|<- Back to main page|
My sleepy eyes open; I know something is good. Today is the day, the realization blazes, it finally came; I'm in it! Goodbye to delay and dawdling calendars, the requirement for patience has flown. The sun electrifies the grassy dew as I gaze out the window at a perfect world. The morning lawn bakes, transmitting green perfume. Heat waves shimmer and summer bugs zing. My seven-year-old lungs try to inhale it all in—could any day, ever, be better than this?
The morning glides to afternoon: a blazing, blue-skied, cheerful blur; the answer to every question: "Four o’ clock." No slight can make me small, no problem befuddles; dirty looks bounce off like I'm slathered in magic repellent. All is forgiven, today I can afford it—I am traveling smugly down my path marked FOUR O' CLOCK. Safe harbor, oasis, magic ointment, four o’ clock.
Grandpa will pull up out front, Electra 225 gleaming jazzy green metallic. When he sees me his big sun-broiled face will wink a ridiculously proud grin. I cannot quite fathom it: this person thinks I’m nifty. Around him I am important. My observations become intelligent, my ideas, worthy of consideration. Gracious alchemy.
“Get down out of that window,” my mom growls. “You don’t have to let him think you’ve been waiting all day for him.”
I quickly comply, disinclined to rock the boat so close to nirvana. Her gaze declares me less winsome than cat vomit, but I don't care. Soon it will all vanish, not to be dealt with again for twenty-six hours. It does not matter, see! The clock hands say 3:55 P.M., and I will soon be in a place where shame does not rule me. I will talk and laugh freely, no careful watches. I will barely hesitate to be loud, or nosy, or even a little bit sassy. For twenty-six hours all of the untidy, rambunctious, bold behaviors that other boys own will be mine, too, and proudly I will flaunt them.
I sit nervously, pretending to watch the closing credits of The Flintstones. Really I am stretching the outer limits of my peripheral vision, secretly on the alert for the tell-tale flash of chrome outside the window. I don't know why I should be so keyed up; the Buick always rounds the corner at exactly four o’ clock. Grandpa has timed it to the minute; he is never late. He does not dare arrive earlier than the court-appointed time: that will provoke my mother and she'll race to phone the lawyer. However, he refuses to be even one minute tardy, because he knows I am waiting—and this drives my mom bats. She has labored tirelessly, you see, to drive out the “importance” that this type of attention fortifies me with. She is determined to cleanse me, not hesitant to be harsh, but today scorn cannot break me, and we both know it. Today, this exalted, court-protected day, my joy will not be squelched—and man, is she sore.
I sprint to the car, heaving open the door Grandpa has already leaned over to unlatch for me. A heavenly torrent of A.C. blasts my sweat-drenched skin as I slide across the pale leather seat. Mrs. Bachman smiles approvingly from behind her hedge clippers—she knows where I’m going; she sees how important I am today! Grandpa’s eyes sparkle as he puts the window down and speaks to her. She goes a bit girlish, pleased at this innocent bit of flirtation from a man that always reminds her of the lead in True Grit—what is his name? I am just eager to go, but I am used to this. People like to talk to him, and I understand; I must share this good thing of mine.
Grandpa steers the car lazily, gripping the wheel at the bottom with one large hand, lounging back in the seat with his legs wide apart. He’s teasing me by driving slowly, grinning at my impatient sneakers that press on the floor. “Well, I got some bad news for ya; I had to send your crabby grandma to go live with the neighbors,” he discloses. He always says this; I snicker because the confidential delivery makes it seem funny each time. I know Grandma will be there, and she's not really crabby. In truth, Grandpa adores the reserved, bookish woman he kids me about. A stamp of value often unleashes veiled grace: she has bloomed into a poised and stately lady during their twenty-eight years together—because she knows she is loved. My mom says Grandpa indulges Grandma too much; she always states this diagnosis with sour eyes and a sneer. Yeah, he spoils Grandma; it is his wont—so what? He is keen on his treasures; he likes them to shine.
Another blast of refrigerated air hits me as I push open the back kitchen door. “Grandma! Grandma, I’m here!” I shout.
She strolls over to greet me, smiling arms wide open. There will be lots of this hugging, also pats and sitting-on-laps, for the next twenty-six hours; it is the only time anyone ever touches me, and I must get my fill. (Human touch and love itself, can a child tease them apart?) I smile up into her aquamarine eyes, and in her low voice she says, “Well, look at you.” She looks elegant enough to make me feel a little proud; earlier in the day grandpa chauffeured her to her favorite beauty parlor, and her coffee-brown hair is sprayed into a hairdo she hopes won’t budge for a week.
Grandpa comes in and feigns dismay: “What the… what’d she do, find a bicycle and pedal her way home again? Guess I just can‘t keep her away from that grandson of hers.” We all chuckle together, and I am happy to laugh; no silent rule forbids me to here.
I run back to check my room. Always painted a pale, quiet blue, it was my father’s room, too. Shining star, their golden child, he’s been gone six years now. I do not quite remember him, but he is here, all through this house: a corkboard stuck with funny buttons and ribbons that say Varsity Football and Spring Lake Park Homecoming, 1966; a tattered tire swing hanging forlorn from a dogwood; the pool table in the basement where he laughed with his friends. His bowling ball and some of his clothes are behind a curtain down there. It’s all they have left of him—those things and me.
Between half-past-five and half-past-six they relax at the table with drinks, discussing business, analyzing Nixon, mulling over improvements to the cottage at the lake—simply enjoying their marriage that works. Loss and grief have not finished them off; neither are fragile, and in strong people, if bitterness can be kept at bay, adversity tends to build yet more strength. These days they need all of it they can muster, for a fresh crisis looms, exchanging old injury for new.
They are fighting in litigation, with all the resources they possess, to hold on to a part of me. The part that they earned, with their love, attention, and shelter, at a time when I am sure they would have preferred to retreat and mourn in peace.
I lived (and bonded) with them for two formative years in the wake of my father’s death while my mother, the young widow, did her own thing. Potty training, doctors visits, post-midnight solace after my terrified nightmares—it all got delegated to them. Now my new stepfather (I have already had two) resents their influence and wants to banish them completely. My grandparents refuse to let this happen; they know I still need them.
In loving discretion they have deemed these issues too heavy for me to carry—they are not discussed within my earshot. So in my naive perception this early evening all could not be more well, in this place, or in the whole vast galaxy. I drift in and out of the kitchen at leisure: listening, joining in, sensing my significance, feeling strong that I belong here, that I am a part of them. They always sit like this, and it makes me feel good, I ponder, unable to fathom that this steadfast kitchen-table routine, this evening rite, could ever be moved.
Dinner’s on painted metal TV trays—bounteous, unending, a summer-fare feast: corn-on-the-cob, steak, contraption-cut potatoes made savory by a sojourn in deep fat, Iceberg salad submerged under my favorite orange dressing, other tidbits and afterthoughts delivered to me in little Mel-mac dishes. Grandpa’s mouth works like a machine gun as he shorns off his corn in neat rows. The plaid-clad newscaster drones Watergate, Vietnam, Patty Hearst—and contentedly we chow. It is the old Friday night feeling; I have spent a lifetime trying to recapture it. If it could be bottled it would sell millions.
After dinner I check what Grandpa is doing outside. I grab the football, anxious, hoping I can demonstrate some flash. After a couple of awkward lobs I finally launch one that pierces the air in a precise, tight spiral, and he shoots me “the look.” Like concentrated fire, full of esteem, it is the look that fuels me for another two weeks of practice at home. It is the lack of this look that makes boys seek importance in gangs. It is a look that says “You’ve got what it takes. You’re it. If all the boys on this planet were lined up end to end, I’d choose you.” I improve as I relax, and soon we are simply having fun. Though he continues to grin, his eyes betray something wistful. He accidentally calls me by my father's nickname; I start to understand.
Night comes, and everybody “gets comfortable.” I am awash in contentment as I slip on the pajamas Grandma set out for me earlier. Loneliness does not exist in this place; two weeks worth of sadness has already been soothed away. I linger in my room a moment, letting these good feelings sink in. I hear Grandpa plunge back in his leather recliner; he will be snoring like a foghorn soon. Grandma is puttering in the kitchen, preparing me a snack of green grapes and Fig Newtons. I join her in the living room and we embark on a tour of late night TV. Johnny Carson follows The Rockford Files; ABC‘s Wide World of Mystery and The Honeymooners follow that. She makes me lie still while she dabs Listerine on my unhealthy scalp. Actually, it feels wonderful.
The night goes too quickly, the next day more so. By afternoon dread starts to overshadow; my former gaiety dissipates; reality looms. I become a sentinel, soberly checking the clock every few minutes, trying to figure out ways to trick the remaining precious time. Every hour chimes an unwelcome portent, bringing closer my solemn journey home.
Saturday night is always grim. My stepfather is perched smoldering, ready to swoop. Full of bravado in his own mind, the perception tends to remain his alone. He cannot quite muster the nerve to brazen out his complaints openly with my grandfather, so instead he waits, and brazens them out all over me. He harps in circles, endlessly; he might seem more intelligent if he just shut his mouth. Feverishly fishing for slights, trolling for dirt, seeking anything he can twist into a justification for his pathetic cause.
“Did they buy you anything, how much money was spent, if you are hiding something we will find out...”
Despite the lack of organized ideas that his tantrum presents, the true thorn starts to come through nonetheless: he can’t stand that someone is kind to me when he has already deemed me unworthy. How dare they dishonor his decree!
I just sit at the table, looking down, looking at the wicker shade of the dinette, looking anywhere but at his ridiculous, huffing face. My insides quake, over and over again; I cannot stand it, my grandparents being smeared by the gutless mud that spews from this clown. I hold my anger in; I am forbidden to give it any expression. I bury it deep, along with all the other garbage of this night; it won’t start stinking until years later.
I remain silent; he grows more agitated. By eight-thirty it’s just verbal glop, the ugly marriage of a small mind combined with the oratory stamina of Hitler, an untidy monologue pitiably devoid of any power to persuade, despite the high-decibel delivery.
He’s frustrated, he’s indignant, he’s enraged, you see, because he never gets enough proof that I feel the contempt for myself that he feels for me. He’s grinding axes, he’s getting even, he’s vengeful, you see, because he knows my real dad was a winner, the one thing my stepfather can never quite be.
Dedicated to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. John M. Vados, who showed me that love is not something that you proclaim, it is something that you demonstrate. Without action, loyalty, and the willingness to sacrifice, the words are meaningless. I thank God for the years He allowed us.
On April 8th, 1976, Governor Wendell Anderson signed Minnesota Statute 257.022 into law, guaranteeing grandparents a specific set of inalienable rights in regard to their natural grandchildren. The law came into existence through the efforts of the two people named above.