Wednesday, May 25, 2011

deep enough

my grandmother was an artist who painted still life's and landscapes. in 1944 she went to the barn and found a shovel and dropped it beside a bed of peonies and irises. she walked up to the farmhouse and retrieved the long, cylindrical packages she had wrapped in layers of paper, canvas and burlap.

when i was twelve years old the house where i grew up north of boston developed a problem. a kind of sinkhole had gradually manifested itself and gaped unattractively near the edge of the yard where it sloped toward the pond. the lawn dropped off and leveled back out again beyond this rude intrusion in nature's plan. the canker on their land deeply disturbed my parents; they stood on the edge of the abyss and wondered how to fix it.

i peeled back the top of the packet of radish seeds and poured some in my hand. my husband loves radishes. we had built a new house and i was planting another garden. the soil was dark and rich, full of worms. the smell alone was enough to get me through the day.

laddie-boy, the family dog when i was in high school, ran past me with a big, reddish, dripping lump in his mouth. i thought it looked raw.

standing on the grass in front of the peonies and irises on her farm in latvia, omi, my latvian grandmother, gently cradled the packages in her arms before she put them in a box beside her on the ground. she pushed a wisp of hair out of her eyes and stared down at a spot on the earth near her feet.

my parents decided to "compost" the old washing machine in the hole, in addition to a rusted-out wheelbarrow, four lawn chairs, a few metal barrels and a pink bathroom sink—all dilapidated, and at that moment, all very useful in filling an unwanted hole. my parents composted organic material (the only people i knew who even had any idea of what composting was). why not this stuff?

i sprinkled a few seeds in each small cavity along the fifteen-foot row. i filled in the holes and patted the soil carefully. i watered the newly-planted seeds with a fine, light spray from the garden hose and hoped for a good harvest.

grab that dog! somebody shouted.

blow after blow, the shovel mercilessly stabbed at the green grass, turning up clod after clod of good earth. omi rested and wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand.

i watched from a second floor window as my parents dragged the junk to the edge of the offending orifice and then pushed the items in one by one. conveniently, on the other side of the house, my father was systematically removing part of a rocky hill, one wheelbarrow load at a time, to scrounge for stones to use in the rock walls he was building on the property. (it took him twenty years to get rid of a chunk of the hill and longer than that to build all the walls.) now he had a place to dispose of his hill.

as the radish globes pushed through the loam underground, the greens on top grew large. but when they were finally pulled out and inspected, the radishes were disappointingly small and lumpy. the ones i had planted at our other house in portland were bigger. these tasted ok, though. my husband liked them.

our dog was under the beech tree with his jaws wrapped tightly around a stolen pot roast. (not the first thing he had ever stolen, either —in addition to food, his list of larcenies included socks and underwear, too. woe to those who liked to hang their washing on a clothesline.) he proceeded to excavate a hiding place for his prize. that black labrador / norwegian elkhound pup had a magnificent nose and a lust for raw meat. what a thief. we never did find out who was missing a pot roast..... or socks. or underwear.

my grandmother laid the box containing her carefully wrapped oil paintings in the grave she had dug, satisfied the soviet army would never find them there.

my parents planted grass on top of their land reclamation project. the addition of fill well beyond the hole itself enlarged the lawn, offered more space for plants, and improved the look of the landscape.

i no longer grow vegetables. i grow perennials.

laddie ate his last pot roast in 1980. we sprinkled his ashes where he liked to bury his bones.

my grandmother threw dirt on her artwork. she intended to dig up her oil paintings when she returned to latvia after the war.

but she never did.

after omi left the displaced persons camp in germany, she climbed aboard an american troop transport ship—a liberty ship—with her family and other refugees. as the ship sailed into new york harbor, the statue of liberty welcomed them to america. omi lived out the rest of her days in boston.


Shopgirl said...

What a beautiful story, I liked how you unfolded the events slowly and gave me a sense of the surroundings like leading me through a painting. I hope/wish that (your grandma's) painting could still be found.

m said...

thank you shopgirl! my cousin has traveled to latvia and found the farm is no longer recognizable; my grandmother's paintings are gone, but fortunately they continue to exist in the stories my mother has told me.