My grandmother cooked on an old wood burning stove. I was always excited to visit her. She would be waiting on the front porch, her long gray hair tied up in a bun, her house dress stained from cooking and working in the garden.

I raced from the car as she walked down the stairs, opening her big arms she would wrap around me and then lift me up into the air.

She squeezed so tightly I could barely breathe. She smelled of bread and earth and of love.

I’d find my grandfather at the dining room table, writing mathematics in a tattered note book, his wire-rims slanting down his nose. His hugs were circumspect, but his smile, while small, was kind. I can’t recall the sound of his voice and only can remember one thing he ever said to me, “Go help Grandma in the kitchen.”

My grandmother let me knead the dough, showed me how to grease the pan and then taught me the patience of waiting for the reward. She taught me how to split logs and make kindling. I was ten years old.

Every day I would grab the tall pail and fetch water from the well two blocks away. It was so heavy I had to stop along the way to rest. One time she saw me from the window and opened the front door.

I tripped on the first step and the water went everywhere. I skinned my knee. I felt clumsy and dumb, but Grandma waved off my apology. She looked at my knee.

“You’ll live,” she said. Then she set the pail upright and added, “Now off you go. Be more careful this time.”

Grandmother used my mistake as an opportunity to mop the front porch. It was gleaming by the time I came back with a fresh pail of water.

I stepped inside and found grandfather playing the piano. I wondered how he could do that with his eyes closed and a missing index finger he cut off years earlier on a band saw.

He kept a garden. If he hadn’t they would not have had food to eat. Still, half the garden was devoted to flowers: pansies and poppies and sunflowers and marigolds.

My grandparents were no-nonsense people living a hard life with flowers on the table that blended with the aromas of their perseverance.

Some lessons are unspoken. They manifest in open arms and are scratched into notebooks like secrets.

I still remember the first time my axe split through a birch log.

I have been splitting logs ever since. And writing down my own secrets.

And playing my music with eyes closed. It’s how I pray for the strength to carry on, despite everything that would have me surrender and sit in the shade nursing a skinned knee.

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