by Jeff Oaks


How to remain whole with a hole at your center?

Driving to Geneva one day, my grandmother and I stopped to get gas for her huge hunter-green Oldsmobile. Gas was a quarter a gallon at the little rural station on Routes 5 & 20. I was probably about four years old. She talked to the woman who ran the tiny store behind the two pumps while I hid somewhere behind her skirt. I was always hiding behind skirts when I was little. I came with an innate distrust of people. I listened first, sometimes for a long time, before I’d ever speak. But I remember that I liked the woman my grandmother spoke to.

Or I liked her life. It was a small life, but every inch of the shed she sat in was packed, arranged: candy, soda, bright cans of oil, and a thousand other things I didn’t know the names of. Most everyone we knew lived a life like that: intense, small, arranged. They worked for themselves or for their families. It was a big deal if someone worked for something else: the husband of one of my mother’s friends worked for the Thruway, I knew, because everyone always mentioned it whenever they talked about him. Someone, probably the woman’s son, must have pumped our gas I realize now. We had to go in and pay the small smiling woman behind the counter. It was a beautiful day; we stepped into the cool shadow of the shed. It was a different world, in which you had to talk to people more. In which you couldn’t avoid it.

Then we drove on, into the city of Geneva. I don’t remember why we went, only that somewhere along the trip we walked into a store with a long counter that advertised doughnuts. My grandmother called them fried cakes. They were mesmerizing, stacked in long baskets, displayed at an angle and just above my eye level, behind glass. The air was full of sugar and coffee and the voices of the working class men who sat there in the afternoon. I don’t remember whether I ate a doughnut there or not, if we got them to go, or even why we went in there. In those days (a phrase I find myself saying a lot these days) those stores were often “variety stores”, meaning they sold a little of everything. But most stores also had a hook, and this one’s was its long counter, hot coffee and doughnuts, where a person could sit and think for a while.

I don’t remember my grandmother as someone who ran errands or who would’ve spent money on something as frivolous as hotcakes, fried cakes, doughnuts. She was already 65 when I was born, and she would’ve been nearer 70 when this memory takes place. An old woman then. I loved her fiercely. I would’ve followed her anywhere. Probably not coincidentally, she was also a fantastic cook, an expert at making things out of nothing. I was her abject subject, her bowl licker, her cookie tester, her last grandchild. She could have made us hotcakes herself, ones which would have put the store’s version to shame and cost us far less.

She’d survived World War One, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. She’d lost her mother young, then been treated badly by the woman her father, who’d been the mayor of Baldwinsville, married after, had virtually raised her half-brother and half-sister. That was her story. She was, in other words, our Cinderella. She loved opera and had trained to sing. She could repair clothes with secret stitching. In the upstairs kitchen where her black iron Singer stood, I loved to watch her work the foot-pedal, her eyes fixed on a problem in a skirt, a dress, a pair of pants. Things would be whole again in no time. Meanwhile, she would set me up at the table, give me one of her large tins of unmatched buttons, and let me run my hands through the glitter of them. Metal, bone, plastic, shell, wood, glass. Black, white, clear, red, gold, silver, green, pearl, brown. There were few things I liked better than getting lost in their details or in the game of finding two identical buttons among the masses of nearly so. A box of dragon scales.

In the summer, she’d hand me recycled green cardboard pint boxes and send me out to pick strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, currants. My grandparents’ house had apple, apricot, and pear trees. There was always something to pick and eat. Wrens would fly out of the canes suddenly. Snakes suddenly unwind and surge away at your feet. It was easy to get lost in all that, sit down with the berries you’d collected and eat them all, waiting for the next miracle.

But eventually, there’d be her voice, calling my name, to come back in.

Everything revolved around her. When my grandfather died, we all stumbled a bit, but she kept on, so we did too. When she died, the family spun outward, broke up, and never recovered. My mother and my aunt stopped speaking. I lost touch of my cousins who were all at least a decade older anyway and getting married and starting their own lives. I went off to college. The house was sold, changed, rearranged by its new owners. I drove past last year and took a picture of it so I’d remember how impossibly small it looks now. So I wouldn’t miss that part of my life so much.

How to remain whole with a hole at your center? The doughnut lost its central ugh long ago to become the new, improved donut, easier for recent immigrants to pronounce goes the story. You, we, move on, is all. There are people waiting. Grab something sweet and get back in the car.