Grape Arbors, Gray Hair, and Grandma

c. EE
c. EE

There was a grape arbor on the property where we lived in Sweet Home, Oregon. It was an arched structure that grew heavy with grapes each year, and was a haven for kids playing hide-and-seek, as long as the bees weren’t disturbed. I don’t know how many times I was stung! But, no matter how much I feared those bees, I wanted the sweet grapes, and they just weren’t reachable on the outside of the arbor. Inside, plump bunches hung from overhanging vines, easy pickings for a six-year-old.

Thirty years, many houses, and several states later, I still want a grape arbor in the back yard. They show up in my stories until they’ve become a recurring motif; I’ve cut them out, except for one or two instances where they fit the story too perfectly to be moved.

This covered walkway (pictured here, early November 2007) is at Little Portion Hermitage, and features not only grape vines but honeysuckle and other viney plants. Even in autumn, when leaves and blooms are gone, beauty remains in twining stalks and graceful braided limbs that still provide shelter from the sun, filtering its light, softening sharp edges, muting harsh colors.

Too often in Western culture, specifically American culture, our elders are accorded little respect, as if their usefulness and beauty are gone now that autumn has come. In winter, their strength latent, stark and snow-covered, how many elders are sought for their wisdom, for their stories of yesterday? For their advice about tomorrow?

My paternal grandmother was not an educated woman, in the sense that she had only elementary schooling. That didn’t stop her from writing. She wrote letters to whoever would correspond with her, and from Oregon she wrote articles for a newspaper back in Arkansas (now gone, burned decades ago, along with its archives). She also wrote her memoirs, which disappeared after her death, taken by a family member who either lost them or destroyed them; the family has never been quite sure. But it is, after all, a colorful and imperfect family, and who knows what secrets Grandma revealed in that stack of paper?

I have every letter she ever wrote to me (or pretty near every letter), stored in a box in the office closet. Sometimes I bring them out and read a couple at random. Some of them have a note from Grandpa in his own handwriting–he was never much of a talker, much less a writer–but most of the comments from him are in Grandma’s scrawl, her record of his dictation.

Far from perfect, possessing their share of mistakes and human follies, my grandparents still had wisdom to share. They prayed nightly for every child, grandchild, great-grandchild, and who-knows-who, calling them by name. I know, because I would lie in bed or on a pallet on the floor and listen for my name.

They encouraged my writing, listening to me read it aloud even when there were other things that needed doing, or when there were grownups around who wanted to talk to them. I have no children, but my oldest niece is fourteen, and she is a writer. Where I used to work, I helped schoolchildren learn to write poems, essays, stories. As my hair grows grayer, and age becomes yearly more apparent, I am more relaxed about appearance but more aware of passing time, of all the things I’ve left unwritten.

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