Sundays at the farm were all about fighting a sea of bodies to the bathroom, followed by farmhouse OJ, Rose’s famous breakfast, and a hearty debate over which church we would all attend that morning. Mater Dolorosa or St. Patrick’s? It would boil down to which church had the shorter service and, of course, the better donut shop nearby.
The rule was that everyone had to go to church, whether you were family, friend, or summer fling. No exception. We learned this fast by the look on Penny’s face when Lisa’s boyfriend at the time declared, “I don’t do church.” Needless to say, from that moment on, he “did church” at the farm.
Like any other Sunday, I awoke to the smell of bacon frying on the skillet and the disappointing sound of bath water splashing about and growing cold. Once again, someone had beaten me to the bathroom. If there was anything I hated about the farm, this was it—one bathroom for twenty-some people? Insanity.
Ding! I rang the bell outside the bathroom door. THE BELL. This was a lifesaver, a sign of urgency without having to holler your digestive dilemma for the whole house to hear. Ringing once was a warning, twice an imminent fear, and three times? A complete and utter cry for mercy. When the person behind the bath curtain refused to relent, you would be forced to sit there on the toilet, a mere arm’s length away, and pray that all went smoothly. There was no greater intimacy between family members than this.
Needless to say, we were all in a rush to get out the door that morning. If Penny’s number one rule was that everyone goes to church, being on time for church was a close second. We piled into two station wagons and Uncle Roy’s truck and off we went, kicking up clouds of dust in our wake.
Do I remember the church service that morning? Not really. With all my cousins shifting in the pew beside me, the priest could barely finish a sentence without someone whispering “Shush” or “Sit still”. But I pretended to follow along as daydreams of chocolate glazed donuts and motorcycle rides danced in my head.
My grandmother, Rose, was always the first one back into the house, and she had a skillet on the stove top by the time the last station wagon pulled in. We grandkids would stay in the bed of Uncle Roy’s truck to finish our donuts before turning the front porch into a battleship or a schoolhouse or my personal favorite, a Wild West saloon full of gun-wielding cowboys...though, if we had been allowed anywhere near the pond without adult supervision, I can promise you I’d have been down to my Hanes before that last donut box was empty.
You see, if Penny’s first rule was that everyone goes to church on a Sunday, and his second that everyone be on time for church, his third rule was that no child goes near the pond without an adult. With this rule, Rose was able to steal glances of her grandkids as she cooked up lunch from the front row of her kitchen window.
But on this particular Sunday, the afternoon routine shifted in a single glance. Call it Divine Intervention or a grandmother’s intuition, but Rose’s eye caught a slice of the summer sun beyond where her grandkids played and then what looked like a floating clump of hair atop the glassy pond.
“Penny!” Rose shouted, running to the front porch, “The pond!”
Penny looked up from his game of pinochle and something unspoken passed between them, like currents of electricity across a wild lawn. Rose’s voice was Penny's gunshot and without explanation, he sprinted toward the pond. I had never seen him run so fast.
He dove with a splash and we watched with bated breath as he pulled Elaine from the water, her hair hanging like seaweed from his arms and a thick sole of tar-like muck at his feet. Was she breathing? We couldn’t see for sure, no matter how finely we squinted through the summer haze. Rose had detained us to the porch and boy, my feet never felt so heavy.
Penny laid her down on the dock and began pumping at her chest. I must’ve let a gentle gasp escape my lips because my dad placed his hand on my shoulder and told me not to worry, that Penny was giving her CPR, and Elaine would be sitting upright any second now. One second turned to two, two turned to five, and it felt more like hours as we struggled for air right along with her.
But then it happened.
Pond water shot from her mouth like a small fountain and she snapped upright, wide-eyed and coughing. We cheered as Penny carried her to the front porch, both of them soaking wet and exhausted.
Apparently, Elaine had been tempted by a bullfrog as she stepped out of the station wagon that afternoon, and it lured her all the way to the pond without anyone noticing. Each time she sprung forward to catch it, it shrewdly leapt from her reach. It finally rested at the edge of the dock, its eyes closed to the glorious sun, and Elaine tiptoed toward it, her arms outstretched and ready. But in a flash, the bullfrog’s eyes popped open and its little legs catapulted from the dock. Elaine was no match for gravity. With this last reach, she slipped from the edge and into the pond, the bullfrog nowhere in sight.
For the record, her tongue lashing would come tomorrow. She had broken one of Penny’s golden rules, and no bullfrog was big enough to take the blame. But for now, Rose swaddled her tightly in her arms and caressed her forehead as the fireplace crackled and cooed.
I fell asleep that night to the creaking of Rose’s wooden chair, rocking back and forth like a metronome keeping time. She would spend many nights in this chair, rocking not only her grandkids to sleep, but countless babies she and Penny fostered through the years. That sound became a lullaby, singing us all to sleep.
And so when I hear the monotonous click of a radiator, the tick of a grandfather clock, or the tap tap tap of a leaky faucet in my apartment, it reminds me of that old wooden chair, rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth—a sound that swells my heart with memory and turns my eyes heavy with rest...but before I'm seized by sleep completely, I say a simple prayer (tomorrow is Sunday, after all)...
I pray that I'll awake to the sound of bath water, the smell of bacon frying on a skillet, and the taste of farmhouse OJ in a glass. I’ll hear the dinging of the bell and laugh as Cousin Mike holds his bladder in agony. I’ll toss stones and catch tadpoles with Cousin Elaine by the pond, and we’ll share stories of Penny and Rose, the best grandparents a kid could ever ask for...but just this once, I think I’ll pass on church.
The Front Porch
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