(Continued from last Tuesday . . . )
Grandpa Ready was a Kansas City fireman, nearing retirement, when he died from smoke inhalation in March 1943. My brother was nearly four and I would soon be seven.
My aunt Dorothy, Dad’s older sister, called to tell Mom what had happened. She told us the sad news only when Dad arrived home from work and had settled in the easy chair. He rose, opened the front door and went out onto the porch. The door slammed behind him as he stepped into the front yard and began to pace.
Mom picked up my little brother and sat down in the vacated easy chair. “What does it mean, Mommy?” he asked. “Death? What does it mean?”
“It means that Grandpa’s gone away. We’ll never see him again.”
“Where’s he going, Momma?” he sobbed. “Can’t I go with him? Won’t he take me with him?”
“No. He has to go alone.”
“But I could help him hammer. I could hold the nails.”
Mom began to explain why my brother couldn’t follow Grandpa on the trip he was now taking. She spoke softly to him as I got up on the straight back chair that stood wedged between the buffet and the corner of the living room.
Earlier on that rainy day, Mom had done the laundry and a clothesline now stretched across the length of that narrow room. She and my little brother sat on one side of the dangling white panties, towels and washcloths, Dad’s brown work pants, my white anklets, Mom’s cotton blouse, and my pale blue school dress with the appliquéd white doves, wings spread in flight, on the bodice.
On the other side of this wall of clothes, I sat huddled on the corner chair, hidden from sight. I’d pulled up my feet and sat on my folded legs. I could hear Mom singing to my brother. She’d sing, he’d ask questions, she’d answer, and then she’d sing some more. Their voices lulled me into reverie. I knew that Mom was comforting my brother; I understood that she’d forgotten me.
After all, I hadn’t gone each day with Grandpa to his farm just down the road apiece to work on the one-story house he was building for himself and Grandma Ready. He wasn’t my best buddy. I hadn’t handed him tools and ate bologna sandwiches with him and drank sweet lemonade while sitting under the pear tree. My brother had.
I knew, too, that Mom loved my brother best. After all she’d taken him with her to Parsons when she didn’t take me. They’d come back, but if she saw me crying, maybe they’d walk out of the house, leave me again, and this time not come back.
So I didn’t cry that night and I didn’t say anything. I simply hid behind the clothesline and its load of wash. I tried to make myself very small in that cramped space, intent on becoming invisible. The loud ticking of the clock that hung above me on the corner wall entered my still point. I craned my neck back and looked up. The movement of its longer hand transfixed me.
I did not know how to tell time. I knew about springtime and wintertime. About school time and vacation time. About bedtime and getting-up time. But I couldn’t tell time. I knew about something called hours and minutes. Each weekday, I’d heard Mom say, “Dad will be home in about fifteen minutes.”
Each Sunday morning, I’d heard Dad say, “What’s the rush? Mass doesn’t start for half an hour.”
I knew about waiting for something to happen and time having to pass before it did. But that night—the night after the day that Grandpa died—I learned to tell time. I can’t explain the phenomenon. I only know that I stared and stared at that ticking clock and suddenly I knew that its long hand was ticking away minutes. It moved regularly. Tick. Tick. Tick. After sixty ticks, it moved to another little line on the circle of the clock.
And I suddenly realized—truly I do not know how—that the long hand moved five times to get to the number 1. Then it moved five times again to get to the number 2. And I knew, surely and with great certainty, that five minutes had passed and then ten.
With growing awe I watched the hand move around one side of the circle. I knew that I’d discovered time at 6:05 and that it was 6:25 when Dad reentered the house.
“Shh,” Mom said. “He’s asleep. He’s cried his heart out.” I could hear her get up out of the chair and carry my little brother into the bedroom.
Then through the barrier of the drying laundry, I heard Dad pass me and go into the kitchen. Next, I saw one of Mom’s hands gently move aside a dishtowel. “Dodo,” she said, “it’s time to come out from there and have some supper.”
“Mommy, I know what time is!”
“What is it?”
“What the clock tells. It’s 6:30 now.”
Then I explained to her what had happened. She helped me down from the chair and hugged me against her so that my face pressed into her stomach. And she patted my back and said, “Oh, Dodo, you never cease to amaze me.”
I looked up and saw tears in her eyes. “Mommy, don’t cry,” I said. Then I told her that my brother was okay. That she didn’t need to cry for him.
“But are you okay?” she asked. “Do you understand?”
(Continued next Tuesday . . . )
Clock photograph from Wikipedia.
Clothespin photograph by Carlos Porto from freephotos.com.