Featured in Colorado Review
Indian SummerFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Fall 2016
Nowhere else in the world could there be as many stars. Brilliance blurring, streaks reaching and smearing across the darkened sky. Is this what they mean by infinity? Roof to headlight, we lie across my mother’s olive-green Pinto, the warm engine baking our hips, our necks, the smalls of our backs. Here in Renville, Minnesota, the farming town where my mother was raised, my sister and I point out constellations—Orion’s belt, the dippers, both big and small—and create our own. A tabby playing with string, I say, then point north—a bridge lit up at night. Stargaze, starlight, stardust, utterly starstruck. So many stars.
As if driving by the rows of crops on the way here had not mesmerized us enough. The columns of soybeans and corn ticked by, lane after lane. I’d focus on the spaces, the unused soil, seeing how far each groove snaked off, hoping to catch a line that had veered, proof a farmer had made a mistake.
I had been looking in the wrong place. It wasn’t until high school, my grandfather gone for over a decade, that I heard about the accident. The one in the driveway. My grandfather had done it. Hit and killed his own son. Their fifth child. Jerry, they called him.
A Sad Accident
A tragic affair took place on
the Art Kottom farm near here
Tuesday when Mr. Kottom in
moving a truck accidentally hit
his young eighteen-month-old son,
Gerald. The lad was fatally injured
and died while under a doctor’s
The funeral will be held at the
First Lutheran Church of Renville
Saturday, at 2 o’clock,
Rev. Strom officiating.
The sympathy of the entire
community is extended to the
stricken family in their hour of sorrow.
—September 26, 1940, The Renville County Star Farmer
Because my family has spoken so little of Jerry, I want to unearth his past, imagine the parts I’ll never know. Perhaps this urge tugs harder now that I have children of my own and would not want their histories, however brief, forgotten. I’m certain if I had learned of Jerry’s existence earlier, I could have woven him into my thoughts as I stargazed atop my mother’s Pinto in my grandparents’ driveway—perhaps in the same spot he was killed. Could have nudged his memory into existence and slowly changed the way things had always been done, in spite of tradition, small towns, and family dynamics. Could have broken the cycle of silence. Perhaps.
Indian summer. An ordinary day. A dusty haze, the stagnant air clenches and recoils against the abnormal heat. Despite the warmth, I imagine my grandmother may have baked Swedish coffee bread early that morning, a family recipe. In Svenskamerika Ada had learned the tradition of fika, twice daily coffee break. From the wood-burning stove, a light breeze delivered outdoors the scent of yeast and cardamom, mingling with manure, sun-drenched hay, and sodden soil, all musty and dank. The eldest daughter had since crossed the gravel road to the one-room schoolhouse, leaving the younger in charge.
Margaret, you’ve got Jerry, right? my grandmother said, as she brushed the crusty braid with egg white and a sprinkling of sugar. Perhaps Margaret had been distracted, had turned her back, had not heard the back door creep open. Hard to hear above a boisterous mother and three spirited brothers. A pale, towheaded toddler roams the yard, chubby legs tottering in a threadbare cloth diaper, safety-pinned and pulled snug. Had Jerry stopped to squat—as children often do—to tug at a blade of grass, clasp a dragonfly, puff at a dandelion? Or maybe he had been steering a toy tractor across tire tracks and over anthills.
His father must have been accustomed to checking for children. One last peek in the rearview mirror, one final glance beneath cars, behind bumpers. What had been different this time? Had the boy been in his blind spot? Had shards of sunlight blocked his view? His father may have been distracted—by all the work that lay ahead, all the mouths he had to feed, the looming hours until sundown.
Did he pause, wonder what he’d hit as he backed up the grain truck? Assume it was a tricycle, a raccoon, possibly a farm cat? Or, without a doubt, without a flicker of curious wonder, had his father known upon impact—that slap of a second—what had happened?
ADA, COME QUICK!
Undoubtedly my grandmother raced out the back door to her child. Elbows shoving. What happened? Pushing. Help. No one to hear. Panicked instructions screeched at Margaret. Bellows of no, no, no, no. Orders to get him in the car. Hurry. The hospital, an hour away. Go.
It all happened so fast.
How does one recover from such loss, such grief and guilt? Did my grandfather lose himself in his thoughts as he sped by the rows of corn, disappear into grave regret? Perhaps he turned to the bottle. Hard to pass judgment, considering all he had been through. When night settled in, blanketing the land in dark despair, had he turned toward those same stars, thrown his hands in the air: Why has God forsaken me? Made deals with God, searching for answers, for second chances? For anything? Truth be told, losing a child was more common back then, especially in rural communities—but this was avoidable, an accident. There was blame to be placed.
When I was growing up and my mother was asked how many kids had been in her family, she’d say seven. Two boys, five girls. Always the same. Jerry, the brother she never met, the brother who died in the driveway before she was born, was never mentioned. As a teenager, I was confused by his existence: If a sibling died before you are born, did they still count? Did you include them in the tally?
Perhaps my mother weighed her brother’s brief existence more heavily as hers was slipping away. She was, after all, the first child born after the accident. His replacement, of sorts.
In the final weeks of her life, her head clouded by cancer, her dignity long since departed, my mother was not herself. The nurses and caretakers asked her questions, sometimes to be polite, sometimes to check what remained of her mind. How many kids were in your family? a nurse asked. Eight, she said. Three boys, five girls. My sister and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. We did not interrogate. We wondered if she felt her brother’s presence toward the end, though this was hard to imagine with how little his name had been brought up.
It makes sense that my grandmother crocheted each of her twenty-one grandchildren afghans when they graduated from high school. As a girl, Ada had been taught the Swedish belief that when troubled, it is important to keep one’s hands busy. I imagine that at some point after the accident, Ada dug out her Swedish spinning wheel with its twin treadles and large drive wheel, threaded the leader through the loop, and spun: hats, scarves, socks, woolen mittens. If she could not keep her children safe, well, at least she could keep them warm.
Undoubtedly, like most farm children, Ada’s children had been assigned chores. Kenny had been taught how to properly stack the firewood, and the girls to help with the churning, baking, and soap making. All the kids were assigned to clean the eggs down in the cellar. Margaret, you’ve got Jerry, right? And Jerry—was it Jerry who liked to play with the milk spigot, dip his hands in the cloudy water of the drip bowl, climb in and out of the stone butter crock? Delores, the eldest daughter, didn’t understand why the younger ones had to help with the eggs—they were more of a nuisance, really—but figured her mother appreciated the half hour of peace and quiet to nap or knit. On occasion, Delores would guide her younger siblings’ little fingers across the feces and blood-spattered eggs to include them.
The children made a game of this chore they had grown so tired of. Delores would ask Dick and Jerry the popular Swedish riddle: What is round as an egg and reaches around a church wall? A ball of yarn. Jerry wrinkled up his nose and giggled at the joke, although he could not have possibly understood. Even Margaret, the child who would let her mother down, the child who would never truly forgive herself, joined in on the fun. That, too, was before. Before Margaret had been asked to watch her brother. Before the weight of the world had been shifted onto her knobby, sun-freckled shoulders.
Ada had been angry with her husband but was unable to deny that she also blamed Margaret. A couple of days after the accident, as they would forever refer to that Indian summer day, Margaret, after speaking so little, broke down in front of her mother. During a rare moment of solitude, Ada had been sitting on an afghan beneath a chokecherry tree when Margaret, her cheeks shiny from dried tears, came to her. Ada tried to comfort her daughter, but found she couldn’t; she knew her daughter felt terrible, yet could not find it in herself to forgive. Ada may have been playing a dangerous game—if she had to lose one child, any of the five, who would it be? Jerry, the youngest, her baby, would not have been it. Undoubtedly, Ada would have felt evil for thinking this way, but given how she was feeling toward Margaret, she might not have been able to keep from dipping into such dark, unimaginable depths. While Margaret wept, trying with her slender, pale arms to embrace her mother’s full, matronly body, Ada, from out of nowhere, screeched, Get away from me. Now.
Hot or cold, Ada found herself since the accident. Never lukewarm.
Long before Jerry died, Ada’s mother had told her about funerals back home, in the motherland. About how invitations rimmed in black arrived decorously in the post. And how, at home, the bereaved cloaked their windows in ivory sheets, adorned their walkways with finely cut spruce twigs. Services were attended by men dressed in frack, white ties and full dress suits; the women, also in black, donned hats with heavy veiling to cover their sorrowful visages. And if the deceased were a parent or spouse, the mourner dressed in black for the entire year, which most likely distressed Ada: the thought of wash day and the endless ironing of black.
Ada must have known Jerry’s funeral would be different. The community, however, would still prepare a smorgasbord to be eaten after the services: sandwiches, headcheese, pickled pigs’ feet, roast meat, rice pudding. But who could possibly eat at a time like this? Ada had joined the Ladies’ Aid Society at church when they first moved to town and, although food preparation had never been her strong suit, was sure to donate pea soup or boiled pork shanks to families in need. What comes around goes around, and all.
I crawl onto the denim mountain of my grandfather’s lap. He’s a tall man, sturdy, with enormous hands—rough, calloused palms, dry fingertips, battered fingernails. While I sit on one of his knees, my sister on the other, my grandfather gently taps and nuzzles the tops of our heads with his cheeks and chin and lips, but with a little pleading, he becomes playful and bounces us. Like a horse, we say through our giggles. Faster. At two years old, I am not much bigger than Jerry was when he died. And I find it hard to weave my memories of this man, the one whose lap I am perched upon, into what I now imagine of a farmer, a Christian, who once stood beneath the stars, who suffered such loss, who believed the preaching of Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season. . . . A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” Thirty years earlier he must have rocked his son, too. Although, if he resembles most grandfathers I now know, he did not carve out as much play time for his own children as he did for theirs, especially with all the work that lay ahead, all the mouths he had to feed, the looming hours until sundown.
It is Sunday morning, and we are at my grandmother’s church. My grandmother quickly recognizes people as we walk toward the large wooden doors. Elsie, my grandmother bellows above the parking lot din. Indicating my mother, she says, You remember my daughter LaVaune, the widow? I speed up, duck inside the arching door frame. I do not want her next words to be about my lack of a father. I do not want her next words to be about me. Would it have been worse if she’d said, LaVaune, the one born after Jerry died? Perhaps Elsie never knew Jerry, but with the way small towns operate, it would not have mattered much.
Earlier that morning, in the driveway of her new home in town, my grandmother reached toward my mother’s olive-green Pinto, now rimmed with coarse amber rust, and gingerly patted the hood. I once owned a pinto. She smiled softly, and I thought of the days my sister and I would sprawl across our Pinto’s hood and gaze at the stars. Think Father got her from the Dakota prairie, my grandmother continued. Fed her cubes of sugar. Moments later, as if the metal were hot, she shot her hand back, cooling her fingertips. Now lukewarm, like the memory.
My grandmother had always been superstitious—perhaps she clung to anxieties passed down from her parents. Before the first full moon of the new year, toting a sack of meat or bread in one hand and a hymnbook in the other, her father may have stood sternly before the moonlit sky—for he believed his fate to be written in the stars. While Ada pointed out the Little Dipper, her pappa would glide his fingers across the scriptures of a brushed-open Bible page. He believed, like many farmers before him, that the words he read, and the deciphered messages, would determine the fate of the upcoming farming season. Not Ada. Not my practical grandmother. She would have thought any verse could be rephrased to her family’s advantage, which she suspected her father of doing from time to time. Her mother, equally superstitious, had also adopted the anxieties of her ancestors and shivered over the possibility of thirteen diners at any given table. She also fretted over black cats—bad things were bound to happen if a black cat crossed in front of your automobile. But this was all before. When superstitions were just that. Nothing, really. Did Ada ever wonder, just once—for a brief moment—if there was something she could have done, some superstition she could have abided by to prevent the death of her son, of Baby Jerry?
Ada recalled how her mother worried whenever she and her sister frolicked near the stream behind the barn. To keep them safe, she told the girls about Näcken, the water sprite who would tug you under and never release you if you were not careful. Ada recalled the admonishments of her mother, spoken in a Swedish accent so strong that it ironed out the j sound, and “angel” became “an-yel.” My an-yels, do not forget Näcken. He’s lonely and loves the company of small children. Did Ada ever wonder if there was a sprite who tugged small children beneath truck tires, never to let go? The sprites, the black cats, one’s fate written in the stars—deep down she knew it was all sopa. Rubbish.
After Ada’s grandmother passed, Ada’s mother, in accordance with Swedish custom, displayed a photograph of her late mother on the mantel, alongside a small mason jar. Each day, following tradition, Ada’s mother made sure the makeshift vase held a fresh tulip or daisy for an entire year. Did Ada do this for Jerry? Most likely not, since they didn’t own many photographs—only a couple of the boy were shot after his birth and one at his christening. Plus, everyone knew Ada was not much of a gardener.
Weeks after Jerry’s funeral, when fewer people came to visit, Ada recalled a Swedish nursery rhyme she had heard her mother recite to her at bedtime or when either she or her sister scraped an elbow or knee. Ada could sing the Swedish lyrics but needed her mother to translate:
Hush hush child
The cat is tangled in the yarn
Hush hush child
The cat is tangled in mother’s yarn
Perhaps Ada thought of the bedtime story she’d read to the boys—Richard and Kenny and Baby Jerry—mere days before the accident. Snippy and Snappy is a sweet tale about two field mice who, while playing with their mother’s ball of yarn, wander away from home and end up in a nearby farmhouse. Just as Snappy is about to nibble at the cheese in a mousetrap, his father jumps in to rescue him, to return him safely home.
Yarn. Was it yarn that passed through Ada’s mind as she settled in for a night of crocheting? How it all goes back to Mother’s yarn?
I like to imagine, long before the bad things happened, all the good in the lives of my grandparents. In the early years of their marriage, shortly after Ada and Art had built the farmhouse, Art planted fruit and shade trees around the property. Ada recalled one spring, how the two of them linked arms and, through the second-floor windows, gazed proudly upon their property—the blossoming apple trees, the freshly painted crimson barn, the endless rows of wheat. Ada remembered how dry the previous summer had been, how the brittle corn leaves rustled like newspaper when the hot wind blew, and how they used to worry so about the crops, about the future. But on this day, an afternoon so unlike any of an Indian summer, Ada could not deny her happiness.
We are back in Renville for my grandmother’s funeral. Although gone, she lingers in her home. The scent of Vaseline lotion, Starlight mints, and tight, stale air crowd the room—all forlorn remnants of a life that has passed. During the day, we imagine her sitting at the kitchen table, her brittle hair wound around puffy rollers, scribbling away at the pages of puzzle books. Evenings are different. No more Bible verses recited at a deafening pitch. From the book of James, she’d choose verses with a personal slant: “Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains.” On those nights, in the next room, my cousins and I would cup our fingers to stifle our giggles, although she couldn’t possibly have heard us with her increasing deafness and the drone of her own voice. As she read scripture, did she think of Jerry, the child who lived but eighteen months? Remind herself that God only dishes out as much as you can handle? Recall the good-intentioned phrases heard decades earlier: He’s in a better place or God’s newest angel. And though she was a Christian woman, a God-fearing one at that, did she know this too was sopa?
We arrive at the church for the funeral service. My cousins and I shuffle into a chipped wooden pew near the front—the last time we had been together in this church was for my uncle’s funeral, seven years earlier, and once before that at my grandfather’s funeral, when I was four, though it is disputed whether or not I actually attended the service. On this day, the day we lay our grandmother to rest, my sister reaches into the wooden pocket before her and pulls out a tattered hymnbook. Inside the front cover, it reads, “In loving memory of Gerald Kottom, 1940.” I feel a stab of discomfort—a pale shade of budding guilt?—because we had not thought of the boy, of Jerry, not even at the funeral of his mother. If he was not to be remembered on this day, then when?
Silence—that I know. After my dad died when I was nine, we did not talk about him. I learned not to ask questions or bring up memories, as my mother’s eyes would turn glassy, her nostrils moist and red, her downturned lips quivery—a silent prelude to her weeping. My mother had not been taught to deal with death, to speak of grief. When nothing is said of the sibling who died before you were born, how do you learn? Perhaps family secrets become tangled when home is a place you are straddling, with one foot on the soil of your birthplace and another stretched an ocean away. I wonder how many years passed before my mother heard the details of the accident, and I wonder how the facts had been parceled out. All in one big heap? Or perhaps she had been cast threads of information each Indian summer, just as the heat stood still, as her parents could not help but think of Jerry. Her mother may have shown her a photograph of him, let her smooth the ragged fur of his stuffed bear, sniff his beloved blanket, but did she ever hear about the stars and the yarn and the sprites and the stifling heat?
My grandmother would not approve of what I’ve written—secrets spilled about a child spoken so little about. But I like to imagine things differently for their family, because the silence surrounding my father hurt. I now talk about my mother’s death with my sons, who were six and two when she died.
I am not silent.
Susan Triemert is a student in the MFA program at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Stepping Stones Magazine and Cheat River Review. This is her first print publication. She lives in St. Paul with her husband and two sons.