Welcome to the debut of The Burning Hearth blog. The theme for February and March 2020 is Memories of Our Grandfathers. My creative non-fiction, “It’s Elemental, In Three Acts” is a tribute to my grandfather. It is the story of how the nature of fire burned its way through his life. (A perceptive reader will realize the inspiration for the title of my blog in Act II – The Burning.) In March, readers will enjoy a lovely tale by Daniel Lanzdorf. In his creative non-fiction “Grasshopper,” a memory of his grandfather is triggered by fire’s elemental counterpart, water.
I hope you enjoy The Burning Hearth, and if you do, let me know. And, please, share it with those in your circle who love stories too. The most wonderful thing about a cyber hearth, is that an unlimited number of people can gather together to share its warmth. And, if so inclined, please visit The Naked Being to read my guest blog “Abandoning My Abandonment.
In Three Acts
by Constance Malloy
Act I – The Match
My grandfather was a tinkering, meditative soul, who, on occasion, rolled his own cigarettes, and was seldom without a spot of chew tucked between his lip and gum. Not one for brand loyalty, he smoked Bull Durham, Camel, Kool, Salem and Winston cigarettes, and chewed Days Work plug. When in the mood for loose leaf, his brands of choice were Red Man and Beach Nut.
Rough-edged and grizzled looking, he cursed at the wind, at his rocking chair, and the tobacco-laden spittle that occasionally refused to part from his lips on its trek downward from his mouth to the Folgers can, stripped of its label, sitting on the floor beside his chair. The spit, choosing instead, to retreat into the coarse whiskers of his chin, vexed him, causing him to grumble, “God damn, son-of-a-bitch,” into his shirtsleeve, as he wiped his chin across his forearm. This was always followed by a wink and a mischievous smile on his part, and a shy, curious chuckle on mine.
I learned two important health lessons from my grandfather. Don’t smoke, it leads to a painful, ugly death; and, brush your teeth. He would routinely remove his dentures and gum the words, “Brush your teeth. You don’t want to end up like this.” My grandmother reinforced this message on sleepover nights by leaving her disembodied teeth floating in a clear glass of denture cleaner on the back of the toilet.
I also learned very important mind, body, and soul lessons from him: always challenge the mind, always be making something, and be at peace with all things. Challenging himself and being creative seemed to help him be at peace, and being at peace helped him to open his mind to creativity.
So, what did my grandfather make? Gramps made matchstick everything. He made an entire village of matchstick houses, cabins, a general store, and horse buggies. He carved horses out of wood, and made walnut people to ride in the buggies and sit on the porches.
I have one of his walnut people sitting on my desk where I write. I named him Hank, which is what the adults called Gramps. (My grandmother, who spent her young adult life working in a shirt factory, made the walnut peoples’ clothes.) Hank looks over me, asking me questions, telling me to always embrace a healthy skepticism, and to remember there’s more to this whole story than we can know. And, he cautions me to never forget that 9 times out of 10 people will do what’s in their own worst interest, because they will believe and act upon a lie before they will listen to the truth. Hank reminds me of one of my grandfather’s refrains, “People aren’t thinking about the future.”
Gramps electrically wired some of his creations, and by simply pushing a little silver button on the board the house sat upon, the inside came to life in a soft comforting glow. I knew that when no one was looking, walnut people sat in those homes having dinner, sharing their day.
Many summers in my youth, I sat next to Gramps in his garage watching while he meticulously assembled his matchstick village. During this time, he filled my head with stories, and asked me questions like “What do you think will happen to people like the Gunters when that chain grocery store opens?” The Gunters owned a neighborhood grocery across the alley from my grandparents. (I purchased many bags of Gold Rush gum in their dimly lit, rather dusty, store.)
Sometimes, he tasked me with burning the matches. I would light the match and watch as the flame consumed the match head. Then, with a quick, directed puff, I extinguished it. Pride filled me when none of the stick was burnt. Compromised matches weren’t allowed.
Act II – The Burning
Often, I peered deeply into my grandfather’s eyes. I believed that if I could shrink and dive into the blue pools of his irises, the journey would be grand and wonderful, revealing all that I ever needed to know about who we are and why we are here.
Maybe, it is because my grandfather was part Cherokee that I felt this way. Surely, Gramps would have been the Sage of his tribe.
Here’s the family story.
Gramps’ dad, my great grandfather, was born to a Cherokee woman and an Englishman. She died in childbirth. Shortly after his mother’s death, his father remarried a German woman. Together, they had six children. One day, when my great grandfather’s father was not home, his stepmother gathered him and his half-siblings around the family hearth. She pronounced, “No half-blood gets more in this life than my natural born children.” Then, to my great grandfather’s surprise, and detriment, she set his parent’s marriage license and the document containing his mother’s Dawes Roll number on fire. (Those documents were all he had confirming his Cherokee heritage.) Together, they watched his future burn.
Years later, Gramps and his siblings left Iowa for Missouri to speak with a woman they knew to have paid witness to their grandparents’ marriage. The woman, aged 100, proved to be addle-minded, but directed them to the Kahoka County Courthouse where they would be able to secure a copy of their grandparent’s marriage license, a necessary first step in tracing their Cherokee lineage.
Hopeful, Gramps and his siblings headed for Kahoka. They arrived too late. Instead of finding the courthouse, they found a pile of rubble still smoldering from the fire that destroyed it and all of its contents.
Act III – The Source
Gramps retired two years before I was born. I have a copy of his retirement bulletin. It reads:
Mr. Henry L. Morris, Pork Cut Department, elected to take an early retirement on November 1, 1964.
Henry’s continuous service with John Morrell & Co. dates back 27 years to September 16, 1937 when he was employed in the Kill and Cut. Previously, he had accumulated over 22 years of service with the company giving him a combined service record of more than 49 years. In addition to the Kill & Cut, Henry worked in Dry Salt, Sausage, Pickle, Green Hides, Sheep Offal, and on the Export Dock.
Our best wishes for a happy and healthy future go with Henry on his retirement.
The sounds of my childhood were filled with the death squeals of hogs aware of their future as they were herded up the catwalk of Morrell’s. On humid summer days, the stench of their death filled my hometown. For years, my grandfather, and many others, walked ankle deep in the blood of those animals, until, after years of fighting for workers’ rights, my grandfather and the union he led, forced the company to provide them with a sanitary work environment.
My grandfather died in the spring of 1986 from advanced emphysema. At least, according to his death certificate.
Shortly before his death, my mother phoned me, crying. She had just returned from visiting my grandfather in the nursing home where he spent his last days being assaulted. His lungs, depriving him of air, reproached him for all the years of abuse. Nearing his death, he grew delirious. On this day, my mother tried to calm him as he stabbed the air, holding an imaginary knife. He cried and yelled through fits of mucous soaked coughs. While gasping for air, he admonished the man who had killed too much.
My grandfather made no less than fifteen matchstick structures. To date, none have gone up in flames.