Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Spring Piglets: A Short Story about Grampa by Julie Christen


    This time of year on a farm is so full of new life, which often translates to new perspectives for me. It's a time to look forward to the future, but for some reason - especially as I grow older - springtime sends my thoughts to the past too. 

    Here is a short story reminiscing of a time when I learned something - something about life as well as something about people. Country Magazine showcased it in its "The Way It Was" section back in 2012. I thank my "scary" Grampa Frank Spiekermeier for it. 

    This is for him.

Spring Piglets 

By Julie Christen

            At dawn, I wake in the farmhouse. I sneak soundlessly from my little cot under the window to my suitcase where I dress without a sound into my purple corduroys and Black Stallion shirt. I am not supposed to be up. The creaky stairs threaten to give away my early rising, but I continue down on tip-toe.

            The box elder bugs slowly creep along the windowsill as the sun begins to brighten the living room. The grandfather clock ticks. My feet are soundless still.

            Around the corner, I see the long kitchen counter span all the way to the breezeway. Grandma Olive stands in her housecoat and slippers gazing out the kitchen sink window at her dewy, no-frills vegetable garden while she sips her first of many cups of black coffee.

            Grampa Frank’s massive frame, dressed in pin-striped overalls swelling at the seams, sits in his spot at the end of the room on his black, vinyl-covered steel chair. His heavy boots, already muddied, grind gravel into the flooring. I see him rustling through a shoebox full of papers and receipts. He smokes a cigarette, probably not his first of the day and certainly not his last, and slurps coffee from a thermos while he listens to the tinny radio squawk about weather and crop prices and news.

            They are silent. They are the past.

            I bite the side of my lip and peek into the kitchen. It is so early for little blonde-haired girls to be up. I am up, nonetheless.

            “Well. It’s our little Julie Andrews,” Grampa says then laughs a gravelly, “Heh, heh, heh,” and grunts.

            He so often finds me in the hay shed singing to the mice. “Doe, A Deer” is my favorite.

            Coughing, coughing, coughing. Juicy, croupy, gurgly coughing. Heavy wheezy breathing. “You’re up early!”

            Grampa Frank has a gruff voice and a gruff demeanor. He is kind of scary. I just sidle up next to Grandma Olive.

            “Let’s get you some breakfast,” she says.

She fries me an egg and sits me down at the metal kitchen table. My tiny juice glass with the orange slices on the outside is filled with freshly squeezed orange juice. I try to strain the pulp through my teeth, but I end up politely chewing the juice, regardless.

They have their routine, quiet and busy all at the same time. My legs are antsy to move about. I begin playing my own kind of hopscotch on the black and white linoleum squares.

“Listen, Julie honey,” Grandma Olive says, “can’t you do that somewhere else?”

I am underfoot. I go to the adjacent dining room and stare out the picture window at the crab apple tree in the picket-fenced front yard. Nothing to do. Nothing to do.

“Say, Julie.” Her no-nonsense tone startles me out of my daydreaming. “Go with Grampa Frank,” Grandma Olive tells me.

So few words. Why did they use so few words?

I swallow a nervous lump in my throat. Grampa is already gone, his heavy footfalls pounding mercilessly. Coughing. The screen door groans and slams in complaint. I hear “Outa the way, damn it!” and cats screeching. They sit at the door looking for warmth or a scrap from Gramma, but that puts them underfoot. I know how they feel.

I can hear Bocci’s and Brownie’s toenails scratching the garage floor as they prance around his feet. The big, hairy German shepherd and golden mutt are always happy to see me too. They never think I’m in the way.

The animals compel me to go.

Following the trail of cigarette smoke, I slip on my rubber boots and windbreaker in the breezeway. By the time I greet the dogs, rub their bellies, and scratch their ears, I see Grampa is already lumbering to the hog barn.

Does he really want me with him? I wonder. He doesn’t so much as say my name or turn around to motion me toward him. He just keeps walking. This is all Grandma’s terrible idea, I think.

Stalling, I reach for the comfort of the black barn cat sitting amongst the disaster of shop tools on the workbench. It doesn’t have a name. Barn cats are for mousing. And that is it.

But I hold this one and scratch his ears while his grumbly purr soothes me, and I stare out the garage door toward the hog barn. Brownie and Bocci are already off romping into their next adventure. No one would see hide nor tail of them until nightfall, unless of course, Grampa gives a whistle.

With the dogs gone, I decide that even if Grampa really doesn’t want me with him, I will hang in the shadows of straw bales and watch him work. This is far better than being lonely.

Some clanging and banging echoes from the hog barn, but I can’t make out what Grampa Frank is doing in there. As I draw a little nearer, some thrashing and scrambling and screaming stops me in my tracks. Horror fills my veins.

What is he doing to those pigs?

I know that life on the farm is very different than my life by the lake. I know it can be … harsh. Sunday dinner’s pork chops or fried chicken or roast beef doesn’t just drop from the sky. It comes from the animals fattened in the coup and the pens and the fields.

My heart grips my chest as I wonder if Grampa is going to teach me about the harsh realities of life today. Is he planning to show me how to toughen up? Make me learn that the world is a nasty place, and you have to get over it if you want food on your plate? Is he going to try to show me how I can’t just daydream and sing songs and climb around on hay bales all day?

My throat tightens as I clench my jaw and absentmindedly squeeze the black cat. But that only makes him meow and jump out of my arms. I am on my own for the rest of the journey.

When I arrive, I see my grampa leaning over a makeshift pen of straw bales. He doesn’t look at me, but I go to him. I hear snuffling and shuffling on the other side.

When I look into the pen, I see them. Ten black and white piglets, hardly bigger than a breadbox. They’re rummaging and rutting around exploring their new space. I look up, up, up to my grampa’s face and find that he is now looking at me with a toothless grin.

He shoves his cap high on his forehead and asks, “What do you think? Do you want one?”

“Want one?” I whisper.

“Sure. To play with today. You pick out your favorite, and I’ll shoo out the rest of these.”

“Just for me? Like … he’s mine?”

Coughing. “Yep. Just like he’s yours.”

We analyze all ten discussing their markings and determining which ones have the best personalities. It’s the longest conversation I have ever had, and will ever have, with my grampa.

At long last, I pick out one piglet with a particularly interesting pattern of spots and a rambunctious personality. I name him Spot. Grampa Frank stays with me while I chase my piglet around and try to teach it tricks. He laughs his “heh, heh, heh” laugh in between coughs while he leans against the gate.

“Can I pick him up, Grampa?” I ask.

“Sure, you can. Just don’t go dropping him. He’s damn wiggly, that one.”

“I know it,” I manage to say while I strain to get Spot into my arms. “I’ll tame him, though.”

“I’d like to see that,” he says pushing his bushy eyebrows up high.

The piglet squirms with all his might, but I manage to set him down gently before he falls.

Grampa Frank grunts then says, “Go get him again there, little Julie Andrews,” as he waggles a beefy finger at me. That makes me laugh for some reason, and I am off after my pig in the dust and the straw.

As the morning warms, I play, and Grampa watches. I can tell that there is no ulterior motive to educate me on the cruel realities of the world today. Nor will there ever be. He sees me for who I am, and he is enjoying a little frivolous time with his youngest granddaughter. For the time being, I don’t recall his gravelly, scratchy nature. In fact, I wonder how I ever could have thought him scary.

I do not know, of course, that in two short years, Grampa Frank will be gone. Something about those cigarettes and that nagging cough of his. And though it will matter so very much in two year’s time, it does not matter at this moment. This is my morning with my grampa and the piglet he has given me for a day.

Grampa Frank's Spotted Poland China Piglets

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful childhood memory. Thanks for sharing this precious moment with us.


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