Jennifer McGaha's work has appeared in over two dozen literary journals and magazines including Lumina, Blue Mesa Review, Portland Review, Little Patuxent Review, Literary Mama, North Carolina Literary Review, and New Southerner. A native of western North Carolina, Jennifer teaches memoir writing in the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC-Asheville. In her free time, she enjoys mountain biking and running and hiking with her five dogs.
Ten O'Clock Scholar
Last night, I dreamed my grandmother in brilliant color. She wore crisp, black pants and a top with red and black swirls, the suggestion of flowers, poppies or begonias, sweeping across her ribs and dipping under her arms. She stood in her kitchen, her back straight, a dishrag in one hand, the other hand on her hip. Her hair was full, and one hazelnut curl fell onto her forehead. The kitchen smelled of Pine-sol and butter beans and that dark, earthy smell of boiled potatoes. The windows were steamy. I woke to the steam of a southern July morning, and for one dizzying moment, I forgot that when I last saw my grandmother, she was hunched in her chair, her concave chest almost touching her abdomen, a clear oxygen tube running from her nose to a tank beside her, her mind scampering back and forth to her childhood.
Recently, my grandmother has become fixated on riddles and nursery rhymes. It happened just after she turned ninety, at that time in her life when I was expecting something else from her, a fair trade for the investment I had made in our relationship. What I expected went something like this: I would call most every night and visit regularly and help tend her cat and bring her BPA-free containers of chicken stew and broccoli salad from Earth Fare, and in turn, she would dole out a few succinct but well-chosen phrases that would guide me through middle age and teach me something about the meaning of life. What I got instead was this: A rousing round of trivia with nursery rhymes.
“Jennifer, Jennifer,” she said repeatedly one day until I came to sit in the recliner beside her. “Jennifer…”
“Jennifer, who was it that should have come at 10 o’clock but now he comes at noon?”
I kicked off my clogs and threw my legs over the edge of the recliner.
“The ten o’clock scholar,” I said.
She cocked her head while I repeated the rhyme.
“A diller, a dollar, a ten o’clock scholar--what makes you come so soon?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, smiling and bobbing her head to the rhythm.
My grandmother weighed no more than a small child.. Her shoulders were drawn in, her hair pinned back with a bobby pin, a kitten embroidered on her pale green top Her swollen ankles bulged over her brown slippers.
“Who was that that raced?” she asked. “The rabbit and who else?”
“The tortoise,” I said.
“It was a turtle!” I screamed into her good ear. “A turtle and a rabbit!”
“Oh, yeah,” she said.
Her oxygen tank thrummed.
“Well, who was it that stuck a feather in his hat?”
“Yankee Doodle, Mamaw.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Yankee Doodle went to town just to ride a pony…”
She tapped her open palm on her thigh.
“You know,” she said. “I asked Connie who that was, and she didn’t know.” Connie was my grandmother’s part-time caregiver. My grandmother paused for emphasis, then leaned into me, her tiny body full of urgency. “I asked her directly who stuck a feather in his cap, and she had no idea! And, you know, I’ve never actually heard Connie say where she went to school. I mean, she says she graduated from high school, but I don’t know...”
I stared at her, searching for some sign of the woman who was once funny and vibrant and engaged in our lives. Watching this changeling with my grandmother’s lemony voice and her delicate hands, I was suddenly reminded of something that happened when I was in graduate school. I was studying for comps, and I had just read William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
“I’ve read this over and over, and I just can’t understand what it means,” I told my professor.
He was in the faculty lounge eating lunch, and he suddenly tossed his sandwich to the table, lunged from his chair, and grabbed my arm.
“It means nothing!” he squealed, springing onto his toes. “It. Means. Nothing!”
His blond hair bounced as he vigorously shook my arm with each word and then held it for a moment, an exclamation point.
“Do you get it?” he asked. “Nothing! Nothing is the point!”
His teeth filled his face with the sheer joy of nothing, and now, nodding off in my grandmother’s living room, my head cock-eyed against the back of the recliner, I saw him again, the etched face, the intense blue eyes, the erratic, jerky movements of his limbs. Suddenly, I sat up and put on my shoes.
“I’m going to have to head home now, Mamaw,” I said.
“You don’t have to leave yet, do you?” she asked.
It was what she always said when it was time for me to leave, whether I had been there for five minutes or five hours.
“I do,” I said, which was partially true.
The rest of the truth was that suddenly, the air in the living room felt heavy, and I couldn’t quite get a full breath. On the way home that evening, I stopped to run in the forest with my daughter, Gabrielle. It was almost dusk when we got to our starting point, a bridge crossing the Davidson River. I leaned against the concrete railing and tightened my shoe laces. Then dodging roots and tree limbs, we jogged up the trail. The sun was low over the water, the only sounds the rippling of the river and the pounding of our feet. Through the trees, the sky streaked red and orange, then purple, until finally it was black. And then we ran through the moonlight, the smells of sweat and pine thick in the hot July breeze.
On Thanksgiving, my mother and daughter and I reheated food in my grandmother’s kitchen, and even though we weren’t really cooking, it was at least eighty degrees. Sweat poured down my shirt and puddled in my bra. Outside the kitchen window, a blue jay balanced on the bird feeder.
“Jennifer,” my grandmother said when I paused to sit with her. “Who was that that lived by the sea?”
I thought hard. The house smelled of cat pee and stale air.
“Puff the Magic Dragon!” I finally said and sang a few bars.
Her face crinkled with pleasure.
“I went to see Peter, Paul, and Mary one time,” I said.
“Did you?” she said. “Well. What was that song about leaving on the New River Train?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
She began to hum, softly. When my children were young, my grandmother had cooked them massive meals. She had cradled them and sung to them, strolled with them around Lake Junaluska and knelt beside them while they threw fistfuls of Saltines to the black swans. At the playground, she was the first to go down the monster slide, the last one ready to leave the park. Now, as I microwaved corn and asparagus and Brussels sprouts, my cousin’s four-year-old daughter, Amy, sat on the sofa and played video games on her Ipad. My grandmother watched from her chair.
“It sure was fun to see Amy,” I said to my grandmother the next day.
“Yeah, it was,” she said. “I wonder if they take her to church?”
“What?” I said.
“You know, Sunday School or whatever. Do you think they take her?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, they should, you know? She should get used to going.”
In the forty-four years I had been alive, I had known of exactly two occasions when my grandmother attended church—once when my grandparents went to the Wesleyan church just above their home and once when my brother wanted to visit a Pentecostal church.
I was only seven then, and up until that point, I had never been inside any church other the Presbyterian church my family attended each Sunday. So when the first congregant raised his arms and shouted, I dunked down in the hard pew and covered my ears. My grandmother gathered me in her lap. People around us shouted and flapped their arms until there was a great rumbling chorus of nonsensical voices.
I started to cry, my tears dripping onto my grandmother’s skirt. She placed her warm palm over my hand. After a few moments, her legs began shaking. As my head rolled up and down with the movement of her thighs, I realized she was laughing. Once, she raised her hand, cupped it over her mouth, and leaned in close to my ear.
“It’s okay,” she whispered through my fingers. “It’s okay. They’re just prayin.’”
Which was apparently not something I found to be especially comforting. I remained sobbing in her lap through the entire service.
“Mamaw,” I said now, “I don’t go to church.”
Her hearing aid squawked, and I waited for her to readjust it.
“Well, a feller ought to, I reckon,” she said. “The Bible says, ‘Bring up a child in the way it should go, and he will not depart from it.’”
It wasn’t a direct quote, but it was close enough. I wanted to tell my grandmother that this wasn’t fair, that you didn’t get to change your position in the eleventh hour. You didn’t get to toss out nursery rhymes and Bible verses with equal fervor when people needed you to tell them what mattered.
“You know I haven’t gone to church in years, Mamaw. And neither have my kids.”
For a moment, she was silent.
“Well, that’s okay,” she finally said. “I guess your children know right from wrong.”
It depends on what you mean by right, I wanted to say. It depends on what you believe wrong is. But instead I said, “I hope they do.”
“Sure they do,” she said. “I’m sure of it.”
My brother and I were raised by deeply religious parents in a small town about an hour from my grandparents’ home. Every Sunday, we attended Brevard Davidson River Presbyterian Church where there were thirteen kids my age, but only two other girls, Laura and Vicky. One night when we were in sixth grade, we were heading home from a Montreat youth conference on a rickety, deep purple bus. It was late, and Vicky, Laura, and I were scrunched together in one seat when the game began.
“Truth or dare?” one of the boys called to Laura from the back of the dark bus.
“Truth,” Laura said, flipping her long, winged hair into my face.
“Did you or did you not kiss Chad outside the fellowship hall last night?”
“I did,” Laura said, batting her blue-shadowed eyes.
It was her turn to ask.
“Truth or dare?” she asked Vicky.
“Dare,” Vicky said.
“I dare you to kiss Craig,” Laura said.
Vicky stood and held onto the back of her seat to steady herself. She wore jeans and a white plastic belt and a red scoop neck shirt, tucked in. Her blond pony tail bobbed up and down as she bounced to Craig’s seat and pecked him on the lips. The freckles on his face flushed a deep pink, and then she was back in the seat beside me. A few minutes later, it was Vicky’s turn to pose the challenge. She turned to me and stared hard, willing me to say the brave thing.
“Truth or dare?”
“Dare,” I said.
“I dare you to kiss Sammy.”
For months, I had had a crush on Sammy. He had shoulder-length dark hair, which he slung to one side, and smooth, tanned skin. He also wore the same puke-colored pair of pants to church every Sunday. That’s how we referred to them: “Sammy is wearing his puke-colored pants again,” we would say.
I glanced to Sammy in the rear corner of the bus, then to our youth leaders at the front. Mr. Harrison was driving, and behind him, Mrs. Harrison was turned sideways, chatting with her twelve-year-old daughter, Kate. While I was wondering if I still had time to change my answer to “truth,” Vicky jabbed me hard in the ribs with her elbow.
“Go on, chicken!” she taunted.
Slowly, I rose and slid past her. At the very back of the bus, Sammy’s long, white teeth glistened in the dark. It was so fast I might have imagined it except for the yelling and clapping of the other kids.
It was all rather harmless, girls kissing boys they had known since preschool, boys who had chased them on the playground and pulled their ponytails. After a while, we became so engrossed in the game that we almost forgot the Harrisons were there—that is, until Mrs. Harrison began making her way toward us.
“What are you guys doing?” she asked, stopping in the middle of the aisle.
Mrs. Harrison was in her late thirties, tall and slightly heavy-set with bleached blond hair.
“Nothing,” Vicky said.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Well, I want to play,” she said, flashing a half-smile.
At first, we thought she was joking. But then her smile faded.
“Sure,” we said.
She scooted into the empty the seat in front of us. Within moments, someone dared Mrs. Harrison to kiss Sammy. Holding onto the edges of the seats, Mrs. Harrison made her way down the aisle. It was a nice, spring evening. The windows were cracked, and warm air whipped around our heads. Mrs. Harrison stopped in front of Sammy’s seat, then plopped onto his lap, her ample thighs resting on his small, puke-colored ones. She wrapped one thick arm around his neck and began to kiss him, open mouthed. Her platinum hair whisked around their faces. For a full minute, the bus was silent, just wind and the sound of tires on the pavement, and then some of the boys began to cheer, “Ooooh!” and “Go, Sammy!”
Before that bus ride was over, Mrs. Harrison had kissed all the boys. Each time, the kisses were long and deep, and I watched for a moment and then looked away. I never looked at Kate, but I did look once at Mr. Harrison. The moon was high in the sky by then, and I could see his eyes reflected in the mirror above him. His gaze was fixed straight ahead, his hands fixed firmly on the wheel, ten and two.
I had not thought of Mrs. Harrison in years, but there was something about my grandmother’s disjointed thoughts and sudden proclamations that took me back thirty years, to the smell of diesel and the shouting of those children, my closest childhood friends, and to the last real conversation I had had with my grandmother. It was Valentine’s Day, just before her ninetieth birthday, and we were sharing a heart-shaped raspberry truffle and watching Lawrence Welch reruns when she turned to me and asked, “Jennifer, do you and Gabrielle ever sing?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “I was just wondering if you would sing at my funeral.”
“Oh, Mamaw,” I said, “You don’t want me to sing!”
She laughed a little. Her hands rested in her lap. They were spotted with bruises near the knuckles where she had knocked her hands against the walls when she got too close with her walker.
“I was thinking I’d like for you to sing, ‘What A Friend We Have in Jesus,’” she said.
She stared at me, her eyes milky. Lawrence glided across the stage with a bouffanted blonde, and I rolled the paper truffle wrapper between my forefinger and thumb
“Well, maybe we can all sing it together,” I said. “But I hope we won’t be doing this for another twenty years.”
It was a stupid thing to say, but she laughed anyway.
One muggy August afternoon a few years ago, my daughter and I were searching for blueberries on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We emerged at the Cold Mountain overlook, and rolling down the van windows, we let the heavy air pour over us. Just past Graveyard Fields, there was a pull-off to the left, and there, beyond the edge of the embankment, the valley was an emerald blanket. In another month, it would look like a patchwork quilt.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s my favorite look-off on the parkway.”
“This one?” Gabrielle asked.
She leaned her head out the window and squinted to read the sign. I instantly knew what she was thinking.
“Not there!” I said. “How could you?”
“What?” she said.
She was twenty-one years old, a college junior. Her long, curly hair fell onto her bare shoulders, and she swept it back with one hand.
“You said you wanted to be scattered over the parkway!” she said.
“Yes, but not here!” I said. “This takes no thought, no effort whatsoever. You wouldn’t even have to slow down! You could just throw me out the car window when you drove past!”
My voice was a low-pitched shriek.
“At the very least you could take me somewhere that involves a little bit of effort, some forethought and planning on your part. I mean, I don’t expect to be scattered over Everest or anything but a small hike in would be a show of respect, don’t you think?”
She rolled her eyes.
“I think we’ve missed the blueberries,” she said.
When we got to Devil’s Courthouse, the sun was dipping below the horizon.
“It’s getting dark,” I said. “I guess we should come back tomorrow.”
We turned around in the parking lot and headed back the way we had come. As we passed my favorite overlook, Gabrielle stared intently out the window. I sighed.
“Only if it is raining,” I told her, “and you can’t get anywhere else. Or if I die before your grandmother, and she can’t make a longer hike. Otherwise, throw me off Sam’s Knob, okay?”
“Okay,” she said.
We wound down the mountainside, the sun sinking lower and lower until the trees became shadows and the chirping of katydids filled the car.
It is strange to think that perhaps there may be a time when I exist more in my children’s minds than in my own deteriorating body, that I may be more fully alive to them when my body is gone, and I am restored in their memories to the woman I was before illness and age took me away. And I cannot help but wonder what I will reach into my brain and grab when I am near the end. I would hope it might be a few passages from Tennyson or George Eliot or a few lines from Billy Collins, but perhaps I will just list my favorite flavors of Ben and Jerry’s.
“What was that ice cream that was red and tasted like cake?” I will ask my children.
“Red Velvet!” they will say.
“What about that kind with the cone in it?”
Perhaps I will also think of a hymn or a Bible verse and remember a me that wasn’t quite me, always. Or maybe I will just think of the soft curve of Sammy’s brown cheek, of wild blueberries and moonlit trails, and of the gentle, steady thrumming of my grandmother when she was old.
back to nonfiction