It is strange how things can find their own associations when one stirs up the memories that have settled into that dark and leafy pond floor of the brain. I woke up this morning thinking of two things that clearly don't belong together, but I guess when things get stirred up, the chaos that it creates deposits the crusty wet bottom contents in a fresh new way. However, since they have been buried for such a long time, they are dark and wet and putrid.
It was a fresh spring day. The sun had taken hold for several days, and the air was warm and fresh and clean. Birds were busy gathering sticks and twigs to build their nests. Neighbors were out with lawnmowers cutting the first wet green blades of the year. Younger kids were out flying kites in the warm spring breeze. I was headed for the creek.
The walk through the woods was completely unbelievable. There was a newness of life all around that exploded forth with a force that was unstoppable. Two days prior had been winter, with its dead brown, dreary and cold grasp. Today was summer, with t-shirts and shorts, bicycles, nets and buckets. I was headed for the creek for the first wade of the season. Green was everywhere, the air smelled sweet like a spring rainfall. The water was clear and fast. I surveyed the creek from the bank, looking for the perfect place to take my baptism in the fresh glorious, holy waters. The first minnows I saw were slow and dopey. They swam against the current in the clear water, holding their position in the eddies that were created by the larger rocks. This was the place! I stepped in and felt cold nails in my ankles. It was painful and exhilarating! I knew it would be cold, but the water was like ice. I felt the blood retreat from my lower extremities. I didn't care. I had rocks to turn over and couldn't wait any longer for the water to warm up. I reached into the creek and began my quest. Turning rocks, I noticed the slowness of the crawdads who would normally burst backwards in retreat. Once uncovered, the best they could do was crawl away slowly and stiffly. Winter had not yet released its icy grip on their near lifeless bodies. I would catch them with my bare hands, pull them out of the water, and hold them behind the pinchers as they half-heartedly flapped their wet tail in protest. I studied the small, skeletal legs, the segmented body and the dark alien eyes. I then released them back to the icy flow. I was wandering around with my eyes on the rock bed below when I saw it. The best flat rock ever. There just had to be life under it....had to be. It was perfect! It rested slightly ajar with smaller rocks lifting it up, creating a nice safe hollow underneath. A perfect home or hiding place. I reached in and rolled the rock downstream so as not to muddy my vision of the hiding place underneath. What I saw was completely unexpected. There underneath the flat stone was a wrinkled yellowish green object. It was the size of my small hand, and tightly balled in the recess the flat stone created. It was a frog, and it was a big one! I don't remember ever seeing a frog this early in the season, but have since learned that they come out to mate and deposit eggs far earlier than I would have ever believed. I reached down and grabbed it, for fear that it would bolt away like the strong summer swimmers always seemed to. It just lay there. It made no attempt to escape. I lifted my trophy from the cold stream floor and it filled my hand. Something was wrong, though. Frogs always kick and squirm and make every effort to leave until you are able to pin their hind legs in your fist. This one didn't. It was cold and lifeless. Its skin was pale and transparent. It had the look of a toe that has been held in a bathtub much too long. It was wrinkled and and it was pale and it was stupid. It was dead, it just had to be dead. As I held it, the lifeless frog slowly rolled its frosted eye membrane and looked at me with a dark, oily orb. Unable to move, it was completely at my mercy. Repulsed and confused at what I had caught, I quickly returned it to the spot I had taken it from, replaced the rock and went home, cold and confused in the warm glorious green.
The memory of the frog has taken me to a very different place. But it was also strange and cold and lifeless. I have tried and tried to remember the name, but in the end it doesn't really matter. The name is still buried deep in the dark leafy hole, and there it can stay. It was neither a hospital nor a rest home. It was the sanitarium that housed my Great-Grandmother Hood.
The home was like the mansions or plantations of the deep south. There was a curved driveway off of the state highway, designed specifically for a quick entrance and a quick exit, whether it be from a visitor or an ambulance. or a hearse. There were large , mature trees in the courtyard, the only elderly residents that still had life left in them. A large stairway welcomed visitors onto the full length, wooden front porch, while keeping the frail residents prisoner. And inside the home was death and decay, moans and coughs, antiseptic and urine. Our visits to Grandma Hood were like death sentences to me and my brothers.
We would leave church in our Sunday clothes, slicked hair, and uncomfortable shoes, ready to shed the weekly straight jackets that the church demanded us to wear. Headed home to freedom, one wrong turn would herald the seasonal visit. It was never announced to us kids for fear we would have time to plan an escape. It just happened. One minute, relieved that church was over and the last hours of freedom before Monday and school had begun, and the next sitting in the backseat fearing what was coming, knowing there was no escape.
I never knew my father's mother's mother. I am sure that at one point in her long life she was a vibrant, lovable lady. But to me she was creepy and thin and full of disease. She sat in a wheelchair, hunched over with her cold pale hands in her lap. Her skin was transparent and wrinkled like the frog I had pulled from the cold stream. But the frog had hope. The frog was in hibernation, patiently awaiting the life that the warm waters of summer would bring. This particular flat rock that some dark, educated administrator had hollowed out a space beneath to call a home had no hope. None of its resident had hope. They were here to die in their wheelchairs and beds and their own urine. To me, our visits were painful. They were excruciatingly long as the smell of death soaked into my Sunday best. I always stood at a distance as my mother would softly speak to her, observing the other residents in their wheelchairs, straining my eyes from the glare of the large front windows of this stately mansion of death. There was sickly green linoleum and stainless steel everywhere . The cavernous front entry echoed of clinking and clanking, coughing, moaning, spewing and dying.
And there she sat. Unable to move in the chair that was her universe, she sat in the entry hall where some unknown orderly had abandoned her as her room was decontaminated. There she sat. Hunched over, wrinkled and transparent. There she sat. Waiting for some signal from nature, some clue as to what was yet to come. There she sat. Waiting for a change just as the frog in the cold spring stream waited. There she sat, her frosted membranous eyes staring at mine.
There she sat.
And then, as some unknown clock chimed twelve, only heard by my mother as the indication that our duty had been fulfilled, I was asked to take her thin lifeless, wrinkled, transparent hand in mine, and kiss the cold waxy cheek of awaiting death before we could leave.