The Blue Bandanna
Scented by the cedar lining of my dresser drawer, the envelope is fragile now with age, tearing if I hurry it to open. Open it I do though, when I want to remember him, to reawaken days I spent with him so long ago. Inside, the blue bandanna that he wore, faded now, so ragged with use and time that when I hold it to the window of my room, it lets me clearly see my today world through its thin threads.
I pull the bandanna out and read the note my mother pinned on it the day he died: “For Sue Ann. From her grandfather, Jerome Franklin Keating, 1871-1948”. A worn out bandanna, not much to evidence a person’s life, but as I hold it in my hands a flood of Grandpa memories races over me.
They say he was a handsome man, more than six feet tall, well muscled from a lifetime working hard. A farmer for over forty years, he plowed deeply behind his tall Missouri mules, making green the red Oklahoma dirt he loved. His thick hair, silvered by the time I knew him, was, in youth, that kind of black and wavy mass that made girls swoon.
He voice was beautiful, deep, rich, and resonant. It brought tears to eyes when he sang “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen” or other ballads of another country left far behind. More often than not, though, Grandpa used his beautiful voice to curse his team of mules. He possessed a fine cussing vocabulary, and used it frequently, with great proficiency to man and beast alike.
His eyes were an intense gray. One minute, my mother told me, Grandpa would allow someone to see into his very soul, and the next moment he would flatten those gray eyes, excluding everyone as if he had turned to stone. He had a way of looking through people, reading their minds and foretelling their futures, which made them uneasy in his presence.
Whenever I touch the blue bandanna, hold it as I am now, I can smell his sweat, see his unlaced boots stained forever red by the dirt he plowed. I can feel the power in his arms as he swings his axe to split an oak log into kindling for the wood stove or uses them to hug me close. I can hear him sing to me once more and feel his warm breath as he whispers secrets in my ear.
My mother told me about the first time Grandpa saw me. He was almost seventy and I was five days old. She and my father had driven to the farm a mile outside Luther in their blue ’36 Ford coupe. As they turned into the lane, they could see Grandpa standing at the end of the drive balancing a long handled shovel in one hand, and making a tight fist with the other. My parents both knew he had not been pleased when my mother married and after two years, he still refused to accept my father as a son. Now he was a grandfather. My parents were anxious. How would he act toward me?
When the car stopped, Grandpa leaned the shovel against the door blocking it shut. Without saying a word, he reached through the window, took me from my mother’s arms, and strode off with me toward the barn. My parents stayed near the car talking with Grandma. Ten minutes passed. Twenty minutes. Still he did not return. Worry overcame my mother and she and Grandma began searching for us. We were not in the milking shed nor the barn. The old wagon was empty as was the stable beyond. Finally, they heard Grandpa’s voice coming from under the corncrib.
They got down on their knees and saw him at the far end sitting on a tree stump. I was in his lap with my head on his knees. One of his big, rough hands clutched my tiny arms, and the other was waving his blue bandanna, shooing flies. He was singing to me, my mother said, and I was looking up at him with wide eyes as if I could understand his every word. With tears welling in her eyes, she and Grandma backed quickly away lest we be disturbed.
More than an hour passed before Grandpa returned to the farmhouse with me. He came in quietly though the kitchen door and handed me, asleep, to my mother. He left without saying one word to anyone. Grandma later said he did not come back until she called him to supper that evening.
I unfold the bandanna and carefully smooth it with my hands. It is too old to wash or iron, really too old to unfold, but I can feel his presence better with it spread over my lap.
t is the summer of my fourth year. I am standing beside him watching the sweat run down his face as he unharnesses the mules. We have been cultivating corn today and we share a big secret that I must not tell my mother. She will be angry with us if she learns I have ridden on the cultivator. She thinks it is too dangerous for me to go near the machinery. Grandpa and I both know her fears, and honor our pledge of secrecy to one another.
I remember Grandpa asked me at breakfast if I was old enough to go with him into the field. I may carry the water bottle and take it to him when he wants a drink. I must mind him, and not wander away from the shade of the scrub oak where he puts me. I assured him I was old enough to go and promised to mind him well.
I run to the kitchen washstand where Grandma keeps his gallon water jug. I fill it with the dipper from the water bucket hardly spilling any on the floor. I know that every drop of water is precious because it must be carried a long way to the house from the well near the garden down below. Behind me I can hear Grandpa promising my mother that he will not allow me to go into the cornfield alone, nor will he let me go anywhere near the woods. My heart leaps as I hear my mother agree to let me go. “But only until noon,” Grandma cautions him.
How I carried that big, heavy glass jar down to the edge of the cornfield I cannot remember, but I do remember sitting on it while I wait for Grandpa to harness the mules. When he is ready, he tells me to follow him along the edge of the field where he can see me. I obey without a sound.
As soon as we are out of sight of the house, he stops the team and climbs down. He fumbles under his seat for a moment and then, as if by magic, a second seat appears behind his own. He pulls an oak slat out of the toolbox and bolts it onto the cultivator to support the new seat. He tells me to climb up in it, to try it on for size. We both agree it fits well.
Grandpa tells me this seat is a secret just between us. We must never tell anyone about it and, most importantly, we can never use it when we are in sight of the house. He stashes the water bottle in the deep shade of a scrub oak thicket where it will stay cool, and then climbs up onto the cultivator in front of me. He clucks his tongue at the mules and we are off.
All morning long I ride behind his muscled back on that cultivator, up one row and down another. I remember to this very day how unreal the world appeared from my high perch. The deep green corn blades swishing along the sweating sides of the mules and then slapping into the rust red steel of the cultivator sound different from way up here. I am now tall enough to reach out and touch the tassels, and smell their sweet odor without being lifted. I can see the hairs growing underneath each leaf. They feel like Saturday evening whiskers. I look down on the backs of bees crawling over corn silks gathering pollen on their legs.
Several times Grandpa stops the team and asks me to bring him the water bottle. He drinks long, then smiles at me and winks as he tips the bottle for me. Next he wets the blue bandanna and mops his dirt-streaked face. He turns it over and gently wipes my face with the damp rag. It feels cool on my hot skin. He tells me I am so dirty he will dunk me headfirst in the creek as soon as we get to the end of the row. We laugh. I am not afraid.
All too soon dinnertime comes and we return to the house just as we left that morning–me walking and carrying the water bottle, he riding the cultivator with only one seat. (Could my mother really have been that blind?)
I remember sitting in his lap that evening in the front yard. Together we count fireflies in the lilac bush and listen to the whip-poor-wills call from the edge of the woods. He swats mosquitoes with his blue bandanna as he hugs me very close. He whispers in my ear to remind me of the very special secret we shared today.
I asked my mother once why Grandpa didn’t leave me something better than this threadbare blue bandanna when he died, maybe something like the beautiful paperweight of ore samples he collected when he was a young miner in Silverton.
That went to my sister. My mother told me that there were memories for me in every thread of that old piece of cloth. She said I was richer by far than my sister who had been too young to truly know or remember him. I found fault with the holes and tears in it, but she told me my love could mend those broken threads.
A worn out bandanna, not much to evidence a person’s life, but, when I hold it in my hands, I am flooded with thoughts of Grandpa just as my mother told me I would be. I gently fold it along its familiar creases and return it to the envelope. I place it in the bottom of my dresser drawer under the jewelry box where, within its thin blue folds, my memories will remain safe until I take them out another day.
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