Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 983
The first-person narrator of this story—a young boy when its events take place—remembers his grandfather from an unspecified time after 1918 and the old man’s death. The memories (his own and his grandfather’s, both imperfectly understood) lend depth to the tale and at the same time determine its loose-jointedness.
The story begins appropriately with a recurrent but inaccurate memory—“My grandfather had a long white beard”—and the shock the boy used to feel when he came home from school and watched his grandfather trimming his beard before the mirror: “It is gray and pointed, I would say then, remembering what I had thought before.” As memories will, the boy’s memories combine to create an ideal morning home for the summer from school, but even in the familiar routine of beard-trimming, ceremonious dressing (black vest, gold watch and chain, corncob pipe), and breakfast—always the same—the boy finds himself reminded of his grandfather’s mortality; significantly, this is contrasted with his having been a soldier, “like General Robert E. Lee”: He recalls noticing how “shrunken” his grandfather’s “hips and backsides” were and the way his own stomach tightened at the sight, “like when you walk behind a woman and see the high heel of her shoe is worn and twisted and jerks her ankle every time she takes a step.”
The domestic comedy of breakfast, related as another never-changing given in the boy’s life, reveals a set of tensions and obstinacies not consciously understood by the boy. The laborious explanation of why Uncle Kirby called grandfather Mr. Barden indicates a clannishness perhaps not even recognized by the boy and, ironically, suggests that the grandfather is still in charge, though he clearly is not: “It was because my Uncle Kirby was not my real uncle, having married my Aunt Lucy, who lived with my grandfather.” The matter of the cob pipe becomes a test of authority between husband and wife and between father and daughter, but Uncle Kirby’s grin, “like a dog panting,” and Mr. Barden’s “Don’t it stink” leave the test unresolved.
The story proceeds with three scenes. The first introduces contingency for the first time (“If it had rained right and was a good tobacco-setting season . . . ”). The tobacco-setting occasions a detailed and idyllic description of the lot, the cold stream that runs through it, the rise with its sassafras and blackberries, the fields, and the setting itself, but here, as in what went before, the idyll is undercut by the grandfather’s mortality and by displays of ineffectual authority. The boy notes that his grandfather rides “pretty straight for an old man” and sees “the big straw hat he wore waggle a little above his narrow neck.” Later, at the field, Uncle Kirby’s “Get the lead out” only brings grins to the faces of the “little niggers,” and Mr. Barden’s “Why don’t you start ’em, sir?” has no effect at all; the work apparently begins despite, not because of, these two men, and “about ten o’clock” Mr. Barden “would leave and go home.”
As in the scene that follows, the narrator’s memories of his own experience of his grandfather lead into memories of Mr. Barden’s more distant past. As a young man, Mr. Barden raised and showed horses, but now (because “horses were foolishness”) tobacco has become his single care. Once he tried to be a tobacco buyer but lost his warehouses and their contents in a fire. The failure is explained as bad luck by the boy and as inevitable by Mr. Barden’s daughters; Mr. Barden himself shrugs it off as just as well. Now he watches as the crop is set, suckered, plowed, or wormed, and he worries, “nervous as a cat,” when a summer storm threatens.
In the second scene, the narrator describes Mr. Barden’s mornings when he does not go to the fields. He sits under a cedar tree, smokes his cob pipe, and, on most days, reads a book. The narrator’s account of the history his grandfather reads and the poetry he recites leads into memories of the old man’s more distant past by identifying him with Napoleon Bonaparte, Mr. Barden “having been a soldier and fought in the War himself.” The boy listens to the history, to the poetry, and to the stories of the Civil War, and he wants to be proud of his grandfather, but he feels shame, thinking that his grandfather never killed any Yankees—his boyish explanation for his grandfather’s never having been promoted beyond the rank of captain.
During the afternoons, Mr. Barden would sleep, and that is how the narrator usually remembers him. Alternatively, he says, he remembers him “trampling up and down the porch, nervous as a cat, while a cloud blew up and the trees began to ruffle.” This generalized memory quickly narrows to a particular time, in 1914, when “the leaves began to ruffle like they do when the light gets green, and my grandfather said to me, ’Son, it’s gonna hail.’” It did hail, and this time Mr. Barden had a stroke. As the narrator sits by the bed in the shadowy room, his grandfather speaks again, “Son, I’m gonna die,” and again, “I’m on borrowed time, it’s time to die,” and finally, “It’s time to die. Nobody loves me.” The narrator’s response, “Grandpa, I love you,” is a lie: “I didn’t feel anything.” However, outside again in the sunny yard, watching a hen peck at a hailstone, wondering whether the tobacco has been damaged, still “not feeling anything,” he says it again “out loud, ’Grandpa, I love you.’”
Mr. Barden lives four more years: “I got the letter about my grandfather, who died of flu, but I thought about four years back, and it didn’t matter much.”
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