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Dianne Brain

© 2000

Cream and Sugar, Please … a Memoir

His large frame stirs silently. Grandpa is always the first in the house to be up and about just before sunrise. I hear the tinkle of cowbells in the distance. I am nestled under layers of blankets and quilts piled high on the brown mohair couch. His muffled rustling tells me he is quietly getting dressed so as not to disturb my sleeping grandma. He’ll struggle into his time worn wool pants and one of the four plaid shirts he owns. The curtain moves aside that drapes the doorway to my grandparent’s bedroom. I quickly close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. I know he will stop by the wood stand next to his favorite chair in the living room. I peek and watch his gnarled arthritic hand curve around pipe and tobacco pouch. Within minutes I hear coffee perking on the antiquated wood stove. Now I make my move. With padded feet I approach the dimly lit yellowed kitchen and peer around the corner. I hesitate knowing I may be sent back to the “mohair mountain” with a wave of his hand. “It’s too early for a little one to be up and about. Back to bed with you.” But this morning he sees me peeking. He motions with pipe in hand, smoke spiraling to the ceiling, beckoning me to enter. As I patter in on soft pajama feet a smoky coffee smell fills the room. Grandpa stacks two Farmer’s Almanacs on the kitchen chair and plops me on top.

”So, you want some of grandpa’s coffee I suppose?” His voice is deep and strong. He reaches for my special cup that sits on a shelf in the tall glass covered cupboards, pours the warm brown liquid, adds the thick cream from the top of the milk bottle and two mounded tablespoons of sugar. As grandpa stirs the sugary contents, the clinking of the teaspoon on the side of the cup echoes the cowbells in the pasture. My small hands hug the cup, and as I slowly sip Grandpa regales me with silly stories.

And so there we are, just me and my grandpa in the kitchen with our coffee. I find my way to his wooly lap. He sings me back to sleep in Slovenian, his native tongue, and bundles me back to the bed. This time with my grandfather was all mine and I reveled in it.

When I look back I believe the great affection for my grandfather stemmed from the fact that I lost my father when I was four years old. My grandfather filled a void in my life that I wasn’t even aware of at the delicate age of six. As I grew I found myself wanting to know more about this man. My mother became my greatest source of information. Over the years my grandfather’s life unfolded in the cadence of my mother’s voice as she shared all she knew of her father’s life.

My grandfather, Ignatius Russ, made his appearance in America from across the water with a new bride on his arm and $19.00 in his pocket. Twenty years later he found himself the father of thirteen children, each one born in the bedroom with the curtain draped doorway. My grandfather was there for each and every birthing, cutting and tying the cord and bathing the baby in the small tub at the end of the bed. Three of his thirteen children died when they were very young. Six months after his third child died at the age of six, Ignatius Russ stood stooped and grieving at the graveside of his first wife. His second wife would become my grandmother.

After marrying my 22 year-old grandmother (my grandfather was now 45), four more children were born. But life would be hard and hand out more grief as the years went by and he would bury two grown sons from his first marriage. With my constant prodding, my mother continued to narrate my grandfather’s story.
I learned that he spoke five languages and because of this he was able to easily communicate with everyone in the little ethnic community (even serving as mayor) where my grandparents lived before moving to the farm. He loved people and in my mother’s words ‘he got along well with everyone’. He had a wonderful voice and sang in a barbershop quartet. My grandfather experienced life in its fullest form; he was there to bring life into the world, but he was present at death, too. He understood loss.

Perhaps I brought forth the painful memory of his little daughter, Rosie, who was only six when she died. I really don’t know. I just know he was there for me at the tender age of six to nurture and comfort me in my loss, a loss that I was too young to really comprehend. And so the man and the memory do not lessen but deepen with time. The memory has settled safely within my soul — a comfortable place — with a yellowed kitchen, a smoky coffee smell and coffee … with cream and two tablespoons of sugar.

Dianne Brain was a 2000 Selective fellow. She teaches Language Arts to sixth and seventh graders at Annunciation School in Minneapolis. She received her Masters in Education from Hamline in May 2000. She has too many favorite books to list them all.