“Montana” a short story

“Montana” by Sean Boyd

I had always been close to my Grandfather.  It was an unspoken closeness as showing or discussing emotions is not a trait of the men in my father’s family.  I liken them to sugar maple trees; always grounded, strong, and predictable.  They supply for themselves and others many of the basic necessities of life: shelter from the elements, nutrients, and an environment where one can safely explore and push limits.  Almost as soon as I was able to walk I was climbing trees.  Apple trees to start, I slowly graduated to oaks, hemlocks and maples.  As a teenager, with a growing interest in environmental issues, I became a self-declared ‘tree hugger,’ perhaps a vestige of my pre-adolescent emotional support.  As adults Boyd men don’t hug.  But somehow hugging a tree was and still is like hugging my Grandfather.  

The sugar maple reference is also related to syrup.  In the yard at my Grandfather’s house there stood a large tree that produced a few gallons of syrup every year.  The metal buckets hanging on copper pipes, hammered into the massive trunk, were slowly filled as spring arrived.  The full moon of March, known as ‘Sap Moon’ would mark the high point of collecting, after which the sap would be boiled down into maple syrup.  Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of eating maple sugar candy while sitting with sticky fingers on the wrap-around porch with the smell of cedar shingle siding permeating the air and the sun sublimating the remaining piles of winter’s snow.  

I had the honor of assisting my grandfather make lemonade.  A year-round staple, there was always a large pitcher, chinking with ice, constantly being refilled resting on the large kitchen table.  I realize now that lemonade was also a favorite cocktail mixer, so besides the sticky lips and hands of my generation, the old folks always kept it in high demand.  I don’t remember exactly when this ritual began, but whenever the pitcher needed a refill I was summoned to assist the patriarch to make more.  

    We would sit in the post-depression kitchen and brew what I was sure was a family secret until another gallon of sweet refreshment appeared.  The kitchen had linoleum flooring; plastic covered chairs and banquette surrounding a large table draped in a red and white check tablecloth; Formica countertops with edges banded in stainless steel and stamped metal cabinetry with stainless drawer pulls.  Hanging on the walls were many display cases.  Some of the cases were filled with spoons and others held nutcrackers.  Each spoon had an emblem of a state or a national park, or some other tourist attraction representing places family members had visited.  I have never understood this form of keepsake.  Such functional items yet their use was never intended.  Later in my own travels I noticed spoons were an item common to tourist shops and realized this custom was not unique to my family.  The nutcrackers varied in size, shape, and mechanical contrivance.  Most were hand-held devices, but a few were stationary statues measuring up to eighteen inches tall.  I remember one in the likeness of the Queen’s Guard — fuzzy hat, red coat dotted with bright buttons, a rifle, shiny black patent boots – wearing a stern facial expression.  If I remember correctly, raising the rifle-bearing arm would crank open the mouth.  Placing a nut between the metal teeth and applying a small amount of pressure would bring the arm down, crushing the protective housing to reveal the fruit hidden within.  Now a post-depression household was no place for frivolous nut cracking, but nut cracking offered as a service on demand was quite another story.  We youngsters were always pestering after the older folk to see if there was even a remote intention of eating a nut so we could peruse the collection and select the tool of our fancy.  

My Grandmother was a school teacher at the local elementary school.  Though she had the love and respect of her off-spring, the grandchildren were always uncomfortable around her.  Frankly we were terrified.  Just how she enforced this terror was never really understood by me though I do remember one incident very clearly.  During one visit, when inclement weather kept us indoors, I was given a pencil and a legal pad with which to entertain myself.  When I was finished I watched them be put away in the roll-top desk in the foyer.  It was Grandma’s desk.  Later, on another rainy day’s visit, I thought I would again entertain myself and went to the desk to retrieve a pencil and paper.  Standing on a chair to reach, I pushed back the roll-top and was immediately interceded.  Maybe she had her hearing aid cranked up to help keep tabs on us youngsters.  I then received a scolding for an act I could not understand to be wrong as my young mind was not given enough information to determine what of my actions could cause such offense.  Was it standing on her chair? Muddied shoes? Upgrading to a pen? I never did that again.  In fact I never touched or asked for anything again.  My siblings and a whole generation seemed to have picked up on the same confused message as well.  Maybe the intent was that we should not touch anything.  Forty-five years as a school teacher can certainly remove any acceptance of the disorder that is youth.  

There was a part of the house that did not fall under my Grandmother’s jurisdiction: the basement.  Chock full of stuff, it was eye-candy for kids—especially boys.  Tools, drafting tables, nuts and bolts in large containers, chemistry apparatus, projects half-finished, books with fascinating pictures, and all sorts of contraptions with unknown workings filled the one large room.  All the men in the family were tinkerers.  With construction and mechanic tools out in the garage, the basement was separated into areas for different crafts.  There was a photography corner and a drafting area with special lighting, t-squares, slide rules, and protractors of all sizes.  There was a space designated for constructing and painting models, a reference area full of books, and other areas whose uses I could not comprehend.  

In the control of this area we get a glimpse into my Grandfather’s sense of humor and see the difference in the workings of my Grandparents’ brains.  The entrance to the basement was through a door right off the kitchen.  It was a large, solid door with inset panels and ornate trim, complete with iron hinges and glass door knobs.  It was the sort of craftsmanship one doesn’t find except in older houses.  One of the bottom panels was a hinged cut-out we might recognize as a cat door.  The upstairs side had a latch by which the door’s use could be controlled, and was always locked when we were there “to keep us safe.”  To keep us out of the basement my Grandfather, with a straight face, perpetuated a myth with all the adults as co-conspirators.  Throughout my child I believed that in the basement lived an alligator.  

When I was eight years old my Grandmother passed away.  She got sick, went to the hospital for a week, and died.  It wasn’t my first experience with death.  We had owned dogs who were hit by cars, kittens that didn’t survive, and there were the ants and other bugs whose lives I had extinguished in a brutal attempt to understand life itself.  But this was the first person whose death was part of my life.  I’ll probably never be able to distinguish whether it was youthful denial of death or a lack of intimacy that left me with no feeling of mourning.  I could see it and sense it in her husband, children, and friends but I didn’t feel it.  It was also my first view into the rituals and processes that death involves: the open casket at the funeral home I would visit again and again; the procession of automobiles driving with their lights on; the patch of ground in the local cemetery marked by a large granite slab with the family name engraved on it and the many smaller ones with names and dates referring to my ancestors.  I also noted the somber tone of my normally upbeat relations.  They understood what my young mind could not comprehend—death is the one constant implication of birth.  

After the funeral, life resumed for the rest of us.  More Christmases, more Fourths of July, and more maple syrup and lemonade went by as the younger generation grew and developed personalities under the protective limbs of the family patriarch.  The Boyd’s are a diverse and varied group.  There was a university dean; a doctor; a higher-up in the Hare Krishna organization with a taste for parties, Rolls Royces and servants; an uncle who panned for gold; a handful of Jehovah Witnesses; some hippies; conservatives and more.  We represented the full spectrum of human thought.  The patriarch was so well respected and held in such high regard that when we all gathered to rub elbows we carried on with light-hearted natter and serious debate in amiable fashion in the environment known as family.  Years later when Grandpa had passed away, the disintegration of this group clearly showed the cohesion his personality gave to this otherwise disparate group of people.  Genetics is only one part of family, personality is the greater part.  

In the ensuing years I heard rumors that the old guy was dating a younger woman.  In fact, she was forty years younger and a stripper.  My older brother had once lunched with our Grandfather at a place he obviously frequented because everyone knew him—a strip club.  New Jersey clubs only allowed strippers to entice their patrons as far as their bikinis, and, at least in the daytime, were pretty tame joints which served a good lunch to ensure business.  Evidently it was at such a lunch spot that my Grandfather had met Montana.  It was entertaining to hear his generation tease, cajole and cheer his relationship.  He was very discreet.  No family member ever met her while he was alive.  Not many details came out about their affair until my Grandfather was in his early eighties and the affair was over.  It turns out that Montana had met someone her own age, fell in love and was married.  There were a few pictures of the event circulating around the big house at the end of Boyd Street.  Living up to his nickname, “Sunny Jim,” my grandfather looked good in his Bermuda shorts as he walked Montana down the aisle to her betrothed in a beach-side wedding.  

When he passed away it was a huge loss.  Whenever I or any of my generation went through growing pains that made most of the family uncomfortable, he was there.  He didn’t need to talk about it.  In fact he may have lacked the skills to hold an emotional conversation.  He just made you feel okay.  The way he would greet us and enter into cheerful banter about the mundane made one feel accepted.  Looking back I realize that it was a strong tact for socialization.  Discussion of our problems would have made them into bigger events.  He just let us know we were okay and moved onto the details of daily life.  Once when I really needed some money he supplied it without question.  I guess he figured if I didn’t need it I would not have asked.  And when I vowed to pay him back he just nodded in a gentle way letting me know it would not be necessary.  His same casual response was there when I paid him back a few years later.  No big deal.  Some grandparents would have told their grandkids to keep it, but he understood that paying him back was important for me.  I was sort of a black sheep in my family in that I needed to talk about my emotional and spiritual feelings, but with him I did it his way, without words.  His persona gave the assertion that if things weren’t okay the way they were, they were headed in the right direction.  

At his funeral I was overwhelmed.  I had believed I was the only one who had a deep relationship with this man, after all I was the lemonade-making assistant.  What I hadn’t realized is that he managed to touch everyone he met in a personal way, making them feel special.  When the gathering at the funeral home overflowed with family, friends, town officials, co-workers, the police and fire departments, and town folk not only were the parlors filled with teary eyed people anxious to pay their respects and wish the family well, but so was the lawn, the parking lot, and the street.  The eulogies went on all day.  I heard story after story how he had touched people’s lives in practical ways that helped them solve real life problems and improve their lives.  I had always imagined that to gain the respect, love, and gratitude of so many people one would have to be an outspoken, speech-giving, socially assertive type or a wealthy philanthropist.  But here was Sunny Jim the carpenter, tinkerer, and mechanical engineer with hundreds of people needing to share their story of how he had touched their lives.  When the speeches were done and the casket closed the whole entourage moved to the cemetery.  The police stopped traffic, the fire engines turned on their lights, and the whole town wept.  Somehow I was standing in a spot that allowed easy selection as a pall-bearer.  There had been no plan or schedule, just timely solutions to problems as they arose.  That was my Grandfather’s way.  He was a big man, but it was the weight of his spirit that made me think we needed a dozen men to bear the coffin, instead of just the customary six.  We were strong but we were carrying a legend.  

It was a beautiful day, cool and crisp with a blue sky cheering us on what many felt to be a dark and dreary day.  There was a minister who spoke the obligatory graveside words as the crowd had sated its need for oration at the funeral home.  There were some friends and neighbors dressed in black but for the most part the family, so indulgent in life and recognizing death as an integral part, didn’t subscribe to that tradition.  I was standing near the center of what could be viewed from above as a relational chart.  Sunny Jim’s children and their kids, his siblings and their children and their children’s children, elevating in semi-circles out to friends, colleagues, and unrelated mourners, with a background of an earth-moving machine that did the hard part of the day’s business.  As the minister finished speaking and the moment of silence arrived I heard tsking and sniggering as one word came to my ears, Montana.  I looked over the grave and across the lawn to see a solitary figure standing next to an oak tree near the paved lane.  A well dressed woman wearing black and a wide brimmed hat stood weeping softly away from the crowd.  I gave a chuckle as I noticed the woman’s voluptuous figure, Gramps had it good in his old age.  I broke away from the group, marched over and offered the woman my arm.  The only words to break the silence were, “You must be Sean.” 

After the service, and a few shovels full of dirt had been thrown over the coffin the crowd began dispersing.  The family headed back to the house to begin the process of redefining family in the absence of the patriarch.  Montana had been uncomfortable coming to the service, but had been more uncomfortable with the idea of not paying her last respects to a man whom she had loved and who had shared his love with her.  She was prepared for a quick departure, but I had learned so much that day about this man I thought I knew so well, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to learn more.  She was happy to meet me and after some pleading on my part agreed to stay for a while.  It was walking distance to the house and as we walked I could sense her rising apprehension so I suggested we sit in the graveyard and talk a bit.  She relaxed at this suggestion and we sat in the grass joined by my sister and spoke like old friends.  

She had an easy laugh and being no prude didn’t hesitate to answer even our intimate questions.  She told us Jim was a caring person and a skillful lover.  We giggled as she told us she was not looking for an older man but he had captivated her.  In fact she didn’t think of him as an older man as he was so full of energy and youthful exuberance for life.  Their physical relations had gone beyond anything she had previously known, and they experimented freely.  They had been lovers until he was eighty and it was clear they had spent a lot of time together.  What came as the biggest shock was our different understanding of the same man.  With her he had talked about emotions, worked through personal issues, experimented with marijuana, and expressed a sense of spirituality in their conversations.  She said he had helped her grow and understand what it meant to be a woman (more giggles from my sister and I).  After an hour or so the conversation slowed down and she announced she really must be going.  There was so much processing going on in my brain I didn’t resist.  I needed to digest all I had learned.  Though it was hard to mourn when he had lived such a full life, grief was setting in.  As I watched her walk away I thought how lucky my Grandfather was to have such a smart, funny, and sexy woman as a part of the last chapter of his life.  

As my sister and I walked arm and arm towards the house we wondered if the man Montana had described had been in hiding or if he had changed with his relationship with her.  We rehashed the stories from the funeral home and compared mental notes logged in our earliest memories.  We decided he was probably learning right until the end of his life and their relationship had allowed him to stretch in new directions and maintain the virility that had filled his life.  We had stopped talking and were both lost in thought as we turned the corner on Boyd Street.  The big house came into view and it appeared to have grown old.  The wrap-around porch looked old-fashioned and the old swing hanging on the large branch of an oak in the front yard showed its age.  We heard the lulled voices of the mourners at the reception.  The somber tone weighed like a fog around the house and yard.  As we walked up the driveway and turned towards the front steps what my sister and I saw froze us in our tracks.  The day after Sunny Jim’s passing, lightning had struck the big sugar maple.  It was split down the middle, with its two halves lying juxtaposed across the side yard, and would have to be removed.  Our Grandfather had planted it as a sapling when he was six years young.