I am standing on a fortress wall, sword in hand. There’s a dragon on the loose menacing the kingdom. I am not a monarch charged with protecting his subjects but a knight holding a crude wooden sword. I am seven years old and already, I am hailed as a great warrior.
I remember little of my maternal grandmother, Edna Marie Kobe. I never heard her called by her first name; she was always addressed by her middle name. Grandma Marie died when I was three-and-a-half years old, so what I recall of her is now over sixty years distant. Memory, as the writing of this collection has proven, is a tricky thing. One minute, you believe you recall an incident, a place, a person in a certain way. You’re positive in your recollection. Then a friend or relative or reader peruses your story and finds a flaw, a memory that is artifice and not based upon actual circumstances. The few memories I have of Grandma Marie are like that. I do recall—when she was deathly ill—crawling beneath her bed in my grandparents’ house in West Duluth and banging away on the bed springs with a toy hammer. I was trying to “fix” Grandma. I’m pretty sure I didn’t attend my grandmother’s funeral. In fact, I don’t recall attending any funerals until I was an adult. Repressed trauma perhaps? But one day, Marie was my grandmother and, seemingly, the next day Nancy was.
Grandpa Jack married widower Nancy Krantz when I was in first or second grade. That’s the timeframe for this story. Before they married, I spent time at Nancy’s place in downtown Duluth. Nancy’s apartment was in a fourplex she’d inherited from her late husband. Built of brick and slanting towards St. Louis Bay on one of Duluth’s vertically challenged avenues, the rent from the place was Nancy’s main source of income outside a modest social security check and the meager stipend she earned fixing dead people’s hair at Crawford’s Mortuary. Nancy had a parakeet, a bird that squawked loudly and pooped a lot and kicked bird feed out of its cage and onto the kitchen floor but didn’t say or do anything profound. Due to traffic, I never played outside Nancy’s apartment though I remember Nancy making me the best old- fashioned oatmeal I’ve ever eaten.
After they married, Nancy sold her apartment building and my grandparents bought a small two- story Tudor in Duluth’s East End. Their house on Vermillion Road is where I became legendary as a knight of the realm.
Up the block from Jack and Nancy’s new house, a stone castle—its tower soaring to the sky and overlooking Lake Superior, its walls solid and demonstrative of great authority—awaited investigation. While my grandparents scraped wallpaper off the walls of their new house, I was free to explore the neighborhood. During one such excursion I earned my knighthood and the self-appointed title of “Sir Mark.”
“Grandma,” I said breathlessly, having just returned from an epic journey, “I killed a mountain lion.”
Grandma Nancy smiled and nodded as she made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “That’s nice, Dear.”
“Really, Grandma. It was big and growling and trying to break into the castle when I wrestled it and snapped its neck.”
“Uh huh,” Nancy said, sipping hot coffee. “And where is the lion’s body now?”
I thought for a moment between bites of sandwich hoping against hope that she wasn’t asking me to produce proof of my kill. “At the castle.”
Grandma pondered my disclosure. “Don’t you think you should bury it?”
The idea had never occurred to me. “Sure,” I replied. Having never attended funerals as a child (including the ceremony laying Brice—a four-year-old cousin who drowned on Minnesota Point—to rest) I was clueless as to what the funerary process entailed. Grandma noticed me pondering her suggestion.
“You’ll need a shovel to dig the grave. And a cross to mark it,” she said, playing along. “Grandpa can help you with that.”
My maternal grandfather was a lot like Uncle Willard in that both men were handy with tools. But whereas Willard had a complete woodshop located in the basement of his motel, a retreat that included joiners and planers and band saws and drill presses, Grandpa Jack—an immigrant from Slovenia—was more of an Old World craftsman. I remember him building a doghouse for Deuce I—my first dog—in the basement of his West Duluth house before Grandma Marie died. He cut all the lumber with a hand saw, used a hand drill to make holes for bolts and screws, and never, so far as I know, used power tools during the process. That doghouse lasted through four or five dogs, a testament to Grandpa’s handiwork. Grandpa Jack’s workshop in the basement of the house on Vermillion Road was like something you’d expect Geppetto to labor in. There were jars filled with screws and nuts and bolts and other hardware lining a shelf above a wooden bench tucked into a corner. Saws and hammers and wrenches and plyers and screwdrivers and other hand tools—all neatly organized and arranged—hung from hooks on pegboard above the workbench.
I found Grandpa Jack working in his basement shop.
“Grandpa,” I said with seriousness, “I need to borrow a shovel. I also need to make a cross. For a grave.”
My grandfather wasn’t one to pry too deeply.
“I killed a mountain lion,” I explained, “at the castle. Grandma says I need to bury it.” Grandpa nodded, left whatever project he was working on (likely yet another birdhouse for the backyard), found some scrap lumber and, in short order, nailed together a crude wooden cross. “How’s that?”
“Great. I’ll need a shovel. For the grave.”
He smiled, exposing teeth yellowed by age, coffee, and the hand-rolled cigarettes he smoked away from Grandma Nancy’s scrutiny. “There’s one in the garage you can use, next to the service door.”
I don’t think I dug a grave. But I do remember walking back up the hill towards the castle, cross in hand, finding a soft spot on the fortress’s lawn, and sinking the wooden shaft of the marker into the ground to memorialize the mountain lion’s final resting place.
Sometime later, Grandpa made me a wooden sword to fend off the dragon I reported was threatening the castle. “You were lucky with the mountain lion,” he said as he screwed two pieces of pine together, the wood painted white and the sword’s handle wrapped with black friction tape to improve grip. “You’ll need this if you encounter any other creatures or monsters.”
I nodded, accepted the sword with solemnity, climbed the basement stairs, and wandered out the back door in search of adventure. I don’t remember if a dragon challenged me as I stood on the steps of Holy Rosary Catholic Cathedral, my eyes fixed on the bluebird sky cloaking the Kingdom of Duluth. I do recall priests and nuns eyeing me with curiosity as they made their way to confer with the Almighty. I’m pretty sure those men and women of God felt safer knowing Sir Mark was keeping watch.