“If you want anything, you’d better get down there now. By tonight everything will be gone. Leroy’s bringing his boys and a dumpster and they’re going to clean the whole place out.”
Three days before my father alerted me to the impending blitzkrieg that would soon descend upon my grandmother’s house, Sandy and Chris (my aunt and uncle) had come from South Carolina to take my grandmother back home with them. It was not safe for her to live by herself anymore. A nursing home would have been overkill, at least for now, so they packed up what few things she needed (which didn’t amount to much) and wanted (a little more) and left everything else.
To be honest, I was glad to see her go. What I mean is, I was happy for her to be able to live with family, with people that loved her. The cloudy, cold waters were rising, so any time—a year? a month? a week?—spent outside the confines of an institution (no matter how ‘nice’) was a victory. There was no telling how long it would be before she would forget faces, so until then, let her look daily upon those that love her.
The day before she left I was sitting in the cramped kitchen listening to her and my father go back and forth about insurance and doctors and schedules. She must have asked half a dozen times in as many minutes, “Now, when is Sandy coming?”
Her list of medications was pinned to the calendar and my father pointed and said, “Look, I’ve written everything right there. See, it says there on Saturday, ‘Sandy—arriving 2 a.m.’”
There was an old, yellowed photograph in a cracked frame on the wall and I took it down and held it out to my grandmother. “Who is this crew?” I asked, and she pointed to each one of her brothers and sisters and told me their names and whether they were still alive. Three days later, when I walked around that quiet, tiny, empty house the picture was gone with only a nail sticking out from the faded green wallpaper as a marker.
I had pulled into the driveway with the gravel crackling under the tires after driving the same country highways my father had sped across at ninety miles per hour several years earlier when he had been awoken by a call from my grandmother in the early morning telling him that his father was dying. When he arrived, he found him lying on the floor, surrounded by EMT’s, sweating and working on the rickety scaffolding that was once my grandfather’s body.
My grandfather used words like, ‘dame’ and ‘kaiser.’ As a child, I had no idea what they meant, but I liked them, I suppose, for the intrigue and the hint of the burlesque. My grandfather had fought in the War, and I’d seen Bob Hope & Co. in the old black and whites my mother would put on the television, so I knew that American G.I.’s really lived it up with swagger and class when on European soil. I pictured my grandfather sauntering into a cantina with his army buddies in tow, ordering famous sounding drinks and throwing foreign coins down on the counter, giving Frenchwomen the eye. At some point, someone—probably my mother— informed me that ‘dame’ was not a swear word and it immediately lost all its bawdy appeal.
My grandparents’ house was full of games. As children, my sister and I were started out on The Scooby-Doo board game and as we grew in mental capacity, we graduated to more difficult and challenging games—ones that I assume even the adults enjoyed playing. And as a reward for exhibiting a certain level of aptitude in the more difficult games, my grandmother ceased the practice of ‘letting us win’ and actually tried to beat my sister and me. The games, in their musty cardboard boxes, were stacked in the spare bedroom on a shelf. You could tell which ones had been played most often, as they would be on the top of the stack and therefore the easiest to get down.
Meals in the kitchen were cramped, with all of us fitting around a table that during the week was set for only two. My grandfather would eat peas with his knife and root beer was on tap. Standing in that room as a grown man, I couldn’t believe we all fit.
She had left her cooking pots—her famously polished copper-bottomed cooking pots—hanging in a row like wrenches in a finely-organized tool shed. The copper bottoms were tarnished now, though not from lack of care. They were old, that’s all. They’d been held over the flame for decades.
I went from tiny room to tinier room, looking through drawers and closets, searching for potential family heirlooms and artifacts from lives lived. Over the past few months I had taken into my care a few such objects: my grandfather’s paratrooper training jacket; an old German Bible; photographs and military service records. When you search for such things, you realize how rare they are.
In the hallway next to the bathroom I saw an unfaded rectangular shape where the picture of Jesus praying in Gethsemane had hung for at least my entire life. As a child, I probably would have ignored it altogether had it not been for the electrical cord and plug emerging from behind the frame that, when switched on, lit a shaft of moonlight, illuminating the face of Christ in agony and loneliness. I remember reading the passage in Luke and straining my eyes to see if there was blood on his brow.
The garage was the last place I looked. It smelled the same as it always had—like wood. I expected a mess of spider webs and heaps of old junk, but instead I found Geppetto’s quiet and still shop—dusty, but not entirely neglected. Opening the back door to the path that led to the garage broke the silence of the hot July afternoon. A bird house hung from the back porch overhang, alive with buzzing—the comings and goings of an air force of wasps.
“I have no tolerance for wasps. Bees, on the other hand, get my approval,” I said aloud. Only now, as I write this, do I think it strange to have said something like that with no one else around.
I carried three things with me out of the dim mouth of my grandparents’ garage. One of them was an aerosol can of wasp killer. Along the side of the garage was a bed with half a dozen hydrangea plants suffering under the summer heat. They looked hurt, with their leaves recoiled and turned in so that I could see their boney stalks. I put the can of wasp killer down and found the spigot and hose on the side of the house. I stood with the sun on my shoulders and not a hint of a breeze on the air in mid-July and watered my grandmother’s hydrangeas.
The gravel crackled and crunched as I backed down the driveway and I knew I would never be back there. I had spent several hours digging through the garage and come out with a pair of binoculars around my neck and a miniature vase that I thought my wife might like. As I pulled into the street I looked back and saw the aerosol can, the wasp killer, lying on its side in the driveway where it had been knocked over through my efforts with the hose. I never used it. The wasps could have their birdhouse.