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A Summer's Tale

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I have always imagined my life as a novel, filling the pages with the different chapters of my life. Like every story, there is an introduction, a trigger, a climax, and then an ending and in a way, our lives are similar, more or less. And we all have a defining moment, perhaps more than just one, which form who we are today, for better or worse.


The summer before I left for Neuchatel Junior College was a summer of change. My mother and step-father moved to Montreal, Canada while my father and step-mother packed their belongings to start a new life in Memphis, Tennessee – all three weeks before I started the next chapter of my life in Switzerland. For once, I felt homeless and lost. Despite the fact that I spent nineteen years fighting to escape my hometown, Greeneville, I miss it today. I miss the country side with the rolling green hills and the sweet tea that makes the locals lose their teeth before the age of thirty. I miss the smell of fried chicken along Main Street and the faded old restaurant called “Tipton’s” that causes five heart attacks a month from the grease. And yet my parents were ready for a change; both, at the same time. On August 21, the two moving trucks left our neighborhood, traveling in opposite directions at the main fork out of Greeneville, and I left my childhood behind. The introduction of my novel was completed.


However, the move was not my defining moment like it was for my parents. The move and the change I could deal with. Before the summer, my parents called me at my boarding school.


“Emily, Grandpa isn’t doing so well. Would you consider going to Ohio for a while?”


“A while? Exactly how long is ‘a while’?”


“Just three weeks, while we are in Italy,” I hear my mom’s voice say. “You wouldn’t be able to travel with us.”


Three weeks! Three weeks being cooped up in an old house with a seventy-eight year old man? I can’t.


I sat on my bed in my dorm room, gazing out the window overlooking the Tennessee River, only thinking about myself and the summer. Selfish.


“Emily, he really needs you and it will be good for you,” Mom almost pleads, knowing what was going through my head.


My heart sank hearing the worry in her voice. The image of standing in the uneven streets of Assisi vanishes from my mind, replaced with the image of my mom’s face.


“Okay Mom, I’ll look for plane tickets.”


After graduation, I walked through the Atlanta Airport by myself, looking for Gate C5 with my green flip-flops snapping against the back of my heels with every step and my cowgirl hat clenched in my hands. I had never felt more alone.


My aunt Jill picked me up at the Akron Airport in Ohio for the thirty-minute car ride of excited squeals and family gossip.


“Honey, he is so excited that you are coming to visit!” she said after a moment of gazing out the front windshield, watching the endless rows of corn fields covering the flat lands of Ohio.


“He is?”


“Yes! It has been so difficult for us to try and care for him lately. Aunt Nancy even mentioned a nursing home,” she continued, glancing sideways in my direction.


“A nursing home?” I gasped. “That is the worst idea I’ve ever heard. I would rather die than be placed in a nursing home.”


I glanced over in her direction, just in time to see her face turn towards the front window, cringing at my words. Awkwardly, I turned to face out the window, instantly regretting my outburst and for thinking only of myself once again.


“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, trying to repair the damage. “I didn’t mean it like that.”


“I know, Sweetie.”


Jill turned her head slightly my way, managing a sweet smile on her lips before pressing the power button for the stereo, filling the Saturn with Coldplay. I sank back into the leather interior, mentally preparing myself.


That was the start of the three weeks in Ohio, with a poor attitude and a mind of adolescence. Typical. Selfish. And soon to change.


“Grandpa, what do you want to eat?”


It was the fourth day and already I was suffocating from the lack of fresh air and the freedom of being a teenager. Instead I was doing the one thing I hated most, cooking and cleaning. It was not that it was dull work; I just swore never to play the role of a housewife. Don’t get me wrong, I have much respect for housewives and mothers; it is just not my duty in life.


I walked into the living room to find him sitting up in the Lazyboy with last week’s Warren Times held loosely in his hands and his chin resting gently on his heaving chest, drool drizzling down the corner of his lips.


I walked over and lightly touched his shoulder, shaking him.


“Grandpa, wake up.”


He didn’t move.


“Grandpa, wake up,” I said louder, applying more pressure against his shoulders.


And still he didn’t wake up. But his chest was still moving. Why wasn’t he responding?


Carefully, I lifted my hand to his mouth, to poke his cheek because I knew he hated that. Before my index finger could jab his right check, he jerked his head around, snapping his teeth on my finger.


“Jesus, Grandpa!” I yelped, pulling my hand back and clenching my heart.


“Gotcha, whooper snapper!”


“God, Grandpa, are you trying to kill me?”


“How’s your heart, kid?”


“Give it a second while I try to restart it.”


I sank down into the coach, breathing heavily, watching his face. A wide wicked smile spread across his face, creating crinkles around his eyes and taking ten years off his age. His green eyes were dancing, one of the first times I’d really seen him smile since Grandma died just months before.


“Anyway, just don’t fix any more pasta. We’ve had it four days in a row. Can you fix omelettes? But no tomatoes unless you want to be cleaning up after me, kid,” he said, laying back into his Lazyboy and picking up the newspaper.


“Fine, no pasta. And Grandma would have smacked you for giving your favorite granddaughter a heart attack,” I accused, returning his grin.


I took in his expression as his smile slipped from his lips and the corners of his eyes tightened at the memory of Grandma. Once again, I threw salt on unhealed wounds.


I hesitantly stood on my feet, leaving Grandpa with the elephant in the room. I walked into the kitchen to prepare the next dinner. Pasta again.


A few days passed with the same routines of cooking and cleaning the house while Grandpa took his daily naps once a day, twice a day, even three times a day. I continued to e-mail my friends back at home, especially my best friend Tyler.


Dear Tyler,



Grandpa is doing fine. I am getting very restless here. But I’ve been getting loads of reading finished; I just finished Gone With the Wind for the second time. When I am not cleaning or cooking, I am sitting on the couch with Grandpa reading while he sleeps. Every now and then he jerks awake to comment on Jeopardy.


Miss you.
Love,
Emily


“Why aren’t you eating?” I asked, shoveling Betty’s Instant Mash Potatoes into my mouth.


“Because it’s pasta again…for the sixth time in a row,” he responded, eyeing the pasta with disgust. “Can’t you cook anything else, kid, or at least let me eat the same thing as you?”


I glanced down at my plate of half eaten mashed potatoes, green beans, and cheese sticks then shifted my eyes to his bowl of bowtie pasta with soupy tomato sauce and chunks of uncooked tomatoes.


“I’m sorry but the doctors said no salt,” I responded, setting down my fork to look at him. “And you have to eat. You are getting too skinny.”


He picked up his fork to jab at a bowtie and pop it into his mouth. I watched him turn it in his mouth, not chewing.


“Did you not put your teeth in today again, Grandpa?”


A wide smile crossed his face, exposing his gums.


“Nope, kid. You are the only person I need to impress.”


I flashed a grin in his direction, embarrassed about his affection which was uncommon.


After dinner, I cleaned the kitchen while he sat at the large table with his massive black bag of pills.


“Do you need help?” I asked after pressing start on the dishwasher and glancing towards the pharmaceutical store he had spread before him on the table.


“Sure,” he responded. “I can’t read a damn thing these doctors write. I don’t even need all these pills – they are going to end up killing me instead.”


For some odd reason, an abrupt laugh escaped my lips. Perhaps it was his stubbornness or his facial expression or even the fact that he had thousands of pills laid before him without any idea of what he was doing.


“What do you normally do?” I asked.


“Just take whichever ones look right.”


“Jesus.”


I picked up the yellow tablet with the directions and carefully picked out the right medicines for him. Six different kinds of medications.


“Kid, never get old,” he said, popping all six pills in his mouth.


“Okay.”


“And dinner was good.”


We both knew he was lying but I smiled in spite of myself and to humor him.


The next day I went to buy my first cookbook.


The days went by more quickly turning into a week. I was actually enjoying myself, staying up later and later just to play cards with him. We hardly ever talked but we became accustomed to one another, enjoying just being in each other’s presence. I felt alone when I was not with him and once he told me the same. I even started to catch on to his daily routine of napping every few hours. We had this mutual agreement and understood each other’s wants. I discovered how similar we are, despite our arguments about race, sexuality, and the differences from when he was a teenager and my teenage years. Without realizing it, he became dependent on me. Even more, I became dependant on him. I never rely on people, nor did he, except on my grandmother which was the one subject we did avoid. Until one night during dinner.


“The first time I saw your grandmother, I knew she was the one.”


“What?” I stuttered, unsure if I was hearing correctly. Was he actually talking about Grandma?


“First day in band in ninth grade,” he continued. “I was a flute player and she was a French horn player. And she was a beauty. I drove her nuts.”


It was day eleven and we were sitting in our normal spots at the dinner table, piling condiments on the hamburgers I had just grilled.


“I knew I had her,” he said with a crooked smile on his lips. “She was jealous that I was second chair for the flutes.”


“Grandpa, there were only two flute players in the band.”


“Hey, small detail,” he snapped, narrowing his eyes. “Anyway, when did you get so smart?”

My laugh filled the small dining room, bouncing off the cream colored walls.


“Anyway, I knew she was the one. I asked her out on a date and I couldn’t believe that she said yes to a small, scrawny boy when she was that pretty. I was a lucky boy. Before I knew it, we were married with six kids. Her parents paid me, though, to marry her and those kids just kept coming for some reason. I should have stopped before your mother.”


Again my laughter filled the air as he winked at me before stuffing the hamburger into his mouth, ketchup running down the sides of his hands and onto his white wife-beater.

And then his eyes tightened just like before, but this time tears threatened the corner of his eyes, filling them with misery as memories of his love flashed before his eyes. He suddenly set his hamburger down, wiping his hands on the legs of his pants, his expression changing.


“Kid, she was the best person I’ve ever known. I can’t live without her. She was my life and now she is gone. I need her.”


I watched helplessly as he bowed his small head into his hands, his shoulders shaking. I gingerly rubbed my hand along his spine, unaware of my own tremors.


That night I went to bed, confused and sad. I lay in bed for hours, thinking about Grandpa and his life now. Tears burned in my eyes, sliding down my cheeks. For once I felt the pressure and the responsibility of an adult, having to care for another. I knew he was sick and that he had no reason to fight any more. I had this terror of him not waking up the next morning, leaving me. Just then did I realize my need for him just as much as he needed me.


Hearing the door crack open and a small light stream into my room, I looked up to see Grandpa standing in the frame, motionless. Without saying a word, he crept to my bedside, his bare feet quiet against the white carpet. I lifted the covers for him to crawl in beside me, trying to not let the heat escape. We both lay on our backs, emotion filling the air around us. We’d never been this close before, mentally or physically and we didn’t know how to react. I laid there quietly sobbing, listening to his light breathing, unaware of his tears. Eventually, sleep overpowered me, forcing me to close my eyes. Before losing all sense of consciousness, I felt his withered hand wrap around mine above the sheets.


As my cooking improved, so did our relationship. Before I knew it, the three weeks were over. The day before I left, I swept around the house, cleaning every inch and preparing meals to last him the next six months. I wasn’t ready to leave nor was he ready for me to leave. We became so used to each other that it seemed normal. I avoided him all day, just to not look into his sad eyes for I knew I would cry again.


That night I crept into his bed. Neither of us slept.


The next morning I cooked enough breakfast to feed the U.S. Army of eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes. He didn’t say anything when he walked into the dining room and saw the table. He didn’t even seem to notice, for his eyes were blank; just like mine.


We sat in silence, picking at our breakfast and constantly exchanging glances. Too soon, a knock came at the front door. I jumped up and wrenched the door open to come face to face with my uncle Neil.


“Hey Em, ready?”


“Yes,” I lied.



Neil walked in, whistling at the sight of food.


“Martha Stewart couldn’t have done no better,” he said, raising a grey eyebrow.


A weak laugh hardly escaped my mouth with a strained smile that did not reach my eyes. Subconsciously, I slipped on my green flip-flops.


I glanced over towards Grandpa. He was facing me, still sitting in the chair with his shoulders slumping and his head dropped. I walked slowly over to him, unsure how to say my good byes.


“Okay, hurry up Emily or you will miss your flight,” Neil said behind me, grabbing my red Roots suitcase, unaware of the tension in the air.


“Okay, give me a moment, please,” I responded, not taking my eyes of the old man before me.


Grandpa finally looked up when I knelt beside him, grasping his hands.


“Emily, please don’t leave me.”


“Grandpa, please don’t say that. I will see you soon enough. I promise,” I pleaded, not sure if I was trying to reassure him or me.


“But you are leaving me. You are going to Switzerland.”


“I’ll be back.”


“I may never see you again.”


I felt my heart catch in my throat, his words stinging every inch of my skin. For we both knew that might be true. He was ill and I was leaving.


I lifted my right hand and gently stroked his cheek, forcing him to look up into my face, catching my eyes.


“I love you.”


That was the first time he had ever said those words to me – to anyone – besides my grandmother.


“I love you, Grandpa.”


Wrapping my arms around his shoulders, I pulled him into my chest, resting my chin on his shoulder. Unwillingly, I pulled away. I stood up slowly, bending over to grab my Northface back bag and swung it on my back. Straightening up, I caught sight of Grandpa’s expression, mirroring my own despair. I leaned over, placing a small kiss on his cheek before walking swiftly to the front door to find the forgotten Neil watching his feet, clearly uncomfortable and confused about our affection for each other.


“Let’s go,” I choked.


Before closing the front door, I glanced one more time towards Grandpa sitting there alone. Completely alone; as alone as I felt. I raised my right hand and gave the smallest wave, watching his lips form the word bye before closing the door.


Quickly I climbed into the passenger seat of the Chevy truck while Neil started the engine. We sat there for a few moments. He tried small talk but it was hopeless for my tears were overwhelming both of us, unavoidable.


Finally he stopped and took a deep breath.


“I’ve never seen him cry before.”


“Me either,” I responded.


“He was very lucky to have you this summer.”


“No,” I corrected my uncle, “I was the lucky one.”


And at that, the second chapter of my life was completed.





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AlliD said...
Aug. 2, 2010 at 2:46 pm
Amazing; a very touching memoir. Publish this article!
 
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