by Ken Druce
“We love someone who will give us a special place in their hearts, minds, and souls”
(María L. Trigos-Gilbert, GO INSIDE magazine)
I just read this today and it inspired me to write the story of my grandfather I’ve been thinking about for months. Maria was talking about her beloved Uncle Ramos who had died recently and my story is about my time spent with Grampa on his farm in Missouri before he died. I was quite young when we first took the long trip from Wyoming to visit but there are little snippets I remember as vividly as if they happened only yesterday.
Morning on the farm
It is impossible to separate the memories of the farm and Grampa so I’ll just have to mix them all up together. Most of all, I can remember waking up on the living room couch each summer morning and hearing the usual rustlings in the kitchen and smelling that heavenly oatmeal, cooked only the way Gramma could cook it. I would lie there for just a little while, but then it was up and out to the kitchen lest I miss any part of the day. By then, Grampa was usually pulling on his work boots and having his “morning tea” (I always thought it strange he had two breakfasts) before gathering the milk buckets and heading out to the barn. Since I was already dressed I would follow him out through the white picket fence and along the path to the barn.
Stepping out into the morning was the perfect beginning to the day. I can still see the early morning mist above the trees and the green pastures. And the air; heavenly is the only way to describe it. It never smelled so sweet anywhere else. Even though I knew the day would be warm and muggy, there was still just a chill in the air.
I would wait at the gate while Grampa headed east to bring in the cows, though most of them had already begun the journey to the barn. In a single row they traipsed to the barn door and then into their stanchions, ready to be milked, munching on the bit of grain left there for them. There was then a dose of fly spray on each back and then their bags got a wash and then Grampa would settle down on the milk stool and start that morning ritual. There were a number of stray cats that hung around the barn and it wasn’t hard to see why. There was a pan sitting on the floor where a couple of quarts of milk were poured and occasionally a well-aimed teat would surprise an unsuspecting cat.
Milking done, then it was back to the house where the milk was poured through the separator and into the big cans which were set out by the road to be picked up and delivered to the dairy. Then, my favorite meal of the day; breakfast of Gramma’s oatmeal topped with fresh cream. She used Quaker Oats just like Mom did, but Mom’s never tasted the same. I even tried to copy it as an adult and I couldn’t. You just can’t duplicate some things and I’ve given up trying.
“Blackie” Jones (Grampa ) was not a famous or wealthy man but I swear he knew everyone in Kirksville. Sometimes he had to go into town during the day and if I was there I got to go along. He always drove at a very sensible speed waving at everyone along the country roads. In town he would make his stops and I would go in with him. I remember he always introduced me saying, “This is my grandson from Wyoming” in a way that made me know he was proud of me. He was never condescending when I was with him and treated me like an equal. Usually before the trip home, there was a stop for a bottle of orange pop at the service station where he pulled in to fill up the car.
Sunday mornings were very special because after the milking was done, we headed off to church. As a child, our family never went to church so it was a much looked forward to ritual. Mom would bring out my nice clothes and make sure my hair was combed and then Grampa would get ready. First he would shave and then put on his clean white shirt and his pleated tan pants with his Sunday shoes and top it off with his straw hat. I always thought he looked pretty smart. Then out to the car and onto the dirt country roads, skirting various farms until we came to a small clearing in someone’s field where stood a typical country church, white clapboard with a steeple in front. Of course I was introduced to all the older folks as “my grandson from Wyoming” and then we would go in and pick a pew and wait for the piano to start. To this day, the type of hymns we sang are my favorites. “Little Brown Church in the Vale” and “Tell it to Jesus” will always stand out in my memory. After the hymns, I would go to Sunday school and then there was the final hymn and back to the farm.
Our trips to Missouri ceased when I was about twelve and I didn’t go back until I was a college student, in Minnesota, in the seventies. By then Grampa had sold the milk cows and was raising heifers to sell for slaughter. They still didn’t have running water though there was a hydrant outside the kitchen door to replace the old pump. The outhouse was still in use and it was during one of my winter visits I discovered there was a hole in one of the wallboards, which allowed a very cold draft to blow in under the seat. We had always visited during the summer so I never realized how very cold that old house could get. During the summer visits, though, the same magic was there. My grandparents had slowed down a bit but I felt the same when I was there.
One visit in the late seventies would be the last time I saw Grampa alive. The night before I was to leave, he came storming into the house saying one of his heifers was calving and the calf wasn’t turned correctly. So I got dressed and went out to help him pull the calf. Unfortunately, it was born dead. Since I had gotten to bed late, I stayed another day. Ironically, the scene was repeated that next night. I was down on the barn floor with my arm inside this cow trying to turn the calf so it was pointed right and when it was we tied a rope around it’s front feet and pulled it out. We were ecstatic because this one was alive!! The look on Grampa’s face was priceless. I don’t think he imagined his grandson had ever done this before.
The Last Goodbye
I made the long drive to Missouri and reached the farm the day before the funeral. My parents had driven out from Wyoming the same day. I had never been to a funeral before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. We all filed past the casket and out into the bright morning sun. Everyone milled around as they do at such occasions not knowing what to say. I mentioned my last visit to my aunt and she said Grampa never missed a chance to tell anyone about his grandson crawling around in the dirt and straw pulling that calf for him. He was so proud of me. In a later conversation my mother said, “Didn’t you know you were his favorite grandchild”?
No, I didn’t, but knowing it then I realized I had had a special place in someone’s heart. As an adult, I learned my grandfather had not been an easy man to live with. He took to the bottle frequently and was violent during some of those times. I remember one story of my grandmother pouring all his liquor down the kitchen sink when he was out. As an adult, I can understand the imperfections more than I could as a child, because then he was just my Grampa and I took that at face value. My mind wasn’t clouded by his past. I only knew him in the present and for that I am glad. It still doesn’t lower him in my esteem or my memory because I had a special place in his heart.