Friday, May. 20, 2005 - 1:16 p.m.
~ I miss what I used to be able to lay my hands on ~
My Grandma's death left my Grandpa devastated.
Grandma never worked a day in her life. She married one man, had two children, divorced the man, married a younger man -- my grandfather -- and had another child. She had a closet full of minks, a watch studded with diamonds, photo albums filled with shots of her on cruises to Bermuda with friends, a new Cadillac every two years bought for her and driven for her by my grandfather, a vacation cabin in the Maine woods, and a checkbook she kept in her purse to give her first two children ample pocket cash. My grandfather worked two or three shifts a day, cooked meals and cleaned the house, drove my grandmother around to visit her friends and her two older children, and slept on a reclining chair in the living room. A simple man with a third-grade education, my grandfather laboriously signed every check over to my grandmother and let her put everything in her name.
During the last week of my grandmother's life, while the effects of forty years of vodka swelled her up in the intensive care unit, my aunt and uncle helped to ease my grandfather's burden by offering to store my grandmother's jewelry for safekeeping and hold onto the checkbook so that he wouldn't feel bothered. By the time my Grandma died, my aunt and uncle had cleaned out the savings account and had hired a lawyer to help them sell the house my Grandma, bless her black, twisted, malicious heart, had left in her will to only her children and not her husband. At the funeral, while my mother greeted people at the back of the room, I sat with Grandpa up front. I held his four-fingered hand (the pinky had been lost years before in a machinery accident) and we both stared at the waxy cheek just visible in the open casket in front of us.
My mother and her lawyer helped Grandpa keep the house -- although Grandpa never saw his savings or the diamond jewelry again -- with the understanding that once he died, it would be immediately sold and split between the three children. My grandfather, a quiet, plodding, gentle giant, spent a year floundering, unsure of what to do with the gaping hole my grandmother's death had left and the feeling that vultures -- vultures he had raised, fed, clothed, put through school, bought presents for and had considered his children -- circled overhead. He gardened. He sat on the front stoop, smoking his pipe and nodding greetings to neighbors. He tinkered with one of our old bicycles in his backyard. He brought over small things to show us: a baby bat he had found under the eaves of my playhouse, an extra-large tomato he had grown, a cutting board he had made in the shape of a pig for my mother. He talked to his sister who lived an eight-hour drive away in Maine. He made some decisions. Years later, Grandpa told me that if "they" wanted the house that badly, he wanted to make sure they got more than what they bargained for.
My grandfather's workshop in the garage, a sweet-smelling sawdusty space neatly lined with the animal shapes he used to saw out for us, three lamps needing rewiring, and a few old radios, began spreading up and into the house proper. Flats of mismatched silverware were stowed under a loveseat. Vacuums missing hoses or wheels supported crates of waterstained dictionaries and jewelry boxes containing a treasure trove of bakelite and rhinestones. Stuffed animals, plastic toys from Happy Meals and chipped Precious Moments figurines sat shoulder to shoulder with ashtrays, bundled chopsticks, and extension cords. A stack of lampshades teetered in the corner of the living room on an armchair. Necklaces and belts hung from the light fixture in the hallway. Day-glo sheet sets and baseball caps bearing logos from oil companies and car part manufacturers filled the Rubbermaids covering the master bedroom walls. Lone high heels, construction boots, sneakers, and children's plastic flip-flops bulged in bags tied to the stairway banisters. The toolboxes under the phone table overflowed with wrenches, outlet covers, tire pumps, baby food jars filled with nails, and hammerheads missing handles. Wooden chairs bearing busted backs and uneven legs soared in a swaying tower to the ceiling in the sewing room in front of the bookcase that held a fabric strata colorfully documenting thirty decades of remnants. Unopened Christmas boxes from my mother strained under bags of loose batteries, playing cards, rolls of change, doll clothes, and spatulas. Wrenches, coils of garden hose, and picture frames lined the stairway. The coat closet bulged with ripped coats from strangers and two dozen broom handles. Behind the television on its shag-carpeted podium were tennis racquets, hockey sticks, and crutches. Typewriters and a crate of staplers, hole punchers, bobbins, and empty pill bottles sat on an ottoman. Beneath the kitchen table was a tangle of clotheslines, chain, and old telephones. Two extra desks stood in front of the living room couch, old cookbooks and empty photo albums stashed in their drawers. From a floor-to-ceiling lamp hung an assortment of plaid shirts. Yellowing sheet music lay curled inside a milkcrate. The front lawn boasted a seven-foot high haphazard sculpture of hubcaps, bicycle tires and plastic flowers. Chipped coffee mugs crowded in with dozens of skillets in a kitchen cabinet. Next to beach towels folded years ago in the bathroom linen closet were rusting toasters bound with their own cords and lidded casserole dishes filled with pennies.
When I visited my grandfather, and later lived in the lower half of his house, I grew adept at threading my way through his collections and carving out space for myself. I angled a chair so I could see the television my grandfather kept on all day for company. I knew better than to move anything too far from where it had been placed; asked for an item, Grandpa would take a minute to mentally go over his "inventory" before going over to a corner, plunging his hand in between towering piles and withdrawing exactly what was asked for. Neighbors knocked at the door to see if my grandfather had an extra baseball, air valve cover, or gardening gloves. Grandpa always gave them what they asked for and they paid him with loose change and a few minutes of their company.
I was allowed to take anything I wanted and sometimes special items were saved aside for me. A silver dog chain that I still wear as a necklace. An evening purse missing only a few sequins. Books without covers. A pair of earrings made of tiny silver skulls -- a week does not go by without me wearing those to work filled with naughtiness. When I felt like sewing, I sorted through the fabric, selecting what I wanted for a pillow. If I needed something fun to wear as a costume, I had closets full of vintage clothing to root in. Paint, wood scraps, tools, ribbons, yarn, ropes of seed pearls -- everything I might need for a craft was there for the taking. If I was just visiting, I would sit with my Grandpa and ask him about that week's finds and listen to him detail where a special hubcab had been nestled behind a roadside bush or how he had crafted a wire hanger into a hook to pluck out a Mardi Gras necklace from the underbrush. He told me about neighborhood tag sales and how grateful people had been when he offered them a dollar to cart off of odds and ends. I met Grandpa's friends, other retired men with big cars who would bring boxes over to trade or just drop off after sitting with him on the front stoop for a while.
During his hospital and nursing home stays for various broken bones and falls, I visited my grandfather faithfully, arranging with the staff to extend visiting hours if I knew I would not be there until late, bringing a bag of doughnuts to appeal to Grandpa's sweet tooth, wearing quiet shoes so I would not bother the other patients. I sat and tried to think up topics to discuss. I found myself birdwatching more and scrutinized people's gardens so I could bring my grandfather stories of bluejays bothering robins and day lilies shooting up in unexpected places. I listened to the weather report and paid attention to traffic conditions in an attempt to bring the outside in to my grandfather's bedside. If I was working nearby, my employers were great about letting me bring the kids in to see Grandpa and bring him artwork to hang on the walls. At holidays, we made extra artwork -- green construction paper wreaths studded with sequin "berries", baskets filled with pastel eggs, turkeys made out of handprints -- to share with Grandpa's roommate and anyone in the dining hall. Alone, I listened to Grandpa as he brought me up to speed on which patient used to work with him, what breakfast had been like, and how hard some of the nurses worked. If I did not have my bead box there to keep my hands busy and pass the time, Grandpa would hold my hand. When it wasn't safe to touch him because of a staph infection, I was given latex gloves and I would sit near his bed and put my hand over his and tell him about the pile of leaves I saw spin across an intersection during a windstorm or how a crow had scared off some squirrels in our backyard.
Sometimes I think about my grandfather's huge hand with its gnarled knuckles and short fingernails that always sported at least one blood blister from being banged with a hammer or caught on a car door and I wish I could hold his hand again. I wish I could go down into the boiler room where there were ten shelves filled with vases, fruit bowls, and glassware and find the oil lamp with the amber swirls in it so I could place it on my windowsill to catch the afternoon light. I wish I could reach behind the reclining chair in Grandpa's living room and pull out the oversized mesh bag I remember seeing there or dig out the mustard spoon with the extra-long, twisting handle from the silverware drawer or try on my Grandpa's old lumberjack hat one last time to see if I still look just like him when I'm wearing it, but I can't. Grandpa's house was sold just before I moved away.