Grandpas Village

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Mama had never seen a water pump in a front yard before and was not so impressed as Pop by the fact that the Espys, as the first citizens of Oysterville, were the only family to have a pump right in their kitchen. She did not understand why Grandma Espy used whale ribs as chicken perches; in fact she did not understand why there were chicken perches on the place at all.

 

A few years later, when she and Pop came to settle down, she was not surprised to be met by a driving rainstorm. It depressed her, however, when she woke up next day to find her front yard immersed in bay water. Nor did it make her feel more at home when a caller arrived without advance notice and my mother, in a flutter, sat on a hot stove lid.

She wanted to like the Oystervilleans, but she found it even harder to understand them than they did to understand her. She did not know how to reply when a visitor, seeing her after-dinner coffee cups hanging from hooks, asked, “What are those things? What you people in the city use for champagne?”

Grandmother Richardson had borne in on her daughter that if she never learned to wash dishes, she would never have to. But Grandmother Richardson was wrong; Mom had to wash dishes every day. Aunt Beu, herself an alien to Oysterville but one of a tougher breed, said Mom never reached an accommodation with housekeeping. “When she dusted,” said Aunt Beu, “she would not use a regular cloth; instead she took one the size of a lady’s handkerchief and wrapped it around her index finger.”

Despite these handicaps Mom saw to it that the table for every evening meal was set, if not with linen, at least with white cloth; if not with crystal, at least with goblets; if not with sterling, at least with Rogers silver plate.

One day, having arranged the table to her satisfaction, she left the dining room to replenish the wood in the kitchen rangé. On her return she heard the table grunting and saw it pitching like a dinghy in a storm; with each tilt dishes slid to port or star-board, and glasses splintered on the floor. A hog was happily rubbing its back against the table’s underside. Mom beat the beast with a broomstick, but it went on contentedly scratching. Fortunately my eldest sister, Medora, then aged ten, knew better than her mother how to handle a hog; she brought in a bucket of swill and waved it before the hog’s nose. Eagerly grunting, it followed her back to its sty.

Yet my mother eventually carved out a rewarding and even happy life in Oysterville. Shifting to her husband and children the devotion that she had once lavished on her childhood family, she created for us an enclave of civilization in what seemed to her to be a wilderness. Book by book she accumulated a five-thousand-volume library; and between household chores she read. When she discovered any local boy who seemed to have a spark of ambition, she would encourage him to go on with his schooling; one of these returned years later to tell her, “Mrs. Espy, you are the first person who ever taught me how important pronouncination is.”

Though she remained faintly embarrassed with most Oystervilleans, she became genuinely fond of them—and they, I think, of her. She never visited them in their homes, to be sure, but the cause of that was simple lifelong shyness. She welcomed them when they came to visit her, which they did more and more often as the years passed, in spite of feeling they had to come in their Sunday clothes.

It took fifty years, but Oysterville seduced my mother in the end. “Eike the Prisoner of Chillon,” she said in her old age, “I have come to love my chains.”

It took Mom fifty years to make her peace with Oysterville, but we children were born to the place like tadpoles to a pond. To us cutting Canadian thistles, stomping hay, pumping water, herding cattle, and crawling under the barn for chickens’ eggs was the way life always had been.

 

The basics of Grandpa’s village have changed little since I began my growing up there. I think one new house was built, in 1930. A few other houses have fallen down. Otherwise the village looks much the same as ever.

Even the wildlife has changed little. There are still bear, deer, and elk—not to mention skunks—in the woods, and the flyways in spring and fall are as alive as ever with geese and ducks.

The canaries have gone, though, and so have most of the snipe. The snipe were once so thick that Mrs. Will Taylor brought down three hundred and fifty of them with a single blast from her shotgun. In my boyhood snipe still clotted so thickly on the hard beach of the ocean at low tide that an automobile could (and often did) charge through a flurry of them and kill or cripple enough tiny birds to fill a gunny sack. Today we would celebrate if more than a hundred snipe appeared in a single flock off Oysterville.

I said Oysterville has not changed greatly in the fifty years since my departure for the outside world; but I fear that I have. When I return there now, my first impulse is to visit the cemetery on the ridge, where through a hole in the spruce trees I can watch the slow breathing of the bay, six hours in and six hours out. I pause by the gravestones—of Nahcati, and the nameless sailors whose bodies washed ashore long ago, and Grandpa and Grandma, and Pop and Mom; and I feel very much at home.