Some Winter Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

I like poetry, but I can’t even type that phrase without wanting to add several dozen caveat-laden clauses. I do not like poems that go on forever (seriously, Wordsworth). I do not like very old poems with wacky syntax and made up words (sorry, Shakespeare). And I do not like poems that intend to be profound (yeah, I’m going to have to call BS on most of you, literary magazine type people).

But I like poetry.

I like it when it means something to me.

One morning last week we woke up to snow sifting down, filling up the backyard with mini drifts and crusts and hiding all the bald spots in the grass. I don’t often have poems come to mind—my culture cred will take a dive, but the truth is I’m much more likely to have an ABBA lyric stuck on repeat than a Billy Collins gem.

But every time I looked out the window that morning I kept thinking:

Whose woods these are I think I know…

And it made me think of my Grandpa, who lived his last few years at the same nursing home where I worked as a teenager. I haven’t thought about the nursing home in a long time, but I kept notes when I worked there and eventually transcribed them onto a single Word document that I keep transferring to every computer and hard drive I end up using without having any particular plan for its future.

They were quite the cast of characters, really, especially on the full care unit where I worked. Like Richard, who once turned his full bowl of soup upside down so he could, as he innocently explained, read the manufacturing stamp on the bottom of the bowl. Richard was a hoarder too, and we would periodically raid the bureau in his room when we started running suspiciously low on juice glasses. I don’t know why he liked those, but he did.

Or Nick, who had days full of anxiety where he worried over the logistics of trying to baptize everyone on the unit (conceding it wasn’t possible to fully immerse them, which led him into some theological difficulties)… he also had days where he shuffle-swaggered up to a female resident and—before any of us could stop him or even guess his intentions—planted a wet one right on her mouth. “Bet you haven’t had one like that in a while,” he said cheerfully as he shuffled away.

Incidentally, that’s the only time I’ve seen a bandit kiss in real life. From the movies, you’d think that sort of thing happens every day, but nope. It’s pretty much an 80+ year-old-dementia thing.

My Grandpa never exactly fit in at the nursing home. Principally because, while he was almost blind and therefore never recognized people, his brain stayed sharp. He had been a college professor for most of his career—smart, acerbic, well-read, tweedy and intellectual. He was tolerant and generous toward his grandchildren, but he wasn’t one of those people with a knack for relating to children. He would play his much-requested Train Song for us on the harmonica and stock his fridge with pudding cups (no matter how many he had, we always ate ALL OF THEM), but actually having a conversation with Grandpa required some familiarity with Clinton and Bush policy, the economy, literature, or other subjects slightly over the average 8yr old head.

So at 8, I settled for eating his pudding cups. At 18 I actually started to spend time with him.

He moved into the nursing home partially to be near his wife (and my mom, who was his only child still living in the state). My Grandma had advanced Alzheimer’s and by this time could not speak or even focus her eyes on a face. She passed away eventually, and by that time my Grandpa truly needed the care of the home, so he stayed. I worked for the activity department, so I visited all of the patients, but I stayed longer with my Grandpa.

He’d long since lost the ability to read, so I used to read to him. I don’t remember what all we read—whatever he wanted, I could usually find at the library—but I do remember we read Tarzan. He’d read it when he was a boy, and the images had stayed with him his whole life. When I finished, he thanked me and said gravely that the book did seem to be better suited to twelve-year-olds.

I think we both preferred the days we read poetry. My Grandpa loved poetry. I’ve known people in grad school who “loved” poetry, loved the techniques and subtleties of it and maybe memorized a few for good effect.

My Grandpa loved it like people in Victorian novels loved it.

He would choose the author, and I would read the poems, but dozens of times he would start quoting the poem softly to himself as I went along, the whole thing safely locked away in his memory, taken out and giving an airing in the quiet of his tiny room. Sometimes I would only read the first line and then drop out, listening to his age-husky voice taking us perfectly down the page of Frost or Byron or Keats.

He loved Robert Frost, and he loved “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Strange the way things come back to you. My Grandpa didn’t live long enough to meet Carl, and he almost certainly didn’t give a thought to where I might move or the children I might have someday. He died years ago, his head resting on a white pillowcase with a band of Christmas-red reindeer parading down the middle of the case—upside down, as it happens, treading lightly on their antlers.

I don’t know why I remember that when I can’t remember what year it was, but I’ve always preferred the facts you can’t look up to the ones you can.

In any case, he passed away, and I went back to school and changed jobs and met Carl. We got married and started a family and bought a house—a house with a backyard that made me think of my Grandpa when I watched it filling up with snow for the first time.

We bought a fifty-year-old house whose history I don’t know. But the ghosts are familiar.

When I flopped into bed one of the first nights, incredibly tired and sore from a full day of unpacking and painting, I looked up at the half-open bedroom door and suddenly knew exactly what it would be like when our daughter is old enough to be in a toddler bed and open her door and come down the hall to see what we’re up to and if she might possibly.

I’m not a particularly superstitious person, and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about ghosts and auras and things like that. My grandpa is dead and my unborn, 2 pound daughter is punching that same two inch spot on my abdomen she always punches, but I think while I’ve been busy unpacking boxes and starting a new life here, my unconscious has been unpacking a few boxes of its own.

Good boxes.

My Grandpa reciting poetry and our daughter growing up. All the good memories I brought with me and all the good memories we have yet to make.

It’s starting to feel—despite the endless items on our to-do list—more like home every day.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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3 thoughts on “Some Winter Frost

  1. No way. That was the same poem I was thinking about last week. Cool. And these were some great memories of Grandpa. I never had much of a relationship with him at all. I was always too far away for pudding cups or poetry. It’s nice to hear some stories about him.

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