by William Michaelian
Poppy is my crazy, wonderful grandmother. Her hair is wispy-white, and there is almost always something in it — pine needles, vegetable trimmings, herbs, spices — it depends on what she’s doing. Some mornings when she gathers eggs, she comes back to the house with chicken feathers in her hair. And yet, even at her age, she is a very clean person. Under no circumstance will she allow people to sit at her table unless they have first washed their hands. Even the president of the United States and his noble bodyguards would be shown the bathroom and told to use plenty of soap. All the while, there might be chicken feathers in her hair, or balls of lint from cleaning out behind her ancient television set — the one that hasn’t worked for thirty years, but that she keeps because it’s such a good place to show off her pictures.
Poppy’s husband, my grandfather Carl, died in 1963. According to Poppy, he was tired of everything and just gave up. According to my dad, he was tired of Poppy. According to my mom, Poppy was tired of him. Anyway, he died — but only after taking a long nap in his chair by their big woodstove. So he had a nice head start. I was just a kid at the time, but Mom and Dad said Carl looked great in his chair, really peaceful. Poppy let him sit there quite awhile before telling anyone he’d fallen asleep permanently. Only after she combed his hair, washed his face, rearranged his hands, and finished washing the supper dishes did she call Dad with the news. “Your father is dead,” she told him calmly on the phone. “Could you come over?”
For me, Carl’s death was a sad thing. He and Poppy lived across the road, and I’d grown used to seeing him putter around in their dirt driveway and yard. He smoked a big curly pipe, and always looked like he didn’t quite know what to do next. He also carried a shovel a lot, to lean on when a neighbor stopped by to talk, or to get rid of a stray weed when the mood struck. Luckily, there were two walnut trees that shaded the area between the house and barn, or he would have roasted in the gruesome San Joaquin Valley heat.
Born in 1886, Carl was more than twice Poppy’s age when he married her in 1919. When he died at the age of seventy-seven, Poppy was well on her way to being the eccentric lady she is today. The fact is, she was a forty-eight-year-old loon. But she had an incredible way with kids and animals, who would gather in her yard from miles around to be fed and nurtured, and, I suspect, to receive the attention they were not quite getting enough of at home. Birds landed on her shoulder and ate from her hand. Dogs followed her everywhere, never once threatening her chickens, which ran loose, or her various litters of kittens.
The next ten years saw a significant change in Poppy’s appearance. She let her hair go and her face became lined. Her pale blue eyes shone brighter, making her look as if she knew much more than she was telling. By the time she was sixty, she was essentially ageless — the kind of woman you would expect to find wandering about in an old world cemetery, acting as a bridge between the bereaved and their dearly departed.
When I graduated from high school, Poppy attended the ceremony with my parents and my younger sister, Beth. At the time, Beth, a sophomore, adored a boy who played drums in the school band. Before taking their seats in the auditorium, Poppy insisted on meeting Beth’s sweetheart, whose name was Glen. To Beth’s great relief, they got along very well. A few minutes later, though, after they’d been seated, Poppy fell into a deep silence. When my mother asked her if anything was wrong, she refused to answer, pretending instead to study the printed program in her lap. A few days later, Glen was killed in a terrible car accident.
Like sisters, Poppy and Beth wept together at the boy’s funeral. This helped Beth a great deal. While many of her friends and Glen’s friends were there, fear had made a shell of their grief. Thanks to Poppy’s soothing presence, Beth was able to give herself completely to the tragedy, and was thereby cleansed. A year later she fell in love with another boy, and is happily married to him still.
If Poppy was clairvoyant — and over the years there have been many instances to bear this out — she was, and still is, equally frustrated by what she sees as her inability to make the world a better place. I think this is one reason she refuses to die. On the one hand, her century of life on this earth has taught her that people are in no rush to do away with war, hunger, and the rest of society’s ills; on the other hand, seeing things as clearly and intimately as she does, there must be times when the possibility seems a whisper away. In my own bumbling through life, I often feel that way myself.
The two of us really do understand each other, though I know I’ve made many more mistakes than Poppy. If I haven’t, then they have certainly been more obvious. My divorce made sense to her; my failed business ventures amuse her; my ability to get along with my two sons makes her proud; my willingness to speak openly with her about my problems flatters her, and lets her know she is still needed. And she is still needed. I need her. The world needs her. It might not know it, but it does.
The other evening, I stopped by Poppy’s for a visit, and we were poking around in her barn. When I pointed out for the hundredth time that part of the roof was missing, she laughed and said, “Like mine, dear boy, like mine.” A moment later, we heard the fluttering of wings. Pigeons, coming home to roost. The place was like a cathedral, only better. Instead of incense, we inhaled microscopic particles of life itself.
After dark, we sat at her table and broke open the pomegranate we’d picked from the tree in her yard. Before tasting them, she arranged a few of the seeds on her plate for careful study. “No two things in this world are exactly alike,” she said. It sounded like a warning. Her age-spotted hands, her crooked fingers, moved without trembling. Her ancient blue eyes were ablaze. “It is a miracle,” she went on, “that I can still see.” She listened intently for a moment, then suddenly looked up at me. “Why didn’t you tell me about her?” she said. “Shame on you.”
“Michael, don’t play games.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m not sure yet, that’s all.”
“I see. Why don’t you bring her by, so we can talk?”
“Okay, I will. Soon. In a few days, maybe.”
Poppy smiled. “Ah. In a few days. In a few days, I may be gone.”
“Sure,” I said. “You always say that.”
“Someday, though, it will be true.”
“I know, Poppy. I know. But not yet.”
Seed by seed, we ate the pomegranate. By the time we were done, I’d told my grandmother all about the young woman I’ve been seeing. She was keenly interested. Of course nothing I said surprised her — and really, there is nothing surprising or unusual about the situation, except, perhaps, that the two of us met in the first place, and that we get along so well. And, as usually happens when talking to Poppy, I learned a lot from listening to myself. In this case, I learned that I love Karen and that I want her to be my wife. I found this a little scary — something Poppy recognized immediately and commented on. Then she told me something I know I will never forget. Rubbing her pomegranate-stained fingers over mine, she said, “Michael, the first step has already been taken. Now you must go ahead and live.”
Poppy smiled, then started to laugh. Just as quickly, her expression changed, and she became serious. My heart sank. “Poppy,” I said. “What is it?”
She didn’t answer. After waiting for what seemed like forever, she said, “Nothing. Everything. I know too much, that’s all.”
“Is it something bad?”
“No. Not at all.”
“What is it, then?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy,” she said. “But I can’t help it. It’s true. You are going to have a son.”
“What? Are you sure?”
Poppy closed her eyes. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I can see him. I can see him walking. He is coming from a great distance to find you. He wants to find his father. He wants to know you. The desire in him is strong. He will not fail.” Poppy opened her eyes and looked at me. “And neither will you,” she said.
That night, even though it was getting late, I went to see Karen. When I told her about my conversation with Poppy, she said it sounded like a dream.
“My grandmother is a dream,” I said. “She is also more real than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Karen said, “I would like you to know me that way. And for me to know you.”
I took Karen to Poppy’s house the very next day. We found Poppy in the barn, feeding a stray cat. The light coming through the hole in the roof shone on her thin white hair, which we soon discovered was full of spider webs.
“You’re here,” Poppy said. And her smile was a blessing.
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.