31: Without Words

31: Without Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Without Words

Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.

~Alex Haley

Granddad was deaf. Not stone deaf but sufficiently hearing impaired to make communicating with him a chore. He stubbornly refused to wear the hearing aid the family had purchased. “More bother than it’s worth,” he’d mutter. Frustrated in his attempts to interpret what was being said, he became gruff, taciturn, and withdrawn.

Most of the family, equally frustrated, minimized their conversations with him. Left largely on his own, Granddad turned to the dogs and horses that had always been a big part of his life.

As a shy, introverted child who preferred the written to the spoken word, and an equally passionate canine and equine fancier, I fit hand in glove as Granddad’s companion. Each Sunday afternoon when my parents and I visited his farm, he and I would slip away from the cacophony of the family gathering in the kitchen. Without a single word passing between us, we’d saunter out to the barn, Granddad’s dog at our heels.

Once inside we’d stroll past the cow stalls filled with large-eyed Jerseys in winter, empty in summer, then sit down on a bench against the wall beside the horse stalls. Granddad’s pair of Percherons, Smiler and Lou, would back up their great haunches until they could turn their heads and roll big brown eyes at their visitors. They’d whinny a welcome, then return to their hay-filled mangers.

Granddad would then pull a couple of oranges from his mackinaw pocket and hand one to me. In companionable silence we’d peel and eat.

When we’d finished, Granddad would go to the back door that accessed the pasture and throw it wide open. The horses, in anticipation, stopped eating and began to move restlessly. Slapping them on the rumps to get them to move aside he’d go into their stalls and release first one, then the other.

With eager snorts and dancing hooves, they’d back themselves free, whirl, and thunder out of the barn, their hooves pounding the plank floor.

From the doorway Granddad and I would watch them race away across the pasture, tails and manes streaming, over brilliant green grass in summer and glistening snow in winter. Glancing up into Granddad’s bright blue eyes I knew he shared my joy in those perfect moments.

Sometimes we watched them for nearly an hour, not a single word passing between us. Then, as the time for me to go home grew near, Granddad would call out to them. No matter how far out across the field the team happened to be at that moment, they’d pause, turn, and prick their ears in his direction. He’d call again and they’d start toward him at a trot, thick necks arched, obedient out of love and respect for the man by my side.

I was thirteen that winter, totally enamoured with horses, and dependent on those Sunday afternoon visits to shore up my spirits for the week ahead at junior high school. To this day the scent of oranges still sends my spirit back to those wonderful afternoons with Granddad.

Glowing from my time with Granddad and the horses, I returned to the farmhouse late one November afternoon in time to catch my ride home with my parents. My heart and mind were occupied with flying manes and tails and sleek, powerful creatures of incredible beauty, so I paid little attention to the discussion between my uncle, who had now taken over the farm from my eighty-year-old Granddad, and my father.

“Horses cost a lot to keep over the winter. We won’t be logging with them this year either. A tractor…”

I climbed into the back seat and closed the door on my uncle’s words. I wasn’t worried. Granddad and his horses were as much a part of the farm as the orchards and meadows.

Then came the Sunday just before Christmas. A hard frost gripped a still, grey morning when I awoke. As my parents and I drove toward Granddad’s farm shortly after noon I gazed out the window at the brown, barren landscape of a winter’s day lying in wait for the first snow to give it life and sparkle.

I hoped there’d be snow soon; snow deep enough and soft enough for Smiler and Lou to gallop through, sprays of white crystals flying from their pounding hooves. Maybe it would snow later that day.

At the farm I jumped out of the car and headed for the barn at a run.

“Tell Granddad I’m out here,” I yelled back over my shoulder to my parents.

I unlatched the door and sped past the row of placidly munching Jerseys. And stopped short.

The horses’ stall stood empty. And clean. Pristinely clean. Hosed and scrubbed clean. A horrible sense of unreality swept over me. My uncle’s words resounded in my mind. I felt lightheaded, my stomach roiled. No! No! No!

“Smiler! Lou!” I dashed to the rear door and flung it open. The pasture with its frost-dead grass lay silent and empty… except for a shiny red tractor parked near the back of the barn.

“No!” My cry echoed its despair out across the field. “No!”

I heard the front door of the barn open. I turned to see Granddad coming inside. He seemed to have shrunken from his lofty six-foot four-inch height, his broad shoulders stooped as he came slowly down the length of the barn toward me. As he drew near, I saw that his blue eyes were faded, their sparkle gone.

When he reached our bench he sat down heavily and looked up at me. His eyes filled with tears and so did mine. Sinking down beside him, I scrubbed them away with the backs of my mittens. He dug into his mackinaw pocket, pulled out two oranges and handed one to me.

I took it. Holding the unpeeled fruit in our hands, we sat silently side by side and watched the first flakes of winter begin to obliterate the hoof prints churned into the earth outside the back door of the barn.

At that moment no one could have convinced me that anything good could ever come from what had happened. It wasn’t until a Christmas many years later, long after Granddad had died, that one snowy evening on my way home I passed a child eating an orange. The smell of it rising in the frosty air sent me down a road of memories… memories filled with precious moments shared with my soul-mate grandfather, and our beloved horses.

Smiler and Lou had probably long since gone to their rewards, I realized, but the wordless bond they’d established between one shy teenage girl and her grandfather would live forever.

~Gail MacMillan

Bathurst, New Brunswick

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