Emilie kept the dried carcass of a headless salamander
hanging from a piece of string on the wall next to her kitchen sink. If you asked her why she hung it there, she'd give you the hint of a guilty expression then look away quickly like a little kid who feared the secret was written on her face. I must have asked her a dozen times before I ever got a straight answer.
"Really, Grandma, why do you keep a dead lizard dangling above the sink where you wash the dinner plates?"
"Oh, I don't know. Do you think I should hang him somewhere else?"
"No, what I mean is, why did you bring it into the house in the first place?"
"Well, I found the salamander next to the fence behind the huckleberry bush."
"And I brought him in the house. Have you seen that huckleberry bush? Last year it didn't amount to anything but there will be enough berries for a pie this year. I told Harold that it's been stunted ever since they put up those power poles next to the fence. I wrote them a dozen letters about it but they never even answered them. You know Harold, my mailman, he says that he's never even seen a regular letter from the electric company, just the bills from the computer. They use a super computer now; a man named Seymour Cray invented it right here in Minnesota. Have you ever heard of him, Jonathan? What a bright man, a genius really. So many things were invented here, Scotch tape and sandpaper and snowmobiles and microwave ovens..."
You didn't have to put a nickel in Emilie; you didn't even have to give her a nudge. Her mind moved at a frantic pace and demanded constant narration. As children we marveled at her ability to go for ten or fifteen minutes straight without breathing but came to discover that she was secretly inhaling between syllables. We'd put the dining room chairs in a circle when Grandma Emilie telephoned and then pass the handset around, taking turns at pretending to pay attention.
"Yes, grandma, uh huh, yes grandma..."
If you visited her house you had to allow at least forty-five minutes for the extraction period in her driveway. The conversation continued while you climbed into your car and didn't skip a beat when you put the transmission in gear. It was a science really, backing out of the driveway with grandma hanging on to the open car window, rolling the window up gradually so as not to pinch her fingers. It could be forty below with the wind chill and Emilie might be wearing only a bathrobe and slippers but the ritual never varied.
You had to keep the car moving steadily enough so that you could eventually achieve escape velocity but not so fast that you might run over her feet or spin her to the ground with a broken hip.
We couldn’t blame Emilie for being chatty. She spent twenty-three years as a mission
wife in South India
with nobody to talk to but monkeys and toddlers. Her children were packed off to boarding school as soon as they were waist high and the monkeys had a very short attention span. Her husband was busy with his mission and had little patience for a verbose wife at the end of a fourteen-hour workday.
She found solace and company in the pages of books that she ordered from America, which only gave her more things to talk about. Two decades of being shushed by the busy missionary and all but ignored by the monkeys made the woman a ticking time bomb of pent-up conversation. After his tour of duty my grandpa pined for peace and quiet and they were divorced.
Emilie was a deeply religious woman but confided in me once that she wished her husband had never taken up the Indian mission. With their divorce it seemed that all of her hardship was for naught, that things might have been different for their marriage had they only stayed put in America. She told me that she had always felt a little guilty for trying to talk him out of going but he wouldn’t hear of it anyway.
"My husband was called to India and I was called to follow my husband."
The idea of missionary work
seemed so noble to me as a child that I never questioned the mechanics of it. The willingness of mission families to sacrifice the comforts of home and the company of like-minded people is evidence of their sincerity. It's not as if they choose to go to the darkest corners of China
to spread the word to the godless commies
, it’s their calling.
I was proud of my grandparents for their decades of service in India but bothered by a recurring theme in cartoons. The cartoon missionaries often wound up in a boiling cauldron and were ultimately eaten by head-hunters. Since even the wackiest farce contains a grain of truth I worried that our own missionary relatives might risk a similar fate. I wondered why the natives would be so angry with helpful visitors.
After being stalked at my inner-city apartment by a pack of rabid Jehovah's Witnesses I began to alter my opinion on the subject of proselytizing. What on Earth did these people think that they were doing trying to sell me their flavor of Christianity? I come from a long line of Lutheran missionaries, pal. Get the Hell off of my porch! I don't care if the God of Abraham is sitting in your car at the curb, it takes a pile of nerve to knock on strangers’ doors and tell them whom to worship.
My missionary grandfather was pushing ninety before I screwed up the courage to ask him if such a thing wasn't presumptuous. He answered me without a second's hesitation or a hint of holier than thou.
"I wanted to stay in Iowa and become a farmer but my father wouldn't let me."
Emilie had a poster on her kitchen wall with a mod flower power feel and a quasi-religious message. It read, "Grow where you're planted
" and had a picture of a Day-Glo
daisy growing alone in a thatch of thorns.
"I saw that poster at church the day after I moved the huckleberry bush and I knew that God put it there for my benefit. I should have left well enough alone but no, I had to have huckleberries for pie, had to have my way. Now look at what I've done. Just look at it!"
"Look at what, grandma? You said the huckleberry bush has never been bigger."
"Not the bush, that poor salamander. I chopped his head clean off with the spade when I dug out the bush. I should have let that huckleberry grow where it was planted like the poster says."
"So grandma, you hung up the poster to remind you not to dig up any more bushes but why did you hang up the salamander?"
"He reminds me to look at the poster."