She asked me twice what I wanted for dinner, which really meant lunch in Vermont.
“Anything is fine, Grandma.” I thought I was safe with that but didn’t know for sure since I didn’t really know this woman.
Parents play a cruel trick on their children when they choose to live on the opposite coast.
My father told me about the apple pies she used to bake on the farm; how he and his father would cut one down the middle and each eat half.
“I don’t bake anymore,” she was saying, her voice much like a bird chirping. “It’s a lot of bother and no one eats pies. You know how your cousins are.”
“Yes.” I knew very little about my cousins.
“Your father was such a sweet boy. I still remember the day he asked me to sign that paper…” She found a saucepan and turned her back to me.
“Which paper? To join the Air Force?” If I’d learned anything on this visit it was that I knew no more about my father than I did about his family.
“Well, he was only 17, you see. They wouldn’t let him enlist unless we… Your grandfather didn’t want him to go, but your father was determined.”
“So you signed it.”
Her shoulders dropped a little. “I think we can just have ham with this, don’t you?”
“And so he left the farm?” I imagined a young, dark-haired man in worn and dusty clothing, a piece of paper in his hand, appealing to parents who grew more and more silent out of grief and confusion.
“We’ll let this simmer for a while. Did I show you the shawl your father sent me from Guam? He went to Guam first, then Paris, where he met your mother. We offered the farm to your uncle but he didn’t want it either. I don’t know how many people have owned it now.”
I had one, frayed photograph of my grandparents. He and she, always bird like, stood in front of the old barn where they kept their dairy cows and where they held dances on Saturday nights. The dances, I’d been told, were famous in three counties; three counties that probably held fewer people than my neighborhood in California.
“You have to take me there, Grandma.”
She looked up from smoothing the shawl from Guam. “Oh my, three families live out there now in some sort of commune. I haven’t been there for years.”
I pressed. “I’d love to see it.”
The next day, she took me to the cemetery. She and my aunt rode in the front seat of the car, discussing their last trip to the hairdresser.
I wanted to hear more about the dances. And I wanted to learn more about my father, who I’d lived with for almost 20 years. Maybe these women could tell me what lay beneath his taciturn manner.
Rain fell and alleviated the tension between earth and sky. I wandered from one grave to another as my grandmother and aunt scurried back to the car with their purses perched above their new hairdos.
My grandfather had 12 siblings. Some of them were interred all around me and some still lived, though I had never met them. How many people were there on my father’s side? How was I part of something so large and didn’t know it?
I knew they’d think me peculiar if I continued to walk in the rain. They’d already eyed me suspiciously when I ordered a beer with lunch. I stepped gingerly over my deceased relatives and got back in the car.
“How far are we from the farm, Grandma?” Grand-ma, I practiced silently.
“It’s really not worth the trip, dear.”
“Please. I’ve heard so much about the dances.”
She chuckled for the first time and my aunt sighed. My aunt turned down a dirt road and followed it for a mile or so. We passed what looked like a dilapidated cabin.
“Your father went to school there until he was eight.”
My father told me that he walked from the farm to the school. I laughed, at the time, and asked if he walked uphill in six feet of snow, both ways, barefoot. He said never barefoot.
I felt a little gloomy. I was an outsider, a stranger, a visitor, and yet these people were my family.
The night before, my uncle talked about the dances. He said dozens of people came every Saturday night and paid a dollar to join the party on the upper level of the barn. A live band played square dance music until midnight and my grandmother sold hot dogs and cider.
He told me that the dances paid the mortgage when the crops failed or the cows went dry.
“They added on to the house, these commune people,” my grandmother commented, drily.
So the house would look different and was full of strangers. Thunder rumbled as we approached the house. I was out of the car before my aunt came to a complete stop.
As I rang the doorbell, my grandmother called to me not to disturb the owners. The door opened to reveal an older man and a St. Bernard who greeted me with great enthusiasm. I explained that my father grew up on the property and asked if I could look around.
He smiled. “Of course, come in.”
As he took me from room to room, he told me that the whole house had been renovated, rooms added, the attic was changed…
So it looked nothing like it used to. My grandmother and aunt waited in the car.
“What about the dances.” I turned when I heard him sigh.
“Oh, they were famous around here! The dance floor over the barn is beautiful. It hasn’t been touched since the last shindig, except for sweeping. It’s something to see.”
“Will you show me?”
The sun broke through the clouds as we crossed a damp, weed-choked field and entered an old barn that had seen better days. I saw stalls for cows and moldy hay littered the floor. And it smelled like an old barn. I fought the urge to cover my nose and then noticed the ladder.
“I have to go back to the house,” my host told me. “Take your time. Have a look around.”
I walked to the ladder and looked up. I wondered if it would hold my weight. My grandmother and aunt were probably becoming irritated. I put one foot on the bottom rung and started to climb.
My head bumped a rusty trap door and I pushed it open. Then my eyes were level with a smooth, golden, burnished wood floor. I was sure it stretched out forever.
Slowly I pulled my body up and onto the top level of the barn. Windows lined the two long walls and dust swirled and flashed in the sunlight.
The silence was profound. The sun’s rays spilled onto the lacquered floor and I was walking on glass.
In my mind, the room vibrated with music and the laughter of those long-ago people. Their feet stomped to the beat and they changed partners and whirled each other around the room. Plaid shirts and full skirts blurred together as the band played.
I imagined my teen-aged father crouched in one corner, maybe chewing tobacco where his mother wouldn’t see.
The man’s head appeared at the trap door. “We’re thinking of holding a dance here in the summer. It’s a shame not to use this space.”
I smiled. “I think you should.”
“Sorry, but one of the ladies in the car said they’re ready to go.”
I nodded. I walked toward him slowly, stepping on each ray of light, like a child. I would be back in California in the summer but I didn’t mind.
I saw it. I heard the music and felt the excitement. I caught a glimpse of a younger version of my father, who I now knew a little bit better.
He wasn’t one man; he was part of an extended family and an active community. And I wasn’t just a visitor; I was the granddaughter of the original owners of this farm; the people who hosted the dances.
I stepped down onto the ladder and slowly closed the trap door over my head. It was time to go. Grandma was waiting for me.