Hollowing the Stalks
by Steel Wagstaff
Almost as soon as I arrive, we’re working on the rhubarb. Between grandpa’s front door and the road is a full-sized tennis court surrounded by about an acre of grass, flowerbeds, and garden. By the time I get there, the rhubarb is profligate, aggressively filling several long rows beyond the furthest corner of the tennis court. If you leave rhubarb too long it’ll bolt—the top of the plant flowering, the stalks turning hollow and useless, bitter to the taste.
Grandpa and I spend the better part of two days squatting in the rhubarb with kitchen knives, surrounded by aphids and green leaves like elephant ears. I learn to gauge each shoot’s thickness, to look for the hint of red, to cut the stalks near their base and to reach in and get the rich humus so far under my nails that I feel there all the time, even when I’m asleep. Grandpa teaches me about timing and discernment, how to know when the plants are ready, which to keep and which to discard. The two days we spent harvesting are not enough. There’s more rhubarb than we can manage and we’ve got other work to do, so we leave the uncut stalks to bolt.
It’s April and I am nineteen years old. Done with a year of college and less than six months away from a two-year Mormon mission in the northeast of England. The summer job I’ve lined up in Boise doesn’t start until early June, leaving me with six weeks without definite plans. The family’s worried about grandpa’s body and grandma’s mind. There’s no chance they’ll let somebody come “take care” of them, so I ask if he’ll hire me until my job starts in Boise, pitching the idea as way for them to help me save money for my mission. I worked a summer for him in high school, and heard enough stories about shiftless cousins who grumbled about digging ditches, pouring concrete, and weeding vast plots all summer at the going ‘family’ rate (for several years this meant minimum wage minus room and board, but they stopped subtracting living expenses after one cousin actually lost money) to know they count me as a passable worker. He agrees, and for the next six weeks, I become a kind of live-in assistant, cleaning, cooking, and doing the required outdoor grunt work.
* * *
Grandpa’s place is called Sompaddu. Before he bought the land, it had been the northern third of an old twenty acre homestead in Sandy, Utah, not far from the quarry at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon that provided the granite used to build the Salt Lake City Temple. The town of Sandy received its name as a backhanded insult from Brigham Young, who thought it sufficient warning to potential farmers as to the soil’s quality. By all accounts, when grandpa bought it, the place was pretty scraggly, its sparse covering of scrub oak, juniper, sage brush and the occasional native box elder constituting the desert equivalent of a middle-schooler’s moustache.
The soil at Sompaddu always seemed desperately thirsty, and its capacity to support any vegetation at all was thanks mainly to the massive irrigation projects the Mormons built after settling the Salt Lake Valley. Grandpa purchased water rights for a few hours each week, and built a large holding pond to store water until he was ready to use it, pumping into an antiquated sprinkler system he had designed and built himself. It was terribly inefficient and always breaking, which meant that much of the water meant to keep Sompaddu alive in one form or another was wasted.
At Sompaddu plants do not erupt into green, as they do in places where sufficient moisture encourages life, but creep towards color by degrees, so that when it finally arrives, the abundant brilliance of spring always seems miraculous. While many of grandpa’s neighbors also kept animals, grew gardens, and tended trees, planting things had been a Mortensen family obsession for several generations, so grandpa’s idea of gardening wasn’t limited to decorative flowers or subsistence farming. Behind the house are three thickly cultivated acres, shade oaks intermingling with blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, currants, crabapples, peaches, plums, and pears. Most extravagant is the large greenhouse attached to the rear of the home. It houses more than two dozen tropical and semi-tropical plants: figs, kumquats, and lemons, a rubber tree even, growing amidst massive-leafed Polynesian plants with names I never knew or have forgotten. The greenhouse also contains a swimming pool, from which I repeatedly hopped out to devour overripe figs one snowy Christmas Eve, jumping back in after I had gorged myself to let the warm water rinse the sticky juice from my chin and hands. It is no exaggeration to say that the Sompaddu of my childhood appeared to me a literal Eden, a new Arcadia, a place without death or sadness where the desert had, in the words of Isaiah, been made to “blossom as a rose.”
* * *
The room is pale, and summer light comes through old glass windows to my right, warming the air and quickening my pulse. It’s the kind of light that expands time and makes everything feel both larger and sharper. There’s a stainless steel sink—so deep I can stick my arms in past the elbow. Left of the sink is smaller window, unobtrusive, hung with faded drapes. It gives a view of the interior of the greenhouse, and through it I see a sprawl of greens, massing in deep, various textures. The fig tree is nearest, and though its fruit is just appearing, the large sacred leaves seem to beg me to pluck them and sew them together as a covering for my grandmother, whose name is Eve. Water shimmers and reflects off the bright corrugated pipes running beneath the glass-paneled ceiling. A languid ceiling fan spins methodically, its steady insistence somehow comforting.
There is the strange smell that belongs only to this room, a smell that is all roots and brownness, robust and earthy, with a tang from the rhubarb and a mingling of many other things: citrus leaves, mint, eucalyptus, and chlorine. The trace of chemicals gives a vague burning, tickles the hairs on my nose without producing repulsion. My grandfather is beside me, sleeves rolled up to just under his elbows, a solid stony mass, entirely corporeal. His body has also a scent, a memory, and his clothes all have the smell of being lived in. His sweat is not unpleasant, musty but inoffensive. He does not smell like other old people I have known. He smells too alive, too vital, too steady.
Grandpa piles all the leafy stalks in the sink’s left basin, opens a drawer, roots around for a while, finds a knife. Without speaking, he turns to the sink and expertly severs the stalks from the leaves, tossing the leaves into the garbage. He piles the long stalks into the sink’s basin and rinses them, gingerly, one after the other. The light pours and pours through the windows above his head and does not stop. His hands—a clot of massive veins, purple blotches spidering around tufts of hair, broad, swollen knuckles anchoring deft, trained fingers—pass precisely from stalk to stalk. When he is done he points to the neatly rinsed pile. Well, he says, what are you waiting for?
I walk to the front of the basin and stare at the glistening shafts of rinsed rhubarb waiting there for me to cut and soak them. I cut a handful of dripping stalks sharply into thirds. I fill the sink with cold water and leave the cut pieces to soak.
The next day we return to the kitchen and grandpa shows me how to boil the stalks in a sugary solution, how to render something edible from our labor. It is quiet, and I am foolish enough to mention he seemed to be having trouble breathing while we were cutting stalks in the garden.
What do you mean ‘it looked like I couldn’t breathe’?
Oh, I don’t know. I was just a little worried is all.
He lets out a sharp breath of air, hot and fast like a horse’s snort. I’m still running fine, even if my joints are getting a little rusty. You know, if I didn’t check on my extremities every once in a while, I might start to think they’d disappeared. He says this in a level physician’s voice, then looks at me. He is smiling.
I want to ask more about his health, but I know these questions are impossible with him. Instead I ask about his wife. How’s grandma doing? The last time I was here, she had a little trouble remembering things. This is being generous. The last time I saw her we spent an hour trying to remember what an extension cord was, and another hour remembering where she left it.
A lot of the children are starting to think that I should start looking for a home for Eve. She’s started losing her mind, you know, and they think it’s getting to the point where it might be dangerous to keep her in the house.
Well, what do you think?
He snorts again, his head twitching quickly to the left, like he’d just felt a fly land on top of his head. I think that they don’t know what they’re talking about. She’ll be just fine here.
He pauses for a beat. Well, we better get the rest of this stuff up to a boil. Another beat. Looks like we’ll have enough rhubarb to last us the next twenty years, he says with a chuckle.
There’s a lot of rhubarb, but twenty years? I nod and fall silent, thinking about the time passing between us, hoping that the rhubarb will at least last them two.
* * *
After making three bowls of Cream of Wheat, lavishly buttering four slices of toast and pulling out a glass gallon pitcher of half-and-half from Winder Dairy, I invite my grandparents to the table. Before sitting down, my grandmother looks out the window at the enormous thermometer that hangs from the fence surrounding the tennis court. The thermometer has a face laid out like a clock with 50 degrees equaling noon, and a large red hand whose reliability is spotty at best. Because she rarely ventures out of doors, she relies on the broken thermometer to inform her of the wider world beyond. In process of this consultation, she sees tiny brown things swarming the fence, glancing furtively at her, darting quickly across the lawn. Inexplicably, this sets her off. JD, come here! she says. Ooooh. Oh no! Those…things are back. JD, look at those bad little guys. What is he doing out there? JD, you need to go out there right now and get rid of them. We don’t want those bad little guys out there.
She doesn’t recognize them. They are squirrels.
The first time it happens Grandpa and I laugh. Grandma, I tell her, don’t get all excited. There’s nothing to worry about. They’re just squirrels. They’re not doing anything wrong. It’s OK. They won’t hurt anybody.
She remains standing, eyes fixed at the window, face darkening into a scowl. I don’t care what they are, I don’t want them running around out there. JD, I want you to get rid of them. They shouldn’t be doing that.
JD shakes his head. Doing what, Eve?
That! You can see the italics as she pronounces the word. She glares at us. We lower our eyes. I bite my lip to keep from laughing aloud. When she looks back out the window they’re gone.
When it happens the next day, I don’t have to bite my lip quite as hard. When it happens the day after that, I don’t even smile. And when it begins happening every day, I start closing the blinds before setting the table. We begin eating lunch at noon with the blinds down and the kitchen light on, hoping to spare grandma the agitation that comes with seeing those little brown things she remembers but doesn’t recognize. With the shades drawn she no longer knows the temperature, how warm it is, how dry, how purple the mountains appear when the sun strikes them just so. With the shades drawn she no longer sees all the rhubarb we left to bolt, hollowing in the gathering sun.
* * *
Eve was inordinately fond of poodles. So ubiquitous were they, so closely linked was she to her tiny dogs, that it would impossible to convince a family member of the truth of any story involving Eve that did not also prominently feature her poodles. They were almost extensions of her person, the miniscule pattering sounds of neatly trimmed claws against linoleum the most reliable indicator of grandma’s presence throughout the house. There had always been two tiny dogs that served as her advance guard—two willing sycophants with ferociously bad haircuts. As long as I could remember, they had always been the same two—Lily, the cheerful blonde who bore an uncanny resemblance to Pat O’Brien, and Maggie, the grey serious one with a perm reminiscent of a rural Ohioan newscaster. Arriving that summer, I was stunned to learn that Lily was dead and Maggie, recently crippled by arthritis and severe cataracts, seemed near death.
There are a series of seventeenth century paintings which share the title Et in Arcadia Ego. Each depicts ancient Arcadian shepherds in pastoral settings, and all are intent on disrupting any paradisiacal projections by forcefully reminding their viewers of death. In Guercino’s version of the painting, shepherds gaze intently at a human skull, turning it carefully in their hands like it’s a sacred text; in Nicolas Poussin’s versions they stumble across a tomb inscribed with the words Et in Arcadia Ego. The sudden deterioration of Eve’s dogs did for me what I imagine the skull and the ominous epitaphs must have for carefree rustics. Lily’s absence was a sobering memento mori, proof that even in Sompaddu things fell apart, that we would not be able to resist entropy and decay forever. It was as if I were reading the inscription for the first time. I am even in Arcadia, it says, and you will not escape me, not even here. Though this was something I should have already seen, the truth was, I hadn’t.
* * *
About a week after we started eating with the blinds closed I found a large wooden sign while was cleaning out an old work shed. On it I saw the familiar name Sompaddu, but was a little surprised to see the word written out as a series of capital letters followed by a period. That evening after dinner I asked grandpa about the sign. I was surprised when he told me that Sompaddu was an acronym, not a proper name, it had never occurred to me that Sompaddu might be more a whimsical word that seemed vaguely reminiscent of wet hair (perhaps it sounded like soggy ‘do to me?). It had always just been the name of Grandpa’s house, a good name, the name of the place we traveled to every year for family reunions and bocce ball tournaments, a name that rhymed only with safe, sturdy, beautiful things, things like allen screw, buckaroo, BYU, cheese fondue, cobalt blue, dancing shoe, drive on through, field of view, look up to, lucky you, even tried and true.
Actually, grandpa told me, the name had originally been meant to stand for Sarah Owens Mortensen’s Place At Dimple Dell, Utah, but Sarah Owens Mortensen died before she could see the blackberries bear fruit or taste the almost wild pears in the sprawling orchards JD had planted. She was forty nine years old, with nine children and an inoperable brain tumor. JD married Eve a few years afterwards but kept the name Sompaddu intact, tweaking the acronym so that by the time the house and gardens were finished the name meant Still Our Mortensen Place At Dimple Dell, Utah. Rather than the Arcadia I had imagined it to be as a child, Sompaddu was itself a memorial space. After grandpa lifted the scales from my eyes, S.O.M.P.A.D.D.U. acquired a host of new echoes, ranging from the vaguely haunting to the downright ominous: déjà vu, lay waste to, misconstrue, out of view, subject to…, and, worst of all, who are you?
* * *
Not long after Lily died, JD bought Eve a replacement. Her proper name was Blue Orchid, but Eve just called her Orky. Orky was comically undisciplined, so much so that my household duties frequently came to include sponging up puddles of urine and scraping tiny piles of dog excrement out of their ancient carpet. Orky’s lack of discipline was not particularly surprising, since Eve doted shamelessly on her poodles, spoiling them with such extravagance that I was frequently both repulsed and jealous. She would make—from scratch—waffles, delicious, mouth-watering blueberry waffles, drench them in butter and the finest Canadian syrups and cut them into poodle-sized pieces. Then she’d call the dogs in a piercing warble: ORRR-KEEE!! MAAH-GEEE!!
That was all they needed. The dogs would trot in with that gait, peculiar to poodles, that connotes both luxury and consciousness of great privilege. To my astonishment, Eve would take them into her lap, one after the other, and feed them with her fingers until the waffles were gone. Some grandkids coming over for a late breakfast? That’s why the freezer’s packed with Eggos.
Despite Eve’s benevolence, Orky was an ingrate. For one thing, unlike her predecessors, she didn’t follow Eve around everywhere. Instead, Orky spent most days curled up on the living room floor next to Maggie, who lay motionless, sleeping off her pain, trying to conserve energy, laboring to make it to the next batch of waffles. This meant that Eve was left to herself in her wanderings, which meant she could move through the house unannounced, which meant she could surprise people, which meant she could become lost. And if she got lost, how could you find her without her poodles? How could you even recognize her?
* * *
It’s hard to admit, but I didn’t completely mind Eve’s dementia. In some ways, it made her nicer to be around. If I’ve even known anyone who would have loved feudalism, it was Eve. She was the perfect lady of the manor: prickly, harsh, mercurial, and capricious, but not without a certain dignity, an insistent pretension to grace and refinement. Whenever our family visited Sompaddu, I tried to spend as much as time as possible outdoors, the place where Grandpa ruled, for no other reason than to avoid risking Eve’s displeasure. As I grew older, I realized I was not alone in this. Grandpa had married Eve when my mother was thirteen years old, just two years after Sarah’s death. The attempt to replace a natural mother is certainly enough to jaundice many children against their stepmothers, but Eve’s personality did little to increase her popularity with her stepchildren, or anyone else. Nearly everyone tried to avoid Eve and seemed not to like her, except for my sister Sarah (her favorite grandchild) and somehow, grandpa. By the time I came to live with them, I was old enough that I no longer feared her as I once had, but she remained for me the kind of adult who is to be respected but not loved. Only now, with something robbing her of her mind (literally de-menting her), Eve’s personality was changing. She was becoming jubilant, childlike, even delightful.
I imagined what I saw was the young Eve Tanner, daughter of Margaret Harriet “Hattie” Douglas and Valison “Val” Tanner Jr., the girl who was born into a family of ranchers during the depression they survived mainly because they owned the land they lived on outright, the girl who used to love keeping an eye out for strays as she made the afternoon rounds with daddy. I imagined I was seeing my grandma made young again, turned back into a wild-eyed country child who loved the smell of her daddy’s famous sourdough biscuits, who hated moving off the ranch so the cattle could winter. For the first time, I was seeing the girl everybody called “Jeeps” for reasons long forgotten, the girl who spent the snowy months dreaming of sago lilies, Indian paintbrushes, and wild chokecherries, who used to do all the modern things the old-fashioned way, without electricity or machinery, without air-conditioning or much comfort. I imagined her walking up to the two lone cedar trees that grew on the hillside above the ranch house, secretly wearing her mother’s satin-collar dress and pretending she was an elegant lady, preserving the illusion until one of the pigs she kept snuck through the fence and into the plowed and planted field, forcing her to chase after him in her unsteady heels, the long green-crepe train flowing after her. I saw my grandmother before she married Bob Davis, before he was drafted and sent to Korea, before he decided to stay in the service after the armistice, before they transferred him to Florida, Texas, New York, Germany, Thailand, before they flew him into combat in the skies over Vietnam, before he grew friendly with drink and women, before he told her that he was through being her husband, before she moved to Salt Lake City, almost forty, with a teenage daughter and no employable skills, before she found a job and place to live, before secretary school, before she met JD, before they married, before, before, before.
* * *
Eve survived my two year mission, even survived JD’s death in 2005. The last time I saw her she hadn’t had a lucid episode for several years and was sharing a room in a nursing home in Ogden, Utah. The nurses there tell me she’s pretty much helpless, that she does almost nothing on her own, too polite to say that she shits herself. They don’t need to say much; everything there, sheets, clothing, bodies—all reek of urine or worse.
When I enter the room, the first thing I do is take one of the large Q-tips they keep on a table beside her bed and dip it into a glass of water. I rub it over her lips, trying to keep them moist, trying to stop them from cracking and bleeding. I do this because I don’t know what else to do, because it hurts to see her lips cracked and parted, incapable of telling me what else to do. She is lost in an unshakeable silence, deserted by speech. She cannot say where it hurts, where she wants to be scratched, where she is right now. I speak her name, try to explain who I am and how she used to know me. Her skin shines everywhere with an unnatural light, most disturbingly so in her cheeks, which hang loosely from a face that hollowed out, distressingly fragile. She trembles constantly, almost imperceptibly, her eyes fixed on the facing wall, dancing without really moving.
When I lean over her body to kiss her on the forehead, her eyes struggle up to meet my face. Unbidden, my eyes fill with water. Even after I withdraw, her gaze remains directed at the same place, as if I am only a ghost, as if I hadn’t even bothered to come. I think of Rilke: “once near death, one can’t see death anymore / and stares out, maybe with the wide eyes of animals.” I wonder what it is that Eve stares out from, try to meet and follow her wide animal gaze. Two images adorn the wall her bed points toward. One is a painting of her childhood home, a tiny woodframe shack in a two-horse ranching community in the desert wastes just outside of Grouse Creek, Utah. In the bottom corner her name has been painted, so steady, bold, and sure that it cannot have been done by the hand of this woman who shakes and shakes and doesn’t stop.
Beside it hangs a photograph. There is much to see: JD’s solid face, the corners of his mouth upturned just slightly, a stoic but gentle gesture, Eve smiling with righteous contentment. I look at these two faces, faces I remember but don’t truly recognize. The images blur so completely that nothing can be seen clearly anymore. I turn away. Blink furiously. Breathe. I murmur some quiet promise in her ear, then retreat slowly from the room, walking backwards.
At last glance, her gaze had not shifted.
Steel Wagstaff is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where he works as the Assistant Director of the English 100 program. He is also a poet and an instructor in a poetry course offered by the Writers in Prisons Project. Eve Tanner Mortensen, the central protagonist in “Hollowing the Stalks,” died in May 2009, after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for almost a decade.