The saddest day, part three
Worried sick about what my teacher said and how she looked, I run all the way home, leap up unto my grandparents’ porch and stare at the familiar doorknob with the combination lock. I fear what is behind the kitchen door.
Stepping into the usually cheerful kitchen, I see Grandmother hunched over more than usual, rubbing the legs of the dining-room table, squeaking the wood with friction and wax. Her eyes remain fixed on her task. My insides hurt even though I do not know why. I stand still for what seems like an eternity. Even the smell of baked rolls does not obscure the acute stillness.
Mother appears from the bedroom, puts her arms around me. Between sobs and opulent tears, she murmurs, “Grandfather had another stroke this morning. He was washing his face when it happened.” Mother is unable to finish.
I know then that Grandfather has died...the three worst words anyone could say to me. I sit down in his chair at the kitchen table and stare out the window at his immaculate yard. I see him watering it every evening, patiently... methodically. We spend hours at his workbench-I watch him as he sharpens his garden tools every winter or makes picture frames or fixes something for Grandmother.
I sit in the grass next to him as he sits in the wicker rocker. In the cool of the evening, we drink Grandmother’s special recipe of home-canned grape juice spiked with a bit of lemon. Then he teases me, saying, “If you throw salt on a bird’s tail, you will be able to catch it.” I believe him, chasing birds that whole summer.
I can feel and smell the mustiness of the basement in my lungs the afternoon I watch him split open the belly of a fish. A frown crosses his forehead as he whispers, “It’s a female.” Fish eggs drape on the wooden counter
Now as I stare out the window, the visions disappear into nothingness. I begin to cry. I run outside and sit on the steps that Grandfather and I painted that summer. I run my hand over the slick gray paint. I still smell the oil of the paint in the air and hear and see the birds playing hide-and-seek in the pear tree.
Grandfather tries to teach me how to paint the steps. He dips his large paint brush into the can, stroking its sides. He waits for me to do the same. I dip too far, paint streaking down the can. He pulls a rag from his back pocket, wipes up my mess, and shows me again. His eyes so blue, I think I can see into his heart. This time I succeed getting paint on the brush and not everywhere else. Next he begins to paint the steps like painting a Raphael mural. For a while, I use too little paint or too much, but Grandfather keeps showing me and eventually, I learn.
As I remember these sweet moments from the last two years of living with my grandparents, I rock back and forth on the steps, wishing I could talk to my best friend and teacher. “I loved you, Grandfather, and I never got to tell you. You were my daddy and my grandfather and I never got to thank you,” I sob. Finally, my tears dry and I wander into the house.
Grandmother cannot talk. She moves about the house day after day, in complete silence. When people bring food, she sits, staring silently at the floor. Her thin arthritic fingers clasp a lace-edged hankie in her lap. Once friends leave, she busies herself making soup from leftovers or she writes in her diary about how she misses Will. She writes countless thank you notes, letters looping and languid in the old German script--each one slowly, painfully with gnarled, bony fingers. All I can do for her is to be a quiet and good granddaughter.
Grandmother’s eyes lose their crystalline blueness. No more will she iron Grandfather’s blue work shirts or bleach his handkerchiefs. No more will he meet her at the bus stop to carry the bulging bag of bulk lard and peanut butter she bought at the butcher’s that day. No more will she buy orange slices or lemon drops at the dime store for him. No longer will he sit across from her in his rocker and she in hers laughing at Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio. His harmonica will lie in a corner of the buffet drawer, never to play “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” again.
I learned so much from Grandfather in the seven years I lived there, so much about courage and strength. No father, being separated from my mother, and living with my grandparents was a severe life for a child. It is over 60 years now since that horrible day when the world stopped to teach a little girl a difficult lesson. Life is far from easy, but we grasp the pain and try to live through it with courage. Perhaps it prepares us for the next saddest day in our lives?
Until next time, hug a grandmother or grandfather.