Leanin’ Back

Honorable Mention, NONFICTION PRIZE

By JENNIFER MCGAHA

My grandfather grew up in the Sandy Mush community in Buncombe County, so deep in the country that at the local church cemetery, among the fading tombstones, there is still a sign that reads, “Burial by Permission Only.” Though his paying job was at Champion International, my grandfather farmed his whole life, and he was happiest in the springtime, when he was anticipating the growing season to come—plowing the garden and gathering seeds, checking the Farmer’s Almanac for the earliest day to plant. By late fall, when it was time to cut the cornstalks to burn, he was already dreading winter. The country ways of life—the cycles of farming, of planting and harvesting and laying the field to rest—became an integral part of who he was.

“It’s about to turn cold outside,” he would say at the first hint of a nip in the air.

“Yeah, winter’s not far away,” I would say.

“Yah … Lord …” he would say, all long and drawn out. “I dread it.”

In the weeks before he died, when he was very ill, my grandfather thought it was January, though it was still autumn. He talked incessantly about the snow falling around him, about how the roads were icy and dangerous, about how he had wrecked and needed a snow plow. Then, suddenly, one October afternoon, he turned to my daughter, who was sitting beside his hospital bed, and, in a rare moment of lucidity, he asked her, “Are the acorns falling yet?”

It is now the following September, almost a year since my grandfather’s death, and as fall begins to settle in these mountains, as the songs of the katydids rise to a frenetic pace and buckeyes scatter over the forest floors, I hear again my grandfather’s question. It is a question that washes over me while I am picking apples from the tree in my front yard or walking through the woods with my dogs or chopping onions to make a pot of potato soup. It is a simple question, but filled with all the great ones, whether or not the harvest is done, whether winter is just around the corner, whether it is almost time to rest.

***

The summer my son finished seventh grade, he decided to take up gardening. He planted 15 cucumber seeds in Dixie cups, which he lined in rows in front of our sunroom windows. And he waited.

“You know, they might not grow,” I told him as he watched his cups of dirt. “Sometimes you get duds.”

“They’ll grow,” he said, scowling at me.

But I was not so sure. A few weeks before, he had talked me into buying a Venus Fly Trap at Lowe’s. He named his plant Venessa, and all afternoon he experimented with feeding her various things—an ant’s head, a small stick, a dime, etc. Needless to say, she was dead within a few days.

The cucumber plants fared better. In spite of the fact that my son occasionally fed them Gatorade or Red Bull when he didn’t have a watering cup handy, in another eight weeks, at least 15 green shoots peered over the edges of the cups.

“I told you they’d grow,” he said.

“Well, you know, sometimes plants don’t do well when you try to transplant them in the yard,” I said. “They get frostbitten or dug up by animals or—”

“The package says to plant them on May 10, so that’s when I’m going to put them outside.”

I refrained from saying that sometimes in May we get what my grandmother calls a blackberry winter, where a snow sneaks in just when you think spring has finally arrived. On exactly May 10, he lugged the plants outside and planted them next to the mint in the round flower bed in our front yard, and by mid-June, the ground was blanketed with fat, green cucumbers. Soon after this, I walked in my kitchen and found my son standing at the counter, his head bent intently over the plastic cutting board where he was slicing a cucumber. About 20 more cucumbers were piled beside him in a colander.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Making pickles,” he said, as if that were a perfectly normal way for a 13-year-old boy to spend a summer afternoon.

He turned to the stove and lifted the lid on a simmering pot. The acrid scent of vinegar and mustard seed wafted over his head.

***

My first attempt at gardening had come years ago, when my kids were very young. Our neighbor was an elderly widow who loved children and gardening in equal portions. She was always giving my children flowers—daffodils, tulips, money plant blooms. Once, I commented on her beautiful forsythia, and, within a few minutes, she was over at my house with an armful of shoots.

“You know I’m not good with plants,” I told her.

“Goldenrod is one plant you can not kill,” she told me confidently. “I’m telling you. These plants are like kudzu. They spread like wildfire. They will be all over your yard by spring.”

So I trudged along the border of my house, sticking the dry twigs intermittently in the soft dirt. A couple of months later, spring was in full bloom all across the south, and all I had to show for my efforts was a zigzag row of shriveled twigs.

This year, however, inspired by my son’s horticultural gifts, I decided to once again try my hand at growing. After all, we lived in the perfect spot, far in the Transylvania County countryside in western North Carolina, on what had been, for many years, an apple orchard. I had been raised on home-cooked vegetables from my grandparents’ garden, so I already knew the pleasures of eating freshly grown vegetables, but I knew nothing about gardening, particularly organic gardening.

My grandfather farmed in the old way. He planted and harvested by the signs and was a firm believer in the virtues of Sevin Dust. However, I had become a bit of a purist where food was concerned. I bought organic, free-range, hormone-free and antibiotic-free foods whenever I could. So this garden I decided to plant would be organic, but by “organic,” I simply meant that I would do absolutely nothing to the plants other than water them.

My son and I tossed a few tomato plants and a bell pepper plant in the flower bed by our garage. In the front bed, near the cucumbers and mint, my son planted chili peppers, banana peppers and squash. We grew herbs in pots near our front door—basil, rosemary, parsley, cilantro. Near another patch of mint and amidst a particularly virulent patch of poison oak, he planted pumpkins, which, miraculously, grew as large as basketballs.

If we were going to do this, we should do it right, I decided. We got a bumper sticker that said “Local Food: Appalachian Grown,” and I began reading about the slow food movement that was taking place all over the country but was especially strong in our area. For me, this was about getting back to my roots and living a little more simply—about foregoing, or at least limiting, all those things my grandparents would have thought ridiculously indulgent—the Chilean wine and Belgian chocolates and French cheese and pears shipped clear across the country by Harry and David. It was about living well and eating well and being a good caretaker of this land on which we live and, in the process, teaching my children to do the same.

That summer, my son and I visited farms all over our area. We bought goat cheese mixed with fresh rosemary and figs and goat cheese with garlic and dill from a nearby creamery, we picked baskets of organic black and red raspberries from a nearby berry farm, and every few weeks my son headed down the hill to gather eggs from our neighbor’s chicken coup. And I began to plan our family meals around what we grew and what we got from our neighbors and at our local farmers market—fresh eggs, tomatoes, beans, squash, zucchini, onions, potatoes, berries. I cooked more often, and though I prepared many of the same kinds of foods my mother and grandmother had, I modified the recipes somewhat to fit my family’s appetite for spicy foods and our mainly vegetarian diet.

I made fresh pesto, salsa, and pasta sauce, peppers stuffed with apples, raisins, almonds and herbs, burritos stuffed with potatoes and fresh carrots, and soups and stews brimming with herbs and fresh vegetables. I wasn’t totally committed to the idea of living solely off food that came from within a hundred mile radius of my home as those diehards in the slow food movement were doing. I was too attached to my coffee from Mexico and my extra virgin olive oil from Italy and my Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from Vermont. And, though I couldn’t give up my wine completely, in a true spirit of compromise, I swapped the Chilean Cabernet for a good, inexpensive Washington State Merlot and vowed to continue making strides in an ongoing effort to soften my family’s footprint on this planet.

***

When I was a little girl, my grandfather planted a Concord grapevine beside his garden. He placed it beside a metal pole and coaxed the fragile vine around the base. Each year, as the vine grew, it wound tightly upward around the pole, creating an increasingly intricate web. In August each year, the vines began to sag from the purple clusters, and the smell of grapes wafted across the yard. They were a mixture of sweet and sour, like those lollipops that are sweet on one side and sour on the other.

When we first bit into the grapes, they were so sour we would scrunch our eyebrows and pull our cheeks in tightly. But the centers had a deep, rich flavor. My brother and I would tear a bunch from the vine, and placing one at a time between our front teeth, we would pull off the skin and suck out the tender middles, spitting the seeds onto the grass. My grandfather stood next to us, sending tobacco juice arching through the air while we shot the grape seeds in equal time. Years later, long after I was grown, he kept the vine for me.

“Jennifer likes those grapes,” he would say whenever my dad would offer to cut the straggly vines.

One day that last August, when I was visiting, I pulled up a plastic chair and placed it beside him near the picnic table. We sat there together, watching my children shimmy up the maple above us and dangle from its limbs.

“Junebug, any of them grapes ready yet?” he asked me, tilting his head slightly upward in the air.

He knew, of course. He just wanted to hear me say it once again, how much I loved those grapes, how there was nothing in the world quite like them.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “They’re ready. They’re really beautiful this year.”

The next summer, after my grandfather had died, my daughter and I went to check on my grandmother. As soon as I pulled into the driveway and opened my car door, I knew the grapes were in. I stood by the car for a moment, like I always do when I go over to my grandparents’ house now. It is where I miss him most—there where together we strung beans and shucked corn, where he told me how his mother used to take him out in the fields with her before he could even walk, and how, when he was still a toddler playing, he used to look for rabbits among the cornstalks.

That afternoon, my daughter and I went inside and heated the soup we had brought for my grandmother, refilled her hummingbird feeder, changed the food in the cat’s bowl. When we were finished, I walked outside for some fresh air. I found myself by the edge of the garden, my nose pressed into the grapevine. With my eyes closed, I could hear the rumble of my grandfather’s voice, see the straw hat cocked on the side of his head, his flannel shirt open in the hot summer air.

I opened my eyes and began to snip, cautiously at first, dodging the yellow jackets buzzing around the grape clusters. And, then, I got into a rhythm. Lost in the mechanics of it, I watched my hands as if they were not my own. Flecked with sun spots and creases and meandering ridges, they were both my mother’s and my grandfather’s hands.

Up and out. Down and over. Snip. Snap. Snip.

***

The seven acres of woods surrounding my parents’ home are dotted with azaleas, mountain laurel, rhododendron, hostas, lamb’s ears and foxgloves. Jack-in-the-pulpits and lady slippers line the stream encircling their house. In the flowerbeds in her yard, my mother grows daffodils, impatiens, salvia and snapdragons. The flowers spill over the bed and onto the rock walkway. Pansies line the flower boxes in her windows, and begonias spill from the baskets hanging from the eves of the house. My mother spends hours tending her flowers. She crouches there on her sidewalk, wearing cotton gloves, a pair of clippers by her folded knees.

“Do you see this little worm?” she would ask my daughter when she was small.

My daughter would peer over her shoulder.

“Worms are good for the soil. Do you want to hold him?”

My daughter would open her tiny palm, and my mother would place the worm on her outstretched hand. The worm would wriggle across her palm and over the edge, spilling back into the rich, brown dirt.

Like her mother, my mother is graceful and petite, with slender hips and shoulders and a breathy, nervous way of talking. She has her father’s dark eyes, olive skin and high cheekbones. Every day, throughout the spring and summer, my mother eats her lunch sitting in a lawn chair in the driveway, and she always eats the same things—an apple slice, a slice of cheese, a glass of iced tea with a slice of lemon, and a few Pepperidge Farm cookies. Though she also inherited from her mother a tendency toward jitteriness, here, in the sun, amongst her flowers, she tilts her dark head back into the sun and rests.

***

My grandmother, Adeline, was raised on her grandfather’s 40-acre farm on Hyder Mountain in Haywood County. She had nine brothers and sisters. Her father was a blacksmith and farmer who raised cows, horses, hogs and chickens and vegetables—corn, beans, lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes. They also grew wheat and had both corn and wheat mills. My grandmother’s earliest memories are of working on the farm—sifting bran from the wheat after it had been ground, gathering water from the spring, caring for her younger siblings. Before she was 10 years old, she had learned to make large, heavy pans of cornbread for her father and brothers and the other men who worked the fields.

My grandmother met my grandfather when they were walking down the road one day in front of Fincher’s Chapel, the church high on the hill overlooking her family’s property. She was 17. Two years later, they were married, and, for the next 67 years, she farmed alongside my grandfather, canning beans, shucking corn, hoeing the weeds amongst the beans. And she was an environmentalist long before it was fashionable to use that word. She recycled and reused everything she could. She rinsed out old Blue Bonnet margarine tubs to store leftover food, saved leftover peanut cans to use as tobacco spit cups, stored pennies in Dixie Crystal sugar bags, stuffed old newspapers into the crack under their front door, and, in lieu of floor mats, lined the floorboards of their Nova with old paper bags.

It is in that churchyard above the road where my grandparents met, on a hill that juts steeply to the right, where most of my grandmother’s family is buried—her parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and most of her brothers and sisters. It is where my grandfather is now buried, where the tombstone already marks the spot where she will lie next to him one day.

“I like this place,” my grandmother told me one day when we visited the cemetery, “because you kind of feel like they’re just resting, just leanin’ back a little.”

***

Midway through his 90th year, on an unseasonably warm afternoon in September, my grandfather fell. It was just before dinner, and he was in his yard, making his way back to the house from his “office,” that spot by the garden where he liked to sit under the maple and think. He shattered his femur, and, though the surgery to repair it was successful, he continued to deteriorate, physically and mentally. A few weeks later, we discovered he had a massive tumor in his stomach. He moved from the hospital to transitional care to a nursing home, where he spent three weeks vacillating between states of deep psychosis and near-complete coherence.

One night, soon after he arrived, I found him naked except for his thin gown, lying in his own excrement, his hands covered up to the knuckles in his waste. I ran out of his room and up the hall to a round, grim nurse with bleached hair slowly making her way down the hall with a medicine cart.

“My grandfather—room 503—has gone to the bathroom in his bed. He needs to be changed!” I told her.

She looked up from the chart she was reading and said to me, “Name?”

Stunned, I stood in the hall and cried until the nurse eventually sent someone to clean him. Then he was trying to climb out of bed.

“I’m going back to Little Oak Street, where I belong,” he said, throwing his wounded leg over the side of the bed.

“Papaw, be careful. You can’t walk. You broke your leg!” I said.

“What?” he said, shocked and angry. “What in the hell are you talking about? I didn’t break no damn leg! Shit!”

I ran back to the nurse to ask for her help.

“I’m not to him yet!” she said.

Back in the room, I tried to soothe my grandfather. I answered when he thought I was his wife, his dead brothers, his brother-in-law, his daughter, his mother.

“Go on if you’re going!” he snapped at me when I came to his bedside to cover him—he who had never, in all of my childhood, ever raised his voice to me.

I was crying again, unable to stop. I thought of my children at home, not little children any more, but teenagers who needed me all the same. I sat on the bed across from him, watching “Dancing With the Stars.” Finally, the nurse came in to give him medicine. He was still agitated, throwing back the covers and pulling out his oxygen.

“What are you doing?” she asked, exasperated.

“I’m plowing,” he said.

“You are NOT plowing,” she hissed. “Look out that window! It’s dark outside.”

“I am, too,” he said. “Look over there. I can see the mountains.”

He pointed over his head, to the mirror over the sink, and I could see them too, those elegant blue curves that had formed the backdrop of our lives.

***

My dad grew up swimming with alligators in the swamps and lakes of South Florida, but his family moved to western North Carolina when he was a young boy, and he learned to love the mountains. There, he was surrounded by burly uncles and cousins who hunted bears and deer and squirrels and fished for trout in nearby streams.

Now, at age 70, he chops oaks and pines into firewood in his backyard, hauls brush to burn, sprays Round-Up on the patches of poison oak that creep into his grass. And he regularly hikes long distances—sometimes 17 miles at a time. He especially likes to hike with my daughter, and as they walk, he tells her stories of his youth and points out the peaks and ridges he knows by heart—Cold Mountain, John’s Rock, Pilot Mountain, Big Sam and Little Sam’s Knob. He shows her the cell tower that local hikers call “Old Gruesome,” and he tells her about his adventures in the woods—the time he came upon a clearing full of grouse, the time on the Appalachian Trail when a bear robbed his pack of a Snickers bar, the time he would have sat on a rattlesnake had his dog, Maggie, not stopped him with her frantic barking.

Sticking close beside him, my daughter pays close attention to his stories. I am unable to keep up with their rapid pace, so I often straggle in the rear, but I can still hear my daughter’s questions.

“What kind of bird is that? Where is Devil’s Courthouse from here? Where did this coal come from?”

Their words drift back to me, and as my dad tells her that trains used to carry coal over these mountains, I realize that, for all the mistakes I have made with my children, at least I have given them this—these sturdy, unyielding roots.

***

It was July, almost a year after my grandfather died, before I could go to the produce stand down the hill from our house without crying. I drove down Merrill Lane early one morning, the dust from the road spraying onto my window. The fog was just lifting off the cornfields, and I could see the truck heading from the field toward the wooden structure by the road. The loaded truck pulled in just as I did. The back of the pickup was green with fresh-cut corn, and the workers rode with their legs hanging off the tailgate, their boots swinging through the air. Their cowboy hats were covered with dew.

“I’ve never bought corn before,” I told the lady who bagged a dozen white ears for me. “My granddad used to grow it.”

Back at home, I stood in my kitchen, pulling off the husks and tossing them into the trashcan. I wanted to make chowder for my grandmother. I thought that it might comfort her, too—remind her of him and of happier days.

In a large pot, I sautéed garlic and onions in butter and olive oil, then added cumin and coriander, and minced chili peppers. I poured in fresh chopped tomatoes, potatoes, and bell peppers and covered them with water. Finally, after the mixture had been simmered for a while, I scraped the kernels into the pot and added milk and Monterey Jack cheese. I stirred until the cheese melted and blended with the kernels, and the aromas enveloped our house—bold and familiar.

***

The last night he was really with us, my kids and I visited my grandfather at Hospice. We brought pizza for ourselves and, for him, a pound cake.

“Do you want some pound cake, Papaw?” I asked.

“You sure can make ’em!” he said, affirming, nurturing, comforting me.

The kids had gone by then, so it was just the two of us. I fed him from a plastic cup I found on his dinner tray. Just before, the doctor had shown me how slowly he was chewing his food and told me that he was in danger of aspirating. I fed him slowly, giving him long sips of water in between bites.

“Hey, wait a minute!” he would say every few minutes, grinning and mischievous. “We’re in no hurry!” Then—“Hey, wait a minute! Why don’t we mix this up a little bit?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Let’s have something else with it!”

“What do you want?”

“I don’t know. What do you have?”

In the refrigerator in the common kitchen, I found some applesauce my mother had cooked and brought that morning. I put some on top of the cake and fed him the two together.

“Do you want anything else?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe some ice cream?” he asked, raising his eyebrows, that old gleam in his eyes.

So the nurse brought him vanilla ice cream in a little plastic cup. He ate all that, too.

“What would my mother say if she knew we ate cake and ice cream for dinner?” I asked.

“Well … we’re not going to tell her!” he said, smiling.

“Do you like this place, Papaw?” I asked him.

“Oh, yeah, it’s real nice. I couldn’t ask for a better place.”

Later, as I was sitting in the recliner watching TV, he called to me.

“Hey, Jennifer!” he said. “You guys have got me beat!”

“What?” I said, coming to his bedside.

“You’ve got me beat,” he repeated. “I mean, I’ve had a lot of fun being here, spending time with you all and playing with you all. But I’m beat. I think I’ll rest awhile.”

***

Last Christmas was our first without my grandfather, and I spent the day with my grandmother, stepping delicately around my grandfather’s empty recliner to take her the gifts we had brought. The next morning, drained from the months spent caring for my grandfather and from the enormity of my grief, I packed up my kids and drove from North Carolina to my brother’s home in south Florida, where I hoped to find solace in his company and in the sunshine.

My children often look at my brother with something like dubious awe. They can see that he and I look alike, that, in fact, he looks a lot like my grandfather, but his life is so different from ours, they regard him as something of a rare species—fascinating and alien. Like my grandfather, my brother is dark and tall—over six feet—but that is where, on the surface, their similarities end. My brother loves leather and black and expensive shoes. He has two houses and has been both a lawyer and, now, a doctor. He has traveled around the world and attended one prestigious university after another. My grandfather had a sixth grade education and never traveled farther than Texas. The contrast between the two of them could not have been more stark, but they had remained close through the years, and those days we were in Florida, I was always aware of the depth of my brother’s loss.

One night after dinner, my brother and I strolled together through his garden. It was warm, and all the doors to the house were open, the outside lights on. Strains from a Norah Jones CD drifted outside, and the lit fountain cast a faint glow over the yard. Everything was green and glistening, and the evening air was heavy. All around me, there were orchids, ornamental ginger, Birds of Paradise, poinsettias and massive ferns. Tiny lizards darted in and out among the cracks between the bricks on the patio. I couldn’t see it from there, but I knew there was a coconut tree in the front yard, and, on one side of the house, a fountain and, in the back, mounted African masks. The yard was a jungle, lush and wild and exotic.

When I reached the fountain, I stopped and closed my eyes. There, in the stillness of the night, the gurgling of the fountain faded, and I could hear, instead, the rippling of the Davidson River in the Pisgah National Forest or the French Broad winding through Little River valley or the Pigeon River creeping all the way from my grandparents’ home in Haywood County to Tennessee.

Like my children, sometimes I, too, look hard at my brother, searching for some sign of the sibling I knew in my childhood. He has gone so far away, grown in so many different directions from the little boy who loved to catch Japanese beetles off the grapevine and set them afire. But here, among his plants, I feel my grandfather’s presence, see his shadow and breath among the ferns and the orchids, feel the spirit of that little boy who used to walk beside my grandfather, digging potatoes in the field. And I wonder if my brother feels it, too, that gentle but persistent hand, pulling us back to this land where we were raised.

***

I poured the grapes into a spaghetti pot, covered them with water and sprinkled sugar over them. I had planned to make jelly, but I had put in too much water and nothing to make the mixture thicken. I realized my mistake as soon as the grapes started to simmer, so I decided to make grape juice instead. I watched the grapes begin to glisten, and then the water beneath bubbled up, staining the sides of the kettle purple and sending steam pouring onto my face.

The fumes washed over me, thick and sweet and sour. And then I was crying—not one of those gentle cries with a few tears running down my cheeks but a violent, breathless sobbing. It took me a moment or two to figure out what was wrong. And then, through the vapors, I could see him clearly, heading toward the garden with a bucket full of water, straining slightly under the weight, his shirt tail flapping in the breeze.

I am standing by the grapevine, and he comes so close to me, his shirtsleeve brushes my arm.

“Check them grapes, would you, Junebug?” he calls to me as he passes.

I pull the vine back with one hand and, with the other, pluck one fat orb from a bunch. I hold it for a moment, roll it back and forth between my fingers, before popping it into my mouth. Pinching the grape between my teeth, I squeeze. The membrane slides across my tongue, and a warm liquid sprays the back of my throat.

“They’re ready,” I whisper. “They’re ready.”

Jennifer McGaha lives in the mountains of western North Carolina and teaches composition at Blue Ridge Community College and Brevard College, where she serves as nonfiction editor for the Pisgah Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the North Carolina Literary Review, Pisgah Review, Moonshine Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Smoky Mountain Living Magazine and Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: Stories, Essays and Poems by Writers Living in and Inspired by the Southern Appalachian Mountains.


Save pageEmail pagePrint page
Share