Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Guest Blogger: Janna McMahan

A Strong Sense of Place

By Janna McMahan

I knew the moment my father spoke that something was wrong. His voice was thinner than usual through the phone lines, edged with trepidation.

“Well, Janna.” He paused. “I’ve got bad news. Grandma Riedel passed away this morning.”

The next day, I left sunny South Carolina behind. As I neared home, I drove through road cuts of the Appalachian foothills, marveling at exposed limestone walls that dripped frozen ice like giant gobs of candle wax. I shivered from the overcast Kentucky weather and the gloomy prospect of why lay ahead.

But at home, nobody seemed upset. Everyone had been waiting for this. My 88-year old grandmother had been in a nursing home six months. She had lived alone for twenty years, but finally her body failed her. Her mind still active, Grandma found that she liked the “old folks home” with its caring nurses, guitar players, singing children, arts and crafts and flow of visitors. One nurse said she’d been in a good mood that last morning. She had eaten biscuits and gravy for breakfast. While the nurse helped her change into a blouse and clip on earrings, Grandma had talked about her wonderful great-grandkids. Grandma died while brushing her teeth, her wheelchair rolled up to the little sink in the Pullman bathroom, her dentures in her hands.

My mother asked me to give Grandma’s eulogy, a unique writing challenge I’d never encountered before. I wondered what I should say. I had vivid childhood memories of my languid summer days on the farm with her and Grandpa. I remember her as a picture book grandmother—wide-lapped, soft and gray-haired. She wore glasses, cooked pies and made feed sack doll clothes from material she had saved for forty years. She saved everything—foil pie plates, twist ties, used plastic bags—as many of the folks who lived through the Depression did. She never had a dishwasher, a diamond or a stereo. She didn’t take vacations. She never got her driver’s license. Grandma worked by my grandfather’s side in their gardens and tobacco fields. Their life was one where your work this year affected how you ate next year. I remember spending summers helping shuck and silk corn, shell butter beans, dig potatoes and snap green beans. All my memories of my grandmother revolve around the farm and food.

After I moved to South Carolina in 1987, I only saw Grandma on holidays and occasionally during summers. What could I say about the woman who had lived two decades without me around? Who was she really? Had she changed any since Grandpa died and she sold the farmhouse and moved to a small ranch in town? Her house was still full, so I decided to spend the day culling through her belongings. I came upon so many things that made my heart ache—the same old pots and pans, glass chicken candy dishes, tattered Bible, stitched-up change purse and grandma-smelling powders. I found bags of decades-old letters, photographs and clippings from the local paper—graduations, marriages, births and deaths. Grandma marked her days by the accomplishments or tragedies of family and friends. There was a newspaper account of a fifth-grade me, thick glasses and stringy hair, accepting my first place ribbon for the conservation poster contest. There was another of me in Jr. Miss and both my engagement and wedding announcements. In her own way, she followed me as closely as she knew how.

My extended family still bunches up in the undulating hills of Central Kentucky. I have cousins who live with their children on the parcels of land that my great-great-grandfather bought when he came from Iowa looking for a different life. My brother, Robb, and I are the only deserters, promoters of America’s fractured extended families. No more fried chicken Sunday dinners. No Fourth of July picnics in the park or homecomings at churches with dozens of relatives. At the funeral, Robb and I struggled to put names to the faces of relatives who seem to know every detail of our lives.

Becoming reacquainted with relatives I knew as a child turned out to be fun. My first inspiration for the eulogy came from Gordon, a sixty-something cousin. His children were my playmates in the creeks of our farms. Gordon and his wife, Lorena, were the first to arrive for visitation. He looked at Grandma lovingly and said, “I had some good meals at that woman’s house. She could make the best sweet corn.” Another cousin said, “I’d go visit Aunt Lenola and she’d stand at the door and watch me drive away. She’d never go in the house. You could always look back and there’d she be.”

It was true. Lenola Riedel was always happy to see you come and sad to see you go.

One by one family and friends remembered their experiences with Grandma. I realized that she had been very loved—that other people had paid her more attention than I ever had. It made me sad and a little ashamed.

Now that I have a daughter, I burn up the road between South Carolina and Kentucky hoping to let my child know her grandparents and great-grandparents. Each summer she spends a week with my folks, crawling the same creeks on our little farm that I did as a child, as my mother did. Right now, it’s her favorite place in the world. She’ll always remember that magical spot, the sense of belonging somewhere. I think sadly that my daughter is probably the last person who will have an attachment to our land. I doubt her children ever will. Robb and I won’t be able to keep it up when our parents can no longer care for the property. Robb, who doesn’t have the romantic, sentimental side I do, will want to sell. So, I feel we’re in the last days of the farm. Our children will never live in that small community. There are no jobs. No career opportunities. No pool of potential mates. No universities to attend. No restaurants or bars. Nothing but streams filled with crawdads and minnows and woods thick with timber where rabbits live in undercut banks and farm boys on four-wheelers lurch up and down slopes.

There is a Bluegrass song about growing up in the mountains that goes, “The sun comes up about ten in morning and the sun goes down about three in the day.” It’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Shadows figure heavily in my dreams of the farm. In my most frequent dream a rooster crows and I awake in the upstairs bedroom of my grandparent’s house crushed beneath the weight of quilts, the smell of burning wood tickling my nose. I float down the tiny staircase and into the front room where heat from the wood stove makes my cheeks tingle. Grandma doesn’t notice me as I glide by where she stands in the kitchen peeling potatoes. Ham pops in an iron skillet. Biscuits smell floury and smooth. Out in the well house grandpa shaves, blotting foam around his chin, under his nose. I fly above the landscape, my toes ruffling tree tops. I see my grandma hunched with fat red tomatoes in her apron, my grandfather with a bushel basket under one arm. There is the lilac bush, so pungent that it is what purple will always smell like to me. And I inhale fertile black loam and skies pregnant with rain. I hear cows bawling to be milked and then I slowly awake, tears pressing hot against the inside of my eyes. I have this dream at least once a year and wake up sobbing. I can’t escape this longing; it sits on my heart like a stone for the rest of the day.

My home has faded more each time I return. Tobacco fields are disappearing. Small farms, once a sole means of survival, are being cut up for trailer parks. Independence and a sense of community are slowly eroding. Manufacturing plants defile streams—that is the factories that haven’t moved south of the border leaving a gaping hole in small economies. The good parts of rural life are being overtaken by satellite dishes and rap music and big box retailers. Better roads sold to people as progress, are taking young adults away in search of the dollar, leaving families behind to wonder where and who their children are. Extended families no longer know each other intimately. Other than your parents, nobody cares how many times you’ve gone to town that day or if you’re sick or if you’ve just hit your first homerun. Most families only know each other from holidays when they’re crammed together forcing a year’s worth of affection and attention into a few stress filled days. Ultimately, few people truly have a place to call home.

Grandma was one of the last people to know that less complicated time when life focused on people and home. If Grandma had other aspirations, I wasn’t aware of them. If she dreamed of a different life, I never knew. She will be remembered for good food, hard work, practicality, kindness and for open arms that gave the softest hugs in the world. Adventure was not my grandma’s desire. She was content in that little clapboard house beside the big read barn. And for a long while, I was happy there too.


Janna McMahan’s novel, Calling Home, will be released by Kensington on Feb. 6, 2008. Janna’s short fiction has won numerous awards and been selected for various literary journals such as Wind, Limestone, Yamassee, StorySouth, Alimentum and The Nantahala Review. Her essays and articles have been published in many dozen newspapers and magazines including Charleston, Skirt! and Arts Across Kentucky.

My website is set to launch at the end of November


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