2013 Summer Creative Writing Contest ~Honorable Mention~
by Sherry L. Jesberger
I never enjoyed my visits to the nursing home to see my grandmother, but I loved her enough to go every weekend, no matter how busy I was. She hated it there, was still having trouble adjusting to the sounds and smells of that sterile environment. She was always a bundle of nerves when I first arrived, picking her fingernails and sitting on the edge of the vinyl chair in the corner of her room with a frown.
Then she would see me in the doorway. “Hi, Grandma!” I’d call cheerfully, as I always did. Relief would flood over her then, in a way that was tangible, like opening a window on a bright spring morning. It lifted my mood considerably to see my grandma smile again.
Martha MacKinnon, even at ninety-two, was a force of nature. Never a tall woman, age had stolen some of her stature, but none of her spirit. Her eyes still sparkled, bright blue and intelligent, set among wrinkles and folds like robin’s eggs in a nest. The lines around her generous mouth went deep— nine decades of smiles embedded in her skin. She’d laughed a lot, this woman.
My grandmother had been born before women had the vote. She’d been a child when World War One was fought, lived through the Depression, and worked in a munitions factory during World War Two. She’d raised ten children, losing none of them to the terrible illnesses prevalent in the forties and fifties. I was in awe of the things she’d seen and done during her lifetime.
As soon as I entered her room, I could see something was wrong. She seemed upset and confused. Piles of white tissue lay in her lap, clouds against the sky blue duster she wore. She was wringing her hands in her lap and whimpering quietly.
I threw my purse on the bed, sat down, and took one of her delicate hands in mine. “Grandma, what’s wrong?”
She lifted her gaze to me. Her eyes were swollen with crying. “Rupert’s dead.”
I sat back, surprised. Rupert MacKinnon, my grandfather, had been dead for eight years. I told her so.
She sniffed and pushed a tissue into the corner of one eye. “I know that, Beth. But for some reason, it feels like it happened today.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. My grandparents had loved each other deeply. Losing my grandfather had torn away a piece of my grandmother’s soul.
She laughed then. “Did I ever tell you about the day he told my father off?”
I thought I’d heard every story she had to tell, but I didn’t think I’d heard this one. “No, you haven’t.”
She threw her head back and laughed again. “Lord, your grandfather was devilishly handsome. He stole my breath away when I saw him, with his mop of black hair and his emerald green eyes. I couldn’t look at him without wondering what it would be like to kiss him.” She gave me a stern look that made me laugh. “Mind you, those were entirely improper thoughts for a Methodist girl to have about a Catholic boy.”
My grandmother’s father, Del Taylor, had been the Methodist minister in the little town of Kilroy, Pennsylvania. Quakers had founded Kilroy in the early 1800s. All manner of Protestant religion soon set up shop there and were welcomed. The Irish Catholic’s had come late, just before the Civil War, and they must ‘ve seemed like an alien species to the straight-laced protestant citizens of Kilroy. They soon opened taverns along the main street. There was even a rumor of a bawdy house being operated uptown right next to the St. Palladius church they’d built. No doubt about it—the Irish were a rowdy, crude, hard-drinking lot.
They were also industrious workers. Most of them went into the coal mines, laboring long hours as though they were born to that type of thing. Stores and mills, even a cigar factory, sprang up all over Kilroy with the arrival of the Irish, and the town grew rapidly.
“Did you have improper thoughts, Grandma?” I smiled and patted her hand.
“I certainly did,” she said. “I was a pretty little thing myself, back then. My blonde hair shone like gold, and I always had it done up in the neatest French braid. I had a lot of suitors, but I only had eyes for Rupert MacKinnon.” She tilted her head to look at me. “You knew I was Kilroy’s school teacher for a time, didn’t you?”
“I did know that.”
“Lord, they would’ve fired me if they’d known the things I was thinking about him. You couldn’t be a school teacher and date a boy. You couldn’t even teach school if you married him. You could only be seen in the company of a man if he were your father or brother in those days.”
“Rather archaic rules, I think.” I patted her hand again. The skin there was so thin I could see blue veins pulsing beneath.
“I first saw Rupert at the dance hall uptown. It was as though an electric current passed through the air when he looked at me. He seemed so…dangerous. So unlike the nice, bland boys I knew from my church. He was wild and untamed, and I was so intrigued I don’t even remember what else happened that night. I walked home alone—it was safe to do so then—and when I heard footsteps behind me, I said a little prayer. ‘Please let it be Rupert MacKinnon behind me.’” Grandma gave me a beauteous smile. “And it was.”
“Did anyone see you?”
“No, and I was terrified. I was making two dollars a week teaching, and I didn’t want to lose that money. He swept me, ironically, into the narrow alley between St. Palladius church and the bawdy house. The Lord truly does work in mysterious ways, Beth Lynn MacKinnon.”
“What happened?” I was on the edge of my seat now. The thought of my grandmother as a young girl in the throes of a forbidden love was heady stuff.
“Oh, we just talked for a while. He knew my name. He certainly knew enough not to touch me, though he did kiss me ever so lightly before we went our separate ways.” She lifted a bird-like hand to her left cheek. “How that kiss burned into my skin. I couldn’t sleep for three days, thinking about him.”
“Needless to say, I felt as though I’d sinned. If my father would’ve known I’d talked to a Catholic boy, he’d have beaten me.” Her face fell. “I felt something inside me break free that night though. I’d lived under my father’s thumb all those years, but now I knew Martha Taylor needed to find her courage. I knew that somehow…some way…I was going to be Rupert ‘s wife, even if he was a Catholic.”
She closed her eyes and exhaled ever so gently.
“Grandma, please don’t go to sleep on me! I have to know what happened!”
She roused and grinned. “We saw each other on the sly for a while. I fell desperately in love with him, and he with me, but we were both too young and timid to push the issue. His family was just as opposed to Methodists as mine were to Catholics. We were brave when we were together, but somehow lost the stomach for confrontation when we parted. My father had a hot temper, and none of us children would ever have defied him like that. “
“One day we were caught… together… in Dollinger’s barn.” She blew out a breath.
I inhaled sharply, and she gave me a look. “We were both fully clothed, just sitting behind a stack of hay bales holding hands and talking. Perfectly tame by today’s standards,but not by the standards of that time. We both took a beating, only Rupert got his father’s fists. I got a willow switch on the back of my legs. I still have the marks, if you care to look.”
“How awful. That would be considered abuse today.” I leaned forward and got a better grip on her hand.
She laughed ruefully. “It wasn’t back then. My father’s tongue lashed me nearly as painfully as the willow switch. I’d embarrassed him and shamed myself before God and his congregation. He wasn’t about to forgive me for that.”
“Did you lose your job?”
“No, but I practically had to beg on my knees to keep it. I think I apologized to every single person in Kilroy at least twice. We didn’t see each other after that. I missed Rupert terribly. I ached inside for him. I knew I would never find anyone who could compare.”
“Why did grandpa tell your father off?”
“Well, Pearl Harbor happened, and the United States declared war. I swear it was like the whole mood of the country changed after that, like we all grew a spine and rolled up our sleeves, prepared to get down to business. They ramped up the draft then, and your grandfather had to go to war. I guess something just snapped inside of him after he was drafted.”
She dropped her head with a smile. “I was helping to decorate the Christmas tree when I looked out the front window and saw him stomping up our driveway. It had snowed, and I remember how black his hair looked against the white snow.”
“My father saw him too. ‘Martha, don’t you dare go out on that porch,’ he warned, but it was too late. I already had the door flung open. I was so happy to see him.”
“My father was hot on my heels. ‘Get off this property, MacKinnon, or I’ll throw you off!’ He was red-faced and puffing, but I knew that this was the day…the day Rupert and I would finally be free.”
My grandmother shook her head. I could suddenly see the young woman she’d been.
“Rupert didn’t normally have an Irish accent, but he was so angry, he lapsed into a brogue. ‘I’d like to see ye try it. I’ve come to claim Martha, and ye’ll stand aside, or I’ll beat ye bloody, old man. You’ve stood in our way for too long. I love her. I mean to make her my wife.’”
Grandma sighed. “I loved them both. I didn’t want Rupert to fight with my father, but I wanted to have a life with the man I loved. Long story short, I chose to go with Rupert. I grabbed my coat and a few things and left as my mother sobbed in the kitchen. My father didn’t even try to stop me. He knew better.”
“’You’ll both rot in hell,” my father yelled at us as we ran down the driveway. Rupert turned and waved his own fist in the air. ‘Nay, ye’ll be the one rotting in hell, ye judgmental, unforgiving, sham of a preacher! I’ll hold the door open for ye, ya bastard!’ No one ever spoke to my father that way! It was a very daring thing for your grandfather to do.”
“Wow!” I blinked. “What happened then?”
“Well, my father threw me out, and I lost my teaching position. Rupert arranged for me to stay with his auntie in Buffalo, New York while he served with the Army. I got a job with Bell Aircraft there, and worked making bomb components until he came back to the states. We were married in North Tonawanda by a Justice of the Peace within the hour of his return. And we spent sixty-eight wonderful years together, as much in love on the last day as we were the first.”
“That’s a wonderful story, Grandma. Thank you for sharing it with me.” I sniffled. She was such a treasure.
My grandmother died two days later with a little smile on her face. I knew she was with her beloved Rupert MacKinnon at last.