Grandma's Secret

August 18, 2008
By Elizabeth Riese, The Dalles, OR

It was a very rainy day—too rainy to go outside and play. Had I been at my own home, I would have curled up on the window seat and spent hours reading Sherlock Holmes, but this particular weekend was our annual family reunion, so I was stuck at Grandma’s enormous Victorian house with my dull cousin Christopher.
The rest of my extended family had decided to go to the museum of history, but I refused to attend such a deplorable event. Grandma declared that she was too tired to attend, but secretly I knew that she too found even staying at home to be more exciting than a display on a bunch of dead people. This is just one of the many things that Grandma and I have in common. My red hair and freckles are inherited from her, and we also share the same audacious spirit. I enjoy spending time with Grandma and, though I didn’t admit it, I was glad that she had decided to stay home rather than go to the museum.
Christopher, on the other hand, is nothing like me and I regretted the fact that his “cough” kept him from going to the museum. Christopher, or “Christo” as his mother so fondly calls him, was born exactly 6 months after me and is my exact opposite. His obsession with competitive sports is abhorring to my cultivated mind. His vocabulary consists of two words: “dude” and “football”. Covertly, I call him Rocky, but when I speak to him I call him Chris, since Christo sounds like something out of an old medieval tome.
And so, on this gray and gloomy day, I was stuck at Grandma’s house with nothing to do but listen to Chris talk about his abnormally large biceps. I spent the good part of an hour wandering from room to room of Grandma’s immense house finding nothing particularly interesting. Most of the rooms in Grandma’s house are just spare rooms for company to stay in.
As I strolled through the house, I discovered that I could tell exactly which room each of my relatives was staying in by of the objects the room contained. The first room on the right was Great-Aunt Penelope’s; I could tell because the room was enveloped in the revolting aroma of potpourri and pressed flowers. The next room, filled with pink and purple garments and Barbies, was obviously where my three youngest female cousins, Sally, Jennifer, and Carrie, were staying. Disgusting, I cringed inwardly. Girls are so strange.
I continued from room to room on the first and second floors, and then proceeded to the third floor. As far as I knew, the only person staying on this floor was Uncle Phil. I hadn’t realized how big the third floor was. I continued looking from room to room, looking for something interesting. The most exciting thing I found was a large trunk filled with old cookbooks.
I was beginning to get hungry and decided to head back downstairs when I realized that there was one door that I had not opened yet. I ambled toward the door and reached for the door knob. It would not budge. Why would Grandma lock this door? I wondered. Grandma doesn’t hide anything from her family. My logical mind told me that it was no big deal, but the sleuth in me was eager to find out what mysteries lay beyond this dusty doorway.

After lunch with Chris and Grandma, I decided to look at some old books on the shelves in the front room while Grandma took a nap and Chris did some macho guy thing upstairs. Most of the books looked like they hadn’t been touched in years. The Count of Monte Cristo, Treasure Island, and Ben Hur were just some of the classics I found on the shelves. Another thing Grandma and I have in common is our love of books. Some of my earliest memories of Grandma are of her reading to me.
Among the books were some old family albums and high school yearbooks. At length I settled down with an album and opened it to the pleasant smell of forty-year-old dust. I scanned the pages, recognizing several pictures from our albums at home. There were pages of my mother and her brother Charles growing up. Birthdays, graduations, and other important events filled the pages. I became so absorbed that I didn’t notice the return of my family until the whole group spilled through the front door, breaking the precious silence.
I quickly stood to put the album away before I was accosted by younger cousins. As I stood, a loose photograph fell from the pages of the book and brushed against my leg as it fell to the floor. I scooped it up and examined it. What I saw was the last thing I expected to see. The picture was of my grandma. It was obvious that the picture had been taken several years before. My grandma stood casually with her hand resting on the shoulder of a middle aged man. The man was the president of the United States of America.

After my initial shock, I realized the significance of the picture and tucked it into my back pocket before returning the album to the shelf and rushing upstairs to find a place where I could examine the picture in privacy. Unfortunately, in my family there’s no such thing as privacy and as soon as I had settled into the room I shared with Chris and his brother Trenton, 5-year-old cousin Mia skipped into the room and wanted to know about everything that had happened while she’d been at the museum. The adorable little thing idolized me (and how could I blame her?) but her constant pestering and interrupting tended to get aggravating, especially at a time like this when I so desperately wanted to be alone. I managed get rid of her eventually with something like, “Grandma made chocolate chip cookies.” Grandma’s cooking is so good it could make a schizophrenic forget the voices in his head.
Finally alone, I scrutinized the picture. I speculated about the possible meanings. It seemed peculiar to me that Grandma would be acting so casually with such a renowned person. As my mind searched all the possibilities, I found myself recalling the locked door on the third floor. Like the picture, it seemed oddly out of place in the home of my cordial grandma. I decided to ask Grandma about the picture; that was the only way to know for sure the meaning of it. Yet somehow I dreaded asking her. Somehow I knew that it would reveal something about my grandma that I was never intended to know.

Everyone has a passion. Music, reading, stamp collecting, anything you want. My grandma’s passion is cooking. She is never happier than when she is in the kitchen with a whisk in her hand and her favorite Betty Crocker cookbook. So I knew that when I found her in the kitchen making her delicious apricot cobbler, I had found the perfect opportunity to ask her about the picture.
I started the conversation casually. “Apricot cobbler. That looks good.”
Grandma continued stirring up the batter as she threw over her shoulder, “Oh, well then you can be my first guinea pig.”
“So Grandma….I was looking through one of your photo albums today.”
“Yeah, and I found a really interesting picture…”
“Really?” She was completely absorbed in her task now.
“Yep. It was quite a shock when I saw it…..Grandma? It was of you and the president.”
I instantly saw her head snap up. With her back turned to me, I couldn’t see her reaction, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. She whirled around and suddenly I saw my life flash before my eyes. My grandma’s face loomed above me with the nastiest glare on it that I’d ever seen in my life.
“Where is it?” she bellowed.
“It’s- it’s right here….” I squeaked as I hastily produced the picture. She grabbed the picture and commenced to rip it into tiny pieces. I continued to stand there, mouth hanging open. I had never seen Grandma like this.
“That was a long time ago,” she said through clenched teeth. She turned back to her batter and attacked it with a passion. Once I managed to get my jaw back in place, I crept quietly from the room.
I stayed as far away from Grandma as I could the rest of the evening. I cringed every time she entered the room. What’s wrong with her? I wondered. There’s something important about that picture, and I have to find out what. I went to bed early that night, but sleep didn’t claim me until early in the morning. By the time I fell asleep I knew what I had to do. Somehow I knew that the answer to all my questions lay behind the locked door on the third floor. I had to get the key to that door. I had a plan.

The following morning I woke up at 10:00 to find the house empty of all but Chris and grandma. “They all went to some dumb play,” Chris informed me of the whereabouts of my relatives. Perfect, I thought.
I dawdled all morning, anticipating my grandma’s afternoon nap. Finally she retired, and I began to put my plan into action. Grandma took her naps in her bedroom at the back of the house. I was almost positive that the key was in the study, which was located in the front hallway. As soon as I was sure that she was out cold, I strolled towards the study, making sure that Chris did not follow me. Once in the study, it was easy to locate the key. I only had to look through two dozen drawers, three cabinets and on five bookshelves. Okay, it wasn’t that easy. My nervousness didn’t help much either. Just as I was about to give up hope, I discovered a tiny metal case buried at the bottom of a filing drawer. In it I found a small, round-headed key. A microscopic tag in even more microscopic writing told me that it was the key to the attic. The attic! Why didn’t I think of that? Of course the mysterious door leads to the attic!
I slid the key into my pocket and left the room just as I had found it, minus the key. I scampered up the stairs, thinking that Sherlock Holmes was an amateur compared to me. Sure enough, when I inserted the key into the lock it turned and a click told me that it had worked. The door screeched in protest as I opened it. I wondered how long it had been since someone had opened it. As I peered around the edge of the door, I saw that a rickety wooden staircase rose before me. I crept up the stairs, suddenly recalling every horror story I had ever read. Who knew what lay at the top of this stairway? I was ready to turn and run back down, but then I remembered my mission and I pressed on.
I reached the top of the stairs to find countless dusty trunks, boxes, and suitcases. Where do I begin? I speculated. I started with the nearest chest and found nothing but old clothing. The following chest contained books, the next old documents, and so on and so forth. As trunk after trunk revealed nothing extraordinary, I began to lose heart. Am I searching in futility? I despaired. Yet I knew that I had to keep going and solve the mystery.

I was exhausted and practically starving when I finally opened a chest that contained something that caught my attention immediately. First I removed a pair of size 7 combat boots. Next I discovered an outfit that was completely black. Pants, shirt, jacket, sunglasses, and belt all look so neat yet were somehow enigmatic in their appearance.
The last thing that I drew from the chest told me the answer to my questions. I knew now what the relationship between Grandma and the president was. The last thing I drew from the trunk was a badge. It read, “Secret Service.”

“Grandma! In the Secret Service!” I exclaimed out loud. I quickly covered my mouth, realizing that Grandma was probably awake by now and Chris could be listening to every word from the bottom of the stairs. I was beside myself trying to figure out what to do. Numerous questions flew through my mind. Does anyone else know? I wondered. Is anyone besides me aware of Grandma’s previous secret double life? The sound of cars pulling up to the house broke my train of thought and I hurried down the stairs, locked the door, hid the key in my sock, and made it down the back stairs just as the front door burst open and relatives poured into the house.
I quickly slipped into the living room and assumed a natural position on the couch. Aunts, Uncles, and cousins swarmed into the room, chattering about the play they had just seen. My mom came and sat next to me.
“You missed an amazing play, honey,” she smiled.

“Oh, well I had a pretty exciting day myself,” I said.

“Really? What’d you do?”

Now I wished I had kept my mouth shut. Should I tell her? What if she doesn’t believe me? “Oh, you know. I just kind of hung out,” I finally managed to say.

“Oh….well. That certainly sounds exciting.” I decided that that was a good time to leave the room.

For the rest of the day, every time Grandma looked at me I knew that she knew. Suspicion was written on her every expression. At one point she even gave me the Look. I began to wish that I had never found the stupid picture or the locked door. She didn’t trust me any more, and it was all because I had to go and stick my nose into every little mystery. I felt like the worst grandson in the world. But at the same time I was mad at her for keeping such an important part of her life from her family, from me. My emotions fought inside of me, until I thought I would be torn to pieces from the inside out.

I endured this for three whole days. On the morning of the fourth day, we packed up, said our goodbyes, and headed to our minivan. I knew that I probably wouldn’t see Grandma for several more months, and I couldn’t bear the thought that all that time I would have to live with the knowledge that Grandma didn’t trust me. I could bear it no longer. I rushed back into the house and confronted Grandma. She suddenly seemed very tall. I thought to myself that she must have made a pretty intimidating Secret Service agent when she was younger.

“What is it, Paul?” she asked sweetly. Oh, go ahead. Butter me up. That’s not going to hide the truth about who you were.

“Grandma, I know what you’ve been hiding. You thought that no one would find out about your past. Well I know what you were and I’m not ashamed to say that I think it’s horrible that you would keep such thing from your family. Oh don’t give me that look; you know what I’m talking about!”

“No…I don’t,” she said, bewildered. “Maybe you could explain it to me.”

“I’m talking about you working for the president and being a Secret Service agent and never telling your family about it!”

The next five seconds were the longest five seconds of my life. I watched as my grandma’s expression changed from shocked, to confused, to thoughtful, to amused. Then she began laughing at me, and I had no idea why.

“What’s so funny? I’m serious, Grandma.”

“Oh Paul! Oh—you have always been the most exciting grandson. I never worked for the Secret Service. But I understand why you were suspicious.”

Now comes the part where I realize what a fool I’ve made of myself and blush profusely. Grandma explained that she had indeed met the president and, in a way, worked for him, but not as a Secret Service agent.

“About twelve years ago, when you were just a baby, I entered a cooking contest. The winner of the contest got to fly to Washington D.C. and cook a meal for the president, and spend a day with him. Of course I won so I flew to D.C., met the president, got a picture taken with him, and prepared him a feast worthy of a king. I made my famous apricot cobbler for dessert, and I thought that just for fun I would mix it up a little and put in some walnuts. What the White House staff failed to tell me was that the president is allergic to nuts. The result was so catastrophic that I’ve tried to block that horrible experience from my memory. So you see, the reason why I ripped up the picture was because it reminded me of that awful experience, not because I was trying to hide something from you. Do you understand now?”

I nodded my head. I thought I did. But wait, “What about the Secret Service outfit?” I queried. “Oh that!” she chuckled. “That was a Halloween costume for your uncle Charles when he was about your age. I wanted to make him a Sherlock Holmes costume, but he insisted on being a Secret Service agent.”
I suddenly felt like a fool. I had made such a ludicrous mistake. Would I ever live it down? There was just one last thing bothering me. “Grandma, were you mad at me?”

“No, of course not. What would make you think I was mad you?”

“Well, after you ripped up the picture you kept glaring at me all day long. You gave me the Look.”

“Oh! How funny! I wasn’t glaring at you. My contacts were drying out again, and I suppose my squinting eyes looked rather malicious to you. I’m sorry, dear.”

Now I felt even more ridiculous. She wasn’t mad at me. I had only made myself think that. Well, I had learned my lesson. I vowed never to jump to conclusions again.

“I’ll see you later Grandma,” I said as I bounded out the door. Chris sat on the porch waiting for his parents to join him so they could leave. “See ya later, Chris,” I said, suddenly feeling pleasant. “Yeah, whatever smart boy,” was his intelligent reply. Even Chris’s rude remarks couldn’t bring me down now. I was a new man and I would never doubt my grandma again.

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