The Coffee Pot Tree

I’m not sure how we found it or why we went there. It was tucked away deep in the woods on the last acre or so of our grandparents’ farm, where stinging nettles reached out for bare ankles and still-white blackberries grew. It was far past Brody’s grave beside the willow tree and still farther than the little pond filled with blue gill.

The coffee pot tree.

That’s what we called it anyway. It wasn’t so much a tree as it was a stump, really. It was a hulking giant who had been beheaded and whose belly had rotted through. But the giant was still flirtatious, a bit of its roots pulled up on one side like some Edwardian minx showing ankle from beneath a skirt of moss. It tilted at an angle that made it just climbable enough for a child and not worth it for an adult. And, toward the top, there had been placed a coffee pot.

The pot itself was an old tin thing, bent and rusted in places. It looked like something cowpokes in a Western would have put over an open flame. Something Coleman might have made once – part of a now antique camping line. Strangely enough, it didn’t belong to any of us, not even our grandmother who walked us through the woods that very first time. I think we found it. It came to us from the ground, asking for a place to rest safely, and we obliged.

I don’t know which one of us did it or why, but once it had been placed at the top of that tree, it was as if it had always been there. It was as if it grew right out of the trunk like that, like something out of Alice in Wonderland. And it was a magical, mysterious thing there just for us.

We would return to it, the three of us, with or without or grandparents, when we played together at their house. You had to find your way through a maze to get there. So many twists and turns that made a little thrill of terror rise up in your chest when you lost sight of the person ahead of you. A bear might find you. Or Bigfoot. Or you might just be lost in the woods. You might have to live there with the coyotes and wolves like some kind of Northwestern Mowgli. You might never be found.

Inevitably though, we’d find the place. Our special spot. We’d climb and play and rest around the coffee pot tree – a secret monolith to our childhood.

……………..

When I was in college, my little hometown got a Dairy Queen. There were locations on either side before that in the towns that book-ended us. It was always something we went to when leaving or coming into town. Having one in our city limits was new and everyone was thrilled about it.

On a visit home one weekend, my family stopped into the “DQ” and I ordered a butterscotch dilly bar, one of my childhood favorites. I hadn’t had one in so many years, and on a hot, sunny weekend, it sounded fantastic. We sat down in a booth near the window, and when they called our number, I volunteered to get up and grab the food. At the counter, I took a quick inventory of it all. I noticed that on the tray, in my mind, was no dilly bar. What they had given me was the size of a large lollipop. I took it and turned it over by the stick handle through its wrapping a few times. I held it up to the cashier.

“Have they always been like this?” I asked. The teenager with a baby bump that caused her polo uniform to be taut around the middle just shrugged.

I brought the tray of food back to our table and held up the dilly bar again, this time for my family. “Have they always been like this? I mean, so small?” I asked. “I remember them being a lot bigger. Like…huge.”

“Well,” my grandma said, picking up an onion ring, “they probably just looked big to you because you were so small at the time.”

The thing nearly melted down my wrist as I marveled at how tiny it looked, when once it had been a massive treat surely the size of my head.

……………………

As we got older, we visited the woods less and less. We visited our grandparents less and less. School and work and boyfriends and girlfriends, break-ups and long flights and all those other things kept us away. The back acreage of the farm eventually grew over, and without a set of shears, it would have been impossible to get in. There were no entrances or paths. Even the little duck pond became obscured by brambles and clouded over with muck.

Grandpa still liked to drive his truck down into the pasture a ways and watch the birds and deer while drinking a coffee – one of his last vestiges of independence, as walking was no longer an option. My dad would sometimes enter the pasture, too, to burn old garbage piles and dry brush or to get something stored away in the garage. Other than that, it was largely unused.

Then Grandpa passed away, and no one had reason to go down there. There were no young children left to adventure to secret sacred places. The huge metal gate at the top of the hill, the opening to the pasture and the woods beyond, stayed shut.

And now I live far away from my grandparents’ house. I sit here on a hot summer day when a dilly bar sounds wonderful. Looking out over the balcony at the sagging palm trees so different than the upright, hard-wearing pines back home, I think – could I find my way to the coffee pot tree now? Through the stinging nettles and down the winding paths? And if I did, would it be the huge thing it once was or would it shrink before me?

And this is when I realize – some things, those magic things, are best left in the forest of my mind.

Greta

It’s funny how names conjure up images. A Brandi is a surefire stripper. A Chad is a gym rat douchebag who says things like, “I’m counting my macros.” And a Greta, well, a Greta is the type of gal who milks cows. She churns butter. She’ll make you a strudel with said milk and butter so good that it will make you cry, and then she’ll slap you across the mouth for crying because she’s one tough strudel.

I once knew a Greta. A real life, butter-churning-cow-milking-mouth-slapping Greta from Germany. Her last name was Von Vueghe (pronounced Von – Vay) and I used to like to pretend I was the fat kid from Willy Wonka and say in a thick accent “Vere did Greta go? Uh oh, she’s going zee Von Vay!”

I know, hilarious.

Greta thought so too actually. She’d laugh at all my jokes when I gave her her bi-weekly shower. I mean, maybe it was because I controlled the shower temperature, but I think she genuinely liked me. She used to send me home with little shortbread cookies she’d wrapped up in a napkin and tell me not to tell anyone else or they’d get jealous. It was our secret.

When Greta came to the home, she was a round little thing. She had a bowl haircut and wore turtlenecks with matching pants exclusively. A uniform, very Germanic in its practicality. Sometimes, if it was cold, she’d put on a little black shearling vest her daughter had gotten her, but that was rare. She had a walker with a pouch on the front in which she’d keep newspapers, sweets, and her knitting. Her feet sometimes knocked against the walker because of the way they sort of splayed out – a knee injury in her 40’s, I think she said.

Weeks after moving in, Greta became fast friends with a Lena and a Sara, also from Germany but different parts. Whereas Greta would have benefitted from a rolling subtitles bar beneath her everywhere she went, Lena and Sara’s accents were almost non-existent. They had been in the States for a while; Sara, I believe, since her teens. Unfortunately, they also differed in that their minds were farther gone than Greta’s. This sometimes made her sad. She was caring to a fault though, and watched after them like a mother goose, guiding them back into place should they wander.

I think she’d always been that way – nurturing. It was like me and the shortbread cookies. She needed to feel useful, that she was caring for someone. She would always ask if there was something she could be doing, something or someone she could be taking care of. If the community garden needed volunteers to tend it, she’d be plucking weeds despite her arthritis. If there was a bingo night, she’d be there first, helping the staff set out the sheets on all of the tables.

The thing is, I asked her once when she had inquired if I needed someone to iron my sweater, “Who is caring for you?”

That’s what shower time became – someone caring for her. Twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, I would go to Greta’s room with a pile of towels. I knew how many and which sizes to bring: a small one for outside the door; a large one for the bathroom floor; a washcloth for her face; a medium one for her hair; and a large one to wrap around her waist. She never covered her top half – a little quirk that I loved.

She was able to undress on her own, though it was time consuming. So, she often did it ahead of time and greeted me completely nude. “Velcome Erica!” she would say, her breasts and under arm skin swaying in unison as she waved me in. She would shuffle into the bathroom, leading the way. I’d adjust the water, getting it to the perfect spot, and then help her leave her walker behind and plunk down onto the shower stool. Unfailingly, she would say “Oh my!” and make a sound sort of like the Pillsbury Doughboy’s giggle when she plopped in place.

Once she acclimated to the water, I would put the washcloth gently over her eyes and form a border about her hairline with my fingers so that when I let the warm water wash through her hair, none got in her ears. She used to lean back and enjoy the moment. She’d let out a happy sigh as I ran my fingers through her hair and massaged her scalp with shampoo. The skin on her back was taught and smooth, save for a few moles. I would lather it up with eucalyptus soap and massage her achey shoulders.

She’d tell me stories from beneath the washcloth about her life. She’d talk about her old ginger cat or her favorite flowers or this artist she once met who called her his muse and kissed her on the hand which made her very embarrassed. She’d tell me about how she cared for her daughter and worried about her living in a big city far away from her. She tell me about Lena and Sara and how their minds were slipping. She told me how she found Sara wandering the corridor after dinner and brought her back. She told me how much she cared for the world and what would happen to it. She told me everything.

Over the couple of years that I knew her, I watched Greta go from portly to skeletal. Where there once was cushioning for the shower stool, there was now hard bone. Her arms became bruised and sores opened up on her body from her thinness. Sometimes, I would find myself counting the marks on her backside when she led the way into the bathroom. It seemed food had lost its appeal. At meal times she’d stare at it and then offer it to others around her.

Soon enough she started passing on her showers, too. First she’d skip it once a week and then multiple weeks in a row. Everything ached now, not just her shoulders. She couldn’t undress herself anymore but was too embarrassed to accept help. She often fell asleep fully clothed in her recliner and would end up wearing her little uniform multiple days in a row until a nurse gently prompted her to let us help her change. Sponge baths in her bed were easier, so that became her new routine for a while, though they didn’t offer her the same kind of relaxation and mental care that shower time once had.

Overall, she was fading. It often happens like that — over a long stretch of time and then all at once, like a shot. You don’t know what is going on inside until it’s upon them. Just like that.

I came on to my shift one day and an ambulance was outside the building. Walking through the lobby, I discovered that it was Greta the EMTs had with them. I came up alongside her and she grabbed my hands from the gurney they had put her on. She told me that there were cookies on the counter of her apartment she wanted me to grab. Taken aback, I said, “When you come back you can give them to me!” but she just took my hand and in a bittersweet, knowing way kissed it.

And after a few days, she didn’t come back. My sweet, motherly Greta who would gladly milk the cows and churn the butter should you ask, went the Von Vay.

The Ducks

There was this picture in my dad’s house. It hung on the wall to the left of a window he never looked out of and just to the right of a little bedside table that held my Great Grandmother’s diaries. (Those he looked at often.) The picture that was there—Well, it still could be, come to think of it. I haven’t been inside his house in years.—was of this little duck family. It was a high-contrast, amateur photograph of a mother duck warming her eggs, a couple of baby chicks poking out from under her breast.

Or at least that’s what he told me it was.

I always had trouble seeing it. The ducks. My dad would point his thick carpenter’s finger at the picture and trace the birds’ delicate outline. He’d say to me bordering on exasperation, “There. There’s the mama duck and those right there are the babies. See?” But it was pointless. The picture was like one of those Magic Eye books and I could never see the hot air balloon or the sail boats or whatever it was supposed to be for more than a fragment of a second. I’d trick myself into seeing it by agreeing with my friends—a unicorn, yeah, I see it, uh huh—only to lose it again.

And with that picture, for one teeny tiny moment after he pointed them out, I could see the ducks. My mind would grab on to them and there they were: a little family. But inevitably, almost as quickly as I thought it, my mind would let go. Their edges slipped and blurred out and it was nothing more than shapes and shadows again. An abstraction.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

Now I’m older and though it happens less and less, every once and a while I trick myself into thinking I have a handle on it. Not the ducks. My dad.

I trick myself into thinking I can see him and he can see me. Here we are: two people who love each other very much and would do anything for each other. It is all very clear. Black and white even. And in that moment I breathe a little sigh of relief because we’ve done it. We’re a normal father and daughter. We’re the same as my friends and their dads. The same as my uncles and cousins that look so happy in their perfect family Christmas cards waving to us from the fridge.

Then though, something always happens.

Maybe we’re back in the driveway and he turns to me and says coldly, “You don’t believe in the Bible anymore. Is that what you’re telling me?”

I think on it for a moment and then say quietly, “Well if you’re telling me that the Bible says Gramps is in Hell now because he didn’t say ‘I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior’ on his deathbed, then yes, that’s what I’m saying.” I make sure to emphasize the Hell bit, hoping he’ll realize how ridiculous it is.

But he just makes a disgusted noise. Somewhere between a grunt and a cough. A phlegm rattle. It’s thick. He could probably spit it out on to the sidewalk if he wanted to, and there the snot would spell out d-i-s-a-p-p-o-i-n-t-e-d. And of course he is. I’m disappointed with him too. I turn my face away from him so he can’t see me getting red and my eyes going all glassy. I’m angry. I’m sad. I’m another word I can’t even think of right now because he tricked me into believing that we were okay, and we’re not. He ran his finger over the outline of us and I saw it plain as day.

And then the inevitable.

The edges of our relationship slip and the picture of us I have held on to for just a fragment of a second blurs. The thing that I want more than anything, the moment where he warms me and keeps me safe and my little head pokes out from underneath his wing and I look up at him proudly, that is just another picture that I can’t see.

That Smell

There’s a particular smell that old people have. I’m not quite sure what it is. Equal parts perspiration and decay maybe, with a little ‘White Diamonds’ spritzed on the wrists. Whatever it is, I take a perverse joy in it. It reminds me of people I’ve loved and lost. It reminds me of bolo neckties, old school letter openers, and glass candy jars filled with peppermints and sugared orange slices. That smell, noxious and suffocating to most, reminds me of my grandparents.

The reason people my age are uncomfortable around the elderly is simple: the unknown. Most people spend limited time, if any, alongside seniors. They see them when they’re wheeled out for their big centennial birthday parties or carted to the family reunion to show how many generations stretch out beneath them. They’re a foreign concept. A novelty really–like The California Raisins, and in fact, pretty similar in appearance.

It’s also the gap in conversation. What could a young person possibly have in common with an 80 year old, right? A young person’s thought process I suppose is something like: this person is old and dying. I am not old and dying. I am young and full of life. Therefore, we have nothing in common. Of course, if they were once young and full of life like me, does that mean that I will one day be old? Will I die? It’s an understandably discomforting realization, one that most people would rather put out of their minds. Stay far from those who are close to death and you will never die.

The age gap doesn’t bother me though. I was raised by grandparents. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by them my whole life. Two sets of grandparents and five living great grandparents that I clearly remember, and one that is more of a foggy memory–I can’t quite decide if my memories are legitimate or if I’m just picking up his face from polaroids I’ve seen and superimposing him into scenes I actually remember. Regardless, it was a village of ancients that were there to guide and nurture and impart decades of knowledge, and in my case, it took a village.

And maybe that’s why I was drawn to working at The Home. Maybe that’s why, despite all the problems that place had, I stayed for nearly four years, long after I knew that nursing wasn’t my calling. The fact of the matter is that I love old people. I love to hear their stories told in their froggy voices and stare at them when they don’t think I am. Study every wrinkle, every vein, every sunspot and mole. Learn what it is like to be them. Learn how family treats you when you’re old and can’t say no. Learn how people marginalize you until they realize you were right all along.

And above all else, learn the sobering fact of life—learn what it’s like to stop smelling that particular old person smell and recoiling in disgust, but instead be the body that makes it.

Turkey Leg

The click of the machine pumping morphine into Grandpa’s arm is consistent. In contrast, his breathing is ragged, and every so often he lets out a pained moan that comes from low in the throat and sounds like a death rattle. We’ve heard it at least a dozen times now but it still makes me jump a little. This is what we’ve been doing. We sit silently, all of us in gowns and gloves, like some kind of familial Haz-Mat team, watching his chest rise and fall. We hold our own breath every time his chest collapses and exchange glances, wondering if it’s his last exhale.

Still, amid the clicking and whirring and moaning and nurses chatting just outside the door, my mind is singularly focused. The only thing I can think right now, is about turkey legs. Yes, turkey legs. The huge ones you get at theme parks or renaissance fairs. They’re big, greasy, and browned to perfection. They usually come in a foil bag—the same kind that you get from the bakery when you’re too tired to really cook and pre-buttered garlic bread calls your name. The turkey legs are easily big enough for two or three people, but hell, we came all this way didn’t we? We’ll each get one! I’m thinking about turkey legs because my grandpa’s arms used to remind me of them.

He’s always been a muscular bear of a man. Short, yes, but nothing about him small. His arms would always show from the elbow down, tanned from mowing the lawn on a riding mower or taking a drive out to some back woods road only he knew about to watch white tail deer come and go. They were freckled by the sun and covered in wispy, nearly imperceptible hairs. And the skin was always wrapped so tautly over his huge muscles. They looked just like those turkey legs.

Now though, I don’t recognize these arms. They aren’t turkey legs. They’re chicken legs. They’re small and cold and the skin is far too loose. He’s been indoors for the better part of a month so they’ve lost their color as well. These look like boiled chicken legs that have been set out on a paper towel, puckered by water. They aren’t right.

When everyone has left the room to stretch their legs, get coffee, go to the bathroom, I stay behind. I pull a chair up close to him and watch him for a while. I watch his arms. His chicken legs. Though we’re not supposed to, I remove my glove and rub the loose remains of muscle gently as if the skin-to-skin contact might bring color and plumpness back to them. Like they might inflate like a pool toy, happy and bright again.

They don’t.

After a while, I cover his arm up with a blanket. I whisper to him, “That’s okay. You just get warm. Get better and you’ll be able to come home for Thanksgiving.” I rest my head gently on his chest and listen to his heartbeat. “I’ll make all your favorites and you can just sit in your recliner and watch the game. Deal?” But his ragged breath is the only reply.

 

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In the coming days I stop promising candied yams and sweet smells. I stop promising whatever ball game is on TV. I don’t say that I’ll cut my hair short like he prefers instead of letting it hang like a mop. I don’t tell him that I’ll move home, right upstairs if he wants. Instead, I start making a different kind of promise. I promise him that if he’ll let go, if he’ll just slip away, it will be okay. I promise him that dying will be good for him. That he won’t be scared and alone but filled up, whole and blissful. I promise that when my family leaves the room and I stay with him, he can just let it all fall away. All the noises and pain. I promise that if he lets it, death will be as nourishing and warm in his body as a giant turkey leg.