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Small Kingdoms, Lost and Won

                                    Rebecca McClanahan


I.

Last night all the roses opened, their soft, yellow petals filling the arbor and spilling into my arms. I woke in our Manhattan apartment, my arms spread wide and empty across the quilt. My husband was already up, brewing the coffee I love—does anything taste finer than the first sip of the day? “Good coffee,” I say to my cup each morning, as if to commend it for a task well done. And “Good husband,” because he is. Good life, I often think, for most days I remember I am blessed. Why, then, this palpable homesickness, this longing for a place that bloomed and faded so long ago?

The cottage stood—and still stands, though barely—on two and a half acres beside Wildcat Creek in Tippecanoe County, Indiana. Great-Grandpa Robert built the cottage in 1898 from logs he salvaged from an abandoned outbuilding and hauled, load after difficult load, by horse-drawn wagon across rutted country roads. When Great-Grandma Hattie saw the site, a sloping thicket of bramble and burdock, she named it Briarwood. After months of clearing, their one-room dream home began to take shape. The children worked alongside them, a teenaged son and two daughters—Bessie the eldest at eighteen and Sylvia, the nine-year-old who would become my grandmother. Later, two more sons would be born, a second room and loft would be added, and gradually Briarwood would grow into the home I have come to know through hundreds of family letters that recently came into my possession.

The Briarwood of my childhood years was far removed from the vibrant, humming place depicted in the letters. By the time of my first visit, Hattie and Robert were dead, their children were great-grandparents themselves, and younger family members were unable or unwilling to care for the home place. Only Great-Aunt Bessie, childless and widowed and charmingly eccentric, remained attached to Briarwood. When she wasn’t living with our family wherever my Marine Corps father’s orders happened to take us, she was back at Briarwood. As the great-niece closest to Bessie, I often visited her during summer vacations while the other children stayed at our grandparents’ nearby farm.  Bessie and I were strange roommates, seventy years apart but linked through a passion for books, music, and hikes through woods and cemeteries. At night, with no television or radio and only a single lamp for illumination, we climbed onto the lumpy feather bed we shared and Bessie told stories about her early life. What? I would think. Bessie a child, a bride, a wife? Impossible to comprehend. In my mind, Bessie was always, and only, old. As was this little, falling-down house filled with stray cats, dusty Mason jars, and stacks of National Geographic. Try as I might, I could not imagine the home she described—with its summer kitchen, smokehouse, open-sided milking stable, and tiny alcove housing Robert’s rocking chair and Hattie’s sewing machine and flower boxes.
 
At age 88, Bessie returned for the last time to Briarwood, intending to live out her last days there. At 96, she finally assented to my parents’ wishes and moved to town, where she died two years later. Mother entrusted me with the letters because she could not bequeath the cottage itself; for reasons too complicated to detail, my parents had to sell Briarwood a few years ago, over a century after the first dismantled logs had arrived there. When Mother called with the news, I was stunned at my reaction. After the tears stopped, I reached for paper and pen, furiously sketching the cottage and all the details I could recall: the rusty hand pump that stood beside the low porcelain sink, the tin ladle that hung beside the bucket, the book of Byron’s poems resting on the sofa arm, the slop jar (we never called it a chamber pot) stationed beside the feather bed. There must be more, I thought, more than my scattered, imperfect memories, which seemed insufficient for conjuring the life I now imagined had filled the rooms of the cottage.

Then, a few months later, the letters arrived from Mother, and each time I open another envelope, the spirit of Briarwood pours in, as if rushing through a hole in time. Here comes Robert through the kitchen door no luck fishing but my! a shirt-tail full of mushrooms. Bessie and Brother have been prowling the wood after greens and gooseberries, got moast a gallon, and hunting raspberries for dinner now and some beans too though it is so hot that Hattie reports I melted and run all over myself and must fan myself to sleep.  The years fly by, some harder than others. The Wildcat floods, taking Robert’s raised beds of vegetables and zinnias; close friends die of diphtheria and influenza. Then come the droughts when neighbor’s barns burn to the ground and their own sons enlist in one war or another. Yet even in the darkest times, when Hattie is boiling bones and sugar water for dinner and the chickens have the gapes and die off by the dozens so that she must make regular trips to the sand bunk, my great-grandparents remain grateful. In letter after letter they celebrate their lives, for though it may be dark right now the sun will shine again soon

And so it does. And when it does, Hattie is resting on the back stoop, having churned once and another about ready so Baby Robert will have all the milk he can drink, for the stubborn cow is finally fresh and oh, we have been feasting on nice milk and cream—and you ought to see my nice gilt-edged butter… The day is so fresh and livly--plants to set, a few pieces to wash, little turks and ducks hatching and several more things. Everything looks lovly this morning after the rain, yellow roses opening…

I finish my second cup of coffee, kiss my husband as he heads out to his midtown office, then hurry to my desk to open another letter. Listen. Can you hear it? The wasp nest beneath the porch eaves is humming, freshly-caught bass is sizzling in the iron skillet, and Hattie’s aging hand—or is it Bessie’s, or is it mine?—is reaching for the spatula. Oh, yes, it will be a fine dinner, for Brother has caught a big squirrel and Pa got a turtle, awful nice, and there will be Gooseberry pie, more than you can eat. From my desk, I can almost make out the alcove where Robert’s empty chair sits, still rocking. He’ll just be gone a minute or two, just long enough to check on that little girl running across the yard toward the arbor where, look, the roses are spreading their petals, wide and buttery yellow, as far as we can see.
   
                                        
II.
   
I can’t remember when I last sat in a church pew, but somehow I’ve landed here in the First Baptist Church of a small Indiana town hundreds of miles from my New York apartment. My father sits at my left side, my mother at my right, her thick hair tarnished with gray, her face lined and still beautiful. All week she’s been pointing out old haunts: the small white farmhouse where I was born, Aunt Bessie’s burial plot, the falling-down cottage Great-Grandpa Robert built more than a century ago, this downtown church where my mother was baptized when she was pregnant with my older sister. This is unlike her, this urgency to open the past, and it concerns me. Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Passion Week, and the hymnal in my father’s hands is open to  “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” We fall into our accustomed parts—my father’s lyric tenor, my mother’s alto, my faltering soprano. This is something we do well together. Just this morning, after breakfast, I’d lifted the cover of my parents’ piano and begun to play some old hymn, a remnant from childhood. In a moment they appeared—my mother from the kitchen, her hands damp with dishwater, and my father from the basement stairs, his plastic heart valve clicking audibly from the exertion—and we sang some words about the kingdom of heaven, what it is made of.

Now, from her place four pews ahead, a young woman in an orange blazer turns to stare at us, the makers of such harmonious, if unsteady, music.  Her face opens widely, like a child’s, revealing a toothy grin. She waves. A few minutes earlier, as the service opened, she had greeted each member of the congregation with a furious, nonstop wave and a thick, guttural laughter, and I’d studied her surreptitiously—hair cut in a severe, no-nonsense style that ensures easy maintenance; large, floppy earlobes studded with pearls. Had she dressed herself? Maybe the elderly woman sitting beside her, who has the look of a paid keeper, had assisted.  Another young woman, wearing a bright yellow dress with ruffled sleeves, sits on the other side of the elderly woman, her shoulders slumped, head lolling. The woman in orange motions to her, smiling and snorting, stabbing the church bulletin with her finger and saying, over and over, “Mike. Mike’s getting baptized. It’s Mike.” Is this Mike one of their own, I wonder? Part of their chosen family, their kingdom? Maybe they all live together in a group home, and the elderly woman is their housemother.
 
A deacon, slightly stooped, approaches the altar, carrying a long, battery-powered lighter. The candelabrum beside the altar is a crude wooden cross, the kind a child might hammer together to mark a pet’s grave. Five purple candles are wedged into the wood, and elsewhere, throughout the sanctuary, purple reigns: in the minister’s shawl, the choir robes, the ribbons decorating the arrangements of palms on either side of the pulpit. Purple is the color of royalty, of kingdoms won and lost; the color of the robe placed over Christ’s shoulders on his way to the Place of the Skull. The color of passion—suffering, but also worldly desire, what we cannot resist. At her wedding reception, my mother wore a double-breasted suit, purple suede gloves, and a black felt hat with purple feathers. “She was a living doll,” my father is fond of saying, and I always nod, as if I can remember a time when my mother’s waist could be encircled by his hands.

The pipe organ surges as carpeted aisles begin to fill with small children waving palm branches and proceeding toward the altar. When I was the age of these children, I called this day Donkey Sunday. The significance of the palms was lost on me. Maybe, I thought, it was a hot day, and they were fanning Jesus to keep him cool. All that long hair and everything. What intrigued me was the visual image I conjured—a grown man straddling a little donkey and riding through the streets, his long legs dangling. I liked seeing grownups looking foolish, like at the circus where red-nosed clowns circled the tents on tricycles. The idea that Jesus was making his last triumphant entry into Jerusalem never occurred to me. Last means nothing to most children, and it certainly meant nothing to me: last triumph, last week on earth, last moments with those one loves.  Sitting between my parents, I drew pictures on the church bulletin or fidgeted with my white patent leather purse. Sometimes my mother would moisten a handkerchief with her tongue and reach to rub a smudge from my cheek or arm, and I would push her hand away.
   
The organist segues into “Come Dove Divine” and the young woman in orange begins to bounce excitedly, waving the church bulletin in her hands. Then she turns once again to stare, unabashedly.  Her eyes sweep side-to-side, taking in the three of us, as if attempting to frame us within one lens. She must sense that we go together. I wear my father’s blue eyes, his straight chiseled nose and clenched jaw, but my hands are my mother’s and my rounded hips and thighs are hers, too, visible even beneath this long loose skirt I selected for camouflage. I smile politely and quickly return my gaze to my hands, blood rising in my cheeks. I feel stripped, naked, as if she can see right past the trappings—my carefully selected clothes, the mascaraed eyelashes, the practiced smile—to the child inside. The developmentally disabled always have this effect on me, as do babies with their round, unblinking eyes, all pupil, in crayon shades of brown or green or blue so clear you see yourself reflected in them, blinking back.

Now the deacon is reading from the gospel, the words of Jesus to his friends as the dark week of Passion began: “Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while you have the light.” He reminds us that in the last days, Jesus left the noise of public life, choosing to spend time with the few that he loved intimately, his flock, his small kingdom. He called them his children and gathered them around him. Together they talked, walked, ate, slept. He washed their feet and allowed them to wash his. He knew what was coming—the solitary garden, the betrayal, the hunger. But for now there was adequate light, and “having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.”

The organ swells and wooden doors below the altar open to reveal the baptistery, which more closely resembles a Jacuzzi than the River of Jordan. The minister has waded to the center of the baptistery, and now he is turning his head to the left and extending his arm. From behind the screen a figure emerges. It’s a child, I think at first—then, no, a man with a mustache, but he’s so small, is he walking on his knees? It’s a cartoon image, and it takes a moment for sense to settle. The head of the man-child comes to just above the minister’s waist. His body is nearly as wide as it is tall, plump arms standing away from the torso, a neck thick as a stump. But the face that opens to the congregation glows pink and innocent, bisected by a thick black mustache. “Mike!  Mike!” the woman in orange calls out.
   
The minister, seemingly undisturbed by the outburst, begins to speak slowly, calmly, explaining how Mike came to him weeks before, asking to be baptized, to become part of the church family. There is no condescension in his tone, no suggestion that Mike is incapable of making such a decision. The minister reminds us of Christ’s admonition: “Except you become as a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom.”  He crosses Mike’s hands over his chest in a gesture reminiscent of sleep or death. Then he places his own right hand on top of Mike’s, his left hand behind Mike’s neck. The minister leans down, whispers something. Mike nods. His flesh surrenders. He falls back into the minister’s arms, closes his eyes, and disappears into the water. I bite my lip, trying to stop the tears, but it’s useless, they’re falling harder now. Where did it come from, this foolishness? My mother reaches into her purse, pulling out a handkerchief, and for a moment I’m eight again and she’s coming at me, the ritual spit bath, but no, she’s handing the handkerchief to me. I take it, swiping at the smudges of mascara, the red clown nose.


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