Approximate Word Count: 3,842
As we pulled out of the Maquoketa Nursing Home and headed back to Peoria, Grandma asked me to drive over to the River. It was mid-October, and the weather forecast called for snow. But how could I say no to Grandma?
“Are you sure you want to go that way?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, as she slid down in the seat and closed her eyes. “Let me know when we get to Miles.”
I promised I would. But I wondered at her request. We had come to Maquoketa once a month since February when her younger sister, Inga, now 94, entered the nursing home. Never once had she asked to do anything but go back home after visiting with her sister. Of course, in February, she was emotional exhausted when we left. But in April, she was fine, and the weather was unusually pretty--a much better day than today to head down the winding, hilly road that hugged the Mississippi River. The summer months weren’t bad, except August. And last month was gorgeous. So why now?
As I drove, I kept one eye on the darkening sky overhead. The heavy gray contrasted with the greens and golds on either side of the road. Some of the fields I sped by were freshly plowed and planted with winter wheat; the new shoots were just beginning to break the surface. Other fields held the stubble of corn stalks harvested at the end of the season.
About 40 minutes into our drive, a large semi swooshed by in the opposite direction, traveling much faster than the posted speed limit. Its wake shook my little red Jetta, waking Grandma. She looked around, a little confused. I told her about the semi. And she asked how far away Miles was.
“About 10 minutes or so,” I told her.
“I always liked this time of year when I was a young girl,” she said, looking out her window at the emerging wheat. “Even though winter was coming, those green shoots were reassuring that warmer weather wasn’t far off.”
I nodded absently, more interested in the darkening sky and the gusty winds that buffeted the car as we crested the hills.
“Your mother hated this time of year.”
“I don’t know why. When she was a girl, she loved tobogganing and skating with her friends. But she always hated the coming of winter.”
I tried to picture Mom on a toboggan. That sight was much easier to conjure up than one of her on skates. But neither image seemed very realistic. Mom hadn’t liked to get out in weather of any kind. But she especially hated extremes—anything under sixty or over eighty, rain, wind, snow, sleet. Of course, it was hard to believe Mother grew up on a farm, too. She was the unluckiest person with plants. The only thing she could grow was zucchini, and that is a debatable success.
When I was little, I remember my dad coming out in the snow with us, helping build snowmen and snow forts, creating an ice rink in the backyard, and taking us out to sled and saucer and toboggan in the bluffs east of Omaha. Mom stayed home.
“I can’t ever remember seeing Mom on ice skates,” I told Grandma.
“Oh?” Grandma replied. “She was quite good, I think. She and her sister and their pals practiced spins and jumps on the pond back of the house out there at Minnetonka. They all had pretty banged up knees when they started, but they were determined—especially your mother. She was going to be better than her older sister, no matter what.”
That last part I could believe. My mother was both a competitor and a perfectionist. “Miles is just ahead,” I said, as we drove past a highway sign.
“There’ll be a county road heading north as you get to town. I think it’s 40. You’ll want to turn there.”
Miles is a town barely big enough to have the road curve as it passes through. In the middle of the turn, there was a sign pointing to a narrow two lane: CR Z-40. The road twisted among the hills. It was marked with solid double yellow stripes its entire length. The speed limit was 50, and there was no passing allowed—not that we encountered any other traffic on this stretch of our journey.
As we came down to highway 52, where CR Z-40 dead-ended, we could see the Mississippi River about 2 miles further east. “Which way?” I asked, although I had already switched on my turn signal to go right.
“Go straight across the road,” Grandma said, “to that cemetery.”
I hadn’t even noticed it before. A graveled area lay ahead on the other side of the highway. And to the left side of it was a small graveyard under a canopy of gnarled oaks and elms. By my reckoning, the cemetery was in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town would be Bellevue, more than five miles to the north, or Sabula, at least 10 miles to the south.
“Who’s buried here?” I asked, as I drove across the highway and onto the patch of gravel. I did not remember stopping here before, not even all those years ago when we had family reunions in Maquoketa. I put the car in park and turned off the engine. I asked my question again. Grandma still hesitated. I studied her. She looked down to her lap and out her window. She buttoned the top two buttons of her coat and pulled her scarf out of her pocket.
“My parents,” she said, pushing open her door.
The door slammed before I could get my next question out. Her parents? I didn’t know she knew anything about her parents. She never talked about them. And Mother had said Grandma didn’t know her parents. She had been raised by her father’s uncle.
Grandma stood at the front of the car, staring up the slight hill toward the hundred or so markers. Her mouth formed a tight line as she tightened her scarf and started walking up the seldom-used road that divided the cemetery. When she got to the first row of markers, I got out of the car and followed her, staying several paces back.
At the third row, she turned left and walked down to a tall obelisk, which stood near the end of the line. When I came up beside her, she was fingering the gray stone blackened with age: Gjertrude Pfieffer. I recognized the name. It was her grandmother’s.
“I didn’t know she was buried her,” I said as softly as I could. I needed to talk, but I didn’t want to intrude on her thoughts. Next to my great great grandmother’s headstone was that of Johannes, her husband. It was in German. He died twenty-two years before his wife.
“I stayed with my grandmother the summer after I left home. I had only seen her once before, when my sister, Kristina, died. I was thirteen then. It was the first time I had seen all of my sisters since we were split up. And the last time, until that summer when I was eighteen.
“I only really saw my oldest sister, Margrite,” Grandma continued. “She lived with an aunt, a sister of my father, about 30 miles from us. My grand uncle, Jacob Knudsen, took us over there for Christmas and Easter. When I was older, I got to spend a week there in the summers.”
“And Margrite was 6 years older than you?” I asked.
“That’s right.” She touched the headstone of her grandfather. “I never knew him,” she continued. “Margrite said he never learned to speak English. And my grandmother spoke it only a little. My youngest sister, Inga, lived with Grandmother Pfeiffer after my father died and learned to speak German. We all lived different places. I grew up speaking Danish with Uncle Jacob. It wasn’t until I started helping with the laundry business my stepparents ran that I learned any English at all. And the summer I stayed with Grandmother, Inga had to translate what was said to me and what I said to my grandmother. She was very loving. She was forever hugging me and patting me, pinching my cheeks and giving me kisses. She said, ‘Es war so gut, mich zu haben dort.’ That meant it was good to have me home. That’s about all the German I really know.
“She was so different from Jacob and his wife, Anna. I don’t think I ever got a hug or kiss from either one of them—except, maybe, when I first went to live with them.
“Did you know that it was Grandmother Pfeiffer’s idea to keep my sisters and me in this country after my father died? His mother, Grandma Knudsen, wanted all of us girls to be sent to Denmark. Grandma Pfeiffer offered to keep us all with her, but my grand uncle said it would be too much, six girls, and she with a farm to run by herself. He was probably right. So, three of us girls went with the Knudsen side and three with the Pfeiffer side.”
“What happened to the rest of your sisters?” I asked. The only ones I ever met were Inga and Karoline.
“Well, of course, Kristina died when I was thirteen. She died of tuberculosis, just like my mother did. And Margrite was with my father’s sister, Marie. Marie was so different from Jacob, sometimes it’s hard to believe the two were related. She allowed Margrite to see Grandma Pfeiffer several times a year. But Jacob Knudsen didn’t let me. Marie made sure Margrite knew where all her sisters were. I’m sure Margrite insisted. But when I would ask to see them, Uncle Jacob said no. I could do what I wanted when I was eighteen, he always told me. Until then, I would do what he wanted.
“Dorthea, the third oldest sister, also went with the Knudsen side. She spoke Danish, too. And when we were older, after Kristina died, we would write to each other. But Karoline and Inga spoke German, and so did Kristina. When we were kids, we couldn’t really talk to one another.
“I never understood why my uncle didn’t want me to see my other sisters. After all, he did let me stay with Aunt Marie and Margrite. But it was Aunt Marie that got me to her farm—at least, that’s what my sister told me.”
A sudden gust of wind rattled the remaining leaves in the trees. I zipped up my jacket against the growing cold. When I looked back up, Grandma had turned and headed further into the cemetery. She stopped at another tall obelisk. It was more damaged by the weather than Grandma Pfeiffer’s. “My parents,” she said after a long moment. The names on the headstone: Karl Kristoff Knudsen and Marta Pfeiffer Knudsen.
“Your father…?” I started to ask, but I didn’t finish my question. I wasn’t sure how to ask. “I didn’t know you knew anything about your parents,” I told her.
“I don’t know much. Mostly I know what Margrite told me. The only thing I really remember is that my father smoked cigars. I still like the smell of a cigar. But I was only three-and-a-half when Mother died. I wasn’t quite four when my father drowned five months later.”
“He drowned?” I asked. I had never even heard that much about him.
Grandma nodded, as she looked across the cemetery and then up at the dark gray sky. “Let’s get back in the car,” she said. “It looks like the rain or snow may start at any moment.”
I didn’t disagree. But I followed behind her as my grandmother made her way back to the car. She stopped by another marker. It was her sister’s—Kristina’s. She didn’t linger long. And soon we were back in the car. Grandma looked tired as we turned the car around and started down the highway toward Sabula.
I was about to ask her a question, but when I glanced her direction her eyes were closed.
“I’ve never forgiven him,” Grandma said a few minutes later.
“I thought you were sleeping,” I told her.
“No,” she replied. “I’m just resting my eyes.”
I took another quick look at her. She was sitting with her head back and her eyes closed.
“Margrite said my father tried to kill all of us. At first I didn’t believe her. But Aunt Marie and Grandma Pfeiffer both told me it was true. Margrite was sixteen then. I was ten when she finally told me the story. I was staying with Aunt Marie. Margrite and I were in her room in the attic of the house. “You are old enough to know this story now,” she told me, and then she her tale…
It was raining by the time Grandma finished her story. We had reached Sabula and were heading to the Illinois side of the river. I didn’t speak for several minutes. But the pat-a-pat of the rain and the rhythmic click of the the windshield wipers filled the void.
“Mother never told me any of that,” I finally said.
“She probably didn’t know,” Grandma replied. “I never told her or her sister anything about it. And I doubt any of my sisters told her the story either.
You never told them anything about it? I wanted to scream. But I didn’t. “Oh,” was all I could manage.
“I never forgave him for killing himself,” Grandma admitted. “And when the girls would ask, I would tell them I didn’t really know what happened. I’d say, ‘I think he drowned somehow or other. But I was too young to really know what happened.’ I never wanted to say it out loud.
“Inga told me that Grandma Pfeiffer said my father was never the same after my mother died. He really did love her. Grandma said he just didn’t want to go on living without her. Maybe that was true. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
“Margrite said she thought that all of us girls were just too much for him to handle. She always felt hurt by that. She and Karoline had taken over the house, the cooking and cleaning. They had been doing those chores for the last three months before Mother died.
“Dorthea told me once that she thought we girls were just too strong a reminder of what he’d lost. Karoline, she told me, looked a lot like our mother.
“I grew up thinking he was a coward. That’s what Uncle Jacob always said. He couldn’t face his responsibilities like a man.
“I don’t know that I would call it cowardice today. But I never forgave him for leaving us girls behind that way—not that I think we should have drowned all those years ago.” Grandma fell silent for a few moments.
“I haven’t been back to that cemetery since Grandma Pfeiffer was buried,” Grandma told me after about ten minutes of silence. “I wasn’t ever going to go back there. But Inga’s been trying to get me to stop and say a prayer at the graves. You know what she told me today? She said, ‘Ninety years is long enough to carry a grudge.’ That Inga. She’s a pretty sharp cookie for being the baby of the family.” Grandma chuckled that happy little laugh of hers. It was the first time I had heard it on this trip.
“I tried to tell Inga that our father owed us more than he gave us. I’ve thought that for all these years. I just never really said it out loud so anybody else could hear it.
“She asked me what else he owed us. And, for the life of me, I couldn’t manage a good example. ‘He owed us a family,’ I told her. It was the only thing I could come up with.
“’But we had that,’ Inga said. ‘Maybe it wasn’t exactly perfect. But we had it. And, when we grew up, we were a family again. It took a while. But it happened.”
“She was right about that,” Grandma said. “Except for Kristina, we had more than forty years together. That’s more than a lot of people get.”
Again, Grandma grew quiet.
The rain was turning to sleet, and the wheels hissed along the roadway as we sloshed through the accumulating slush. I turned the fan up on the defroster to keep the fog off the windshield. I had a hundred questions to ask. But I couldn’t figure out which one to ask first.
“Sometimes I wonder, if I had been the oldest, would I have been able to stop my father that way Margrite did? Sometimes I think I am mad at myself because I don’t really think I could have done it. Inga tells me it’s silly to blame myself for something that I would never have been in a position to do in the first place.
“You know, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to learn to do is to accept things the way they are.” Grandma stretched a bit and then dozed. I listened to the ice pelting the car, the swish of the windshield wipers, the fan on the defroster, and the even breathing of my Grandmother as we sped down the road.
And I wondered if she had yet accepted things as they are.