The colors of the leaves dangling from maple trees were blazing in full fall glory here in St. Louis this morning. My husband and I went out to breakfast after sleeping an extra hour, a gift from “Fall Back” last night. Our clocks said 7:30. Only the day before it would have been, 8:30.
We took our places across from one another at the restaurant where a group of friends joined us. Within minutes, heaping bowls of steaming scrambled eggs, a clear glass pitcher of cool orange juice, and a platter of flaky, home-made biscuits , warm honey on the side, were brought to our table to be served, “family style.” Memories of life as a teen suddenly flooded before me. If you could have spied through my family’s kitchen years ago, shortly after the sun had risen you, would have often seen my mother busy cooking during weekend mornings. I don’t remember her using a cookbook, rather “intuition” was her guide. Rarely did she use a measuring cup or spoon. The only recipe I inherited was her “home-made” noodles. They are served several times a year. Even to this day, my husband say’s that’s how I got him to walk me down the aisle!
In my high school years, just off the kitchen a small room previously used as a den was my paternal grandfather’s “special space.” He had a hard life, one found and most often read about in fiction books. While still quite a young man, he worked as a coal miner in St. Charles, Michigan. There, the lure of booze trapped him in its snare, eventually leaving him far less than the man he could have been. Before long, his wife and children had no choice but to leave him, the bank taking his house and even most of his belongings, or so the story goes. The local bars became his “home,” where the only thing he could call his own was a cheap bottle of beer that stood upright, across from the round wooden stool he sat upon.
One morning, in the same kitchen that my mother cooked in, the phone on the wall rang loud and startling. A stranger’s voice was on the other end, begging her to come for him. “Your daddy, this other voice said, “might not live to see another day.” My parents sped away in their 1970’s Monte Carlo, eventually finding the address of a beaten-down apartment building. Barely, it stood between a bar to the left and another to the right. My parents found my grandfather living in squalor, carried him to their car, stopping along the way only to purchase clothes at a local Sears store that didn’t stink. When they got him home he was given a shower and put into bed.
“Little Grandpa” turned out to be a treasure in disguise, truly a welcome member of our family. I don’t remember him ever drinking again. He was a tiny man, not over 5 feet tall, weighing no more than 80 to 90 pounds. He loved to read paperback western novels, eat canned sardines, and giggle at my jokes. He ate whatever was put in front of him: corn on the cob, steak, chicken, casseroles, and breakfast cereals, in spite of not having a tooth in his head. Whatever was served to him he gummed down, cleaning up his plate, always asking for “seconds.” His blue eyes sparkled like an inland sea, making me want to stare at his weathered face, to touch him, to kiss his whiskered cheek.
On weekend afternoons, often drove “Little Grandpa” for rides in my 1968 Dodge Dart. We rode along old back country roads into the woods, smelling the nature scents he so loved. He sat next to me in the front seat with his side window rolled down, letting the wind blow through what was left of loose hairs on his nearly bald head. On occasion, I caught him closing his eyes in order for his mind to take it all in. I often wondered what he “dreamed” about. When the weather warmed up, we’d stop at our local “City Dairy,” to get an ice-cream cone. “Orange Sherbet was his favorite. The girl behind the counter always received a wink or two, while she piled an extra-large scoop on top for him in return.
It wasn’t long before we learned, “Little Grandpa,” suffered from emphysema, a chronic lung disease that made it hard for him to breathe. He woke with terrible coughing spells and tired easily. Not much treatment was available to help him back in the mid-70’s. We gave him a good life while he was with us, and he did more and the same for us in return.
At Christmastime, music played on the record player. My girlfriend, Rose, spent the night while I was babysitting. “Little Grandpa,” went to bed, soon falling into a deep sleep. I have no idea why, but Rose and I got to giggling. We crawled underneath his bed where we softly sang, “Jingle Bells.” The next morning at breakfast, the table was set, “family style.” Everyone sat down to eat, and for a brief second, I thought my heart stopped. “Oh, I had the best dream last night,” Little Grandpa, said. “I slept like a baby. ” “What did you dream about?” my mother, asked. “Oh, I heard the angels sing,” he said. “It was the most beautiful sound I ever heard.” he replied.
Rose and I didn’t say a word. “Little Grandpa” smiled his toothless grin. He heard the “Angels” sing……