My grandfather had been ill for several years, but had only begun to stay in bed
early that spring. He and my grandmother were both eighty-three. My family lived in a two-family house across town from them in an old neighborhood of two-family homes. They had a five-room bungalow on a little hillside at the far end of Farmington Avenue just before it began to wind through farms and fields towards the Connecticut River.
He was a quiet man, though I mistook my grandfather’s nature for stern when I was young. He loved to read, histories and biographies mostly, to do his woodworking, to tinker in the garage, and to paint with my grandmother. They began painting together on a vacation to Cape Cod when they were in their early sixties, shortly before my grandfather was forced into retirement at the tool and die factory where my father also worked. They were surprisingly good artists. My grandfather’s watercolors had the careful precision of his draftsman’s hand. My grandmother preferred oils, especially palette knife where she applied a vibrancy of color with what seemed happy and reckless abandon.
My grandfather sometimes read the Epistle at Mass at St. Bernard’s. I liked to
watch him stretch his wire-rimmed glasses over his ears at the lectern and listen to his even, measured voice near the front of the still, tall church where we sat each week with him, my grandmother, and my uncle’s family. He’d played minor league baseball for the Boston Red Sox before he went into the service during World War I, but he didn’t talk about that much. He rarely talked at length about anything. But he had a small, kind smile. And he was always gentle and patient with me, even when I fumbled clumsily with things, which was often enough.
He was also tall and strong, so it surprised me when after a visit to the doctor, he began weekly chemo treatments, and soon started to lose weight. Of course, his hair
fell out, but he also started to stoop and his cheeks sunk into themselves. His breathing seemed to slow and deepen during those first months. Someone in the family went by almost every day, to mow the lawn, to bring meals, to help with errands, to sit and visit.
I guess it was April when I knew a change had come. I was home for spring break and went over after supper. They were sitting, as was their habit, on the front porch in their old tulip-backed chairs. My grandfather had an open book on the afghan that lay over his lap, but he had fallen asleep. I’d brought them a carton of Neapolitan ice cream, which was melting slowly in its plastic bag on the front step where I sat. My grandmother and I talked quietly and watched as a little trickle of drool dribbled off his chin and onto his shirt collar.
After a while, my grandmother said, “He’s still handsome, isn’t he?”
“Help me get him into his bath.”
She shook his shoulder gently. He opened his eyes very wide and looked up at her slowly. She set the blanket and book on her chair, and we each took an elbow to help him make his gradual way inside. We sat him on the toilet lid in the bathroom and my grandmother ran water into the tub.
She said, “Have a dish of that ice cream. I’ll be out in a while.”
“I didn’t know you had to bathe him.”
“For a few weeks now,” she said. She put her hand under the spigot and adjusted the temperature. “Eat some ice cream. I’ll be out in a little bit.”
I closed the bathroom door and returned to the porch to retrieve things. I put the ice cream in the kitchen freezer, then went into the living room and set the book and
afghan on my grandfather’s brown recliner. I sat on the edge of the couch and watched the light fall outside and listened to my grandmother sing softly in the bathroom.
I visited them regularly that summer. Once, I stopped by on my lunch break when the construction crew my uncle had found me a summer job with was repairing a gas line on the next street. The weather had already become hot and sultry. I called at their kitchen door, but could hear my grandmother’s pedal sewing machine going inside, so I let myself in and stopped in their bedroom doorway. My grandfather was asleep on his back on the faded chenille bedspread, his mouth agape. A saucer of unfinished prunes sat on the nightstand next to him, which, I supposed, my grandmother had tried to feed him. She sat at the sewing machine in the corner working under the yellow globe of light from a gooseneck lamp. The shades were drawn, the room closed and very hot. When the noise of the sewing machine stopped, I cleared my throat quietly so as not to startle her. My grandmother turned and the folds of a white dress fell onto her lap. Her mouth and eyes smiled.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she whispered. “Come, I want to show you
I stepped into the dim, small room.
“See,” she said. “I’ve been working on these.”
She ran her hand across the sleeve of a brown plaid suit that was draped over the back of the straight chair next to her. Inside the suit jacket was a white shirt and a blue and gold striped tie. She took a length of red trim from the sewing machine and laid it on the white dress.
“Do you like them?” she asked.
I nodded. “Sure.”
“They’re for our sixtieth anniversary, if we get there.”
She smiled again at me and placed her hand gently on the white linen in the same manner that she had many times upon my shoulder when I was upset or impatient with something. “I ordered the material from a Burlington Mills’ catalogue. It’s quite expensive.”
I couldn’t think of what to say, so I said, “My.”
She blew away a strand of hair that had fallen across her cheek. Her eyes sparkled. My grandfather groaned in his sleep and smacked his lips slowly.
I feel badly about his last days. I was only twenty. Still, I should have realized that the end was approaching. I’d gone down to the Connecticut shore with some friends for the long Fourth of July weekend. My father reached me in the late afternoon while we were starting the bar-b-que on the back porch of the cottage we’d rented. He told me that my grandfather had died that previous night. My grandmother had waited until after she’d had her grapefruit the next morning to call him and my uncle because she hadn’t wanted to disturb anyone’s sleep. I took the next train home.
The morning of the funeral was still and humid. When I arrived, most of the family was already at my grandparents’ house shuffling about somberly under the maple tree in the front yard. My grandmother was wearing her new white dress with a red rose, still damp with dew, pinned to her chest. She was pouring coffee for anyone who wanted it, a pot in one hand and a short stack of Styrofoam cups in the other.
A little while later, we left for the church. I drove my grandmother at the back of the procession in their old maroon Chevy. Our line of cars wound slowly down Farmington Avenue in the white glare, windows down, my grandmother’s hands folded
in her lap. The rest of the cars went through a traffic light that turned red on us. My grandmother and I sat and watched the line of cars turn at the next corner in the trembling heat.
Across the intersection on the shoulder of the road, a large woman stood with her hands on her hips shaking her head next to the open hood of her parked car. Steam billowed out from under the hood.
The light changed, and we started through the intersection. My grandmother said, “Stop and help her.”
I looked at her and said, “What?”
“Pull over here.” She was already smiling and waving two fingers to the woman.
I parked the car in front of the woman’s. We got out and walked back to her. The big woman shook her head, her face full of worry. “No good,” she told us, her voice thick with an Eastern European dialect I didn’t recognize.
“It’s all right,” my grandmother said nodding and smiling quietly.
I looked under the hood where the radiator was hissing badly. “You’ve just overheated,”
I said. “The radiator needs water is all.”
“Get her some,” my grandmother told me. She took the woman’s thick hands in her own and patted them. “My grandson will fix it.”
I looked at her. All the other cars in the procession had disappeared. She gestured with her chin, so I hurried back up Farmington Avenue a little ways to a gas station where they gave me a plastic jug of water and an old towel. When I got back, my grandmother and the woman were sitting in the backseat of our car talking, all four doors open.
I slowly let the pressure off on the woman’s radiator cap, refilled it, and left a little water in the jug. I closed her hood and put the jug and towel on the floor of her passenger seat. The front of my shirt was wet with sweat.
I returned to our car where my grandmother was copying a recipe for meatloaf, which the woman was dictating to her, on the back of an envelope. They both smiled at me.
“All set?” my grandmother asked.
I nodded and looked at the woman. “I left some water for you just in case. If you have an air conditioner, don’t run it for a while.”
The big woman made a small smile. “Thank you.”
“Then,” my grandmother asked her, “I suppose you bake it for forty-five minutes
“About forty-five minutes, one hour.”
I looked at my watch. The funeral was already supposed to have started.
My grandmother and the woman hugged each other in the gravel before we finally drove away. As we did, my grandmother patted my knee and said softly, “That was nice.”
At the funeral itself, my grandmother chose to sit alone in the front pew with the rest of the family behind her. The priest, himself quite elderly, had been friends with my grandparents for many years. When it came time for the eulogy, he came down off the altar and stood in front of her. He talked to her about my grandfather. My grandmother sat very still, smiled, her eyes mostly closed; sometimes she nodded, sometimes she reached out her hand towards him when something he said particularly pleased her. It was as if the rest of us in our dark clothes and grim expressions were eavesdropping on a private celebration. Watching her, I mumbled a prayer, but I’m not sure what the words were, or for whom they were intended.
Afterwards, people came back to their house where my grandmother spent most of her time being sure that everyone had enough to eat. I never saw her cry or grieve, even in the days and months to follow, though she may have in some way when she was alone.
The second funeral took place later that summer just before I went back to school.
A thirteen year-old girl down the street named Christine Baranowski died when she ruptured her swollen spleen while recovering from mononucleosis. She was alone in the house and bumped into the corner of a bathroom sink. Her mother was at her library job, her little brother was at school, there was no father – he’d left several years before. I guess the family on the other side of the duplex was gone, too. Christine was dead when her mother came home from work and found her on the bathroom floor.
Their house was just like ours except that she and her mother had a big flower
garden out back where they grew herbs in old metal barrels. When I was in high school, I used to babysit for Christine and her brother when they were younger, and her mother always sent me home with some basil or parsley when I left. They went to our church, and Christine was always in the same class with my youngest brother at the parish school. He told me that she was very smart and almost never moved from the first seat when their nuns arranged desks on the basis of weekly test averages. But he also said that she had some problems in school and around the neighborhood: she had no friends, and other kids made fun of her.
It wasn’t only Christine’s unattractiveness that ostracized her from other children. She also suffered from some sort of hormonal or nervous condition that made her skin and hair extremely oily and caused her to keep her head turned sideways. Her face also twitched at times and was covered with pimples for as long as I could remember. And she kept wads of Kleenex balled up in her hands. I guess it wasn’t surprising that she was so shy; she hardly spoke and seemed almost uncontrollably embarrassed around others.
Our neighborhood was full of children of all ages, and they were always playing in the streets and alleys, in the yards, or in the woods that ran towards Forestville. I’d see Christine hanging around the fringes of things, but rarely participating. I often came upon her sitting on the front porch reading and twisting a strand of dishwater-colored hair, or singing to herself on the rope swing that hung from their big elm, or back in their garden alone or with her mother.
And, of course, there were plenty of times that I saw or heard her being teased. I did what I could to deflect that from her, which wasn’t much. Once I came across some boys in the alley tying greasy rags to her bike. I chased them off and threw the rags away. Another time at a church picnic, the little girl who’d drawn Christine as a partner in the three-legged race made a disgusted face when they’d finished and wiped her hands furiously on their burlap sack. Other kids giggled, and I took Christine away to get her a snowcone.
When I babysat for them, she liked to help cook and clean up, but stayed in her room otherwise while her brother and I watched TV. On one occasion when she was about eight, I startled her when I came into her room unannounced. She was sitting on her bed stuffing sandwich bags with something, and she quickly hid them under her quilt. Later that night after she’d gone to sleep, I went to cover her and several of the plastic bags fell to the floor. In the light from the hallway, I could see that they were each filled
with candy and a note. The notes had children’s names written on them with short messages such as: “I like you. Do you like me?” and “You’re nice.” I put them back
under the quilt. When I got home, my little brother told me that kids in his class had begun to find the little bags in their desks after recess.
Earlier that summer before she died, I found her during a sudden evening thunderstorm huddled behind the grocery store where our street met Farmington Avenue.
She was squatting in the gravel hugging something under her jacket. I was carrying a small bag of groceries under an umbrella and was about to head up the alley. I went over to her and held the umbrella over us both. She looked up at me with her thin hair splattered against her face, her jeans and sneakers soaked dark.
I asked her, “What do you have?
She opened the jacket enough to show me a tiny calico kitten almost as wet as she was. The kitten opened its mouth, but no sound came out.
“Come on,” I said. “I’ll help you home.”
We walked up the alley together under the umbrella and that was the last time that I remember seeing her until the funeral. I don’t know whether she got to keep the kitten or not.
The funeral was well attended. I’m certain that some of the boys and girls that sat stiff-backed in the pews were the same ones who had made fun of Christine, but if her
mother knew that, she didn’t show it. Mrs. Baranowski was a short, thin woman who wore the same plain dark-gray dress that she’d worn to my grandfather’s funeral.
After the service, it began to rain lightly, and fewer of us made the walk up the hill to the cemetery. The priest said a few words, and then Mrs. Baranowski read a poem that Christine had written. Her hands and voice trembled a little. Aside from the first few words filled with a child’s awkward rhyme and cadence, there was nothing more to hear because she snorted once, then fell weeping silently into the priest’s embrace. I mumbled a prayer of some kind, but I’m not sure what I said.
Mrs. Baranowski had requested packages of flower seeds instead of donations. Next, she steadied herself and sprinkled a few of the seeds beside the small tombstone and covered them with the damp earth. We sang a hymn. I looked over at my grandfather’s grave where new grass had already begun to grow near the path that led to the park.
I returned to school the next week. Later that year, I met the woman who would become my wife in an art history class. Eventually, we graduated with our teaching credentials and found jobs at the same school in upstate New York not far from where she’d grown up. Soon afterwards, we buried my grandmother, as well, next to my grandfather and sold their home to a nice young couple from Schenectady.
My wife and I waited to start a family of our own until we’d both turned thirty, and now more than fifteen years have passed since that summer when I attended those two funerals. We get back to my old home as often as we can since our son Nick was born because my own parents have slowed down and have trouble making the drive to where we live.
The last time we were down was for the Fourth of July. I decided to take Nick for a walk up Farmington Ave. and over to the cemetery to my grandparents’ graves. He’d just turned five, and I hoped he was old enough for this first visit. He often seemed so
full of thought that I worried about him perhaps more than I should have. I’d told him a lot about them. When we got there, we stood together holding hands and were quiet for a while.
Finally, he said, “It’s like they’re asleep, isn’t it?”
“Something like that, I guess.”
He smiled up at me and squeezed my hand. I put my lips together and nodded back. Then we started down the path to the park. I’d brought some bread for the duck pond there for afterwards. On the way through the trees, I saw Mrs. Baranowski tending the flowers around Christine’s grave. She was quite bent now and her dark bun of hair had turned almost completely white. I stopped for a moment and thought of going over to her, but she was mumbling over a rosary that dangled from her wrist, so I left her alone. The flowers were little bursts of color against the gray tombstone that moss had begun to cover.
The park was pretty empty in the middle of a hot day. Two children about Nick’s age, a boy and girl, were playing on a slide nearby while their mothers spoke in Spanish on the grass under a tree. I sat on a bench and watched my son toss bread to the ducks at the edge of the pond. I knew he was trying to reach the small ducklings at the back of the group, but he threw awkwardly and more often than not, the larger ducks got to the bread first. I smiled watching him.
After a few minutes, the two children from the slide became curious and walked over a few feet away from Nick. They stood silently watching him. Nick turned and
they looked at one another. He tossed one time more, then grinned at them and held out the bread that he had left. The boy took the bread and smiled back. He tore off a piece gave it to the girl, then they fed the ducks while Nick watched.
I felt a thickness in my throat and, although I’m not sure why, a few tears welled at the edges of my eyes. Something passed over me that was akin to that earlier summer and what I’d felt about those funerals. Although I can’t explain it well, I realized that it had to do with witnessing grace. Something to do with the way each of them clapped as a small duckling reached some bread. Something that showed itself in a certain stillness of the soul, even in difficulty.
I thought: what a remarkable thing.
I watched them, then looked up towards the cemetery and thought of those two funerals, and, for a moment, whatever was wrong with the world stayed at bay.