My Grandmother’s Ghost

Canadian Geese

By F.M.B.

Oct.2, ‘91

 

In the dim light of twilight you suddenly appear.

In swift and silent formation,

Determined in your flight to reach your destination,

Oh! Tell me who directs this urge

Never failing in direction?

Where are you now wondrous birds?

You break my heart headed for the land I love.

I shall remember you always

Indelibly imprinted in my brain.

Your silent flight guided by your leader.

 

When I was born, my mother was 35 and my father was 42, and he was the youngest child, too. 42 plus 18 equals 60, so my dad was 60 when I was 18. My Grammy Barnard? She was 33 when she had my dad. She was 75 when I was born, if that puts it into perspective. That’s like the age where when you die people say things like, “Well, she had a good, long life.”

She lasted in this world a lot longer than that.

My grandfather Barnard was 82 when I was born and died six years later. He was grim, austere, and full of edicts and judgements. He once ran for office as a communist. He’d been a stockbroker before that. He was not a kind man according to my mom.

He had a stroke in the bathtub and drowned, but my mom liked to pretend like Grammy Barnard finally had enough of his bullshit and held him under the water. She told this version only to me. She also would say, “You are so lucky to not know that man. He had a copy of Mein Kaumpf in the basement and when I called him on it, he said that it was good literature. Evil bastard.”

“Hitler or Grampa Barnard,” I usually asked.

“Both,” she usually said.

 

The point here is that I’d never known Grammy Barnard young.

The other point is that I’d never known Grammy Barnard not pining for youth.

The other point is that I’d never known her not stressed about death.

She would cry over the beauty of a tomato. She would cry over the pains in other people’s hearts.

Grammy Barnard Poem #2

March 11, 1927

 

A Wish

 

Love, she goes hand in hand with spring,

To thoughts of this girl then you will cling,

Go dear, and to her tell,

Of the desire you have in her heart to dwell,

Tell her while sweet spring is here,

Tell her while she still is near,

Tell her of moonlight, tell her of flowers,

Tell her of love, and its wondrous powers.

When she died she was 104. I was 30.

When the terrifying ex-communist, ex-stock broker, also known as Grampa Barnard died, my parents were already divorced. Everyone decided that my dad couldn’t handle living by himself very well. He was prone to melancholy, according to Grammy Barnard. My mom liked to say he was depressed. My dad would just say he “gets sad.”

He went to a therapist to talk about the divorce and how it made him sad and how his dad’s expectations also sometimes made him sad. He only made it to second grade. He could barely read. He was smart, but he was dyslexic before people really talked about dyslexia.

He was a sweet man. He forgave people anything. He forgave people everything. He was like a little hobbit who watched a lot of PBS and news shows. He would ask you insightful probing questions that would hit right to your soul. He could create tools for car engines. He could make a tree grow fast and strong in ways that honestly don’t seem human.

Anyways, Grammy Barnard had lived with my dad since I was six or seven and she had always been old to me.  When I went over to their little ranch house, she always took my face in her hands and said things like, “Ah, look at your skin. It’s so beautiful. The beautiful skin of youth.”

This was awkward.

She was about four feet eight inches tall and had a hump in her back. She wore silk blouses and liked pickled herring. I’m not sure why these facts seem important but they are somehow important.

She was tiny.

She also wrote poems and made paintings and had no faith in either.

My dad liked to announce, “My mother is a poet. She is an artistic person. She cries at the beauty of a tomato.”

She’d roll her eyes and say, “Lew.”

And he’d say, “You are, Ma.”

And she’d say, “My art and poems are rubbish.”

“They are not.”

“They are!” She put her hands over her face almost always, hiding from the kindness. “I despair of them. I can’t come close to recreating the beauty of this world.”

Grammy Barnard Poem #3

Truth, May 19, 1927

 

They say how we think so we are

And I from my guess room not afar,

From the truth of the feelings you have for me

My sensing heart does well know when yours is on a spree

Delicate instrument ticking like the clock,

Accurate recorder of each emotions shock.

Timid quaking little hart,

This man who tore your life apart.

 

And then she died. At 104. I was 30.

I eventually took the money she left me and used it to help pay for me to Vermont College of Fine Arts to get a Masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

When I got to Vermont I heard all about the ghosts in the college. The stories didn’t bother me. I’d heard about ghosts before. But one night, during the first residency after Lisa Jahn Clough convinced me to not quit. I’d been feeling despondent because all the other students were so much more knowledgable that I was about everything.

I came from the world of poetry and newspapers. Sports writing. Columns. Play reviews. Stories about planning boards. Deadlines. Quick turn-arounds. Hard facts.

And here I was surrounded by people who were splurting out phrases like “objective correlative” and “emotional resonance” and “desire through lines.”

I was sure I didn’t belong, especially after one student berated my lack of confidence as an insult to all women everywhere. That didn’t help my confidence, by the way. Tearing people down for not being confident enough, usually isn’t the best policy for building them up.

Anyway, Lisa convinced me to stay. But when I looked out the window an hour or so after our talk, I saw in front of me, my grandfather, angry looking, wearing his austere clothes, blood coming out of his ear.

I was on the second floor and my grandfather was dead, long dead, and he stared at me with the most hateful eyes.

And then, I heard the voice of my grandmother behind me, loud and strong, “You are not rubbish.”

I whirled around. She wasn’t there. I turned back around towards the window and there was no creepy old grandfather full of judgement. He was gone.

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