Carter Sickels is the author of the acclaimed novel The Evening Hour, which was named a 2012 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Pennsylvania State University, and has been awarded fellowships to Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the MacDowell Colony, VCCA, and the Djerassi Residency. After spending nearly a decade in New York, Carter left the city to earn a master's degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
My father and grandfather stand side-by-side in front of the farmhouse where my grandfather grew up. It’s springtime, late afternoon, the photograph doused in slants of shadow and light. Granddad leans slightly, one hand cocked on his hip. My father drapes his arm around him, his fingers peeking over the knot of my grandfather’s shoulder. Although nobody has lived in the house for years, lace curtains still hang in the windows. On the porch, a discarded couch rests on its back, coil springs exposed like the insides of a gutted deer.
They’re looking at me with half smiles, waiting for the click, and I push the shutter button. The three of us had spent the day together. The mood was comfortable, although underlaid with sadness. My grandfather had been diagnosed with dementia, probably Alzheimer’s, the doctors weren’t sure, and my grandmother was in a nursing home. I was visiting from New York City, where I lived. That morning, my father and I had driven together from my parents’ house in central Ohio, about 75 miles away, to see my grandparents.
We’re on the land where my grandfather grew up and where some of my earliest memories were shaped. The homeplace, or what we kids called the Big Farm, a mix of woods and pastures, is tucked in the foothills of the Appalachians, where the landscape resembles West Virginia with its hollows and dense forests more than it does the typical flat land of Ohio, where I grew up. My grandfather lived on the Big Farm until he joined the service in 1941. After he returned from the war, he and my grandmother lived in a series of houses. They finally settled into a brick ranch in the early ‘60s, just a couple of miles up the road. After his parents died, Granddad inherited the Big Farm. He never moved back, but he took care of the land and raised beef cattle. For many years, he rented out the farmhouse to tenants.
When I was a kid, during Christmas or in the summer, we’d all visit the Big Farm together, my father and uncles and cousins. We went fishing. We took walks. Granddad would point out the mile long path he walked to get to school, a one-room schoolhouse. He showed us the fields where he plowed up arrowheads when he was a boy. We hiked down to the caves where the cows liked to cool off. We went in the barn where the farm machinery was stored and feral cats hid behind bales of hay. It was quiet as church, sunlight streaming through the cracks of the tobacco-colored wood. It smelled spicy and thick, like hay and motor oil. Time stretched out forever. We cut bittersweet, picked up buckeyes for good luck.
My grandfather, as rooted to the land as the giant sycamores down by the creek, knew every inch of the property. Knew the names of trees and birds. He followed the subtlest changes in the creek, felt the shift of seasons in his blood. It wasn’t until I was an adult and had made my life in the city and found another kind of family—of writers, artists, queers, a family that my blood relatives could not comprehend—that I began to miss the land. I lined my bookshelves with Peterson and Audubon field guides, and took naturalist hikes to learn what my grandfather could have taught me. I didn’t ask him until it was too late. The same with his repeated stories that I’d heard all my life—by the time I wanted to record him, he had difficulty telling a story from beginning to end.
We weren’t close when I was a kid. He was not affectionate (in the photograph, he holds his arm stiff at his side instead of around my father, his son); he was not the kind of grandfather who played cards or read to us. My strongest memories of him are on the walks at the Big Farm and at the dinner table, when he’d regale us with stories that I’ve now forgotten. He had an infectious snorting laugh that usually overtook him before he could finish the story.
I went to college about ten miles away, and on Sundays, I used to visit. Grandma cooked or sometimes we picked up food from Wendy’s drive thru. It was just me and them, no cousins, no parents. We didn’t talk much. They were both quiet country folk. The talking wasn’t important. I felt loved by them. I think my grandparents were proud of me, the first grandchild to go to college. Grandma sometimes slipped me a twenty dollar bill, told me to go buy myself something. Granddad grew more affectionate in his later years. Whenever we said goodbye, he would give me a hug or kiss. Sometimes he smelled of liquor, which I’d been smelling on him since I was a kid but didn’t know what it was, not until years later.
At the time of this picture, my grandfather was still living on his own, though probably shouldn’t have been. When my dad and I picked him up that morning, he was disheveled and confused. He didn’t know why we were there.
We took him to Dairy Queen for breakfast and he drenched his food in maple syrup. Then we went to see my grandmother at the nursing home. Granddad hovered over her like she was an injured animal, couldn’t grasp that she wasn’t going to get better. My father kissed her cheek and talked to her in a loud clear voice, masking the pain he felt seeing his mother like this. The second youngest of four children, my father exhausted himself in the last few years of his parents’ lives, driving down to see them every weekend and sometimes during the week. He helped his father continue to live on his own by buying groceries, paying bills, mowing the grass.
“Look who’s come to visit you,” he told my grandmother.
I walked to the edge of the bed, and her eyes brightened. Her body was frozen with Parkinson’s and she couldn’t talk. I held her claw hand in mine. When my dad and granddad stepped out for coffee, I stroked her hand and told her I was sorry she was there, trapped in her body, trapped in the home. Her mouth curled. Maybe she could hear me, maybe she understood. My father and grandfather came back in, holding Styrofoam cups, and we stayed for another twenty or thirty minutes, my father and I making strained small talk while Granddad grew anxious, and Grandma stared at us and could not tell us what she wanted.
After the nursing home, we went to the Big Farm. We crossed the back field behind the house, then walked around to the front. Granddad went slowly, unsure of his footing.
I felt awkward and shy with my camera. The writer, the folklorist, wanting to document and preserve what I left behind. I moved away from Ohio when I was 22. Everyone else in the family stayed. Now when I visited, I asked about the old days, encouraged my parents to reminisce. I took pictures, wrote down names, dates. I didn’t talk much about my own life—not about lovers or friends or the stories I wrote—and most of the time, nobody asked.
Today my father understood what I wanted. He knew how quickly time passes, how easily memories disappear. “Ready to take some pictures?” he asked.
Granddad, never one to pose for a photograph, stood next to my father. He looked nervous, uncertain, the one hand on his hip, the other one placed awkwardly outside the front pocket of his jeans. His hands, always strong, sinewy, tan, were now shaky and sometimes shivered in the air. He wore his usual outfit of jeans, a ball cap, and a western shirt with pearly snaps (a style that I have adopted). His glasses case, wallet, and several ink pens were stuffed into the bulging breast pocket, where maybe he thought he wouldn’t lose them.
Whereas Granddad tilts slightly, his body shrunk and weakened, my father, at the center of the frame, is sturdy and tall. He was the last to admit how sick his father was. But six months after this picture, he gave in and moved Granddad to a nursing home. This after months of Granddad forgetting things, getting lost, and hallucinating. Like when he thought prowlers were breaking in and called the sheriff in the middle of the night. Another time he thought two boys were in his car; he drove around town, stopped in the VFW and the funeral home to frantically tell the employees that he didn’t know what to do about these kids in the backseat.
My father poses with one hand behind his back as if he’s holding a bouquet, the other hand rested on his father’s shoulder, giving him the kind of affection that he rarely received from him. My grandfather wasn’t an easy person to live with, not for my grandmother or for his kids. He drank a lot. No one ever talked about it. I rarely heard my father ever say anything negative about his dad or his childhood—the stories were always funny, endearing. But a year after this picture, on the day of my grandfather’s funeral as we drove away from the cemetery, my father implied that there was a lot I didn’t know.
I asked about the years that Granddad played in a bluegrass band., and my father said, “To tell you the truth, I never cared much for that part of Dad’s life.” He kept his eyes on the road. “For me, his music was always tied to his drinking. You know, when I was kid, he would forget to pick me up from Little League, things like that.”
It wasn’t much what he said, but it was the first time he’d shared something with me that was so personal, painful, and true about his relationship with his father. My dad took care of his parents in the last years of their lives. Now they’re dead, and he’s getting old. I’m on the other side of the country, living a life that he doesn’t know much about. Pictures of my family are stored in a folder on my computer, but this one of my grandfather and father: I printed it out, pinned it to my wall. Here we are, three generations. I’m hiding behind the camera, and my father and grandfather look at me through matching tinted glasses. How can people know each other so well and yet not at all? They’re standing in a shadow, same as me. But a single burst of sun slices across them. I see it now. If they would have taken just a few steps across the knee-high weeds, they would have found themselves exposed in a brilliant field of light.
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