By Steve Carr
When I was just a small boy and sitting on my grandmother’s knee, she told me this story so often of when she was a young girl, that I sometimes forget it was an incident in her life, and not mine.
Grandma was born on a farm in upstate New York in 1918. As was commonplace in rural areas in those days, her mother gave birth to her at home. My grandmother was preceded in birth by four brothers. Her brothers had entered their teen years already, with the oldest nearing sixteen. The two oldest brothers had helped my great grandfather build the large two-story farmhouse they all lived in, using lumber they milled themselves, cut from the trees that grew on the farm. The one photo of it that still exists sits on my fireplace mantle, in a gold frame. It was a foreboding structure, with little adornment or flourish, but the front porch has a welcoming appearance.
The house was built on what was primarily a maple sugar farm, where large groves of maple trees surrounded fields of barley and hay. Her father and brothers farmed the land, cut the barley and hay at the end of growing season, hauled it to market, and then waited until February before tapping the maple trees to drain them of the family’s main source of income, the sap from the trees.
When my grandmother was six her younger sister was born. The newborn girl and Grandma shared a bedroom on the second floor.
“At that bedroom window I sat for hours on end, rocking, holding, or playing with my younger sister while staring out at the fields and trees, watching my father and brothers riding off in the wagons to tend the fields or tap the trees first thing each morning and coming back just before sunset every day except Sunday, when no one worked,” Grandma told me.
Grandma was sent to a one room schoolhouse on the outskirts of Potsdam, but only on the days she could be spared from helping around the house or caring for her younger sister.
“My mother taught me how to read and more than I ever learned in school,” Grandma said. “She taught me music and how to play the piano on the upright piano that sat in the living room. It was a family heirloom, given to her by her mother, who she adored.”
This next part, is the part of my Grandma’s story that she always told with me clutching onto her wrinkled hand, holding my breath in anticipation, as if I was hearing it for the first time each time she told it.
“It was February and only a few weeks into the time to tap the trees. A thin layer of snow still lay on the cleared fields. I was sitting at the window with my little sister in my lap. She had just turned three and had gotten a new doll for Christmas and was rocking it as gently as a real baby. It was still early in the morning and I had watched my father and brothers ride into the maple tree groves a little while earlier, all in a single wagon, with my oldest brother handling the horses. My dad was in the seat next to him. Everything that happened next seemed like it took hours but it began and ended in less than a half hour. I heard my mother from the first floor scream ‘fire,’ and then I smelt the smoke. She rushed up the stairs, threw open the door, and told me to get my sister out of the house, that the kitchen had caught fire. She threw a blanket around us just before I carried my sister and her doll down the stairs and out of the house. We reached the porch in time for me to look out across the field and see the wagon carrying my father and brothers burst out of from the trees and rush across the field headed toward the house, the horses hooves kicking up clouds of dirt as my brother whipped their backs like I had never seen him do.”
In the next part of Grandma’s story I sat as stiffly as board, my spine kept rigid with fear.
“I stood on the porch and watched clothes and bedding rain down from the second floor as my mother tossed them from the second floor windows. The team of horses was brought to an abrupt stop a few yards in front of the porch, with my father and brothers jumping from it, running up the steps and dashing into the house. They carried out anything they could that wasn’t already on fire, tossing chairs, small tables, paintings, and rugs onto the lawn, then turning and going back in to retrieve things until they attempted to push my mother’s piano through the door. For some unexplained reason it got stuck there, unable to be dislodged from the door frame. My father and oldest brothers climbed over its top, grabbed me and my sister and stood as a group watching the house burn, until we realized there was one person missing, my mother.”
I was spellbound, my mouth agape, eyes bulging, at this point.
“We all looked up and saw her at a window. My father and brothers grabbed a blanket, stretched it out to a safety net, and screamed for my mother to jump. It didn’t really take much encouragement for her to do so. She landed in the middle and almost overcome from inhaling smoke was quickly whisked away from the fire to the wagon and placed in the back. From the wagon we watched the house burn, with my mother’s piano being the last thing to be consumed by flames.”
Although my grandma passed away a few years ago, in moments of quiet, I still think of her and her story as if she is whispering it into my ear.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 550 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
One thought on “On Grandma’s Knee”
Good story, evocative of olden times, Steve. I really liked this story and happy at its ending.