By FATE THOMPSON
The roots of a green onion run deep. Their tiny hairs spread out beneath the ground like fingers and grab on for dear life. Even in the driest of spring months, the green onions survive and resist the tug of a hand’s early harvest.
Maybe their determination to hang on in this rocky soil is why my grandmother planted so many sets, row after row, or maybe it was the joy of eating them, the sweetness they added to her homemade biscuits and salt-cured bacon or the bitterness to her breath that hung on for days. Either way, she liked life with a bite.
“Pull me a green onion,” hollers Grandmother. She wrestles with the stiff bleached white sheets on the bed. “I want a green onion. Go pull us a green onion.”
The obedient child in me wants to run to the garden out back before breakfast and pull that spring onion from the earth with its green crisp top of tender leaves and the promise of a pure white bulb, the size of my thumb. No matter how many layers you peel, the roots hang onto that single, center bulb. How can I tell her there is no garden, no farm, only a nursing home? Our days of digging in the dirt are done.
I pull her up to sit in the bed, then climb in behind her, spread my legs wide. I become her Lazy Boy chair. I lean her body back to rest against my chest, my beating heart, my sorrow. I always thought the power of an onion is the only thing that could bring me to such a raw emotion of uncontrollable tears, but that was before I understood the impending loss of my grandmother. My 41-year-old arms wrap around her big childlike body and touch her heart. I can just imagine her saying, “It’s just plumb give out.” The doctor says it makes it easier for her to breathe if she sits up. But she can no longer get out of bed or even sit up by herself. I use all my strength to hold her upright. “There. Just breathe,” I whisper in her ear.
“Grandmother, the onions are not ready to pull. We’ll have to wait a few more days. Besides, the rain’s a comin’, and you know how easy they are to pull then. They’ll know it’s time to let go, just slide right out of the ground, their white belly skin all moist and juicy, and the greens will just snap.”
She mumbles, “Pull me, green onion” and falls back again against my chest into a morphine-induced coma. I try to rock her back and forth. She’s too heavy. Instead her head falls from side to side as if broken, much like the homemade Raggedy Ann doll sewn for me as a child. How I loved Annie with her red braids and flowered apron dress. I dragged her around the yard, down to the clothesline, to the dog pen and back to the garden following my grandmother’s every step. I wore Annie out. Suppose I loved her too much, too. Is that what I’ve done to my grandmother?
I lay my grandmother’s head back against my shoulder. I sing her favorite hymn, one from the old days when she walked six miles on dusty roads, not more than a pig’s trail, to worship. Back then, it was a one-room church, still had wooden benches, no red-velvet padded pews. The preacher still told folks they would go to hell if they didn’t repent and be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. They still baptized in the spring fed creek out in the field. Complete submission and submersion was the only way to heaven. The preacher dunked the sinner under real good followed by “amens” and more singing as the newborn servant in Christ rose up from the water gasping for air and forgiveness. Reborn he was, right there on the muddy creek bank crying his eyes out and shouting, “Lawd, hallelujah!” with the frogs hollering, the cicadas singing the most spirited and loudest in the heat of the day, “Sinner, sinner, sinner,” and the scent of wild green onions floating on an afternoon’s breeze across the pasture as the neighbor’s cows chewed their cuds. Looking back, it seems a natural blessing from Mother Nature. Green onions were once offered as a sacrifice to the gods of Ancient Egypt representing eternal life after death. I kiss my grandmother’s neck thinking if the baptism didn’t save the sinners, then maybe the onions did.
As I sing, the song comes from the recall of my grandmother’s voice, not from any church or dog-eared hymnal book.
“Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown,
When at evening the sun goeth down?
When I wake with the blest in the mansions of rest,
Will there be any stars in my crown?”
I hear her murmur of memories from her dried layers of peeling lips, words of “mansion” and “rest.” It takes a lot of strength for her to speak, to ask in her drug-slurred voice, “Will there be any stars in my crown?” I assure her there will be many. A sky full. The entire Milky Way. Capella.
How many times did she sing that spiritual song to me to calm me down and tell me the story of her own grandma, an old Indian woman, as Grandmother described her with braids and chewing tobacco running down her chin. Her grandma had married a white man and took his name, Thompson, and his Puritan religion. They lived in a small village named Iuka, supposedly to honor the Chief of the Choctaws, as the Trail of Tears led right through their farm fields on the old Military Road. Grandma Thompson learned to sing the same song from memory. She sang it to my grandmother when she was a child and handed it down to at least six generations. Grandmother told me how her grandma heard angels singing when she was dying. I often wondered if they sang, “Will there be any stars in your crown?” Grandma Thompson died at home. My grandmother will not.
Grandmother has fallen asleep, and I try to lower her head back onto the plastic pillow. I feel the pull of pain in my neck and shoulders, the agony of supporting something out of my control. I study each wrinkle on my grandmother’s face trying to match which life story she told me, with the impressions left behind. The deep valleys between her brows. For whom did she worry? Were these the furrows of fear? The twinkle in her eyes—when did it leave? Such pink little lips—did anyone ever kiss her with the passion she so desired or deserved? Maybe that’s why she loved green onions so much. They were sweet and tender to the touch of her lips—the lips of a lonely woman. Yet turned bitter if left in the ground, unharvested too long.
My grandmother lies in wait of death in room 118 of the Surry County Nursing Home. She lies there night and day covered with a faded brown polyester comforter that gives no comfort, just aggravates her restless legs with a heaviness she cannot outrun. She longs for the hand-sewn quilt that she and the neighboring farm women made during hard times, during the Great Depression. Nell, Gusty Mae, Birchie, Artie, and Goldie—they all embroidered their names on the white feed-sack squares, a silent testimony to their existence and equality, if only in their minds. Grandmother’s dear old friends have all gone on before her, but she used to feel their arms wrap around her, their warmth throughout the chill and shadows of a full moon’s light—threads of gold, red, and green.
Her children, my aunts and uncles, claim the old quilt is too precious to take to the nursing home. “Someone might steal it.” I wish they felt that way about Grandmother. Instead, they store the quilt in her cedar chest away from the moths and her. The relatives who have visited her the least now fuss over who will inherit her old sewing machine with the foot pedal, the handmade quilts, her wooden quilting frame that hangs from her bedroom ceiling. The frame is at least 130 years old. They know what they want from her, yet they don’t know or bother to remember her birthday or her phone number. When was the last time they sat down with her to listen? How many times did they drive by her house and not stop? They now hover around her bedside in such a panic. “Why now?,” I want to ask. Maybe it’s relief for them that she’s almost gone.
Instead of squares of quilt patches, my grandmother stares at square concrete walls that are painted a heavenly blue. I’m convinced the color was chosen by some drunken janitor who thought it humorous. Should Grandmother awake in the early morning hours, she would believe she had died and gone to heaven, not wasted away in a warehouse of decay with a roommate who hisses through the gap of two missing front teeth and throws a hard left punch to the unsuspecting visitor who walks by. My arm is still sore.
Doctors give Grandmother days, maybe weeks. Her heart is played out, swollen like a balloon. Over and over I hear its unnatural beat—a long pause, a raspy breath, and a hiccup. The lung machine puffs, much as a magic dragon, for my 90-year-old beauty. She wakes only to scream, “Help me die!” and in the next exhale screams, “Help me live!” The next minute she is grunting and groaning, “Help me shit!”
Somehow I manage to smile as tears run down my cheek and mix with the slobbers running from her open mouth that forms a perfect “O.” Ever since I can remember, she’s slept with her mouth open. She liked to talk in her sleep, carry on a whole conversation with folks in another holler. I would listen throughout the night and try to piece it all together, but it never made sense to me. I rub Vaseline on her peeling lips. I notice a few black hairs starting to grow back on her chin. I always teased her that she looked like a walrus when they were long and hairy; some even had a curl. Only after such pestering would she allow me to pull them out with a quick yank of the tweezers. But here in the nursing home, there is no vanity, no mirrors. Still, the coarse black hairs are pushing up with a willpower to live, like green onions pushing up their stems, insisting someone take notice of the bulbs forming below. I hope they grow 10-feet long.
I must convince her to let go of my hand so that I can wipe her bottom. Finding the offense requires some digging, but I don’t mind. There is no disgust only devotion. I will not betray her trust. She weighs twice my weight and is folded with an abundance of flesh. How many times did she clean my bottom, change my diapers when I was a baby? She kept all the pictures. There she was bathing me in the kitchen sink where she cleaned her onions. The window looked out over the garden and the apple tree. I am happy, waving my arms and laughing at her smiling face. I am kicking my feet, wild with abandon, while she changes my dirty cloth diaper. I jump up and down on her bed and even pull the bedspread off after she’s just made it. Only once did she spank me in my fits of defiance. I threw a coffee cup down and it broke.
Grandmother is chafed from all the wiping of wet rags. I do not let the nurses help. They use latex gloves, afraid to touch dying flesh. This is a push-up-your sleeve, hands-on love devotion for me. I gently wipe her clean, then pull on a fresh diaper and slide it under her hips. I sprinkle Johnson’s baby powder on her private parts, her spider, as she used to call it when I gave her a bath at home. We both would giggle.
Once she stopped fussing and fighting about not wanting to take a bath and got in the tub, she splashed and played in the warm water like a child. I learned to just shuck my own clothes and climb in with her. Either way I got soaking wet. I lathered her back with lilac soap, scrubbed it with the loofah brush, washed under her arms, her drooping heavy breasts that fed five babies and, yes, between her spider. She was only 89, and her childlike sense of humor kept even the most intimate times funny. We laughed and laughed like young girls who had just discovered their sexuality.
In the nursing home, the scent of the baby powder and my touch calms her agitation. She falls asleep like a contented child. It’s only 11 p.m. I have the whole night to remember every detail. I sketch pictures in my journal. I draw her limp body hooked up to all these unnatural tubes, and I take notes so that I can remember her every word. I scoot the chair next to her bed, getting as close as I can, to touch her throughout the night and early morning hours.
For those who watch and wait, the longest of life’s measurement we call time is between two and four in the morning. To stay awake I read books about the Great Depression in the Ozarks, President Roosevelt, and the New Deal. The President got all the credit, but it was because of his wife Eleanor with her “soft power of quiet persistence” and desire to help the poor in America that the President even took notice of the nation’s wounds. Some families would have starved had it not been for the community canning kitchens or the government relief program in the Ozarks.
It created paying jobs for young men like Grandpa to build bridges, roads, and parks. He had a job with the Civilian Conservation Corp in the Sylamore Mountains but quit despite Grandmother’s pleas to stay. They were newlyweds. He wanted to farm. Knowing all this makes me feel even closer to my grandmother, to understand her hardships and her struggles as a woman to live an authentic life carved out by a husband’s lone decision and acres of soil—gardening, picking cotton, milking cows, cooking, and having babies. I never want to forget her or any of these moments. I cannot. I will not.
I spent many nights with my grandmother when I was a child and as an adult. She needed me. I needed her. Grandpa had died from cancer, and Dad had left Mom, my brother, and me. Mom had remarried, bringing a new danger into our lives, and it was only at Grandmother’s house that I felt no one could hurt me or steal my innocence. It was my haven. At night Grandmother and I sank deep into the safety of her mattress stuffed with the feathers from chicken plucking from years gone by. Its softness cushioned the heartaches of our lives and nights of despair. She told me old family stories of hungry panthers scratching at doors in the winter, slaves hiding under beds, and Civil War soldiers stealing her family’s hog meat while her grandparents hid in the field’s shocks of fodder. The stories never frightened me. I knew they were hand-me-down tales of truth.
She often cried at night for Grandpa, and my heart ached for her and for me. I comforted her as best I could at age 12, asking God, whoever He was, to make her feel better. Our preacher always said to pray—God would take the pain away, but only if you were a Christian. Prayer never worked for me. I wasn’t Christian enough.
As long as I can remember, Grandmother always laid on her left side. I slept on the right side of the bed and during the night threw my right arm and leg over the top of her rump. It sure seemed big then for my small legs. Habits are hard to give up even when dying. The nurses keep rolling Grandmother to the right side, the wrong side. I listened all night as she kept mumbling, “This is the man’s side, need to lay on the woman’s side. This is the man’s side.”
I called the nurses, but she would fall back asleep before the nurses arrived to help me turn her to the left side, to die.
My grandmother cannot remember what she ate as she swallows; she cannot remember if she took her medicine or took a bath. But she can remember she lives at 1964 Fairview Road and that a row of pine trees grows to the west and that her youngest son planted them when he was in 4-H. That was more than 45 years ago. She can remember the day she first met Grandpa in 1933 at a Valentine’s party at Uncle Pinky’s house, at the top of the hill. He kissed her goodnight with a peck on the cheek. She married him, a stranger, two weeks later, and left her mother and father behind some 35 miles away. She would only get to visit them two or three times over the next 30 years. Grandpa and she did not have a car. When she did make the trip, she rode with the postal carrier to her family home place built on glade rock.
Grandmother still remembers and cries about the little girl she lost to Scarlet Fever. I listen to her stories, the same stories, over and over. There is poetry in repetition even if it is just an old woman recalling her youth. She tells how she held her child close to the cold window, pressing her little girl’s forehead to the frosty glass, hoping to take the sting out of the fever and out of life. Her little girl watched the whiteness of flurries, snowflakes fall, but Grandmother could only see the cruelty of earth meeting sky, of innocence melting away at the first touch of hardness.
It’s going on four weeks now. Grandmother can no longer talk or eat. I feed her drops of water and buttermilk from a straw. She rarely opens her eyes and if she does, they are empty glass cases. Someone has stolen the blue. Her body is decomposing. I can smell it —the rot, the stink, the sweat. It is returning to the earth. Still with all this ugly business of dying, she clings to dignity even if it is only shouting out for help.
“I’m shitting, shitting, shitting.” Her voice grows louder. I look for a diaper. Before I can wrap it around her, brown liquid runs down her buttocks onto my hands. She calls for her brother “J.R.,” her sister “Essie,” her sister “Lillian,” for “Mommy,” and for “Daddy.” I tell her Mommy is making cornbread and Daddy is plowing the fields with Oscar, the old mule. Daddy wants her to rest. I clean her and pull the diaper around her hips. I wash my hands. I pet her head of gray, her hair more silver than the brightest star. It soothes her for a few minutes, then she begins again the hollering. Her cries echo down the halls all the way to the nurses’ stations on the east and west wings and, I want to believe, down to the hollows of her family home place on Calico Rock Creek.
I check her catheter bag. Her urine is a wicked red, redder than any tomato juice she ever canned. There are bits of flesh floating in the bag. Her kidneys have stopped working. Her lungs are filling up. She is suffocating. She babbles words of “help live, help die, help shit.” Only those who sit by her side day and night can understand. The gurgle of a baby is cute. The gurgle of a woman drowning is haunting. I hold my breath in anticipation of her going under. Not coming up. My lungs want to explode. I gasp for air as she has won the competition for holding your breath the longest. How can this happen? I never thought she would grow old or I would grow up. Yet here I sit in a world where youth is considered a diamond in the rough and the old is considered a rut in the road.
Under the disguise of rehabilitation, my family put her in the nursing home to die. It was a lie designed to ease their guilt and shame. They grew weary of caring for her and listening to her endless old stories told over and over. Most of her family had better things to do—get back to the farm she gave them, go to basketball games, run church errands for strangers.
They no longer wanted to gather around for family dinners at her old green table with the marble swirls. The family didn’t want to repair it or her. They hauled the table off to the ditch, dumped it down in the hollow in the back field with all the other has-beens—old couches, refrigerators, a Victrola, chairs, and lamps. All unwanted memories piled in a heap, buried alive for the earth to reclaim.
With such sweetness she accepts that her children know best. It is an innocence, a dependence found only in the old and newborns who have no way to fight back and rely solely on the sacredness of blood kin to care for them, to do the right thing. She forgives their betrayal. I do not. No one listens or cares that she, a beautiful woman with sky blue eyes, has earned the right to die on the very land where she toiled until fingers blistered and bled. No one cares that she wanted to lie in the same bed where she made love with a less than loving husband; tossed and turned in loneliness for some 40 years; slept and woke to the same view of a fog-covered field—a field where the sun rose on cue to the bawling of a baby calf in want of its mother’s warm teat, and a rusty clothesline swinging back and forth with a life-is-over squeak.
Today her body burns with life’s desire, a fever of 104 degrees. Hell on Earth. To know my grandmother lies in wait, exchanging her breath with the breath, the staleness, of a complete stranger violates the very definition of family and the sense of humanity. This is the woman who taught me to suck the marrow of honeysuckles with a love-of-life thirst, to entertain myself by mixing imagination and mud with water and baking mud pies on a worm-eaten board beneath the apple tree and to count, count the times poor Will was whipped by the night. Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill. Whippoorwill, the bird called for help. No one ever answered, except for my grandmother, who would say, “Hush Will. It’s time to go to sleep.” This is the woman who just last year lay my head in her lap filled with the ends and beginnings of fresh snapped green beans and the skins of peeled green onions and told me, “Please don’t cry. There will be plenty of time for crying after I’m gone. Let’s just enjoy the day together.” She stroked my head, my hair, as if I were the childhood cat she left behind so many years ago.
Grandmother died six months later on the first day of May, in the month of the planting of green onions. She died in the nursing home in what she called a “cracker box.” It was her May Day, her call for help. She was 90 years and two weeks old. She no longer begged me to take her home to die. She knew the time was close. She no longer bribed me with a widow’s check, all $439 from her monthly social security. That’s how much the government valued her as a farmer’s wife who’d raised five children, fed them on a garden’s bounty, made their clothes from feed sacks and never learned to drive. She tried and tried to get me to take it, the check, and take her back to where she belonged, to the farm she had given away to her children, expecting an equal exchange of value not on land but on her life.
“It’s all yours, the check,” she would say. “All yours if you will take me home to Fairview.”
So I did what was best. I told her I would take the check, that we were going home soon. I told her the green onions were coming up. They were six-inches tall and had nice long white legs ready to pull from the garden. The spring onions, like Grandmother, always held onto youth with a firm grip. They were harvested for their immaturity; old age made them tough. I’m glad my grandmother was an old onion and refused the pull of death until the very end. Her roots ran deep as my love.
I climbed into the nursing home bed with her, wrapped my arms around her once biscuit thick waist and twisted her gray curls ‘round and ‘round with my nail bitten fingers, singing the last refrain of her favorite hymn, only this time it was my version.
“There will be stars in your crown. When the sun goeth down.”
I watched as the sun and the numbers fell, one by one. The flashing red lights said her heartbeat and her oxygen were going, going, gone. She gasped—let out something between a child’s cry and a calf’s bawl for its momma. It was the uninvited guest—the rattle not of a child’s toy, but of a woman not able to swallow or cough. Death. For a second, I died too. My 105 pounds of cold flesh soaked up her 198 pounds of warmth. As she breathed out, I breathed in. We let go together. She let go of life as she knew it, and I let go of the family I thought I knew. I will never forget the strangling or the begging: “Take me home.”
It is not surprising that my grandmother loved green onions. Our love is like a single bulb, a oneness, now sustained by one breath, my breath and my garden, my promise to always pull green onions. This spring, I planted 90 rows.
Fate Thompson grew up in the Ozarks on the family farm and first found literature at the bottom of a feather mattress. There in the rise and fall of her grandmother’s breasts, she listened to hand-me-down tales of slaves hiding beneath beds, black panthers scratching at cabin doors in the coldest of a winter’s night, and Civil War soldiers hiding in shocks of fodder. She says she can still hear the cadence of her grandmother’s voice mixed with the calls of the creatures of the night. The crickets. The Whippoorwills. The owl. Thompson received an MFA in creative writing from Spalding University.