Monday, March 2, 2009

Listening to the Fears and Naming Them

The Maddock House and pond in Salem, NH, my paternal grandparents' home.
When I was a tiny girl, I visited my Grandmother's house in New Hampshire for the first time one June.  The house, built in the early 1700's, was so different than our California ranch house, and it's location in rural New Hampshire offered deciduous woods, white pine, a small lake, that in true New England style they called "the pond" and the cozy presence of rocking chairs (out of favor with modernists like my parents) and a wood-burning stove.  Immediately at home there, I ran about the big yard all my first day, falling into bed before the sun went down.

But I couldn't sleep. The old house creaked and sighed as it cooled from the late spring warmth. The thick darkness and the weird music that pulsed in from the cracked-open window terrified me.  Metallic sounds, like the gears of some huge machine (I visualized a tank out by the pond: the mechanical boogie of my early nightmares).  This machine seemed bent on pushing down the house with me and my dear grandparents inside it.  But my parents weren't modernists as far as child-rearing was concerned.  I was trained to stay in bed once sent there; nothing short of a fire permitted me to jump out of bed.  In tears, I prepared to meet my maker.

Then the bedroom door opened and Grandma appeared, the hall light glinting in her white hair. She looked bigger and sterner without her corset.  Her slippers scuffled across the pine floors. I squeezed my wet eyes shut so she would not know I was awake, the too-tight way a five year old does, fearing Grandma would scold me as my mother most definitely would have, had she been there. 

Grandma tucked the covers around me and smoothed my pillow.  Her fingers lingered near my cheek, where the pillow was soaked.  "Are you awake, Claire?"

I shook my head no.  She sat down on the bed.  "You aren't crying?"  Her voice was so tender and caring, my eyes popped open to see how that could be.  "Do you miss your mother?"

I shook my head again.  "I'm scared."  I whispered.

"Of the dark?  Shall I open the door a crack, darling?"

I shook my head, the tears returning.

"Oh, dear girl, what is the matter?"

I pointed to the window.  "The noise."

"Why that's just--"  She stopped herself and opened the window wider, lifting me into her arms. "Those are the crickets.  Right there, in the brush.  They are playing their legs like little violins. And hear that: those are my favorites, the spring peepers.  Tiny little frogs, dear: when you hear them it means spring will come. . ."

I jumped at a huge belching, growl and I buried my face into her bosom.  

"That's the bullfrog; he's not nearly so big as he sounds.  Why, he'd fit in my sewing basket with room to spare.  He's just a braggart."  

One by one, Grandma named the sounds of the spring night, holding me very close, never belittling my fear of the unknown.  When my little sobbing hiccups quieted she laid me in the bed.  "Are you read to sleep now?"

"I'm still scared."  I whispered.

"Ah,"  She smiled. "Well, now--"

I sighed, sure she was about to excuse herself and leave me to the mercy of the night sounds.

"Being afraid is hard work; I don't suppose you have the appetite for a little snack now, would you?"

The next thing I knew we were creaking down the shallow steps to the kitchen, which smelled wonderfully of strong black coffee that Grandpa drank every night before bed.  We sat at the table, snacked on Ritz crackers, peanut butter and the thick country milk that coats the glass for a long time after it's gone.  I remember a shiny, probably red and white oil cloth tablecover, and the clink of dishes as Grandma cleared up, still not sending me off to bed, but allowing me to savor each moment of security and warmth.  I now trust she was savoring my delight as well.

And so the memory stayed in my cache of lovely New England times, surfacing as I face the fears of the unknown fifty years later.  I remember Grandma's wisdom of listening to each fear, naming it, offering the comfort of company and sustenance to see me through.  

There is much that could and may happen to us.  It is not wise to try to stuff those very real fears away. Already there is much comfort and ease that has been lost, and things we had hoped to do that we cannot do.  

But there are still the loyal friends and family that remember us and chose to reach out and stand by us in these circumstances. The friends who check in, much like Grandma did and see how we are. Friends who take the time to listen to our fears: how dear they are to us!  It is the way we know that God exists through those who show that they care.  And so, my greatest fear, that I should be alone and friendless is dispelled.


  1. Oh Grandma! What a healing presence you were, and are still. Thank you, Claire, for sharing this memory. (Isabelle)

  2. Hello Claire
    Your cousin, Isabelle, sent me access to your blog this morning. I loved the piece you wrote about your grandmother--I could hear Isabelle's voice within your own.
    Isabelle and I were "best" friends in 1955. We met when her mother was a girl scout leader and I joined their merry little troop. Is and I "fell in love" with one another in only the way little girls can when they have found a soul mate. We had one incandescent year together before her family blew apart. Our visits were sporadic after her parent's divorce then as high school loomed not at all. I never forgot her. One evening in 1995 after my husband and I moved from L.A. to Wisconsin my husband told me there was a message on the answering machine from an Isabelle Maddock. My heart leapt in response to this incredible news. Isabelle, as you may well know, is a master sleuth and after searching for twenty-five years she found me through the Internet. Since that time, we have visited one another and have remained close in spirit speaking on the phone at least once a week. She is a treasure. I am so happy that she has you in her life. How enriching to read your prose, to know that your soul is alive in this world. Thank you.
    Cam French (


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