Grompa Samyel's Supper
I REMEMBER the Old Gentleman best in his hale years, around the sixties, when he was still eating his head off and hiding his false teeth behind the hymnbook — quite a bit daft, but about as easy fooled as a steel trap. My Grompa Samyel. He had come over from the North of Ireland with his young bride and with a letter to some countryman already settled up in one of the Connecticut mill towns. He had become a machine-tool maker and bred a good-sized family of boys and girls intimately acquainted with the back of his hand. But by the time they had grown up to be my uncles and aunts, and had made or married prosperity and so naturally wouldn’t have the old duffer cluttering up their atrocious houses, my father had decided that farming was the life, and bought a place.
Well, the Old Gentleman had originally been one of a huge litter of farmer’s sons, whacking away at the old sod. So when, after an honorable career, he found one day that he was mistaking a right-hand stud for a lefthand die and had a hundred and seventeen dollars tucked away in the sock, he retired and came to us on the farm.
The Old Gentleman was worth his weight in heavy cream and fresh eggs the first few years. He had odd bits of lore that came in handy, such as which side of a cow the cow expects to be milked on, and that this is different with horses as you come into the stall — you come in on a horse’s wrong side and it isn’t always certain you’ll have any of your own left. He went about chores from dawn till dark like a good seaman coiling down a line — ease with precision. We were just a nest of brats growing up, tying knots in his shirttails and deviling around on any bit of job we were set, but he moved among us serene in his patience and forgiveness.
He was in league with all dumb creatures, never startling or upsetting them. His tact was endless. My father had been stuck with a wicked old piece of crowbait cow we called Old Bossie. She had a rolling wild eye and horns cut down to nubs. She was brown mostly. She walked, ate, and drank like any other cow, and she gave milk. That is, she made milk; but giving wasn’t her idea. You had to take it.
The Old Gentleman was the only one who could come near her. I was milking hell out of the other cows from the age of eight, but never out of Old Bossie. With her it wasn’t a matter of the milking technique at all. You had to distract her attention.
Well, Grompa would go in as smooth as silk, smelling as much like a cow as anything up the line of stanchions, and fondle and pat the old water-buffalo until she’d hike up a cud and start going over it as if to say, ‘What’s your proposition?’ Then he’d say, ‘So, Boss — so, Bossie,’ and edge gently in with his milk pail, and she’d kick him halfway through the window.
Other times, with a certain whimsey, she would keep shifting cuds as meek as a Christian, until Grompa Samyel had pulled a gentle eight quarts or so into the pail between his knees. And then she would execute a motion that was too quick for the eye to follow but resulted in leaving the empty bucket hanging on one of her evil old nubs and the Old Gentleman sprawled in the trough behind, dung from ear to ear.
You know what you’d do after you got up out of it. But do you know what he would? He would go back, ‘So, Boss — so, Bossie, now,’and drain off the last dribbles of milk, careful and thorough, because if you left a half pint in her udder the old girl would soon get the screaming staggers.
Eventually, of course, a way was figured out. Old Bossie had the stanchion next to the wall of the cowshed anyway. We took a big cinch-strap, nipped in when she was thinking of something else, and lashed those two wicked hind legs of hers together like a survivor to a spar. For several milkings, night and morning, there was an absence of explosions where Grompa was creaking away on his stool and pulling the stuff gently into his bucket — outside of the leather rubbing and chafing as O.B. would try to punt him, first right, then left. She didn’t chew any cud at all, and her eyes were rolling from side to side and red enough to set the place on fire.
But one night we heard the leather on the cinch-strap creaking pretty hard, and Grompa saying ‘So, Boss — now, girl’; and the next thing we saw was milk in the air like a fall of snow and all the cows in the shed throwing their weight around and bringing their stupid feet down hard wherever there was a sign of life. We got clear in a rush and looked for the Old Gentleman. He was milk from head to toe except where the bucket showed, and the bucket was squashed in like a run-over tomato can. It was between the Old Gentleman and Old Bossie, and it was squashed because she was on top of him for fair. She had been swaying around back and forth and pulling at the stanchion to glare back at whatever it could be that had her, and figured out for herself that anything was better than this. So she just took a couple of practice sways and bounced off the wall over onto the Old Gentleman. She just naturally let go and fell on him.
Memory throws a haze over what we did after that. Reason would say we either put her in a sling or nailed her to the wall, but I seem to remember some talk about a diver’s suit — and which went into it at milking time, Grompa or O. B., I can’t tell you now. I do know that he milked her to the day she died, and that she died before he did.
I never heard him use a word you couldn’t call gentle. But we have a picture of him in the family album putting a shocking amount of leather onto old Dolly, our first horse. Dolly was a mare that had also been sold my father with the farm and stock. She had very few original ideas, but what she had she held. One was that when an automobile approached, while she was still mooching around a curve, she should throw up in front, down in back, cramping the front wheels of the buggy under until the buggy turned over, and then gallop for twenty-odd yards with seven Fergusons, aged two to ten, underneath in their go-to-church clothes and screaming like the choir of hell in a welter of muck, blood, and shoe polish. And then she’d fall to eating grass, fallen telegraph wires, and the nasturtiums of the richest Congregational deacon in town.
Another idea she had was when she got hitched into the mowing machine. Now there’s an instrument to stay away from. Iron wheels over uneven ground, and an iron seat right over a cutter bar tearing along enough to cut your leg off if you get thrown. My father never let me near it, and, considering Dolly’s temperament and mine, he was a wise man.
He was patient too, but not like the Old Gentleman. For there were limits to my father, and I’ve seen him thrown from that iron seat and hanging an inch from the cutter bar by Dolly’s crupper and still trying mightily to kick her in the rump at the same time. I could run Dolly in the big hayrake. She didn’t really have what you could call an idea about the rake, but she had things she could do. When she heard me start to dump a load she could imagine she felt a tug on the reins, and stop dead in the middle; when I would try to pull the ratchet loose to keep from breaking my leg, she could think that this, plus a whack of the loose end of the reins across her backside, was the word ‘giddap.’ So she’d back in a panic and then correct it in even more, and start up with the rake clanking and jumping like forty iron bells, and then, in her wild fright at the noise, cut for the barn, where she could remember that she had once been fed and spent a quiet night.
Dolly’s other main idea was about marshy ground. Here the soil is black and sticky, and the grass leaps up like bamboo. Here the knives in the cutter should move at their best speed — to attain which the wheels to which they are geared should move faster, and for this we relied on Dolly. But the minute Dolly would feel the extra pull of the cutter bar she would slow up and cast an anxious look back to see if my father was still with the outfit. This would clog up everything and enrage my father. He had to keep the whip in his teeth when the going was bumpy, but when that fool horse slowed down enough to give him back his balance she also gave him a chance to let loose of the seat with one hand and raise a welt like a muscle on her rump. At which point she would give a terrified leap into the collar; my father would have to grab hold for dear life and let go the cutter bar, which would, of course, slice into a hummock the size of an igloo, and wedge there. Whereupon, if the harness held, Dolly would feel the unwonted strain and sit down.
Weil, that business in that marshy meadow is what I was coming to on the picture we have of Grompa Samyel lacing it into one of the creatures. Grompa knew if Dolly got a chance to throw my father that doubtful look the machinery would begin to jam; he knew that from there on out it was a tossup whether the machine took off from the ground completely with my father in amongst the scissors. But the most important thing was that that grass had to come down to make hay. So they divided the labor. My father held the reins and the cutter bar, and the Old Gentleman held the whip, running alongside.
On the day the picture was taken, they were moving gradually in on a square in which a nest of hornets had been upset, and the boy hornets were just sort of hanging around on the corners to see if anybody wanted to make something of it. So in the picture the both of them have bags over their heads, with crude eyeholes. I still wish we had it in motion. The Old Gentleman would get the whip up over his head like the Ten Commandments, and if his heart quaked, his arm showed it not. So there is my father, humming along as fast as that iron deathtrap ever moved, trying to see through the bag and keep out of the cutter bar, and there is the Old Gentleman galumphing through the marsh as though on separate surfboards, and actually whaling old Dolly around her behind with a seven-foot whip until she wouldn’t sit down again that day or likely any other.
It was a great day, but you could always embarrass the Old Gentleman horribly by pulling out the picture. He knew in his heart that he wouldn’t hurt a fly. But there he was, with a sack over his head like the Ku Klux Klan, larruping away at old Dolly for all to see, like a bosun with a cat.
He was a very patient man when it was himself had to put up with whatever it was. When it was the good of the land you were talking about, he had as quick a hand as ever grabbed a stick. If all the creatures under his care had gone measure for measure with him on the golden rule, he would have led a happy enough life; but we just naturally ran to animals that weren’t normal, so he was always being belted, fooled, and fallen on.
It was after we moved to another farm with more acres and more cows that the Old Gentleman began to crack up. Not any way noticeable — just now and then he’d forget which way from the barn the house was, and bring up in the middle of the state road that ran past the mailbox, athwart the traffic. The farm kept losing money, and the good horse of a team would fall through the dung trap and finally have to be shot after twenty-four hours with tackles, ropes, blankets, hot water, and ‘Up, Dick! ‘ So my father one day went scouting for a job he heard was open, in the middle of the haying season.
It was me and the Old Gentleman alone for a while. That is, it was the two of us and a mare we’d picked up somewhere for when we could hire out the team. She wasn’t an old horse, at least no older than I was, and she didn’t have any of these horse ideas — only a poor sense of timing.
We had the south meadow down early in the week, I remember; got it turned and windrowed ready for the wagon. For an old man and a boy we were doing a pretty clip. I would fork it up and Grompa would build the load, tromping it down and locking the corners as none of the rest of us could. He’d build a load of hay like a shreddedwheat biscuit, and take a quiet pride in seeing a good 10 per cent of it scrape off as it larruped dead-centre through the big barn door — the load just naturally built too high and wide for any door in the county.
We’d got one load off and were pretty well up on the second, in the late, hot afternoon, when the thunderheads began to show off over the east woodlot. If we weren’t going to leave hay under water we’d have to make it all on the one load, and build her clean up to the telephone wires. So we laid out to stretch it, as the air got still and yellow and the barn swallows began to get nervous, flying in low wide circles. Suddenly from nowhere there would be an abrupt clap of cool breeze, and then the sun weltering down again.
We had that load up pretty high, and the mare began to figure it was all over, and feeding time, and get uneasy about it. But it was up to the Old Gentleman to break her neck with the reins if she started to cramp for home, and, what with getting a good pitch placed right at that height, there wasn’t anything for my eyes to see but sweat and hayseed anyway.
A good three-tined fork is a nice lever. You pin a mound of hay so it will bind on itself, step back, and heave mostly with your belly muscles, and as it comes up over your shoulder the swing of it starts you half around toward the load, and all you do for a few seconds is balance as you move in and get it higher, hand over hand, and try to see where to put it.
‘Where’ll you have it, Grompa?’
‘Put it here where I’ve got my fork.’
‘Can’t see you nor fork, man. Speak up!’
‘Ah then, to your right a piece, lad. Up, now.’
Then, if you’re lucky, and the pitch doesn’t break and come down around you like a bag of bran, you give it the last inch and feel the loader’s fork bite and lift in it, and you let the curved tines out easy, slipping down, and turn to go for another or push on for the first catch at the next windrow. I was going back for another, I remember, and had got it fair and already up when I heard the wheels creak as the wagon started ahead, and knew I’d have to chase another ten yards with it for nothing — no use letting it down now when the main work was done. I was so mad when I got up with the load over that damn bumpy meadow ground that I gave it the last shove enough to put it through his arm.
Nothing caught it. It was resting against the top of the load a good six feet over my head, and a little wrong balance could send it all to hell.
‘Catch it, then, can’t you, you—’ I hollered up through the rain of wisps and seed and what not. But one of those nasty little claps of wind caught it and it was all over me and the meadow.
The way I saw him, for I was so winded and mad and my eyes were that full of hayseed, was looking around for a clump or nub of something to heave up at him. He wasn’t up at all. He was forty feet behind, flat and peaceful on his back in the stubble.
I saw it even before I started running: the old mare had started up for home on her own while he was off balance tromping down one of the back corners; and he was out on his back where he’d landed from that high load, and an old man. I didn’t know what to do anyway. I hoped he wasn’t bleeding.
I got there and the Old Gentleman was looking up with his bright blue eyes, straight up where the sky was like a coalbin. He still wasn’t moving.
‘Laddie,’ he said, ‘yon’s a thunderstorm and the hay’s out. Won’t we be up?’
‘How are you, Grompa — all right? You feel all right?’ He still had the pitchfork in his hand, and I took it, not knowing what else to do.
‘ Rain, it will. . . . What’s that ye’re doing?’ he said suddenly, and sat up.
‘You can get up all right, Grompa? You sure it’s all right?’
It would have been a nice group for ‘Youth and Age on the Soil: A Photographic Study.’ He was half sitting up with his weight on one arm; I was squatting over him as though he was a pot on the fire, and holding his pitchfork in a foolish way. I knew where we were but didn’t know what to do; he didn’t know whether it was Christmas or Canada, but he knew what had to be done.
‘Come on, man alive, it’s coming up to get that good hay wet. What are ye fussing here?’ he said, and got up on his feet, reaching for the fork. ‘Poking fun at an old man,’ he said, and turned on his heel.
By the time I caught up with his long stride he was up to the wagon, and had his foot on the shafts. The only thing I knew to do was not stop him, just stay right in back to keep him steady. He got upon the mare’s rump and got hold of the high stake where the reins are tied, and went up on the load.
Then, with as much heave and holler as possible, I sent up three small forkfuls, cramped the wagon over to the last windrow before the gate, and sent him up a few more so fast he wouldn’t have time to look around, hollering for him to bind the load in the middle with them, that that was all there was.
It worked, and a mercy it did, because he was a stubborn farming man and we were a mile from the house or anywhere, and I couldn’t carry him. We came up the drive as the big drops began to pat down. He was down off the load like ginger as soon as it stopped in the barn, and out to see how much we had scraped off to his personal glory.
I was able to tip off Mother, who knew what to do right away. She called to him from the door that supper was ready. I said to go ahead — I’d unhitch and we’d pitch off in the morning; and sure enough, when I came in for a look a little later, there he was sitting alone at the table at five in the afternoon, eating meat and potatoes and coffee, sitting up like a ramrod and whacking away with knife and fork and as pretty an eye for stabbing a piece of bread off the plate as you could see.
There was not a thing wrong with him, except my mother was his dead wife and I was Rob, his eldest son. He cleaned off his plate with a brave final clatter, and never so much as looked at his old cabbagehead silver watch. He stretched, put his plates to clean in a tumbler of water, and started for his bedroom, saying with kindliness but finality, ‘Time for bed now, Sairey.’
I had just started milking my way down the line when my mother came out to say he was sleeping like a baby with his old flannel nightgown on all proper, his clothes hung up neatly, and his Sunday shoes on his feet. We didn’t know what to do, and figured neither would the old horse doctor in the village.
I was about half through when Mother came out again, and this time she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. All she could do was beckon me to come into the house. Supper had been cleared away and the kids were playing out in front on the lawn, and the only one in the kitchen when I got there was the Old Gentleman, sitting at the table. His hair was combed smartly back, he had his trousers on over his nightgown, but he didn’t have the Sunday shoes on this time, or his wearing shoes — or, in fact, any shoes at all. And he was eating.
‘Come on, Len,’ he said. ‘You’re late for your sopper. Ah, a grand sopper too. Fine.’ Len was the name of his daughter’s husband, and he was eating a peanut-butter sandwich and had a cup of viciously hot tea. Mother covered up for me as I went out to finish the cows, and soon came out to report that he was asleep again. He had been in fine shape and sung most of three psalms before hanging his trousers neatly over the closet door and putting his Sunday shoes in the chamber pot.
By the time I had seen to the barn for the night it was late and the kids were in bed, and I went in for my supper, which had been kept warm with special care as for a hero. I had not only become the man of the house, but I had not set the barn on fire or killed a horse. I was too sleepy to strut. So long as Grompa Samyel slept easy and didn’t bleed, I could take care of the farm in the morning, and no one the worse.
Mother and I were talking about it in the kitchen. The rain had gone off, and the clean air outside was specially full of a lot of crickets and bugs getting their night work done and batting against the screens. And then suddenly, picking his way through the furniture of the living room, was the Old Gentleman. He came into the light rubbing his eyes, nodding genially. The nightshirt was outside the trousers this time, but he had a tie on.
‘Must have dozed off, Sairey,’ he said to my mother, pulling a chair up across from me and sitting down. ‘Seemed to me like sopper time would never come.’
Mother got him a plate and cup, and then bustled into the pantry.
‘Well, Fron,’ he said to me, ‘it’s good to have that piece of hay under the barn roof.’ Then, rubbing the plate with the palm of his hand lovingly, ‘What’s for sopper?’
My mother came in with some bread and peanut butter in time to help me with that one. ‘Why, it’s meat loaf, Father,’ she told him smoothly, ‘with potatoes and gravy.’ She got a pan of water boiling, dumped some tea into it, and rushed it to him. There was one thing you could never fool him on, and this was that if the water had stopped boiling, it had chilled off—he could drink anything from soup to coffee the instant the bubbles stopped roiling around, and claimed he didn’t have to wait for that except it ‘hurt his gooms a wee.’ He would sit there with his moustache curling in the heat and drink with a relish that sounded like a fast car going through a sheet of water.
‘Ah, that’s fine,’ he said when Mother put the tea down, protecting her hand with a dish towel. ‘That’s grand.’ But as I picked up my own fork he rapped sharply on the table, nodded his head at me once in rebuke, and then bent it. He said straight out over the crickets and peep frogs, in a clear resonant voice: ‘Merciful Jesus, in thy gracious bounty . . .'
He finished the grace, ate his bread and peanut butter with praise, leaned back smacking his lips, said with finality that it was time for bed, and went there. The plates stayed in the tumbler where they’d been, for he preferred to eat with his gooms when he could.
Mother looked at me and I looked at Mother, and I guess it was the first time that evening it had really struck us funny. Here he was, putting food into him a meal an hour, and where did it have to go?
I went off to bed, but Mother stayed up ‘a while.’ The while turned out to be somewhere after midnight, by which time the Old Gentleman, in various states of apparel, had eaten five suppers in all, each long awaited and ‘grand,’ each blessed in the name of the Lord.
I got up right on time the next morning, but even as I passed through the part-way open door of the cowshed I heard the old steady throom, throom, throom, and there was Grompa Samyel with the same heavy cap on backwards and his head against the cow’s flank.
‘Hey, laddie,’ he said. ‘Ye’re up in time.’
I went over and picked up my milk pail. I almost asked him if he was feeling all right. Then I got my stool and started in on Daisy, my easiest milker and a really soothing spirit.
‘It’s cloudy a little,’ I said finally. ‘But there’s cobwebs all over in the grass.’
He went throom, throom, throom a while, down the line from me by three cows, and said, ‘The weather will turn fine.’ He got up with his bucket and put it on the scales, pulling his old iron-bound specs out to read the figure. We kept track of each cow by weight of milk night and morning, writing the numbers on a board near the strainer. He wrote 18 carefully in under his cow’s number, strained the milk, and went accurately back to number four down the line. And, watching him in his familiar ways, I suddenly stopped being the man of the house for keeps.
‘Grompa Samyel,’ I said, ‘you think wc better pitch off that load right after breakfast, or shake out the windrows down in the south meadow?’
‘Man dear,’ he said (throom, throom, throom), ‘man dear, arc ye clean daft? Let the load sit till we get that patch down by the north wall, before the heat is on it. And with your father away is no time to be making fun. We got the south meadow in yesterday the afternoon — well you know it.’
The sun was breaking when we went in with the pails. Grompa Samyel knew everybody, got his plates from the tumbler, and ate a grand breakfast of ham and potatoes and fried eggs and corncake and syrup and coffee and a piece of pie.
When my father got a job starting in the fall, we got rid of the farm and never went back to one. My Grompa Samyel never knew he’d taken that toss from the load down in the south meadow, but it remained an important landmark along his road to the promised land. He would say ‘yesterday’ when he meant two years before; he would propose seriously to start tomorrow first thing what had just been finished in the afternoon; he would start a piece of work and then look at the tool in his hands and say, musing, ‘What — what’s this shovel? . . . No, it’s a mattock — but what . . .’ And then he would come imperious: ‘Speak up, man alive, now what’s the meaning of this — this . . .’
Even in the simpler things he had to be set right from time to time, though on the specific job he would file every tooth on a crosscut saw, and never leave a cow with a dribble of milk in her bag or swing a scythe against a bump of rock. He had fallen farther than the floor of the meadow, into a time machine of his own. One minute he was across the table from you and the next in another world.
This was helped along considerably by our moving into town for good. There he found nothing for his hands to do but putter in the yard or raise his old hymnbook.
He would walk through the house and stand looking out at the weather through every window. Or he would sit quietly by the kitchen stove listening to the eternal family bicker, which he could follow only at unpredictable intervals, like the moon through clouds. He would identify us, one by one, with the youth of his youth, and be satisfied. Doors to familiar simple rooms began to be a mystery to him and he would go through them endlessly, as to new adventures.
And he began to be, in his eternally aimless motion or immobility, a burden on my mother’s nerves. In and out as the rest of us were with school, or work, or skylarking, she was the only true victim of that Treadmill Pilgrim. The sweetest of creatures, she would burst out at him at last, having endured his gentle but dogmatic incongruities all day. These provided us with priceless lore and fun, for, when crossed in his fantasy, he would argue; he would bring up name and date and place to support his fool contention, but doing it very like a man carrying bags of cement over ploughed land at night.
Questioned directly, he would get shrewd all of a sudden, like an infinitely tolerant man wary of pranks.
‘Grompa,’ we would say, ‘now you’re telling us your own grandfather Samyel played fife with the Regulars, and you heard him play the tunes. Well, whistle us one of the tunes, if you heard them.’
‘Ah, they were grand tunes. You could hear him fifing as far as Belfast.’
‘Yes, but do you remember some of the old tunes, Grompa?’
‘That I do!’
‘Well, what one, then? Could you sing one now?’
‘Tunes?’ says the Old Gentleman. ‘What’s that ye’re speaking of tunes?’
‘Just give us one, then. You never sing anything but what’s in the hymnbook.’
‘That’s no way to be talking! I’ll not hear a word against the hymns. For shame with ye!’
‘Come on, Grompa, you remember something about how they did it with the old fife and drum, don’t you?’
‘Ah, the fife and droom. Ah.’
‘Well, what did they do? You’re just talking now.’
‘You know well enough, man. Didn’t you ever hear “Bonnie Doon”?’
He would think for a while and then go to the window and take a look at his weather to be sure it was still there. ‘We’ll have a fine drop of rain by the morning,’ he would say cheerfully. ‘Grand for the crops.’
His old brain could get as wild and rusty as you liked, but he kept a perverse shrewdness. We never really were able to back him down, though we were near it once. One of his tricks was to pull you away to look out at an absolutely blank yard.
‘Coom, coom,’ he would say. ‘Look at they in the pits up there.’
‘There’s nobody there. And what pits?’
‘ Why, the flax pits — can ye not see with the eyes in your head?’
‘All right, if there’s a pit there, you come on out with us and show us where.’
‘Ah, it’s there well enough,’ he’d say, and go back to the window. It came out bit by bit that in the old country they would dig a shallow hole and throw the cut flax into it to brew or ferment or mildew or something, and then beat it out with something. He would describe each move in the operation clear as a bell, pointing out through the window at the blank back yard and getting excited, but keeping the firm tolerance of one teaching the blind.
One time he got so excited he forgot himself and agreed to go out and show us.
‘Now where’s your pit?’ we said, surrounding him in the yard.
‘Ah, what are ye fetching and tugging at an old man for? Where’s the use?’
‘Where’s the use your taking us to see pits and they not even there, then?’
‘Eh? Man dear, the pit’s there, well enough — can’t you see?’
We’d got him just about to where the pit should be, but he hung back and then he wouldn’t budge.
‘There’s a chill in the air, lads,’ he said, ‘and we’d best be in the house there.’
‘Oh no, oh no,’ we all yelled, having visions of being able to put him off, whenever he tried to pull us away from what we were doing, — as he would at any hour to see the pigs in the little pear tree, — by telling him to find the flax pit first.
But he broke away and sidled off, looking back at the house and then at us, wise and forgiving and shaking his head.
‘Ah, ye’re making fun,’ he said, and went back to look for his supper. He never saw ‘they in the pits’ again, but we kept hearing of many other wonders, like the cow on the henhouse roof, and she wanting to be fed.
The Old Gentleman had a proper respect for the chamber pot as an article of furniture, and indeed should have been born a few hundred years earlier, when it was the true property of literary heroes. Along with the old doubleender bed, he brought from his home to us a commode about two feet high with double doors in front, and its sole function was that of keeping the pot out of harm’s way during the daytime.
In his later years, when he began living almost completely in the lost land of his youth, he would take the pot out at almost any hour of the day or night and go calling. He still had his old boiler of a silver watch, but time in the present had become a trifling thing and a nuisance. We would get a message at practically any time up to three in the morning, from practically anybody, clear to Webster Square: our Old Gentleman was out to make a call.
He would get, say, over the hill and down Wayne Street, and he would come in saying, ‘Ah, Mis’ Murdock, it’s good to see you,’ take off his old iron derby hat, and sit down to talk sociably for a minute. Then he would forget who he was and where he’d come from.
People were always kind, making small talk and giving him a cup of tea and distracting his attention while they phoned us, and one of us would come to get him, raging and ashamed.
Every time it was the same: he would be there, lost and trembling, peopling a world with monsters; and then he would see the familiar face and rise to greet us. ‘Ah, Fron, it’s so good ye’ve come.’ Before his delight and relief the hard words stored up would vanish and our anger be abashed. And we would take him home gently, and only laugh about it the next day.
His traveling costume was always the same. He would have on the old pinstriped flannel nightgown, of course. And he would have the old high black shoes on his careful feet. (He could fall off almost anything, but he never set his foot where leather would take a scratch.)
Then he would clap on the derby hat. He would take his walking cane in his right hand, and open the door; then he would go back to the commode. Then he would go forth from the house on his neighborly mission, with the cane in his right hand and the old chamber pot with the rose-and-leaf design in his left. He was a careful man, a thoughtful traveler.
We were finally able to restrict some of the phone calls from near neighbors, but we never could be sure. For, though he might not know our names or what day it was, yet if we were sitting on the front piazza he went up over the drive the back way, and if we were working out in the back he went down the front steps. He was crazy like a fox.
We locked the door on him after he had gone to bed, and, as he was on the ground floor, we learned to screw down his windows from the outside. He would never break a window. ‘ Glass too dear.’ But we forgot he was a machine-tool maker and could take the house apart with a jackknife. So we had to run screws in over the door-hinge bolts and file the heads off. That held him in, for the lock was screwed on from the outside and he could not endure to break anything that cost money.
He hung on a long time. His other children said it was our fault we didn’t put him in a home, and I guess a couple of them came through with enough for half his keep. He never forgot them, and in fact esteemed them more than he did us. He had a favorite daughter who was an old maid until she was forty, and then got married without changing much. She didn’t want any part of him, of course, and she was very irritable even for a Ferguson, but she lived across Coe’s pond on the hill there, and so once a week he would go over to visit and irritate her. She died in her second childbirth and was laid out for the funeral, all stiff and powdered in that horrible undertaker efficiency, with her red hair looking like a wig; and as we filed by the coffin the Old Gentleman stopped and stroked her brow with that gnarled old hand and said a word to her I couldn’t hear. It was the only gesture of love we had ever seen him make, but I think that there, in that tight room with its stink of too many flowers, he buried his youth, which had been bare enough and unlovely, but all the more bright in memory; and he never could quite find it again.
He was an awful trouble, wandering in his mind and in everything else, often too weak to move, but calling up some hidden strength in the middle of the night to toss the furniture around and charge from wall to wall in some private terror. I would go down and let him out into the kitchen. He might be able to pick a lock, but he couldn’t turn on an electric lamp for the life of him; and until I opened the door he would be struggling for miles in some dark endless country of horrors, — a swamp usually, full of quicksands, — and the instant of my opening the door was stretched out to an infinity of a lantern coming toward him, who so needed light, by circuitous ways. He thought it would never come near, and when I turned the full light on he would put his hands on my shoulders, joyful and incredulous: ‘Ah, man, but it’s good you’ve come.’
He had read a limp-leather Indiapaper Bible nearly to dust, in his time, and in addition he had a slim hymnbook with green boards. Years before, he used to puzzle away at the sermons in the Christian Herald. Now the print in his two books was too fine for him to make out. For a while he sang the hymns he could remember, but gradually he couldn’t remember any all the way through but the Doxology, which he would start up on occasions when delegated to bless the meat.
He had never used his mind on anything, and had no discipline over it, even for the simplest things. We built a garage on the place, cement floor and all, and through the operation he understood the spirit level, joists, eaves, tongue-andgroove boarding, clapboard and mortise and casement. But the word ‘garage’? It. was a trap and peril to his dying day. He would say ‘the little house.’
‘You mean the henhouse, Grompa?'
‘No, man! The — the . . . Up there.’
‘Up where, then? What are you talking?’
If he couldn’t shift the subject, he would finally have to come out with it:
‘ Up there — in the gizzard!’
Then, too, he missed the soothing example of animals. We still had a kitten around, but it was a small vexation under his feet. We kept a few hens, guarded over by a ferocious rooster, who would attack directly you came within twenty yards of one of his biddies, head low, wings dragging, and a furious ruff crackling up like a picture of Sir Walter Raleigh. And somehow the family had picked up a crow with a bum wing, a cleft palate, and a satanic curiosity. Though he made rich sport for the rest of us, to whom he became humorously attached, he was just sin for Grompa, always lighting in his fine iron-gray hair and pulling it out in tufts, trying to keep his fool balance — caw, caw, caw.
We finally ate the hens, and Jerry the Crow went cawing bloody murder off into the woods for good when, at the end of a Fourth of July with firecrackers from morning on, someone invited his dauntless inspection of a half-gallon jug of ammonia.
The cat had to be put away, and the only other life around the place was when my youngest brother bought four homing pigeons, kept them a few weeks with a trusting heart, took them out one by one, and each tore off to his home in the next county like a bat out of hell.
So the Old Gentleman had just the windows, and his endless journey through the downstairs rooms, each one with new wonders, round and round. The times when some light came through his increasing fogs were fewer and more painful to him — for then he would see what a useless perfect bother it must all be.
In the last days he kept to his bed most of the time, a wisp of skin and bone with strange sights in his eyes. Those days were no fun for anybody, and mercifully one morning about four o’clock, — time to be at the milking, — my brother, who carried a paper route, came down and heard noises, and found the Old Gentleman struggling in his own sweat.
But he recognized my brother and his face lighted up, and he called my brother by his right name and said he would have a wink of a nap now just till supper, and lay back. My brother knew better than to wake the house and just stood quietly for a minute.
The Old Gentleman then called twice, in a clear voice, on the Lord Jesus in His Infinite Mercy, and went off to find Him.
It was a relief and sadness to us all. They laid him out properly in his old pepper-and-salt broadcloth and cutaway collar with detachable tie, and planted him quietly. My mother came back from the funeral and went directly to the old commode without saying a word. She took the pot and carried it to the door at the head of the cellar stairs, still without saying a word. At the foot of the stairs was a large wooden box, and in years she had got a very mean eye for bouncing cans, bottles, and what not off the stone wall into that box clear from the stairhead. She weighed the pot in her hand a second and then pitched it. The report was heard in every room of the house, and days later we were finding crockery shards with pink roses on them as far as the fruit room, sixty feet away around a corner. Then Mother cried a little, and then she felt a little better, for Grompa Samyel, the thoughtful traveler, would not have wanted to leave it behind to survive him after all. Then Mother changed from her going-out clothes, and began to cook the supper.