While she shoveled food at my family, I thought of asking her the possibly perturbing question about the passage of time. “Gimme your plate,” she said to my wispy wife, the big serving spoon ready with a heap of mashed potatoes. “You need more.”
She would soon join my grandfather in death, but for many years my grandmother had fueled a man who was concurrently a woodcutter, highway worker and farmer. As she saw it, a less than ravenous appetite in an otherwise healthy person was a symptom of sinful indolence, and when she prepared meals on her six-burner, combination wood-propane stove, pot lids rattled and clunked with salvation and the kitchen windows fogged even in September. Her Bible reading had taught her that people bear the punishment of Adam and Eve: Life is full of hard work and ends tragically, and you must fortify those you love.
The question I wanted to ask was in itself benign, but maybe not when directed at a person who is marking time on her final calendar. “I’m no fool,” she had said to my mother after telling the oncologist that she was refusing treatment. “I think them doctors just wanna make some more money off me before I die.”
She had not touched the little food on her own plate but tossed me a second leg of fried chicken as soon as I had finished the first — and instead of asking the question on the tip of my tongue, I found myself remembering, as I did whenever she served chicken, a story she had once told me about a November morning when she was newly married.
In her shaped and clutched remembrance, in her story that I have since repeated to my children and maybe they will one day tell to theirs, she and my grandfather’s extended family were plucking chickens, soggy and still warm, before eviscerating and disjointing them and canning most of the meat in quart Mason jars.
The killed birds were heaped on the ground near a shallow, cast-iron scalding kettle that was hung over a small fire and from a chain looped and bolted around a low limb of oak on the edge of a barnyard. Gripping the orange scaly legs with his gloved hands, my grandfather’s brother Hank kneeled and quickly dipped two carcasses at a time in the roiling pink water, wings spreading wide below the truncated necks, the heated quills loosening from their moorings for easier plucking as steam plumed and slipped through the arthritic fingers of the big tree. Stronger than even the cloying odor of manure, the damp musky fetor of feathers clung to the yard.
No one noticed why, but her niece, a child of 3 with a scarf tied tightly beneath her chin, ran close to the kettle, laughed about something and abruptly backed against the rusty curve of iron.
She felt the heat and yelped and jumped and sat for a moment teetering on the low lip, the kettle swaying several inches above the coals, and then, before her father could take hold of her, splashed in backward.
The cries drowned out the long commotion from the hen house, and hands ripped at her clothing, pink water streaming into her boots and overflowing onto the muddy ground as she was held upright on unbearable legs and feet, too many burning hands tearing at saturated cloth and at each other in a steaming, screaming blur across the barnyard from the reddened, slimy chopping block.
The hospital couldn’t save her.
“I don’t think anybody ate a thing the rest of the day and most of the next,” my grandmother said. “But that next day for supper we all had chicken. I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t live on the sea and get our food that way. It’s a good thing it wasn’t lobster.”
I waited to ask my question until she had obliquely mentioned her circling doom.
It was as if she clumsily attempted to sneak the reality onto the table, squeezing it somewhere between the many bowls and platters of food. I asked my question after she asked her own while holding up a slice of Swiss by a corner: “Worms make them holes, don’t they?”
Knowing what she had meant, I asked, “Did it go by fast? The time?”
She nodded, dropping the slice back onto the platter. “Oh, yes.”
The raised window glass still rather damp from the steam, she looked through a cotton-plugged screen and past the bug-zapper hanging from baling twine tied to a beam of the white front porch and on past the marigolds and petunias and pansies edging the curving length of gravel driveway, into a pastured distance that I didn’t know like she did. She smiled almost imperceptibly at whatever it was she saw there. “It went like Grandfather ate a piece of apple pie.”
Still wrapped in the white apron, she followed us out to the stoop and kissed my son, Gabriel, who was asleep in my arms. She hugged my wife, Margaret, and me. She bent with a faint groan and kissed my daughter, Hope, who was tugging impatiently at Margaret’s dress — as if the girl had heard quite enough about worms.
But my grandmother wasn’t done with the living. She lifted her apron and smock, and took Margaret’s hand and placed it on her abdomen where the skin was splotchy with brown and lined and stretched tightly over the home of the globular tumor. She asked, “You feel that? Don’t it feel like I’m pregnant?”
Twenty-one years have passed since that day on the farm when the hog and chicken yards were abandoned and overgrown with aster and thistle, and the pasture empty of cattle and becoming shaggy with saplings. But as my daughter and I recently drank in an Irish pub in the East Village of Manhattan, I recalled that day with my grandmother. Hope was employed at the Penguin Group, a publishing company there in the city, and we were discussing some political news reported that day in the Times.
As parents often are when they study their grown children, I was moved by banality; during a pause in our conversation about a bill before Congress, I wondered where the time had gone and felt overwhelmed by love. Or was it self-pity? I pictured my daughter, bluish pink and weakly squirming, placed in my arms for the first time — none of the hair on my forearms yet gray.
Before the doctor had permitted me to watch the C-section, he had asked whether I could tolerate the sight of blood. I replied, “I’ve gutted deer.”
“Well, alright. You can watch.”
But now in the pub I was almost teary. I looked down at my napkin. And as if my grandmother had risen from the dead to distract me from embarrassment, I suddenly recalled that after I had asked her about the passage of time, she had gazed into the distance with curiosity, which was more or less what I had been doing on that bar stool in the moment before I slipped off and landed in sentimentality.
Then something strange and surprising happened as I next glanced up at Hope: I pictured her as an old lady.
When I was a child, I enjoyed holding tissue paper out the open windows of speeding cars, watching it flap and disintegrate until it was quickly gone like a faded ghost.
When I was 30 years old, I knew nothing about Einstein-Rosen bridges, also known as wormholes, through which — it has been theorized by some physicists — we might find a way to time-travel. Yet like most people, I tried when I could to correct the past and improve the future: I donated a kidney to my sister Kim.
An infection set in several days after the surgery, and because Kim had been receiving anti-rejection drugs that suppressed her immune system, the infection grew stronger despite the antibiotics injected again and again into her already black-and-blue arms and legs.
The doctors came to suspect that the source of the persistent and spreading infection might be the transplanted kidney, so they removed it and performed a dissection in the operating room before sending samples to a lab.
A few days after the slicing of the donor kidney, the source of infection was located in one of my sister’s heart valves.
On her final day, she said, “I’m sorry you gave your kidney for nothing.”
I said, “I needed to lose a pound anyhow.”
Of course, I now wish I had said more, but it all happened so fast.
When eventually I read about wormholes, I was sure that the fanciful or hubristic physicists had it wrong. We can’t time-travel through a swallowing wormhole; it’s the other way around: we gulp down our future as quickly as my grandfather could make remembrance of an apple pie.
Here’s a story my grandmother liked to tell at mealtimes, usually when a noodle dish had been served.
She was babysitting on the farm on a frigid evening, had given my sister April a scrubbing in the enameled, cast-iron tub and had dried her vigorously with a fluffy towel until she was brightly pink. Like an elated drunk, the toddler ran from the bathroom and into the pantry, squealing and staggering toward the kitchen. My grandmother chased, thumping on arthritic joints over the creaking floor, fearful that April would fall against the recently stoked stove that was crackling and popping, the damper wide open, the kitchen faintly smoky.
As she caught April near the refrigerator — the white door covered with birth and wedding announcements and obituaries cut from the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, cleaning tips from Better Homes and Gardens and a yellowed copy of the Lord’s Prayer with a flowery border — she noticed a bit of something out of place. She said sharply, “Hold still now.”
She kneeled and seized the something with her right thumb and index finger and pulled carefully, then with her left, hand over hand until she had slowly extracted over a foot of writhing tapeworm.
“What’s wrong?” she would say to her gagging guests. “It was kind of a pretty thing.”
On some mornings during his 42nd year, when neither of my sisters were yet old enough for high school, my father would wake from pleasant dreams. He would wake without pain, even zestfully, and minutes would pass before he would remember the sinuous malignancy in his spine and hips. But those mornings were unusual. It was as if wherever he was, the sun shone on his back, and his shadow, taunting him, walked ahead.
The previous summer he had begun building a small hunting cabin on land he had bought in the Alleghenies 70 miles south of our home near Buffalo, New York. Now he was in a hurry to finish the job. On weekends he and I shingled the roof, sided the block walls with plywood and installed a door and windows. In late July, during his vacation from his welding job at a power plant, we started work on the concrete floor. In August, when the floor had hardened, we began cutting and laying the fireplace stones.
Whenever his pain became too severe for him to work, I cleaned and put away the tools and stayed with him until he fell asleep on a cot, drugged on Darvon. While he dozed, I trained for football season on dirt roads, dammed forest brooks with sticks and stones, and lay in meadows with sunshine on my face.
Is it possible for a teenage boy with sunshine on his face to imagine life otherwise?
Last summer, I tore down the treehouse I had built for my children in the woods above our house on the land where my father had built his cabin. With rough-cut pine and hemlock purchased from an Amish mill, I had constructed the treehouse eight feet above ground between four white pines that grew almost square to each other; it had a trap door in the floor, four windows and a tarred roof. I should have used hemlock exclusively: The pine had become so punky from the years of rain and shade and snow that the structure was beyond salvation. My children were grown by then, but I had hoped that grandchildren might someday play there.
As I leaned a ladder against a wall and then commenced destruction, I was in a rotten mood, though eventually the rhythm of the work restored my spirits. I decided to save the more solid boards for the construction of an outhouse: Margaret had long wanted a second bathroom.
That evening, when Margaret was not at home, I removed the framed photographs from their places on the walls of our living room. I deshrined the images of our grandparents and parents and siblings of various frozen ages; our babies and toddlers and teenagers; Margaret and me dark-haired and smooth-skinned and immortal. All but one were stacked and sealed in a large cardboard box that I carried into the attic.
I knew Margaret would notice as soon as she entered the house, and apprehensively, I practiced my defense aloud: “We need to live in the present.”
The man in the spared photograph had lived in County Down, in the North of Ireland. I wasn’t yet able to shape the right story of the other images, the seeming cacophony of them, but this one, of my great-great grandfather, William Phillips — named for William of Orange — was different.
His mouth is open as if he is catching his breath, and he squeezes the wooden handles of a horse-drawn, one-bottom plow, his hands and neck sheathed in dirt, arms and belly massive, skull bald, beard trimmed raggedly and brindled with gray. He wears a grimy long-sleeve undershirt and a grimy long-sleeve work shirt with the top four buttons undone, the left sleeve of the outer shirt ripped off at the shoulder and the right hanging from the shoulder by strings, and pants patched at both knees, and earth-battered leather boots.
He seems to glare past the picture-machine as if at something bobbing on the stone-dissolving sea over which his eldest son had faded forever away.
The son became an ironworker in America, settling in Buffalo. As did two of his own sons, he perished on the job, each of the deaths in a separate accident; another son, my grandfather, abandoned ironwork after breaking two ribs and bruising a lung and took a new job in a coal-fired power plant that he had helped to build. He got my father a full-time job there, and my father got me a summer job there shortly before he died.
I shoveled and swept coal from floors and vacuumed fly ash atop boilers in heat that reached 120 degrees, saving my earnings for payment of my college tuition. All summer, I blew black snot from my nose.
A few years ago, I talked to some people I knew and got my son a summer job as a grunt in a cheese plant near our home. He lasted a week before he quit the factory and took a new job as a counselor at a plush camp for rich kids.
I hung the photograph of William Phillips on a wall of the air-conditioned office where I work — here in the present.
Although neither of us realized we were in his final year, I asked my Uncle Al the same question I had asked my grandmother.
That day had been rainy, but the night was suddenly clear, the moon splashing the landscape with milk. We were sitting in creaky, aluminum lawn chairs on the small lawn, drinking beer from cans and listening to the creek cascading through the ravine behind his house trailer and to the tumult of frogs in the quaggy pond just beyond the thinly graveled road and the occasional calls of owls and nighthawks and coyotes hunting in the distance. We smelled both the freshness of the rainwater still clinging to the grass and the dankness of the muddy places in the road.
Because my uncle tended to be stubbornly reticent, I usually waited for him to speak first when we drank together. That night it was quite a while before he did. Without a prompt from me, he eventually commented in a matter-of-fact tone that it was hard for him to believe 50 years had passed since he joined the army.
“So it went fast, huh?”
He nodded that it had.
After a few more minutes during which we clutched and sipped from our cans, he began to talk, quietly at first, about the war — which I had never heard him do before, despite my occasional prodding over the years. As I listened, I became amazed at how long he spoke.
He told me that after the attack on Pearl Harbor he enlisted even though he had a wife and young daughter and — as a welder in a power plant, an essential industry — was eligible for a deferment. He was stationed in the States until the invasion of Normandy and then was shipped to Europe.
He once surprised an enemy soldier in a partially collapsed trench, somehow stranded there as his German comrades slowly retreated from an Allied attack. The German threw down his rifle and held his hands high and pled for his life — or at least that’s what my uncle assumed he was hearing — and so my uncle, who was under fire, had to make a rapid decision. It was not any time to be taking a prisoner, and he didn’t like the idea of climbing into the hole to take the weapon or the thought of turning his back with the rifle still within reach of the German, and so as the other young man looked up into his eyes and begged with arms raised and shaking, my uncle pulled the trigger.
Al said, “I got sort of paid back later.”
What he meant was that he too was left behind in the confusion of a battle after he was shot through the wrist while sneaking up on a machine gun emplacement with the intention of tossing in a grenade. Al and a wounded sergeant spent the night next to each other in a forest that the Germans were shelling; shrapnel gave his compatriot a second wound. As they hobbled up a dirt road the next morning, they encountered a speeding German tank whose driver seemed as lost as they; the machine-gunner opened fire on the two Americans fleeing into the woods and my uncle was spun around and knocked to the leafy ground.
The shot had torn through his flak jacket and had merely grazed a rib.
They met American troops and were eventually transported to a hospital in England for surgery. From there, Al was shipped to a Long Island hospital for convalescence, though he wondered if he would make it when, somewhere between the continents, the hospital ship began launching depth charges. Either it had been a false alarm or one of the charges had destroyed a stalking submarine, because the ship continued unscathed.
A train took him home to western New York. And with his right arm still in a sling, he learned that while he had been sleeping on mud and snow in Europe, his wife had been sleeping with her boss.
They worked at an insurance company.
There in a creaky chair near his trailer, on the moonlit lawn, he began to talk about bodies: frozen distorted bodies with arms raised as if to Heaven; bodies bloated with stench; bodies with entrails feeding flies and rats and dogs; smiling bodiless heads; faces wreathed brightly white with sheets of maggots.
After telling me about the body of a child, he stopped gazing into the distance. He looked at me and finished his story about chaos and deliverance, which he must have hoped would outlast him. He said, “I don’t know why I lived. I don’t know why for sure. But I lived for some reason.”
I thought I knew what he meant, my uncle who built a garage for my family when my father was near death; who became like a father to me after mine died; who was my best man at my wedding; who spent little money on himself but loaned me a large sum so that Margaret and I could renovate and expand my father’s little hunting cabin into a proper house when we lived there with no electricity or running water; who, after Margaret and I made seven monthly payments, would not let us repay the remainder of the loan; and who liked to drink beer with me, usually with little talk.
It struck me that if he could, the German who had died in the trench would tell a very different story. But I embraced my uncle’s story before the other could get its hook into me. I said, “Yes.”
And then, his empty beer cans in a neat upright row like his completed story, mine tipped and scattered, we became numb and mute in the bright, babbling night.
Mark Phillips, who lives near Cuba, New York, is the author of the memoir My Father’s Cabin. His daughter, Hope, graduated from Notre Dame in 2009.