fangled game and we're trying to trick her.

We deal anyway and she wins.

She's been installed in this new place since my grandfather died. It has twice the space and she's very comfortable. It's hard for her to feel at home here, though. She'd lived in one house for fifty years, and it was the house where her children grew up, the house that she saw her husband cobble together in front of their own asparagus fields. Between hands, she remembers their season of bricks.

It is a sunny day. Her sisters bring supper—galompkis and rye bread—.

And then that day ends and ends.

Though my grandpa was 83 when he died, she knows he went too quickly. Sometimes she calls me up and asks if I know Joe Wanczyk. I do, of course. He was a good man. “Yes he was,” she says. And then she asks if I'm from Hadley, if I know the old house. I've been there, I say. “He built it,” she says. To her, Joe and home both mean safety, and she's not sure she has any safety anymore. She tries to summon it.

On that day when it came, back in 1953, the train pulled out of the station before my grandparents were able to offload all the bricks. There went the chimney, there the outside stairs.

“Whatdahell?” my grandpa would have said, hustling to catch the engineer.

My grandma pieces this part together for herself now, at 89, but she doesn't tell me what happened. She turns her head and the oxygen tube settles again. In the compartments of her mind, she thinks she sees a man now, hitching the caboose.

Her memory's made of train-churn, a light winter's dusting, her good husband patching a pile of crumbling bricks, calling it quits. She's at the house with him now, as she gazes.

She's at the trainyard as he chases. And there goes the train and the man, taking her home, taking the last of her home with them. The chimney, the stairs. He hops on the back to salvage the rest, brick-blistered and brave. She sees him turn and wink, that wanderer, headed out of town for a stretch, but only a stretch, his gotta-do smile a porch-light promise.

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