I didn’t explore the neighborhood for very long. My mother would be returning sooner than later, so I walked around a couple of blocks, took a look at a nearby playground, and then went back to the house.
Mom was just pulling into the driveway as I came along the sidewalk. Grandmother was at the front door of the house, wanting to know right away how things had gone. Joanna broke out of the car and bounded over to Grandmother, anxious to give a report. She commenced immediately in a long description of the park and the boat ride. Mom got out at her usual speed: casual. She walked to the front passenger side and stood waiting for Grandfather. She did nothing to help, but she stood there just in case and so as not to be rude and leave him behind. Grandfather struggled a bit, but managed to get out and on his crutches. He closed the car door himself.
As he approached, Grandmother said, “Come on in, everyone. Kurt and I have a surprise waiting.” She meant the cupcakes, of course. They would make a nice afternoon snack.
“And I have an additional surprise for you, Grandfather,” I said.
“You do, Konrad?”
“You do?” Grandmother also asked.
“Yes. I’ll show you after you see what Grandmother has.”
We went into the kitchen and sat at the table. Grandmother brought the treat. Joanna beamed with delight. Grandmother brought milk from the refrigerator and coffee from the pot she always had ready. She also heated some water for her own use; she liked drinking tea in the afternoon and evening.
“So tell me, Grandfather,” she said. “What did the people at the hospital have to say?” She called him August in the presence of peers. Among her children, she said Father. With grandchildren at hand, she said Grandfather. That was family custom.
“You may be at ease, Grandmother.”
“I will be at ease when you give me some facts.”
We could all tell that Grandfather really didn’t want to talk about it. My mother gave him one of those nudging looks, the kind that says, “Go ahead. It’s the right thing to do.” Joanna and I had seen it many times.
Grandfather realized that my mother would speak for him if he didn’t. He said simply, “I have lost another pound.” Then he reached for a cupcake.
“August!” Grandmother called, forgetting herself.
Mom shoved the platter out of his reach.
Grandmother handed him a plate with a slice of whole-grain homemade bread on it.
Grandfather looked at it and shook his head. “Joanna. Open the refrigerator and get me some of Grandmother’s strawberry preserves.” He figured my sister would be only too glad to please after all the fun she had had earlier that afternoon with him.
“August!” Grandmother called again.
“Sit still and eat your cupcake, Joanna,” Mom said.
Grandmother handed Grandfather a little tray containing what looked like butter.
Grandfather shook his head again. Looking at my mother, “Rebecca, you of all people should know that oleo isn’t fit to eat. Tell Halfrida.” He referred to oleo-margarine, a substance that had little if any milk in it. Since my mother had been reared on a dairy farm, and since her parents were still in the dairy business, Grandfather figured he could gain her support. At the time, dairy farmers in Wisconsin opposed the marketing of oleo to the point of hostility. It was bad for business.
“I know it’s not as good as butter,” Mom said, “but it’s better for you.”
“Ach! I’d rather have old-fashioned lard, then.” In older times, country people usually collected lard in little crocks every time they cooked pork. Especially if they were poor, country people used lard as a spread for bread. Even if they could afford to keep a cow, they would usually sell the butter made from milk and cream because they needed the money it could fetch. Instead, they would eat the fat from the hogs they slaughtered and rendered. Small farmers found little market for lard, even though my mother and both my grandmothers said it made the best pie crust. National pork processing companies sold as much lard as the market would bear, which kept shrinking year after year.
“We don’t have any,” said Grandmother. “I stopped stocking the stuff when we moved from Waupaca.”
“I know.” Grandfather ate the bread plain. With an empty plate, he looked at me as if to ask me to get him another slice.
“And no, Grandfather, you may not have another,” Grandmother said. “You have more pounds to lose.”
“More pounds to lose,” he repeated. “And if I am too weak to move as a result, what then?”
“You won’t be weak,” Mom said. “You’ll be better, stronger.”
My mother said to my grandmother, “The doctor said that August’s legs are better. Both of them.”
“What both?” Grandfather asked.
“Oh, don’t carry on like that in front of the children,” Grandmother said.
“Your diet is helping,” Mom said. “Your legs are looking good now. You can begin walking well now.”
“So they say,” Grandfather said. He looked at me. “What is this surprise you have for me, Konrad?”
I beamed. “Come, Grandfather! I’ll show you!”
“Come where, Grandson? Where are we going?”
“We are going out into the back yard,” Mom corrected.
“Yes,” I said.
Grandfather got up from the table, took up his crutches, and followed me. The women-folk all followed him.
I held the door open, and he swung out. He paused, looking at me. I pointed and said, “Look!”
He did. He stood still for a moment. Then he swung himself along the length of the yard straight to the ash tree. I followed. Once there, he stopped and stood still.
The purple ash tree, its trunk all but perfect in shape, shone in the sun. The whiteness given it by the light only enhanced my handiwork.
Grandfather for a time stood speechless. Eventually, however, he asked, “You did this, Konrad?”
“Did what?” Joanna asked.
“Dad says… I mean, Father says that a tree must grow straight and be clean and clear if it is to produce the best wood. I made this one better. It’ll now produce the best wood for you, Grandfather.”
“But Kurt,” my mother began.
Grandfather glared at her with a potency that demanded, “Silence, woman!”
Mom kept silent.
“You have done quite the job here, Master Konrad,” my grandfather said. “We shall have to keep a close watch on this tree. A close watch. Indeed, I believe I will go back to the patio and sit and watch for a while, even now.” He turned and moved back toward the house.
The women-folk followed me.
We stopped at the patio. Grandfather took a seat. He looked at everyone looking at him. “What is for dinner, Grandmother?” he asked.
Grandfather looked at me. “As you know, dinner is at 6 o’clock. Take your sister out to the playground nearby and have some fun.”
“Sure.” I added, “Mother lets us watch cartoons on TV in the late afternoon. Sometimes. Would you like to watch some with us?”
“I don’t know that we have the same programs here in Neenah that you have there in Port Edwards,” Grandmother said. “Our signals come from Green Bay. Yours come from Madison and Wausau.”
My favorite character was the gray and white rabbit. Joanna’s: the black and white mouse.
“I like the woodpecker,” said Grandfather. “If he’s on, let me know. I could use a few laughs.”