It's A Very Dirty Job

Recently, my dad recalled visiting his great grandmother. She lived in a log cabin in Oklahoma and told stories from a rocking chair. Two flat pewter braids hung past her shoulders; deep valleys formed between her cheekbones and chin. 
"Do you remember any of those stories?” I asked.

Dad shook his head,” Only one. In 1942 we’d drive out to her house on Saturdays. I was twelve and usually my mind was on the baseball games I missed playing in on account of those visits.”

My dad perked up. “She told me about the time four men rode onto her land and pulled a gun on her. ‘It happened fast,’ Grandma said. ‘Shootin’ began, one guy shot the heads of two of my chickens. Never saw a better shot in my life. Them fellers weren’t interested in me. They wanted a chicken dinner,’ Grandma explained.

I chuckled. Once I saw a photograph of grandma. She was short, square and brown. Sturdy, not pretty, with boot moccasins on her feet.


“Grandma told me she cooked a real fine meal,” Dad said. “Then she let out a hardy roar and put her nose right up to mine and said, “Bobby, it was Frank and Jesse James.”

Then my dad’s face grew serious and he said, "She gave birth to eleven babies. The first died at four months, the second at age eight. It went on like that for years—grandma giving birth and grandpa making babyboards, digging holes and lowering those dead babies into the ground. It was a time of measles and smallpox epidemic.”

My mind glimpsed grandma. I felt a distant memory pulling me back, and I could hear her wailing like wind coming up—crying and swaying. I thought about how her cries probably drifted into the cabins of nearby white settlers, and I wondered if they knew the high, shrill sounds pressing against the night were from an Indian mother mourning her dead baby.

And I thought about my own son, diagnosed with a brain tumor at age seven, but growing well and strong again following radiation and chemo, and then dying at age fifteen when the cancer recurred. 

As we walked back to the lights of the cottage glowing from the dark mist of trees I felt the boundary of time fall away, as if my great-great grandma and I had lived side by side.

“Well, six of Grandma’s children somehow managed to survive to adulthood.” I added.

Dad nodded. “The family slept on deer hides, Grandma shelled corn, ground it into meal and picked dandelions for their greens.”

I let my heart drift all the way back to my great-great grandmother until I felt her spirit and imagination become my own.

“Do you suppose Grandma really cooked chickens for the James brothers?” I asked.

Dad stared at me with wide brown eyes brimming with question marks.

“It’s hard to say,” he answered. "Maybe what she knew was how to get a twelve-year-old boy to listen.”