There was a shed behind my grandparents house. I was never allowed in that shed. Every spring Grandpa bought a piglet and brought it home. It was my summer job to feed the pig and give it a name. The second part was my idea. I’d hold it like a baby and take a careful look in its eyes, then start whispering names until a look of acknowledgment came over the little porkers face. And that would be his name.
Finding a name was like looking for the right key for the lock in the middle of the night. Keep trying keys on the ring until one turned the lock, and that key would work from then on. Then I’d tell him my name, Kevin, so we were on an even start. My people come from Deutschland, which is how grandpa says Germany. Bavaria, the good part, but now we live here. “And you are a Berkshire, also of good stock, and you live here too, and how ‘bout a carrot?” And that’s how it worked. That pig never forgot its name, because he got to pick it.
Then one day in the fall, his diet would change for two days to white bread and vinegar. On the third day I was sent to town for a movie. Always a triple feature. I would come home and my piglet would be gone, and grandpa would be in the shed.
The first year I cried when I found out what he was doing in there. The second year I cried when I had to go to the movies. The third year I cried when I fed the pig white bread and vinegar. And the fourth year I cried when grandpa brought home Joyce. My one consolation was no pig from the Kling farm left this world without a name, and a little information about his heritage. But I am ashamed to admit Joyce is the only pig whose name I remember. It’s because as much as I cried, as soon as I’d take a taste of ‘whomever’ at supper, I’d forget the name. The flavor would sweep through me, and the key would go back on the ring with the others.
There was my grandma, Frau Kaufmann. Above her stove was a cross-stitched plaque which read, in German, “Go in good¼Come out better.” No truer words were ever stitched. Frau Kaufmann’s kitchen was an artist’s studio. Whatever my grandpa provided as a medium, in a gesture was transformed, teased, poached, or pickled. My mom said, “If you leave here hungry, it’s your own fault.” She also said, “If you don’t see it on the table, you don’t need it.” If grandpa could cut if off, grandma could pickle it.
“Don’t ask for what you don’t see, it’s good training for later in life.” Grandma spoke like she was always inventing another cross-stitching to hang over part of your life. These tidbits of wisdom were passed on from the old Bavarian masters and as far as I could tell, were just as important as a pinch of salt.
At three o’clock on an autumn morning, I’d wake up and grandpa and I would line up the sawhorses in the backyard. We’d put planks between them, then a row of white sheets for tablecloths, and one by one the workers would arrive for the harvest. First, the migrants, and then the neighbors. The men wore work clothes, and the women wielded casserole dishes full of “oh just something I whipped up at the last minute.” Right, last minute. Maybe in dog years.
“Breakfast!” hollers mom. Eggs, potatoes, cornbread, tomatoes, Jell-O (red, of course, otherwise it’s not Jell-O). There was greens, squash, pies and Joyce, the star in more ways than a triple feature. Bacon, chops, loin, brisket, ribs and sausage, grandpa’s famous bierwurst, bratwurst, knockwurst—and don’t ask what’s in there. It’s a secret. Besides, when it comes to sausage, it’s best not to know.
Even the pastor would come by with his wife. He said he was there to lend a hand, but we all knew he was there to partake of Joyce. The pastor had a way of talking that only required the inside part of his lips. I’d sat through many a sermon without a clue as to what he was saying because I was only waiting for the outside of this lips to move.
“Oh Grace,” says the pastor. “That Calvin Kling is lucky he spied you first.” The ultimate compliment. Somehow without moving his lips, he got some grease up near one of his eyes. I was sitting on his wife’s lap. She had sad cataract eyes, like those little dogs with rust stains under the eaves of their eyelids. She held me tight against her boney chest and petted my head.
“Mrs. Walker, can Jesus’ dad beat up Buddha?”
“ Yes Kevin, Jesus’ dad can beat up Buddha.”
“Can Jesus’ dad beat up Allah?”
“Yes Kevin, Jesus’ dad can beat up Allah.”
“Can Jesus’ dad beat up Odin?”
“Well now that’s a tough fight, but yes Jesus’ dad can beat up Odin.”
The pastor stands. “This meal is truly a blessing. I believe it outshines last year’s endeavor.”
And this is where my grandma shows her true genius. “I just pop it in the oven and hope for the best,” said mom. She lies, a real artists work is no surprise to herself.
“And,” says mom. Come on Grandma.
“Well,” she continues. Say it. “Truth be told, I think it’s a little dry.”
Bingo. A true artist can always do better. In the words of the Balanchine, “Never look back. Always move ahead.”
“Well as God is my witness,” said the pastor, “Mr. King is a very lucky man.”
And he was. We all were.