If I was to tell you my Grandma was sweet and caring, you might believe me, for a moment. But once I told you this story, you would know it was a lie.
July 1978 was unusually hot with temperatures near ninety-degrees and not showing any signs of changing. This was rare for Maine, the price for this pleasure was a seriously long, frozen winter to follow. Her little house sat between U.S route 1 and the main railroad line, twenty feet in front and the same in back. For the millions of beautiful tree-covered acres freely available in Maine, why someone decided to put the shack here so close to the road and the railroad behind it is anyones guess, but I bet it was cheap.
I remember long winter nights, the smell of smoke in the stale air drifting from the kitchen wood stove struggling to keep the cold out. Grandma’s house was wrapped in cheap plastic on the inside. It covered every wall and window. I remember awaking many nights to the whole house shaking, the low rumble starting a ways off, the distant sound of thunder approaching the old house. I would keep my eyes tightly shut, trying to sleep, knowing that the train was coming. When it finally roared past, it shook the whole house from the stone basement and up thought the rafters. Old paperbacks would fall off the shelf and the glass behind the plastic sheeting, stapled to weathered window frames would groan and squeak. Some nights, as the monster passed the house, something big and heavy would impale the ancient house, tearing out a gut-wrenching thud that you felt in your spine. Often it was a big tree trunk or log that had come free of it’s boxcar restraints, sent hurling through the cold dark night.
One night, we almost died. The top of the kitchen stove glowed red hot and the fire could not be put out. Trapped death filled the entire house. Smoke poured through the cracks of the old chimney and flames ripped up the chute. I remember the front door thrown open to the blistering snowstorm and the hot smoke-filled air of the chimney fire fighting us to get out. Grandma had cut up a railroad tie with her Sears electric chainsaw and stacked the foot long pieces by the old kitchen wood stove, and in an attempt to keep the house warm all night, had filled the wood stove to the brim with chunks of it. What she didn’t know was that the ties were soaked with creosote, a chemical used to preserve the wooden railroad ties. The chimney fire started a few hours into the night and the flames shot out the top of the thirty foot chimney. It was the only time the fire department ever came to her house. She told me the cough would pass and gave me some elderberry wine. But the winter tales of survival will have to wait.
Burnham Maine was a desolate little town, one factory, one store and one river. In the summer of 1978, my ten year old brain knew very little, and I was reminded of that fact continually. Staying with Grandma began as a fun adventure, time to myself and away from my mother and annoying siblings. Hallelujah. I should have known better but no one told me to read Grapes Of Wrath before visiting. Grandma had survived the great depression of 1929, but it had stolen her soul. I see the plan now, my mother knowing full well I did not fully appreciate my good life, and spending quality time with Grandma would fix me right up.
A visit with Grandma usually started with emptying her poop pail. You see Grandma had no running water, you carried water from the well that had a broken hand pump, which meant you dropped a plastic pail on a rope down deep into the well of death and pulled it up. Her poop pail resided in a small back room of the train house, and life was over if you spilled it. You learned early not to slosh it or your knees and shoes would, well, you get the idea. Grandma had lain an old door over a trench in the backyard where Jerusalem artichokes grew ten feet tall as a result. You dumped the poop pail carefully into it, trying not to puke.
Conversely, the old well hole was near the barn, covered with a useless wooden box with a useless hand pump attached. You kicked the old box out of the way and tired not to fall in. The fear of death was imprinted in your head at an early age not to go near it unless you were commanded to haul water.
This particular hot July day, five kittens were born in her attached barn. They were adorable. If I had read the Grapes of Wrath and fully understood it at age ten, I would have been better prepared, but I hadn’t, so I wasn’t. She told me to gather the kittens up and bring them to her. She put them one by one in an old onion bag and I followed her out of the house toward the well.
“Its better for them this way, Jimmy.”
Again, Grapes of Wrath. I said nothing.
I watched in horror as she dropped the water pail down into the well, and brought up a full bucket, dropped the squirming onion kitten bag into the cold water, holding it down below the surface with a heavy rock. She lowered the pail back down into the blackness.
The blackness. The empty, cold blackness.
In an attempt to appear human, she muttered to herself, “It’s betta this way, they would starve this winter.” I don’t know what was blacker, the deep emptiness in her old English eyes, or the endless depth below my feet.
Starve. It was the way of everything in Grandma’s old house. Freezers were stocked full, pantry shelves overflowing with USDA boxes and cans of food. Every day was a day to eat. Unless you were a kitten.
I would eventually go back home to my friends and siblings, a dirty, worn creature who knew something they didn’t. I knew about the blackness. I would sit with my family and play with my friends, watching them feed their beloved fat house kitties. I would lay on the clean carpet of my home, and feel the electric heat flow from the wall registers. I felt the warm water flow from the faucet with my fingers, for just a moment, every time. I watched the snow fall outside our big clear living room window like a welcomed friend and listen to my younger brother and sister chattering away about Christmas which was just just around the corner. But for me, I was still in the plastic room with the smoke, and the monster would be coming up the rails shortly. I could hear the rumblings in the blackness of night.
I still hear it.