Posted Saturday morning, September 22, 2018.
Looking west from Pop Mannion’s grave, a week ago today.
Last weekend we were up for a visit at the old Mannion Homestead. Mom Mannion is not doing well. She has several serious health problems that are making life awfully rough for her, including an odd one with a slew of disconcerting symptoms that some neurological researchers are now thinking is a form of Parkinson’s, others are treating it like Alzheimer’s even though they don’t think it is, and has others are thinking, “God knows, we’re just making our best guess and hoping for the best.” It’s not that Mom has her good days and bad days. She has her good hours and bad hours. She had some good hours Saturday morning so we took advantage and she and I set out early to run a few errands. When Mom is at her best, she’s her old feisty, determined, but sweet and mischievous self. At one point we passed a beautifully restored vintage Stingray convertible. Mom has never driven and she’s not about to start, but she gave me one of her impish looks and said, “There goes my car.”
We drove out to a country store where she shopped for some gifts for one of her other daughters-in-law who is having her own health problems at the moment, then stopped off at the florist to buy some flowers for Pop Mannion’s grave before heading for the cemetery. Two pots of mums, one white and the other purple. The grave looked a little forlorn. It’s in a nice spot, but there’s no headstone yet and the grass hasn’t completely grown in. Mom used her cane as a rake and did a bit of landscaping before we placed the flowers. She wasn’t completely satisfied with our gardening but she made herself laugh observing that Pop was smiling in amusement at our less than professional efforts. But as we left the cemetery I asked her how she was feeling.
“Empty,” she said wistfully and wearily.
Mom can’t live on her own anymore and we’ll be closing up the homestead soon. It’s for the best, but it’s sad of course. And it’s probably why beside the obvious reason this poem by Donald Hall hit me so hard when I read it this morning. Pop Mannion liked poetry but only when it rhymed. Which meant most contemporary poetry made him grumpy. But it’s enough like poems by Robert Frost, whom he did like, that maybe he’d have liked this one or at any rate wouldn’t mind that I’m posting it…
August, goldenrod blowing. We walk
into the graveyard, to find
my grandfather’s grave. Ten years ago
I came here last, bringing
marigolds from the round garden
outside the kitchen.
I didn’t know you then.
among carved names that go with photographs
on top of the piano at the farm:
Keneston, Wells, Fowler, Batchelder, Buck.
We pause at the new grave
of Grace Fenton, my grandfather’s
sister. Last summer
we called on her at the nursing home,
eighty-seven, and nodding
in a blue housedress. We cannot find
my grandfather’s grave.
Back at the house
where no one lives, we potter
and explore the back chamber
where everything comes to rest: spinning wheels,
pretty boxes, quilts,
bottles, books, albums of postcards.
Then with a flashlight we descend
firm steps to the root cellar—black,
with dirt floors and fieldstone walls,
and above the walls, holding the hewn
sills of the house, enormous
granite foundation stones.
Past the empty bins
for squash, apples, carrots, and potatoes,
we discover the shelves for canning, a few
of tomato left, and—what
is this?—syrup, maple syrup
in a quart jar, syrup
my grandfather made twenty-five
for the last time.
coming to the farm in March
in sugaring time, as a small boy.
He carried the pails of sap, sixteen-quart
buckets, dangling from each end
of a wooden yoke
that lay across his shoulders, and emptied them
into a vat in the saphouse
where fire burned day and night
for a week.
Now the saphouse
tilts, nearly to the ground,
like someone exhausted
to the point of death, and next winter
when snow piles three feet thick
on the roofs of the cold farm,
the saphouse will shudder and slide
with the snow to the ground.
we take my grandfather’s last
quart of syrup
upstairs, holding it gingerly,
and we wash off twenty-five years
of dirt, and we pull
and pry the lid up, cutting the stiff,
dried rubber gasket, and dip our fingers
in, you and I both, and taste
the sweetness, you for the first time,
the sweetness preserved, of a dead man
in the kitchen he left
when his body slid
like anyone’s into the ground.