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Monday, September 7, 2009


Pin It During long church meetings children may demonstrate their own response to the spoken word of the Lord. Feet twitch, eyes glaze and they look to perform restless mischief on their younger siblings. Such was my lot one hot Sunday afternoon. I am of an age that remembers attending two meetings on any given Sabbath. I am of an age that air conditioning purposes were served by the aged women in the congregation dressed in their best floral batting at the air with their fans.

It was the second meeting of the day. On a sticky wooden pew. Six years old. Bored out of my ever living (according to the doctrine) mind. I was just beginning my subtle side slide toward my two younger brothers intent on fulfilling my role as their constant irritant when Grandma hooked her gnarled, pointing finger at me and motioned once. I reluctantly skidded to a sticky halt and reversed direction, sliding down the pew until I was at her side, head down, a pout about my mouth. Expecting an intense hiss into my left ear that would sear my eardrum and stern up my spine I was surprised to see her take that same hooked flesh and dig her favorite “hankie” out of her purse. Grandma always carried handkerchiefs in the cool recesses of her black, snap-clasp handbag. My nose appreciated for two seconds the familiar odor of calf leather and mint.

Grandma gave me a stern, sideways glance tucking her head back like an old turtle to peer over her glasses. I thought for a dreaded moment that she was going to lick the corner of the hankie and rub some dirt spot on my face pink. I hated that when my mother did it to me. Always on a Sunday morning before church she would apply some of her “Holy Spit” while I pulled a desperate face and leaned in an unfriendly direction – away. I lifted my head briefly to look at my Grandma's eyes. They were always a dead giveaway to her mood. This time they were shiny, not hard. I relaxed. I leaned into her unpadded rib cage. My grandmother was built more Crone-like than Fairy Godmother-like. She was spare and at one time had been tall but now sat shortened by the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Even at that she had to lean over to reach my ear.

Her whisper tickled my ear, “Want to see my baby twins?” I pulled away and stared up at my Grandma. I already knew she had lost twins, my Daddy's two little sisters, when they were about a year old. To pneumonia. One right after the other separated in death by only three or four days. They were born a little too early. Grandma and Grandpa had kept them in shoe boxes the first few days of their breathing lives near the kitchen woodburner. They were very careful with them and did all they knew to do for them, which wasn't much. They died anyway. I figured she would pull a picture of them out of the depths of her purse. I had never seen a picture of my two infant aunts. I didn't think one existed. I looked at my grandmother harder. She stared back. I nodded yes and leaned against her bony hip again.

She did not reach back into her purse but instead took her hankie and smoothed it over her floral lap until it was wrinkle free. Lifting the upper right corner of the hankie she joined it to the lower left corner. A triangle was formed. With a deftness I didn't expect her to demonstrate so quickly she pinched both ends of the long line of triangle between the finger and thumb of both hands and began to smoothly roll those two ends together until they touched. Two tight, fat rolls of white were all that could be seen of that hankie at this point. I was curious but now not terribly impressed. If this was her idea of babies, it was stupid. I could make that.

Around it's corner the trick was about to be unfolded. She picked up the fat white rolls and at the pointy tips of them where they were separated a little she placed one tip in her mouth and pinched the other tip between her finger and thumb again. I was shocked that Grandma would look so silly in church with that hankie sticking out of her mouth, her head bent to hide what she was doing. I snorted. Momma heard it and turned to me, frowning. I looked back at Momma killing my fun. Grandma saw me and also turned to my Momma. Momma saw her first. She said she will always remember how Grandma looked with that hankie hanging out of her mouth and a kind of sheepish look on her face. She'd never seen Grandma look like that. Momma had to leave the meeting, red faced and choking.

Grandma watched her stumble out and then calmly turned her head and looking down at me proceeded to do the trick. With a literal flick of her wrist she tugged at one tip of the hankie pulling it away from the tip in her mouth until it formed a hammock-like cradle. Grandma took the miniature cradle out of her mouth and swinging both ends of it gently lowered it to my nose level. I had to stretch a little to peer inside the six inch hammock. Magic! There were two little babies lying there sleeping. Grandma sat staring into space for a few seconds swaying that baby cradle back and forth, back and forth. I reached up and pried it from her hands and then she smiled watching me mimic her.

Later, perhaps weeks, perhaps months for I was always over at Grandma's house as she and Grandpa lived just an alfalfa field away, she taught me this sad little lullaby to sing while I rocked my 'hankie babies”.

Wild flowers, wild flowers
Growing up so high
We're all pretty maids
And we're all going to die
Except for little (fill in your present grandchild's name)
She's the youngest one
Fie for shame, fie for shame
Turn your back toward the game.
(Then you repeat this same verse over and over endlessly until you have named every name in your family, your village, on earth or until the child has fallen asleep)

It took until I was a teenager to think about the fact that every lullaby Grandma taught me to sing was sad to me. Songs like Wild Flowers and Babes in the Woods. She said they weren't sad to her because nearly every woman lost children in those days of country doctors and no antibiotics. I've taught my own girls this melody. It's still mournful to me.


Teachinfourth said...

It reminds me of the song, "Ash Grove," that my 5th grade teacher once taught me. That song always seems to put me in a melancholy mood whenever I hear it.

Thanks for sharing, Val.

007penguin said...

Lovely. A good turn at the end, widening the lens to remind each of us of the losses we each feel. Great-Grandma would be proud.

Anonymous said...

Morgan and I made hankie-babies in Sacrament Meeting this very Sunday...weird. Nice job explaining the directions for making a hankie-baby with a visual. Dad would be proud.

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