April 8, 2016
The old man eased his tired body into the rocking chair and gently put it into motion. It was an old rocking chair that creaked and groaned as it moved back and forth. It had always been his favorite chair. In fact, it had been in the same location in the kitchen for the last forty years. Samuel always thought that was the perfect spot for a rocking chair, and one day without any notification or discussion with his wife, Ethel, he proudly placed the new piece of furniture in its new home.
Samuel’s decision to put a rocking chair in the kitchen did not go unnoticed by his wife. In fact, a rocking chair in the kitchen became a point of contention that lasted the rest of their lives together. Samuel, steadfastly, refused to remove the controversial chair. Forty years later, the chair was still there, only because Ethel had silently conceded and accepted the fact.
Samuel removed his wire-rimmed glasses and placed them on the desk beside him. He gazed at the ceiling and noticed a spider web that stretched so far that it seemed to engulf the entire corner of the room.
Such a sight seemed strange to Samuel as he studied the remarkable design of the web. No spider would have ever had the time to build such an elaborate dwelling in that house. A meticulous housekeeper, Ethel considered even the slightest hint of dust to be offensive, and this uninvited guest would have assaulted her obsession for cleanliness.
It had now been over five months since she had died. It had not been a sudden and unexpected death like so many times happens with older folks. It all seemed to begin shortly after a fall that had broken her hip. Her eating habits changed, and then her attitude and will to live soon followed.
This was a sharp contrast to the personality that had characterized her life. Her optimistic and positive approach was clearly apparent from her forever smile and infectious laugh. Her five sons adored her, and she was the perfect and idealistic grandmother to seventeen children. All members of the family, frequently, visited the farm on which these two venerable grandparents lived not only for the quiet solitude of the country life but the loving communion of these two warm and wonderful people.
Samuel picked up his favorite pipe that was setting upright on the desk beside him. He, carefully, tapped it on the rim of a wastebasket freeing the ashes and unburnt tobacco to fall from the charred bowl of the pipe. He unzipped the leather pouch and dipped the empty bowl of the pipe deep into soft, aromatic tobacco. With the skill of years of experience, he tapped the tobacco into the bowl with the exact amount of pressure. If the tobacco was loaded too loosely, it would burn too hot and fast. If packed too tight, the tobacco would scarcely burn at all for the lack of air.
Since Grandma’s death, visits to the farm from the other members of the family became less and less frequent. Many excuses were offered, but the real reason was clearly apparent. Everyone could see the change. Grandpa was not the same. The light that danced in his eyes was gone. It died with the woman that had shared his life for over fifty-five years.
Everyone had expected a normal period of mourning following her death. However, there was nothing normal about it. Samuel never shed the first tear, or, at least, none that anyone ever saw. It seemed that his entire soul and being died with his wife. He was lost in his own world of thoughts and memories oblivious to everything and everybody around him. To gain his attention as he slowly rocked back and forth, it was necessary to repeatedly shout his name until he would blink his eyes and turn your way.
To this day, the entire family wonders what memories flooded his mind during those last days of his life. Was it the days when all five of his sons were little, and the entire family sat down to dinner? Perhaps he was remembering the early days when he first married that beautiful, young woman barely out of her teens. It was just after the turn-of-the-century, an innocent time by anyone’s standards. Maybe, he was remembering harvest time on the farm. It was a time that all young males of the family came to the farm to help bale hay or shovel oats or corn. The reward for such hard work was a feast prepared by Grandma that would rival any Thanksgiving meal.
The old man brushed the loose tobacco from the rim of the bowl of the pipe. He struck a wooden match on the bottom side of the desk, and a blue and red flame roared to life. He held the lit match over the tobacco and lightly sucked through the pipe to make the flame dance on the tobacco. He, soon, could hear the crackle of the tobacco as the fire spread throughout the bowl. He expelled a cloud of smoke and then held the pipe in mid air allowing a small trickle of smoke to dance and flit as it ascended to the ceiling.
It was an old farm built in the late 1800s. There was a two-story, colonial farmhouse with a barn, garage, two chicken houses, and several smaller buildings that sheltered the farm equipment.
Years ago when Samuel was a young man, it was a thriving and productive farm. It was an idealistic setting not unlike a Currier and Ives depiction of rural America. Cattle, serenely, grazed on bluegrass in the north meadow while a mother sow loudly protested a stray dog’s innocent approach to her litter of newborns. Scores of chickens roamed freely throughout their fenced-in domain clucking and cooing their melodic song.
Samuel never carried a watch but instinctively knew when lunch was on the table. He would be riding high on the seat of his Oliver tractor in the middle of a freshly plowed field over two miles from home, look at the sun in the sky, and turn the machine around towards home. No matter what time he walked in the back door, it was precisely the correct time for lunch. Many of the family members believed that this could only occur by some kind of thought transference. But it was generally recognized as an unspoken act of love that was demonstrated by an unconditional marriage of thoughts.
The house and the surrounding grounds could only be described as picturesque and pristinely neat in appearance. Throughout the years, the house proudly displayed its stark white coat of paint that seemed to glow to those who passed by the house. In spite of the demanding hard work that summer would bring to a farmer, there was always time to keep the lawn neatly cut and trimmed.
It was a sweeter and simpler time those years long ago. It was a time of crops to tend and livestock to feed. It was broken fences to mend and warm summer breezes. Rugged men boasting the sweat of a hard day’s work. Denim overalls and flowered aprons dried in the warm summer sun as they hung from a line that stretched the length of the back walk. The aroma of sugar cookies just out of the oven permeated the air and beckoned like a siren to all those who were even near the house. An outdoor lounge chair and a cold glass of lemonade served as a reward for a hard day’s work. Indeed, those were sweet times all those years ago. They are gone forever, but not forgotten.
The barn and chicken coops are empty now. They stand like tombstones to better days gone by. The sounds of barnyard life still echo in the dusty rafters of the sagging old barn. The tools of the farming trade set idly rusting, buried in dirt and the intricate webs of countless spiders that have come and gone. Weeds grow now where once there were none.
Samuel quickly withdraws his pipe from his mouth. An acrid, bitter taste stings his tongue as the tobacco is finally consumed. He studies the pipe momentarily to be sure that the fire is completely extinguished and sets the pipe on the desk beside him.
It’s late, and the old man is weary. He’s not sure exactly why he grows tired anymore. It’s certainly not from hard work. He rubs his hand over his weatherworn face and decides to go to bed.
He lifts himself from the rocking chair and makes his way to the bedroom. Within minutes, he has dressed in his nightclothes and walks over to his side of the bed. He eases his tired body under the blankets and stretches to feel the cool sheets. He is always careful to avoid the other side of the bed. He still sleeps only on his side.
Whatever memories that haunted him during his last few days on earth died with him some five months after the death of his wife. No one ever knew what he was thinking. No one ever asked. It was even suggested that he was somehow exchanging thoughts and feelings with that wonderful woman with whom he had shared his life.
Nobody ever really knew the cause of his death. It was listed as a failure of the heart. Anybody who ever really knew him was aware of how much he loved that woman who slept on the other side of the bed and knew also that he most certainly died from a broken heart.
This story was previously published in the author’s book, “A Montage of Short Stories“