Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Letter to My Daughter: What Passes through Our Hands
by Stephen J. Lyons

At the age of four months my grandfather held you, cradled in his cracked fingers, scarred forever by grease and failed farms. Around Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where men are defined by their jobs, they called him Chuck from the bus garage, the crazy Bohemian with his homemade berry wine, and sauerkraut fermenting in ancient wooden cylinders in the garage. Old Chuck, my motherís bilingual father, who only finished sixth grade and as far as I know, never read a book or wrote anything down but his name on the back of a paycheck. My grandfather the dumpster diver from the Great Depression who retrieved every scrap of everything Iowa ever threw away and brought it all home.

On that deceivingly clear day in November, when the bright sun means bitter cold, a calm surrounds both of you, two generations and sixty years apart. In the distance, central Iowa with its perfect furrows of tasseled agribusiness and under-appreciated hills of humidity; its water towers painted with the names of small towns and high school graduates; and its WPA windbreaks and shiny silos filled with corn gas. Iowa, shaped like a pig, jumping off point to the Great Plains and the Rockies, surrounded on two sides by two of Americaís great blue-collar, working riversóthe Missouri and the Mississippi.

Corn and beans, pigs and polkas. Scattered pieces of walnut forests where my bare-footed grandmother Georgia gathered mushrooms in her floral apron, speaking all the time in Czech to herself, to my brother and me, to her three daughters, to her dead relatives. And probably to you, Rose. How I wished Iíd listened more closely.

My grandmother died in 1982, along with the family history. On that same November day when you were handed over to her, Georgia Uchytil retold the familyís stories to me again. But I was young, pre-occupied with unemployment and a continuing uncertain future, between jobs and a home, and coming to the realization that having a daughter afforded a smaller margin of error than Iíd been used to. Simply put, I didnít know the value of her stories. I wrote nothing down that afternoon and I will carry that regret with me to my own grave.

I sat in her kitchen kingdom for hours while she told story after story, as if she knew this would be her last chance and perhaps an anecdote or two might pass through a sieve to you. She rocked you, with the confidence that only a grandmother has, her heart pressed against your sleeping head. On her wall hung a calendar with the few personal words she allowed herself each day between the unending chores. Weather words and news of the season. 10 below and cold. Rained all day. Pick up dill and pears from Kremedy. Canned beans. Tornado in Keystone. Routine structured the architecture of her life bordered by two flower gardens and a vegetable patch, the subsequent canning and freezing, rabbits and chickens on the side, and the saving and mostly doing without.

For more than thirty years, Grandpa left for the city garage each morning at around 4 in the morning to repair and paint buses. The Cedar Rapids Gazette came at 3 in the afternoon, followed by Grandpa, his green-visored 1951 Chevy truck growling to a stop in the long driveway. In between, Georgia and Chuck ate their watermelon with salt; their tomatoes with sugar. At noon, the sirens announced the middle of the day from fire station to fire station. Train whistles blew on the trestles above the Cedar River where pools of catfish rested. Tornado warnings interrupted the all-night radio shows Grandma loved. Corn was shucked. Peas scooped out with thumbs to fall into silver bowls. Beans snapped in half. Grand kids were spoiled.

My grandmother firmly believed her own saying, "Thereís a place for everything and everything in its place." They hid silver dollars in flashlights; kept chenille on the bed and shotguns in the broom closet. Once, on her birthday in the middle of her morning chores, she heard Ray Charles singing "Georgia On My Mind" on the radio and she was convinced that he was singing each word just for her.

Grandma told me they always had enough to eat, even during the worst of the hurt of the Depression and how they were relentlessly resented by the neighbors for their good luck and hard work. (To this day nothing is wasted by my grandfather, who still readies himself against the next Depression. The large stand-up freezer is packed to gills with every conceivable food item and heís never known a supermarket dumpster he hasnít liked.)

Together they worked hard to raise three daughters and in subtle ways to raise all of us who followed in their wake. They never called in sick, refused work, or turned away from acts of charity. I donít want to leave you with the impression that they were perfect, but I want you to know what was good about them.

I possess nothing of my grandparentsí. No oak furniture, ancient crumbling letters, favored fishing pole, or pocket knife. What I can pass on to you are these images and stories. History, especially a familyís, is elusive, and memory is, as it is often said, a poor guide. Hard work to write it down exactly right, although Iíve attempted to do just that. History is made in what appears to be at first glance mundane and ordinary ways. Itís written at kitchen tables and printed in the small boxes of calendar days and in the opening and closing of lunch pails at noon. Sometimes in life it may seem as if nothing of consequence ever happens except the small acts of routine that occupy countless hours and ultimately frame our short lives. But I want you to know: Everything counts.

Pay attention to the subtle, to the seemingly inconsequential. Look at your own hands, the blood that runs through their veins, and remember where you come from: strong arms holding you with unconditional love. The feeling that you could never, ever fall.
Stephen J. Lyons is an AustinMama.com favorite and upcoming columnist (look for the debut of "Letters from Mid-life" in early October)
.  Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart, a single father's memoir. His articles, reviews, essays, and poems have appeared in many national magazines and journals including Newsweek, Salon, Chicago Reader, Sierra, High Country News, Witness, Commonweal, The Sun, Hope Magazine, Manoa, Whole Earth, and New Age. His writing appears in the anthologies Idaho's Poetry : A Centennial Anthology (University of Idaho Press), Passionate Hearts (New World Library), Living in the Runaway West (Fulcrum Books), and Bless the Day (Kodansha Press).