Woodcraft 14: My Grandfather’s New Home

6 09 2014

“Good afternoon, Grandfather.”

“It’s a fair day, yes,” he responded. 

I stood before him in the living room of his new house.  He sat near a picture window in a rocking chair set such that he could observe what happened in much of the house as well as in the front yard and out on a segment of the street.  “And how are you?” I asked.

Grandfather was not one to respond to such a question with the routine, vapid American answer.  Saying, “Fine,” and leaving it at that, he would not consider, especially if the answer would be a lie.  “I am as I am, Konrad.”

He never called me Kurt.

He sat minus part of his left leg.  I could see his right foot, complete with stocking and shoe.  Nothing, however, appeared below the left cuff of his trousers.  He had folded the cloth up and fastened it with a safety pin a few inches below the knee.  It looked creepy, making me feel skittish.

There could be no running away from him just because I felt spooked. Grandfather respected fear in no one, to include children. They had to be taught to deal with it, no matter how normal or natural. Thus, I kept myself in place and waited for him to say something more. He asked none of the typical questions as, “How are you?” or “How was your trip?”  He just sat silent.

In the car, my mother had explained the importance of getting him to exercise again.  “A new diet will, we hope, help him get better.  Exercise combined with that diet will help best.  Exercise can lower his blood sugar level, as well as his blood pressure.  It may also help his insulin work more efficiently.”  That was to be one of her larger tasks on this visit: serving as a fitness coach.

I saw a pair of crutches on the floor next to the rocking chair. “Would you like to show me your new house, Grandfather?”

Grandmother and Grandfather had moved, rather suddenly, from Waupaca to Neenah. They sold the old house in which they had lived for decades, the one in which Grandfather himself had been reared.  To get close to bigger and better medical facilities, they bought this new, but smaller house.

“You can see most of it from where you stand.”

Yes, I could easily discern the house was not especially large.  It had three bedrooms, a hallway, one bathroom, and a living room that flowed into a dining room, which itself flowed into a kitchen.  There my mother and sister greeted Grandmother.  Beyond the kitchen, the utility room housed the furnace, washing machine, dryer, and sink.  The entire house stood on one level; it had neither an upstairs nor a basement.

I looked around without moving from my position.  “How do you like the house?”

“Your grandmother likes it very much.”

He resumed silence. 

I asked, “What does she like about it?”  Grandmother could tell me herself, of course.  She was probably giving the answer to my mother and sister right then during their conversation in the kitchen.  Grandfather, though, seemed listless.  I had never seen him that way, I couldn’t believe he could ever be that way, and I didn’t want to leave him that way.  That was even more scary than seeing him without one foot.  I wanted to get him going on something.

“She’s glad not to have to climb stairs anymore,” he said. 

Only one step existed outside the house at each door.

“She’s glad to have all new appliances.  Stove.  Refrigerator.  Washer.  Dryer.  Hot water heater.  Furnace.  She says she’ll really appreciate the heat come winter.  She figures the house will be less drafty than the other one.  She says the house is less dusty than the other one, too.  This one is easier to clean; it’s smaller and has a better layout.”

“What do you think?” I asked. 

“We’ve been married going on fifty years, your grandmother and I.  She lived in that other house all that time, a house already twenty-five years old when she moved in.  After all those years in the sticks, she figured she’ll like this move to civilization. I figured she deserves a change.”

I nodded.  “How about the yard? Would you like to show me the yard?”

Grandfather looked out the big picture window.  “You can see what there is from here.”

True.  I could see some evergreen bushes near the house, Kentucky bluegrass growing in the lawn, a concrete walkway stretching from the front door to the concrete sidewalk near the street, the asphalt-paved street, and houses across the street of similar size and age.

“And the back yard?” I asked.

“Yes?”

“May I see the back yard?”  Can was colloquial, but may was correct.  My mother saw to it that we said may when making such a request.  “We sat a long time in the car.  It was boring.  I’d like to do something.”

“I understand, Konrad.  Boys have energy.  You may play in the back yard, if you wish.”

“Come with me, Grandfather,” I insisted. 

He sat there.

I touched his hand.  “Come on.  I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

He sighed, but began to move.  He reached down to take hold of his crutches, and then he started to work his way up from the chair.  I didn’t dare try to help him.  It took some doing, but he made it.  Putting a crutch under each armpit, he began swinging his way toward the back of the house.  I followed.

We went through the kitchen.  He said nothing to the women-folk talking away.  They, of course, saw us pass through, but refrained from saying anything.

Getting to the back door, I wondered if I should scoot ahead and open it for him.  In my hesitation, he proceeded to do so.  He had to use a crutch to keep it open, and stepping outside was a clattering affair.  Soon, though, there we stood, in the back yard.

Again, it had little to see: more bushes near the house, more bluegrass, a two-car garage, some clothesline strung among some poles, and a tree — a small one, about fifteen feet tall and eight inches around.

Grandfather took a seat in a chair on the patio.

Patios became popular in those days, coming into favor as replacements for old-fashioned porches.  Members of my grandparents’ generation had been porch people.  In their day, porches were places where people either did work or didn’t do work, depending upon the porch’s location, which could be at any combination of front, sides, and rear of the house.

If at the rear, the porch served as a work area, someplace to do something too dirty to do inside the house.  Or, in summer and prior to the popularity of air-conditioning, it served as someplace to do something too hot to do inside the house. 

Not all antique houses had back porches.  Some simply had what were called mud rooms, places where someone could remove dirty shoes and even dirty clothing before stepping inside the house itself. 

Many old houses had woodsheds.  The woodshed served the same functions as a back porch and a mud room, plus they stored and protected firewood from the weather.  Woodsheds would also be used at times as an alternate kitchen.  In older days, my mother’s parents would render butchered hogs or scald butchered chickens in the woodshed.  If they wanted to can a large quantity of fruit or vegetables, they would do that in the woodshed.

If a porch had been built at the side or front of a house, it typically allowed a view of a nearby street or road.  In that location, it served as a place where people did not do work, or at least not much.  It was a place where people relaxed in the heat of the afternoon or in the cool of the evening, where the people of the house could see and hear the people of their community pass to and fro.  They would wave or call out.  Often, passersby would even stop and chat.

Members of my parents’ generation, however, became patio people.  The American world had become more hectic.  People as a result wanted more peace and quiet and privacy, so porches became small things at the doors of houses, something just big enough to provide a bit of shelter for a mailbox and a newspaper rack.  Patios became small playgrounds out of sight of the street where people could escape others and have some refuge while still feeling as though they enjoyed the outdoors.

I looked things over again, trying to notice something that would be of interest to both of us.  With so little to see, I could focus only on the sapling.  “What kind of tree is that, Grandfather?”

Fraxinus americana ‘Junginger’.”

I looked at him.  I knew better than simply to say, “Huh?”  I tried thinking of some way to say the same thing in more words, words that would be more respectable.  However, what he had said was so incomprehensible that I didn’t have enough of a handle on it to frame a question.  All I could do was recall a line my mother would use on occasion: “I beg your pardon?”

That made Grandfather smile a bit.  “Purple ash, Konrad.”

“Oh.”  I thought some more.  “Did you say it in German the first time?”

“Not really.  The third word is of German derivation.  The first two words, though, are Latin.”

“Oh,” I repeated.  “Is the tree Roman Catholic?”

That made Grandfather smile some more.  “Trees don’t need to debate theology, Konrad. Trees need no special revelation from God to know what they are and what they do.  As creatures of God, they have from their creation an innate understanding of their existence.  Indeed, Konrad, they are part of God’s general revelation to us.”

I nodded.  I hoped he wouldn’t quiz me on what he had just said.

“Latin is used to name trees and other living things on this planet.  It is an agreement made among scientists some many decades ago.  You see, it doesn’t matter which language a person speaks.  You may speak English, and someone else may speak German, or Russian, or Sanskrit.  But if that someone else uses the Latin name for the tree in question, you then know exactly which tree is in question.  Latin also avoids confusion with regard to common names.  For example, here in Wisconsin, there are two trees that go by the name ironwood.  One is also called hornbeam, the other is also called hop-hornbeam.  But they are different trees: Ostrya virginiana and Carpinus caroliniana.”

I couldn’t remember the Latin, so I repeated, “Purple ash.”  I looked at it again.  It had green leaves, the topsides of a deeper hue and the undersides more pale.  The bark was a greenish gray.  “Where’s the purple?”

“Autumn purple, Konrad.  The tree assumes a purple color in the autumn, when the leaves change colors.”

Now, I was just a kid. That word, by the way, comes from the German word kind, which means child.  I was just a kid, but I had seen several autumns.  I had seen trees go from green to yellow and orange and red, to russet  and rust and just plain brown.  I had never seen a tree go from green to purple.  I asked, “Really?”

“Yes,” Grandfather said.  Then, “Well, yes and no.  If you are thinking of the color exactly halfway between blue and red, then no.  But that color is more properly called violet.  Purple refers to a color between violet and red.  And yes, the ash tree’s leaves do turn to a red-violet.  Or burgundy.  The color can vary: dark purplish red to reddish brown.”

I nodded again.  I walked over to the tree to have a closer look.  I had noticed from the patio that the tree’s trunk didn’t look right.  Upon closer examination, I could see it misshapen with bulges and bumps and a couple of deep fissures.  The tree stood neither straight nor round. 

I went back to the patio.  “Is the trunk of the purple ash supposed to be weird, too?”

“No,” Grandfather said with something of a growl.  “Someone or something hurt the tree when it was younger.  It looks like a buck rubbed its antlers on it some years back, but I have a hard time believing there are many, if any, deer in these parts.  No, I suspect some careless people did that.  A crew working back there in the alley between the rows of houses.  A garbage truck.  A telephone company truck.  A power company truck.  I suspect somebody backed a truck into the tree.  Perhaps it got snagged in the bumper.  The driver just drove away, tearing away at the tree.”

Grandfather continued, “People don’t know trees.  This yard had a couple out front.  They were planted as saplings and died as saplings before we got here.  That’s because the people who planted them handled them as though they were posts and poles.”

“So that’s the only tree you have on the place?”

“There are some junipers and yews planted around the house.  There is one mugo pine there, as well.  But they’re all bred to be shrubbery.  So, yes, that is the only tree.”  He added, “The only one.”

“And it’s an ash tree. Do you like ash trees?”

“Oh, yes.  They are among my favorites.  Fraxinus americana  especially.”

“The leaves look pretty good,” I said.  “Too bad the rest of it looks so bad.”

Grandfather nodded.  “It’s not much, to be sure, all mangled the way it is.”  He studied the tree.  “Ja, ja.  Mangled.  That’s all I’ve got now.  That’s the way it is now.”

woodcraft 1

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