Lesson in Love

This is a vignette from my childhood included in my memoir.

aaa-schoolAmong my Christmas decorations is an old snowflake ornament, which never fails to bring tears to my eyes.  It always reminds me of a Christmas from my childhood, a memory bittersweet, as Christmas memories sometimes are.  I still remember clearly that snowy December night many years ago when I stuck out my tongue at my grandmother and she cried.  It was my first hint of the complexities of love.

My grandmother Walters was a strong pioneering woman who had received her teaching certificate from a normal school in Iowa when she was still a teen-ager.  She was a kind but firm teacher who expected the best from her students, and I wanted to be a teacher just like her when I grew up.  Widowed for many years, she sometimes lived with us, and she was my teacher for first and second grades at the little school on Garfield Creek near our ranch in Colorado.  Then the country schools in our area were consolidated, and I would have to ride the bus to New Castle.

One late summer day Grandma told us, with blue eyes twinkling behind her rimless glasses.  “I have a contract to teach at Dry Hollow this year.”  I looked hopefully from my father to my mother to my grandmother.  Then she said, “Would you like to live there with me?”  I was too happy to answer.

So that winter I lived with my grandmother in a little partitioned-off corner of the school on Elk Creek called Dry Hollow.  Our room was just big enough for a bed, a small table and two chairs, a two-burner kerosene stove and the orange crate where we kept our clothes.  Dad and Mother usually came to take us home for weekends, but the ranch was over twenty miles of winding mountain road away, and sometimes heavy snow made the trip impossible.

On the Friday before Christmas vacation, the snowflakes began falling early in the afternoon, and the gravel road in front of the school was soon covered with snow.  Arthur, the school clown, started one of his hiccuping spells.  Grandma’s frown silenced him.  I squirmed in my seat.  She turned, lips compressed into a disapproving line, and came to inspect the composition I was writing.  A spitwad flew across the room as Grandma returned to her desk.  She looked at each of her dozen students ranging from first through eighth grades and smoothed her starched cotton dress.  “I realize this is the last day of school before Christmas vacation,” she said.  That’s no excuse for misbehavior.”  She took off her glasses and wiped them with an embroidered handkerchief plucked from the neck of her dress.  She walked to the blackboard, wrote in her meticulous script, “Merry Christmas”, then turned with a hint of smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.  “If there are no more disruptions, you may leave ten minutes early.”

That’s what we had been waiting to hear.  The only sound was the crackling of the fire and the scratching of pencils on paper.  I stared at the blackboard.  Merry Christmas.  I was assaulted by memories and expectations which blocked out the schoolroom and the snow outside.

A tall pine in the living room of our spacious ranch house.  Me standing on the ornate iron grill of the furnace floor vent, looking at the fragrant branches sheltering bright mysteries shrouded in red and green.  Standing with the warm air puffing my skirt out, smelling roasting turkey and plum pudding, hearing “Silent Night” on the phonograph.

As the other students bundled up to leave, shouting Christmas greeting on their way out, I stood silently by a window.  The big snowflakes were falling faster, hanging heavy on the tree branches, cloaking the fence posts.  I could barely keep the tears choked back.  We won’t be able to get home tonight, I thought, and probably not tomorrow, and maybe never!

As she did every Friday after school, Grandma sprinkled sweeping compound on the old wooden floor, using the sturdy wooden shingle she had so effectively applied to my behind on the two occasions I had blatantly disobeyed her.  I remembered how surprised I was, though I certainly deserved those spankings.  Grandma was not given to displays of emotion.

I kicked at the oily sawdust and reluctantly went to the closet for the other broom.  I knew we wouldn’t discuss not being able to go home.  We never spoke of many things.  The bitter cold at night in our little corner or the chill at midday even with a fire in the stove.  Or the fact that our nearest neighbors lived too far away to walk through the snow for a visit.  If I started to grumble, Grandma would say, “Complaining never makes anything easier.”

Other favorite sayings of hers still come to mind.  “From the day of your birth till you ride in the hearse, there’s nothing so bad but what it might have been worse.” And “As a rule a man’s a fool.  When it’s hot he wants it cool.  When it’s cool he wants it hot.  He’s always wanting what is not.”

We sat at the table that evening after supper, just as though it were any other evening, Grandma crocheting rapidly on a delicate white doily while I tried to correct the arithmetic problems I had done wrong that day.  In the evenings after my school work was finished, we read and sometimes popped corm, or Grandma recited poetry — she knew long poems like “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by heart, and I was learning some poems too.  The times I liked best were when she talked about the early homesteading days in eastern Colorado, where she taught in a little school much like this one, and plowed her hundred and sixty acres walking behind a single mule, summer after summer.  There she met my grandfather, a neighboring homesteader, whom I never knew because he died when my father was a boy.

But before poetry or stories came the lessons.  I despaired of ever learning multiplication.  I hated it.  The room smelled of the wood fire, kerosene from the lamp, and, faintly, the fried parsnips we’d had for supper, never one of my favorite dishes.  My legs were cold, even in the long brown stockings I loathed.  Grandma buttoned the top button of her wool sweater.  We could hear the wind coming up, which meant the snow would soon be drifted high against the outhouse door.  I dreaded the nightly trek with the flashlight, which seemed only to highlight the scary shadows.

I stared long at the next problem, thinking of Mother and Dad in our warm beautiful house and Christmas waiting there.  Grandma went to stoke the fire, then sat down opposite me again.  I wallowed in my misery, unable to concentrate.  Finally she said, “Well, what is the answer?”

Quickly I hunched over the paper and scribbled some numbers.  Maybe she would be satisfied to believe I was trying.  But she looked at it closely.

“Why, that’s ridiculous, child,” she said.  “Are you ever going to learn your times tables?  Here, let me show you.”

The cold and homesickness and frustration welled up in me.  I looked straight at the top of her neatly parted grey hair and stuck out my tongue.

“There,” she said and raised her eyes.  I saw the surprise in them before I quickly lowered my own.  She’ll slap me, I thought, though she never had.  My face burned worse than from any slap, while the chill in my legs spread to my insides.

I kept my head down, gradually looking up as far as her hands, just above the table. She was crocheting again, very slowly.  Her right index finger was completely stiff from an old injury, even turning up at the first joint.  She wrote and sewed and crocheted so well I almost forgot about that finger not being able to bend.  Now it seemed awkward and in the way and I wondered if it still hurt her sometimes.  I stared at the flickering shadows on the arithmetic book and again at her slowly moving hands.  Finally, without moving my head, I dared raise my eyes to her face.  Her eyes were closed and tears were streaming down her cheeks.

Quickly I looked back at the book.  Her tears were something entirely unexpected, alien to everything I knew about her.  Even when my little brother died, I never saw her cry. She was too busy comforting us.  I looked up again.  Yes, it was true.  Suddenly I felt a great warmth surging through me.  She loved me.  She had to love me to cry because of me, I reasoned.  Of course I knew she did, though she’d never said so.  But this was concrete, almost better than saying it.  And I had hurt her.  I felt so ashamed.  The warmth left me as suddenly as it had come.  I shivered.

As quickly as possible I dressed for bed and huddled under the heavy quilts, doubled around the pain inside.  It seemed like a long time before she came to bed.  When I thought she must be asleep, I felt under the covers for her hand and gently touched her stiff finger.  Her hand closed around mine.

“Yes, dear, I understand,” she said softly.  Then after a pause, “If we aren’t home for Christmas, we’ll just have out own little celebration here.  And our Christmas will be waiting whenever we get there.”

My tears dried quickly on the pillow.  It was my first lesson in love, how easily it can hurt, and how quickly it can heal.