I wrote this nonfiction piece during my junior year of college. It seemed like the perfect essay to post in memory of my grandfather, Robert Awes, who passed away on Tuesday, April 14th, 2015. I will always cherish my memories of him, and our time feeding the ants.
It’s early October, sunny, and a perfect day for a walk. Grandma and Grandpa Awes have traveled the five hours from their house in Chicago to visit my family and me in Wausau. I’ve just watched “Pinocchio,” my current obsession, and I sit on the edge of the flowered couch waiting for Grandpa to end the conversation with my mom so that he and I can walk to the nearby cemetery, a tradition my grandfather started a couple years previously. I remove my white hat with a blue bow from my head (which I call my “Pinocchio hat” because it resembles the puppet’s hat perfectly) and hold it in my tiny hands, trying to wait patiently, but I know that when it comes to Mom and Grandpa, I could be waiting a while.
Swinging my legs while slouched on the couch, Grandpa and Mom’s conversation sounds distant, but they’re standing two feet in front of me. Grandpa wears what seems to me to be the only outfit he owns: black pants, a long-sleeved black shirt, and a black hat. He has even sported this outfit when we venture to the beach in Chicago on summer vacation. My mom always laughs before reminding me that Grandpa is adamant about protecting himself from the sun, and in later years I will come to wonder why he chooses to wear black, a color that absorbs the sunlight more than any other. It could have something to do with the fact that he’s been a pastor for so many years that he’s grown accustomed to wearing the color. I pull my hat over my head once more, and bring my attention to Mom and Grandpa’s conversation.
“And how much sleep do you get regularly a night during the week?” my grandpa asks my mom, and she sighs before answering. “I don’t know, Dad. The normal amount, I guess. I’m not tired, you don’t have to worry.” Evidently Grandpa has been badgering my mom, drilling her with questions about her sleeping and eating habits. At five years old, Grandpa does not yet interview me like this, but in time he will make sure to check that I am maintaining my health when he calls or visits.
Grandma ambles into the room and sits next to me, gives me a small smile, and looks from me to Grandpa and Mom.
“Bob, cut it out; Mary’s fine. Why don’t you and Becky go for a walk to the cemetery to feed the ants?” Grandma says.
Grandpa glances momentarily at Grandma, looking a bit irritated, but then looks at me and asks if I want to go feed the ants, his tone changing to something more enthusiastic, much better than the nagging tone he uses when he talks to my mom.
I nod my head vigorously and jump off the couch.
“Let’s go get a couple pieces of bread; I’m sure the ants are hungry,” Grandpa says to me, and we walk together to the kitchen and Grandpa helps me take the twisty tie off the loaf of bread, and we take the two pieces from the two ends of the loaf: the pieces that nobody eats.
Grandpa reminds me to use the bathroom before leaving, and then I run to the front door and grab my bright pink fall jacket. I call goodbye to my mom and Grandma (my dad’s still at work and my brother and sister are busy playing in the backyard), and we leave the house, walking down the three front steps and taking a right. I look up at the blue and cloudless skies, feel the wind whipping through my hair, and crunch some of the newly fallen orange leaves. I reach up and take Grandpa’s hand, and I skip a little.
“I hope we see lots of ants,” I say excitedly.
“There will be plenty of ants; they should be hungry right around now, so they’ll be happy to see us,” Grandpa reassures.
Still holding Grandpa’s hand, I swing my arm and his, skipping once more in an attempt to quicken our journey to the cemetery. Grandpa takes small, quick steps, but in his old age each step is an effort, while I am able to skip several steps, feeling completely unexhausted. When I feel that Grandpa is too far behind, my hand almost slipping from his, I halt in my tracks, glance back, and wait for him to catch up.
“You’re going to have to slow down a bit; I’m an old Grandpa,” he jokes, chuckling. From then on I keep to his slightly slower pace.
Grandpa and I reach the entrance to the cemetery and stroll through the open gates. Leaves litter the dirt path and our footsteps frighten nearby creatures; they scurry up the trees. We walk deeper into the cemetery and search for the concrete bench located just feet behind an immense oak tree, where we know thousands of ants roam during the summer and warmer days in early autumn.
Suddenly a chipmunk runs across our path, and I jump in surprise. The chipmunk (I decide that it’s a male) stops and looks back, black eyes frozen on my grandpa and I. Letting go of Grandpa’s hand, I slowly creep forward, hand outstretched towards the creature, but he darts away, up a tree.
“We should leave food for him, Grandpa,” I say, and Grandpa tears a piece of bread and hands it to me to place at the bottom of the tree for the chipmunk to eat when he was hungry and willing to venture back to the ground.
Grandpa and I decide to name the chipmunk Chipper, a name easy enough for a five-year-old to remember, and we plan to feed him whenever we see him during our walks through the cemetery. We continue strolling along the path and finally find the bench. Grandpa and I sit next to each other and stare down at the ground; I lean forward to watch more closely for the ants. At first only two or three ants scurry through the dirt, but once Grandpa and I begin to throw bread crumbs onto the ground, ten, twenty, a hundred ants emerge from nearby anthills, and some seem to appear out of nowhere, thrilled at the sight of food.
The ants’ behavior enthralls me: they scuttle past each other, and when one ant attempts to carry a piece of bread twenty times its size, other ants come to its assistance and in groups they carry off the bread, forming a line. The ants resemble an army, large in numbers and working as a team to achieve a common goal. As we toss more pieces of bread onto the ground, the ants come back for them, and I see that the ants have a leader. The leader ant marches in the front of the line, reaching one of the bread pieces first, and takes it himself, refusing help from the other ants who come forward to assist. The ants appear tireless, carrying bread crumbs off and coming back for more.
“It’s a good thing we came here today while it’s still warm. The ants aren’t going to be around later on because it’ll be too cold for them,” Grandpa says. I imagine a below-zero December day, and while I’m making snow angels with my best friend Maggie in our winter attire, the ants are in their anthills underground, keeping warm and feasting on bread crumbs they’ve saved for hibernation. I cannot imagine how boring it would be sitting underground, trapped for months at a time with nothing to do.
“Do ants get bored being underground during the winter?” I ask Grandpa.
He laughs and says that he doesn’t know, because he’s never hibernated during the winter months.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be so boring for them because they’re not alone,” I decide, and Grandpa agrees.
After we run out of bread, Grandpa and I say goodbye to the ants and leave the bench. Not yet ready to go home, I suggest trying to find Chipper once more. I sprint to the tree where I had left the piece of bread for him, Grandpa ambling behind me. The bread is still there.
“He’s not hungry yet,” I say. Grandpa assures me that Chipper will eat the bread once we leave, and we continue walking on the dirt path. I glance left to right as if watching a tennis match, searching desperately for any sign of Chipper, or for any animal for that matter. At the sound of rustling leaves to my right, I turn my head to find a chipmunk sitting near a grave.
“It’s Chipper!” I shriek, but instantly regret screaming so loudly. The chipmunk jumps a foot in the air and scampers away into a mass of trees. Feeling disappointed, I trudge a few paces back to where Grandpa is standing, and I take his hand once more before continuing in our walk.
“Chipper’s just shy,” Grandpa says, and after pondering the statement, it’s understandable. I know that I wouldn’t take food from someone I’d never met, and I surely wouldn’t talk to a stranger walking down the street, unless the person was friendly, of course. Chipper must not have taken me to be a friendly human being at all, screaming so suddenly the way that I did.
Grandpa and I walk hand in hand along path while black, grey, and red squirrels climb up and down the trees, the robins chirp, and the sun begins to fall lower in the sky. Sunlight peeks through the trees, but the cemetery grows slightly darker as time passes. Grandpa suggests that we walk home, and I follow his lead as he gently pulls me along in the direction of the gates from which we entered.
Walking along the sidewalk, the atmosphere has changed in the hour and a half that has passed since Grandpa and I were walking here. We left the house at past 4:00, (thanks to Grandpa and Mom’s ability to talk way more than necessary), while the street had been empty, and there was a palpable humidity in the air. Now, walking while the sun begins to set, cars whiz by, drivers on their way home from work, and the air is no longer humid. It’s still comfortable, but the temperature is gradually dropping. I grasp Grandpa’s hand more tightly, feeling slightly nervous at the sudden rush of cars, and I notice the almost leathery feel of Grandpa’s skinny hand compared to the smoothness of my own. At this moment I think to myself that I don’t ever want to grow old.
Grandpa and I walk up the porch steps and into the house, which is louder than the noise of the cars outside, and I call “We’re home!” to anyone who will listen. My siblings Katie and Luke are watching Luke’s favorite movie, “Michael’s Jordan’s Playground,” while attempting to shoot hoops, using a miniature plastic basketball hoop in the living room. I can hear Mom, Dad, and Grandma talking in the kitchen while my mom cooks dinner, and my mom and Grandma emerge to greet us. The four of us sit at the dining room table and I tell Grandma and Mom of the adventure Grandpa and I had at the cemetery. I talk excitedly about how many ants we fed, and then Grandpa says, “And we saw a chipmunk today, didn’t we, Becky? And we named him Chipper.”
While I continue to babble about Chipper the chipmunk, Grandma leans towards my mom and says into her ear, “Grandpa really does love going on those walks to the cemetery,” and she gives my mom a smile.
Once Grandpa and I finish our story, Mom returns to the kitchen to finish making dinner and Grandpa and I wash our hands at the kitchen sink. Mom calls to the rest of the house that dinner is ready, and Grandpa, Dad, Katie, Luke, and I join Grandma at the table. We all take our sits and I sit next to Grandpa, and since he is a pastor, he leads us in a prayer, which begins with the line, “Be present at our table, Lord,” and at the time it is the only line I know. I sing it loudly with the adults, but abruptly stop and watch them sing the rest of the song, eyeing my siblings and giggling a little at the slight awkwardness of sitting silently while our parents and grandparents sing.
While eating dinner, Grandpa and I retell our story to Katie and Luke.
“Grandpa, I want to see Chipper!” Luke shouts, and Katie nods her head in agreement, her brown eyes sparkling with excitement at the idea of seeing a chipmunk. Besides that, however, feeding the ants is an activity that Grandpa and I do together, and Katie and Luke wouldn’t find it as entertaining as running along the path looking for animals. Perhaps they are too young to appreciate nature on a scale as small as the size of an ant.
The next day, before Grandpa and Grandma drive back to Chicago, Grandpa takes Katie, Luke, and I to the cemetery. Grandpa and I make sure to take a couple pieces of bread to feed the ants, but during the walk, all Katie and Luke talk about is Chipper. Luke asks where he lives and when I say that I’m not sure exactly, he decides that we’ll just have to search the whole cemetery until we find him (not realizing that Chipper could not possibly be the only chipmunk residing in the cemetery).
Grandpa, Luke, Katie, and I enter through the open cemetery gates and Luke and Katie run ahead to find Chipper. Grandpa calls them back, and we all walk to the concrete bench where Grandpa and I ritually feed the ants. Katie and Luke stand while Grandpa and I sit side by side, dropping bread crumbs on the ground. Within minutes, ants emerge from their anthills and march toward the pieces of bread, taking them away to store for later. I lean forward as I always do, once again fascinated by the way the ants move as a unit, but it is evident that Katie and Luke are not amused. Luke stares up at the trees, calling, “Here, Chipper, come here,” while Katie walks around the circumference of a tree, humming.
After Grandpa and I throw the rest of the bread crumbs on the ground, he says that we should go look for Chipper. We rise from the bench and walk away from the ants still retrieving the bread crumbs, and I look over my shoulder at them as Grandpa, Katie, Luke and I walk back onto the path. I long to go back and observe them, but the thought that reassures me is that when Grandpa and Grandma visit again in the spring and summer, Grandpa and I will be able to feed the ants again.