Grandpa Marshall (3/31)

Fall is my favorite time of year.

I love wearing boots, kicking leaves and breathing in crisp fresh air. I love pumpkins and hot apple cider. I love evenings curled up at home enjoying a slower pace. I love cooking chili all day on a Sunday. I love the transition.

There is something about fall that is unlike any other season. Winter is Christmas and then a long period of quiet and cold. Spring is fresh and new and in the Midwest- often filled with rain and the occasional snow storm. Summer is full of go-go-go: parties and barbeques and festivals and sunshine. But fall? It’s smooth and glowing. It creeps in slowly and envelopes your soul like a favorite worn sweater.

It hasn’t felt much like fall in Iowa yet. It’s been sticky and warm with temperatures in the 80s. The days creep on like a summer night that never ends. Right now, it’s thundering in the distance. There is rain in the forecast at the forefront of cooler temperatures ahead. We can expect 60’s and even 50’s this weekend. I cannot wait to curl up on Sunday with a good book and an old blanket while homemade chili simmers on the stove.

To me, fall has always had a special magic to it. Maybe it’s all the fond memories that seem to have occurred in the fall. I remember all those first days of school complete with new jackets and backpacks. I recall mounds of candy procured while trick-or-treating in my neighborhood with my sisters and friends. And I remember most fondly, all our family gatherings at the Madison County Bridge Festival.

This picture hung in my grandparents house and now resides at my Aunt's. 

As beautiful the foliage and welcome the cooler temperatures, fall really is a season of death. Everything is slowly decaying and eventually dying. Preparing for a season of hibernation before coming back to life.

My great-grandpa Marshall died in the fall. It was October. I was 15 years old. I remember the day so vividly. My mom was planning to pick me up after school to go visit him in the nursing home where he’d been for the last few months. The last time I had visited he was pretty heavily medicated and didn’t really recognize us. It was so hard to see this mountain of a man curled up in a unrecognizable ball of pain and confusion. My 6 foot tall, lifelong farmer Grandpa looked like a scared child. It was too much for me. I didn’t want to remember him like that. But I knew his time was coming.  

I got called out of last period by the administrative assistant. She took me down to the office where my mother and sister were sitting on a bench waiting for me. I took one look at them slumped uncomfortably on the senior bench and I knew. Grandpa Marshall had passed.

It was a rainy, dark day, a day similar to today. I remember standing on the deck when we got home. OI was smoking a cigarette (sorry Mom) and watching the rain. Already I was missing my Grandpa something fierce. I wasn’t crying though. I wasn’t really fully grasping that he was gone.

My Grandpa Marshall was born around the beginning of the century. He ran away from home when he was a teenager and came to Iowa. He met my Grandma here. They bought a farm and raised kids. He worked hard every day of his life and loved to sit down with a glass of iced tea and tell stories about riding the rails. I remember, as a kid, when I’d ask him what he wanted to drink for family dinner, he’d always say ‘Got any whiskey?’ with a wink and a mischievous smile. Full well knowing my Grandma didn’t keep alcohol in the house. I remember him seeming so tall and strong. He had large calloused hands, weathered from so many years of physical labor. He wore overalls every day with white t-shirt underneath and a flannel on top. Always boots with one pant leg tucked in. Even when he got sick, he’d still wear the boots and the flannel- trading in the overalls for sweatpants.  He’d sit down, cross his legs and lean back to tell a story. He told the best stories. When my aunt was in the military, he started recording his life story on tape for her. My uncle transferred some of them to CDS. About once a year I listen to my Grandpa Marshall tell about how he ended up in Iowa and the time he drove some lady’s brand new car in the ditch because he was 15 years old and hadn’t the faintest idea how to operate a vehicle.  It makes me smile. That story-telling ability has been passed on to my Grandpa Kenny and I even see it in my Dad some times. When their voice gets long and high-pitched at the climax of the story, it’s then I see my Grandpa. Story-telling is a trait that I like to believe I received from him- the ability to spin words in a way that captures attention.

My Grandpa Marshall had the messiest hair. It was white and shiny and still pretty thick considering he was well into his 80’s. He kept one of those black school combs in his pocket although he never seemed to use it. Each time I saw my grandpa I’d get his comb out and fix his hair. Part on the side and smooth it down. He’d sit perfectly still while I combed, arranging him back into a presentable gentleman. Then he’d squeeze my hands and tell me thank you. I think he liked being coddled that way a little bit.

The mortician combed his hair down the middle. They put too much makeup on him and it was all wrong. My Grandpa asked me to fix his dad’s hair. I had never seen a dead person before. I was surprised by hollow they seemed…how vacant and void of life. The body a shell of the person they once were. My Grandpa handed me the little black comb and I went in and put Grandpa Marshall’s hair right- parted on the side and smoothed down. I tucked the comb in his pocket and stuffed a letter next to him in the casket. I didn’t get to say my final goodbye that day he passed, but I did get to fix his hair one last time and share some words about the impact he had on my life.

The day of Grandpa’s funeral was bright and sunny. Warm for October- much like the weather we’ve been having lately. I remember squinting hard at the sun when we visited the house where he grew up. I remember my black hippie dress and combat boots, dress hiked up for tromping through overgrown weeds and the remains of a burnt homestead.

A couple weeks ago it was a day just like the day of his funeral. Sunny and bright but with crispness in the air. I went to the farmer’s market and bought some vegetables and fresh bread and flowers. The mums and pumpkins were beginning to make their appearance and fall was very much in the air.

I felt a lump form in my throat when I was walking home. Thinking about the day we buried my Grandpa.

For as long as I’m alive, sunny fall days will always make me think of that mountain man of a farmer, my Great Grandpa Marshall.