The House Behind the Oaks
Happy Monday! Here is this week’s blog post, the next installment of “The House Behind the Oaks.” As always, I deeply value your comments.
Have a wonderful Monday,
Excerpt from where we left off:
Of course, looking back, it was inevitable that we would end up in the house behind the oaks. We were tangled together from the first day we saw it. My parents breathed in the foregone conclusion of our destiny in the air. The plum tree house had long since sold, as had the box house. The realtor had called my parents about each one, while they sat at the dining room table, ruminating over real estate documents. Their gazes had slid sideways over stacks of paper, to the spot where the brochure advertising the house behind the oaks lay, centered on the table. All the other brochures had long since slipped to the floor. You cannot escape your destiny, but you can choose how to react to it. Events roll into our lives like a mountain range, solid and implacable. There is no way to turn back or avoid them, but there are a million different ways to cross them.
I must pause here to tell you about my grandfather. How I loved him! I have seen pictures of him as a young man, dark and handsome, but I remember him in his sixties with almost no hair on the top of his head, and dark, shaggy eyebrows. No face could have been more loved. I think my reverence for him was increased because my father admired him so. As children, whenever we did something that my father liked particularly, he would say, “your grandfather would have been proud,” which we automatically translated to mean that he himself was proud of us, something I never heard him say on its own. To my father, the concept of my grandfather’s approval was so much more meaningful than anything else he could say, that his own faded into insignificance beside it.
But I also adored my grandfather for himself, and because, looking back, he so clearly adored me. Anything I did as a child –and I was rarely a good child, unlike my brother and sister— seemed to be pleasing in his eyes. I never knew him to yell at or scold me, or look at me with anything but a beaming, golden expression of unconditional approbation. I remember sitting beside him at my great grandmother’s house. That house in my memory is a soft, dark swirl of fragrant Italian spices, bright colored knitting falling swiftly from my great grandmother’s fingertips, and words spoken in a melodic language I could not understand, which flowed in and out like the ocean, making a pleasing background for my thoughts. I remember my great grandmother rising from her chair by the window, moving slowly across the room on her walker, to wind up the cuckoo clock and make the little bird pop out, because I loved to see it.
And I remember my grandfather telling my Great Uncle Leo that I could read.
“Go on,” Uncle Leo scoffed, friendly but disbelieving. “She’s only four.”
I was five, but my mother had been forcing me to sit on the edge of her bed every night since I was three, painfully sounding my way through a set of blue and orange, hardcover books about Peter and Jane, an incredibly dull pair of siblings who spent most of their time watching their dog, Spot, run, and making such observant comments as, “see Spot run?” And, “Run, Spot, run!” If it had been up to me, Spot would have twisted a leg early on in the first book, and I never would have had to read such uninteresting drivel again. But eventually, words that had been stubborn black rectangles on the page, each one a stumbling block that had to be sounded out, mispronounced and corrected, began to blend together into sentences, and then thoughts, and when my mother handed me the battered, white fairy tale book that had been hers as a child, I entered a world that is still the closest I can imagine to Heaven.
“She can read,” my grandfather insisted. “Mita, come here.”
I went to him.
“Now, look at this,” said my grandfather, and he took from a thick book with translucent, yellow pages down from a shelf. It looked to me like the phone book, but I learned later that it was J.K. Lasker’s Tax Manual. The words were printed small and close together, like tiny, black ants, crawling across the page.
“Read this to your Uncle Leo.”
I looked down at my grandfather’s finger, pointing to the first paragraph. Previously, I had not imagined that anything could be more dull than Peter and Jane, but here was direct evidence to the contrary. I gazed up at my grandfather in disbelief.
“Oh,” he said, misinterpreting my expression, and his face melted into sympathy. “Is it too hard? That’s okay. We can read something easier later.”
It took me several moments to realize that I was being insulted. He thought I could not read that book! I put my hands on my hips, and reeled off the paragraph as rapidly as I could, glancing up as I finished into the astonished eyes of my Uncle Leo.
My grandfather laughed and laughed, clapped me in his hands and gave me a hug, laughed and laughed some more.
When he got sick, my grandfather came to live with us. My mother would put his breakfast on a tray every morning, and I would carry it out to him through the wet grass, its damp, silky strands brushing against my ankles. He lived in a large room beside the garage, which my father had long ago converted into a separate apartment. He could not get out of his bed, but the tray was a special tray, with little legs that came down so it would stand firmly over him on the bed. After we set it up, my grandfather would let me stay for as long as I liked. Sometimes, we watched Sesame Streettogether. Other times, he asked me about school. I recall a Sunday in the first grade when I stayed in there for most of the morning. I had recently been cast as a Lost Boy in our school’s production of Peter Pan, the drama department being short on males, and I found it the seventh heaven of delight, except that I did not have any lines. So instead, I memorized everyone else’s lines, and performed the entire play for my grandfather in the garage. He waited patiently while I held long conversations with myself, hopping back and forth to portray the different characters, using folding chairs for props and scenery. I glanced up every now and then to see how he was taking it, and each time, I met with his indulgent smile.
My grandfather was a brilliant man, but he did not approve of doctors. Had he consulted one sooner, they might have told him about the cancer before it was too late. By the time he was diagnosed, it had spread through his entire body, into his bones. As it grew, it broke each bone apart slowly. The pain must have been incredible, but my grandfather refused to take the pain medications. He said they clouded his mind. I never recall him mentioning it, though. He was always the same with me: patient, smiling, uncomplaining.
My last memory of him is not of his face, but of his voice. My father and I went to visit him as he lay dying. By now, he had moved in with my great grandmother, who could watch over him during the day. My father left me in the hallway, and went in to see him alone.
“Joe, Joe,” I heard my grandfather cry, his voice echoing to me in the hallway. “It hurts, it hurts!” It was the first time I ever heard him complain, and the last time I ever heard him.
There may only ever be one or two people in anyone’s life, or none at all, who love and approve of one unquestioningly. When my grandfather died, I lost the only person who ever approved unconditionally of me. ♦
(To be continued…)