All These People
“Where should I dig the hole, Juze?” Dad asks, holding a weathered posthole digger in his hands, strong hands with fingers as wide as they are long. The nail on his ring finger, the one with his gold wedding band, is bruised blackish blue and about to fall off, smashed by his own hammer. An electrician and a farmer, he has always had a black fingernail about to fall off. I tease him often. “Dad, you’d think after thirty-some years of using a hammer, you wouldn’t hit yourself anymore.”
He just laughs. “You’d think a feller would learn.” Dad creeps closer to sixty in age but still has a shock of brown waves crowning his head. If a caricaturist were to sketch him, they would dramatize his hair, like Jimmy Carter’s, and give him an oak-sized chest resting on lanky legs. We glance around like sunflowers tracking the sun at the greening fields and budding trees in this hidden valley, breathing in the sweet scent of spring.
Dad built a napping shack here on his “other farm,” a farm used only for crops. The napping shack has expanded and improved through the years, promoted to a family getaway. He built the original with scraps of materials and $500. My mom, brother, and I laughed at him—a cabin in a field, five miles from home?–but over the years the family has grown to love the A-frame for what it is: a piece of Dad. No phone, no electricity, just a place to putter, nap, read, and light occasional bonfires.
I read the instructions on the tag attached to the small cherry tree we’ve carefully selected, mostly for its promised hardiness, from the rows of fruit trees at the nursery
“It needs full sun,” I respond. “Somewhere in this clearing.”
We hesitate and reread the instructions. It’s important that this bing cherry root take hold. We cannot control if babies are born or when old men die, but we want to do this right. Dad suggested planting a tree a few days after my miscarriage. Now, a week later, we have just buried his father, my grandfather.
Grandpa’s well-worn hoe leans against the cabin. Grandpa inherited the hoe from his father-in-law and now my dad, the oldest of five boys, has inherited it from him. Grandpa was a patriarch of the grandest sort. A large man, he wore pinstriped overalls during the week and a suit and hat on Sundays. He worked hard and played harder—liked cards, friends, and booze, especially champagne. In his retirement years, his self-appointed function was to drive a circular route to check on the crops and cattle of his three farming kids.
I spent weeks at a time of my pre-teen youth at Grandma and Grandpa’s dairy farm. I slept in the closed-in porch off the kitchen. I remember mornings most. In the darkness of early morning, Grandpa would start the coffee maker. Lying on the fold-out couch, I would listen to the tick of the grandfather clock and smell the rich scent of coffee, until I heard the creak of the rocking chair. Back and forth. “Ah,” he would sigh, tapping his massive hands on the arm of the chair. Then he’d wait. And wait. When the clock chimed six times, the shouting would begin. “Willard, Bobby, chore time.” My uncles rarely rose quickly. “Willard. Bobby. Now.” And so it would go. Grandpa, a human alarm clock, crowing loudly into the morning stillness until they stumbled downstairs, threw on their coats, and headed to the barn. Grandpa would follow and all that would remain was the wonderful solo of the ticking clock.
My dad is not a man who thinks symbolically. He is not a man who emotes openly. The only advice he’s ever handed out, he gave to my brother on drinking: “Stick to beer, the hard stuff will make you goofy.” Yet Dad has brought along his father’s hoe, representing three generations of history to help create a living memorial to one piece of one generation lost. Grandpa used the hoe for weeding potatoes. A century of use has worn gentle grooves into the handle of the hoe and only a triangle of steel remains of the once-square metal at the bottom. It feels smooth and natural to the touch. I can almost feel Grandpa’s strong hands, soothing away the pain.
I was thirteen weeks pregnant when two things happened: I dreamt of a baby lying on a bed, its head wrapped in plastic, and I woke with cramps in the middle of the night. The next morning I began spotting brownish blood. The spotting turned into a steady stream of bright new red blood. Twenty-four hours of conversations with my doctor, cramping, bleeding, lying in bed watching videos while my husband, Charly, rubbed my back, both of us hoping for the best. And then in a rush of blood and fluid I miscarried.
I called Mom and Dad a few hours later. It must have been a Saturday, or maybe a Friday. My brother was home and the three of them were sitting around the kitchen island telling stories. I could hear the laughter when Dad picked up the phone. “Hey Juze, what’s up?”
“I have some bad news,” I said, and with this sentence I stopped, unable to say another word. I breathed and counted and worked up to the next sentence. Dad remained silent. “I lost the baby.”
“What? No. No.” From here the conversation blurs in my memory. Dad hung up. I sat crying on our plaid green and blue couch.
Mom and Dad called later. They needed time to process. Their pain was so real and raw; in some ways it relieved me of mine, as if grief could be parceled out, everyone taking their share. The more taken, the less shouldered.
The day after I called with news of the miscarriage, Dad drove to see my grandparents. Dad broke down and cried when he told them. My Grandpa’s eyes moistened: “Ahh, I’m an old man, take me,” he said. “Let the little ones live.” Later, a small bird flew up to the window and paused. Though practical, salt-of-the-earth people, Grandma and Grandpa swore that bird was the spirit of my baby, coming to say goodbye.
Grandpa died one week later.
“I can’t do this, I don’t have the emotional stamina,” I told Charly on the drive to Grandpa’s funeral, my head in his lap. But as it turned out, the funeral was the tonic I needed. Grandpa had lived a long, good life. His funeral was a celebration with a full church of family, friends, and neighbors. It provided me an opportunity to laugh and mourn, and for family to express their regrets. “You know he’s up there watching out for your baby,” my Aunt Donna said with a hug.
Dad told me part of his pain over the miscarriage stems from knowing his first grandchild, Sarah. “I know what we lost,” he said. The miscarriage forced Dad into a world of feelings. He talked with friends, family, and clients. What he learned is that lots of women have miscarriages, and while they carry the pain forever, they move on and have more children. I learned the same. One woman told me that after she had a miscarriage, she would walk out into the streets of Chicago and stand, thinking, all these people somehow got born. It will happen for me.
“What do you think about planting the tree here?” I suggest, pointing to a grassy patch in the midst of a triangle created by the cabin, outhouse, and bonfire pit.
“OK. That’s where she’ll go then,” Dad says, and starts digging.
He digs into the black earth a few feet, then we place the cherry tree in the hole, pouring a bucket of water with fertilizer over the roots, and fill the hole back in. I smooth the area with the hoe. Mom comes out of the cabin and sits in the sun-drenched grass. I join her, and we watch as dad installs a chicken-wire fence around the tree. “To protect it from the deer,” he says.
Two years later, I invite Dad on a trip to see my obstetrician. I am six months pregnant. For Dad’s benefit, my doctor plugs in his mini ultrasound machine. I lie back on the table, goop sticky on my protruding belly, while Charly and Dad watch the screen from behind. In fuzzy gray tones, a nearly full-grown baby, sucking his or her thumb and crossing his or her legs, appears. Dad has never seen an ultrasound before, and is as dazzled as we were months before.
The cherry tree hasn’t produced fruit but thrives. Dad nurtures it like he would a grandchild, protecting it from harm, keeping it well fed and hydrated. Dad considers planting another tree for no other reason than he likes cherries. He tells me he plans to pass Grandpa’s hoe on to me. I tell him I plan to pass it on to the fuzzy grey image on the screen.