Rainwater Soup

Echoes of family, memory, and home

Ioann Mark Kuznietsov via Unsplash

“...and fire green as grass...”
—Dylan Thomas

My brother drove down from Portland in the evening and parked under the big maple across from the barn. I stepped out on the porch and said, “You’re wearing white pants to a farm?”
    “Is that code for ‘Here’s a glass of Pinot’?” he asked.
    And we were toasting in minutes.
    “To sipping siblings.”

"Wow, miracle worker, you're making the old place look alive again even after just a couple of months. You’re going to burn it down and rebuild though, right?”
    “No, but I am going to insulate the attic and replace the windows,” I said.
    “And then burn it down? You will cause a homeless crisis among the raccoons and pigeons,” he smiled. "I'm calling the ASPCA on Monday."
    “Come on, you love the place. This is our childhood.”
    “Sure. That’s why today is the first time I have taken the exit here since 1978, because I love it.”
    "O Ma's seventies curtains came down within an hour. I cannot believe the renters kept them up all those years."
    "Retro stuff brings a fortune in Portland, so sell them and pay yourself back for the move."

We ate and chatted into the evening about retirement, divorces, grandchildren, and sorting and shipping a lifetime of belongings.
    “Why did you take the ferry down?" he asked. "Takes five days.”
    “Just that, it takes five days. I wanted to leave slowly by surface, so I could feel the leaving,” I said.
    “Feel the leaving? Did you also hold a seance in your cabin?” he teased.
    “No, I had it on deck, Dr. Linear Thinking. It’s called mindfulness or intentional living. You should try it.”
    “I intentionally buy the best Pinot. That’s something.”
    “Only if you bring more next time.”

At eleven o'clock he leveraged his frame up the narrow stairwell passage, and I watched from my chair beside the fireplace and recalled him at eight skinny years old, flying down those stairs in a bushel fruit box in what Pops tagged his "disastrous salute to gravity." His forehead was busted into a goose egg. O Ma got a little angry because he scared her so bad with all that blood. How Pops caught it for trying to tamp down her anger with, "Are the stairs ok? Didn't hurt my fruit box, did he?"
    "Tell the boy not to do that again," O Ma insisted.
    And Pops saluted her from behind as he said, "Boy, don't do that again. I command you. You too, girl!" And he clicked his heels. We smiled at our father, and O Ma tilted her head and then let it go.

That night, my brother slept in his bedroom upstairs for the first night in over a half a century, under our mother's quilt, hand-sewn before her passing grafted us onto the farm forever. In the night the wind scratched the roof with a limb from the old maple, and I awakened to hear a barn owl hooting in the first light.

Next morning, my brother was clinking around down in the kitchen figuring out coffee. Then the backdoor slammed, queuing O Ma’s voice to ring across the decades: "For Pete's sake, boy, don't you know to be quiet on a Saturday morning?"
    “I’m sorry, O Ma!” he called back across sixty years. And then I heard him out in the wood shed looking for rakes and saws.

I stayed sunk down under my comforter in a warm bath of memory, peeping around O Ma's bedroom at the moving boxes I had half-gutted the morning before in a panicked search for my old field jacket. Had I left it behind? Later, I found it with arms wrapped around the old mantel clock.

In the clock glass was a photo of old Hawk. My face heated up and bubbled hot tears and snot. He had died during a nap beside the wood stove after fourteen years of chasing sticks across the rocky Alaska shoreline.

The night before, I had shared with my brother about losing Hawk and that sad afternoon the year before, how I drove out the road and buried my dog as deep as I could in the sandy glacial soil of that distant land, knowing it would not be enough to stop the porcupines, ravens, and jays from salting their bones with him. And I told him how I pulled over and threw my garden shovel over the highway railing into the sea, then drove up high on Harbor Mountain and parked the little truck and marched into the forest, where I climbed upon a massive cedar thrown down across the muskeg like a wind-felled king. And sitting up there, looking out across the islands and bays and the Pacific, I thought just then that it must be time to return home to Oregon.

I stood from the bed and pulled on the old canvas coat. In the pockets were bits of sea glass and sand, and the corduroy collar was stiff from salt spray.

Downstairs I worked in the kitchen at the old sink, paring veggies and watching through the window as my brother dragged branches to lay across the burn pile he had started out near the property line and field. He was stopping here and there to look at things. He pulled on the old tire swing chain and looked for a long time, as if to see us looking back down from six and ten years old. And then he walked out of the old barn smiling, carrying the banana seat of his old Stingray bike. A while later, as I was tidying, I saw him again out the back door window staring at the old garage, which was half decayed into the ground and covered with blackberry brambles. There he stood for several minutes, where nearly sixty years ago he had found O Ma lying, with Pops beside her on his butt, wailing like a small boy. And then he walked to where the old 4H sheep pen had been before turning quietly and looking at the ground as he walked back to the burn pile. I stepped back so he couldn’t see me watching him standing with his head bowed. I thought he looked like a man in prayer, but also he seemed to be, in that moment, everything he really was, a boy filled up with seventy-five years of life.

We worked in tandem, raking and carrying windfall limbs to toss onto the burn pile. The pale morning grew round to a porcelain spring day. Chips of sounds played off the whips of wind—a yelp from the yellow farmhouse dog, the clacking of the tractor chewing clods below Mary's Peak, snippets of caws from the blackbirds working the strip behind the plough, and the broken bits of train whistle as the Coast Starlight pulled past Jefferson.

I stirred the fire with a stick and straightened and waved it across the field. "It's like stepping inside an old black-and-white movie. What's weird is that I look across the fields and hear waves crashing and gulls crying. Still playing the Alaska soundtrack, hello. I swear I can even close my eyes and smell the salt water."
    "Are you sure it isn't a waft delivered from Newport?" he deadpanned.
    And I played back, "Nah, Newport comes in as chowder, smarty pants. Speaking of which, let's eat." We filled our bowls and sat beside the fire, eating with runny-nosed slurps and steamed eyeglasses.
    "O Ma's Rainwater Soup, good for what ails you. Good, fer, what, ails, ye," my brother declared with his spoon.
    Then he offered, "Most people call it hobo stew. It can be anything from rainwater and ketchup in a rail yard camp to beef stew at the best diner in Philomath, I’m telling you. Pops said he never got a cold because he ate Rainwater Soup. Didn't eat it for two years during the Korean War and got sick both years."
    "He should have tried kimchi," I slurped. "He woulda been fine. So I have a theory about spiritual roots and this place and what it means."
    "Oh no, do go on" he smarmed.
    "No listen, seriously. Our hearts are hard-wired to our true spiritual home so if we wander away there is a sort of spiritual radio interference, magnetic field stuff, like leaving DNA behind. There is actually a whole school of thought around geographic connections causing déjà vu, like recognizing a stranger or longing for a place you have never visited. So, we must leave part of our spirit wherever we go, otherwise it wouldn't be possible for these phenomena to occur, right?"
    My brother tilted his chin toward the sky. "I never picked that up in Portland. However I did once put an olive in my mouth at a wedding thinking it was chocolate, and my face almost exploded."
    I sat back, deflated, onto a stump by the fire. At first he laughed, then he said, "Ah come on now, knucklehead. Seriously, I'm listening."
    I leaned forward and poked the fire with a stick, only this time I talked about other things, like the wet smoke of the wigwam burners hanging in blue veils above the logging towns of Oregon. How the Willamette Valley in summer smelled like a giant menthol cigarette when the mint fields were burned. How old Highway 99 was a two-lane blacktop ribbon threaded through the narrow canyons and riverbeds of southern Oregon, before I-5 became a pulsating vagus nerve running up the nation's left flank. Or how old Portland was a blackened brick river town crudely sutured with iron bridges and peopled by dockworkers and waitresses, before glass towers reflected the clouds back at themselves. I noticed my brother looking away across the field.
    "Aren't there enough clouds already?" I implored.
    And he looked at my eyes and then back at the ground and said, "I miss those things, too."

By mid-afternoon the burn pile was out. I carried in pots and dishes, and he started to fill the wood box.
    "Skip it," I called from the kitchen. "I am retired from wood stoves. These days, I turn on the thermostat."
    He was quiet, then called back, "You know the thing I always smell that isn't there?"
    "What, or should I ask, who?" I taunted.
    "Wood smoke. Whenever I think of our roots and this place, I realize now that I smell wood smoke. I really smell it."
    "Are you sure it isn't Pizza Smitty’s Pearl district branch?" I called back.
    "Good one," he said. Then, after a pause, "I'll come next weekend and fix the shed hinges so we can get tools in there and lock it up. We'll drive over to Newport so you can do a smell check."
    "Sure. And maybe the animal shelter has some poor hairy prisoner who needs to become a Willamette Valley clodhopper. Hawk Deuce," I said, trying to sound happy.
    "Well now, there's your real answer on belonging here again, sis."
    And I bowed my head in a private yes.

Then I went to the living room where he was sitting and handed him a small chest with a latch. “It was in the attic. Merl said he hadn’t been up there since he moved in, so he didn’t think of it. All your stuff, it seems.”

My brother began examining each item. A bag of marbles. A railroad watch. Baseball card. And a thick pile of letters in green envelopes, each the same with AIRMAIL printed across the top.

I went to the kitchen and opened a bottle of Pinot from Dundee and sat a glass beside him, allowing him to read the letters, written while in Vietnam in his own hand and addressed to O Ma, Pops, and me. And as he read them, I could see ghosts moving behind his eyes, rearranging furniture, and plucking hard at him.

Dear O Ma, Pops, and Sis, Everything is a-ok for now. I cannot claim to love the jungle. Sounds corny coming from an Oregonian, but frankly I am sick of green.

I had read them all, letters home from a boy, the worry so great on O Ma, her heart gave out as soon as she saw he was safe at home in Oregon.

My brother fell into a nap on the couch and snored deep, looking more like Pops than ever. I pulled my stiff old frame up the narrow stairwell passage, like an alpine sloth working pulleys, up past the top step where I once perched in silence after bedtime when we first arrived as little children, when I was so scared, and had listened to Pops and O Ma below, planning on how it would go. O Ma's tone low and sure, Pop's a playful melody.
    "They'll be steady after a time once they’re in school," O Ma had said, " And you, I know you will be alright cause I grew ya from a teacher seed."
    And I heard him answer softly, "The old place serves us, doesn’t it, Mother?"
    It would be the only time in my life I heard him call her that, and I took it then as his thank you to her for accepting us. It was all she needed. O Ma was what he called her when he was a little boy. “O Ma, please,” or what have you, and so she was always O Ma to us.

The swift comfort of my father’s return made the old farm our home as well and ushered us both to the threshold of maturity and past the pain of losing our mother. Upon my own recent return, I realized my father’s journey had returned him twice; first from the war and second as a young, widowed teacher with two grade-school kids and a humbleness spurred by great loss. While our mother had been quiet and strictly Baptist starch, our home with O Ma was a storytelling home, where poetry was respected almost as much as the Bible or a math book.

The house grew silent after my brother was drafted and sent to Vietnam. When he returned he seemed to carry some knowledge of something I couldn’t place by looking into his eyes, and he would not tell me. He was not patient with my gladness, my fandom for him. Then two weeks after returning home from Vietnam, he found O Ma beside the little garage shed. At the end of summer he left for college in California. As he pulled away from the farm in his Camaro, my poetry-loving English teacher father said to me, “...forever fled from the childless land…”

Being his daughter, I said back to him, “and fire green as grass.”

And that made my father smile.

While my seventy-five year old brother napped, I worked upstairs unpacking boxes as the daylight waned to dusk. Moving to switch on the lamp, I was drawn instead to the north window. Outside, the last light cast the distant rolling farm fields into a dark purple sea veiled in a gossamer ground fog. Small woods rose like islands, and the yellow light of farmhouse windows glowed like ancient temple lanterns. Then, gently, I pressed my forehead against the cold window pane and slowly, slowly fogged the pane again and again with little puffs of my breath. Home…home.


Family, Home, Memory


1 comments have been posted.

I loved the tender, thoughtful and thought provoking approach Ms. Moss has taken with this homecoming story. The imagery is beautiful and touchable. The people in the story, like so many who venture away from rural roots, have taken a hard look at the outside and have turned wistfully back.

Potsie | March 2024 | Vermont

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