Jeri Kemple in Colorado

Once Upon a Time

I was a little girl dancing in the summer sun with no shirt on, surrounded by pansies and mint, flower boxes, hanging plants, garden tools, and mud boots. My collection of toys included potpie tins, shovels, buckets, flowers, grass, leaves, and cicada shells. I would make mud pies and decorate them with flower petals and grass. I would collect cicada shells and keep them in old Velveeta boxes; I would see how many I could find in the week I visited with my grandparents. I stood by my grandmother's side at the kitchen counter, and she would hand me peeled, raw turnips to munch on while she fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cooked green beans in bacon, and we chatted away. I learned how to make the best gravy in the world from her, watching her with the same admiration with which I would watch my mother put on her make-up before she would leave for a night on the town. My grandmother was my idol when it came to cooking Southern food. I love to cook all kinds of food, but my favorite, most comforting way to cook is the way she used to cook. Salads and potatoes from her garden, beef from a cow in the field, jellies from the pantry canned a year or two earlier, same with the green beans, the dates written on masking tape stuck on the side of the jar.

I remember feeling privileged when my grandmother would instruct me to go down to the deep freeze and find ice cream for the apple pie she had made earlier that morning. I told her how delicious her cooking was to me, and she would tell me that was why she did it, because she knew I loved it so much.

I was a city mouse in the country when I visited my grandmother. I remember lazing on the porch swing in the peak heat of day and tempting a barn cat to sit with me. With a saucer of milk I worked on one cat for the duration of my visit -- I would name it, feed it, pet it, and chase it. I had for those brief times, no worries; I was allowed to be a little girl, a free little nature girl. I would wear a flower behind my ear and have dirt under my fingernails. I was okay at my grandma's house in the summertime; I was okay.

My grandmother converted from Mennonite to Catholicism in order to marry my German grandfather, my tall, dark, strong-willed, mysterious grandfather. I loved my grandparents' calm, steadfast way of life. They showed me how to live happily and contentedly within one's means. They showed me what it was like to have a family stand by you, no matter what. I got to feel what it would be like to have a support system so strong that no matter what crime you had committed or disease you had contracted, you would always be taken care of. This was the life my father came from.

My father was a Vietnam vet with a temper and a propensity to get screwed up and locked up. My grandparents were always there for him. They were even there for him when I told them he had seduced me during my childhood. For years my father would sexualize our weekends together by dressing me up in furs and diamonds, taking me to fancy restaurants, and keeping me up all night to play. But he was my daddy, my one and only, my love.

I will always love my grandparents, and I miss them. I miss the family gatherings, the Christmases, the weddings, and even the funerals. I miss these times because I brought the truth out. I gave a voice to the whispers, to the best-kept family secret, which wasn't Grandmother's apple-pie recipe. I long for my grandmother. I wish I could learn more from her. I wish I could tell her how much she meant to me, how much she will always mean to me. But I can't forgive her for taking my dad's side and not mine.


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