76: Once Upon a Time at a Barbecue

76: Once Upon a Time at a Barbecue

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles and More

Once Upon a Time at a Barbecue

Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.

~Shannon L. Alder

On Saturdays, unless the weather was bad, my husband would take our little daughter Julie to the park for a few hours so “Mommy can have a break.” I appreciated the time alone and tried to fill it with something that I wasn’t able to do with an active preschooler in the house, like reading a good book, working on my tan, or soaking in a bubble bath.

One unforgettable Saturday, I was napping on the sofa when voices in the back yard woke me up.

Plumes of heavy gray smoke billowed past the dining room window.

Horrified, I ran for the back door, fearing that the house had caught on fire.

Instead I found a party — a barbecue.

The grill was going full blast. Hot dogs and hamburgers were engulfed in flames. There was a table piled high with food. People were milling about and filling their plates, chatting and laughing.

I nearly fainted when I realized who they were.

“Hey, kid, get over here and give me a hug!” Grandpa Charles hollered from behind the inferno.

Sporting a sauce-smeared “Kiss the Cook” apron, he held a spatula in one hand while embracing me with the other.

Grandpa Charles had died when I was twelve.

The smiling faces that surrounded me had passed away years earlier. They were all there: Those I loved and longed for. Ancestors I wished I’d known, who before that day had only lived in old photo albums.

How was it possible?

Unless…

“Am I dead?” I demanded.

“No, honey, you’re very much alive,” Uncle Tim stated dryly as everyone chuckled.

One by one, as they embraced me, I closed my eyes. I was immersed in scents from my childhood: pipe tobacco, lemon verbena, rose petals, hair tonic and leather.

With each passing year, I’d become increasingly aware that my immediate family was dwindling. As an only child, I feared that one day I might be the only one left.

To see them again, to bask in their love, was a miracle.

They looked younger than I remembered. Thinning hair was thick again, wrinkled cheeks were unlined and glowing, and eyes were clear and bright, no longer filled with pain. They were happy, carefree and at peace.

When the crowd parted, Grandpa Marion was waiting for me.

The last time I saw him, he was near death. The man who stood before me was robust and healthy with a mouth full of sparkling white teeth — a shock, as I’d never seen him with teeth. Grandpa insisted his dentures hurt, and he refused to wear them, stubbornly opting to gum his food for the rest of his life.

“You’re so handsome!” I exclaimed.

“Must be my pretty new choppers.” He laughed.

Grandpa Marion was a man of few words and only spoke when necessary. Painfully shy, he had a tendency to blend in with the furnishings unless he moved or cleared his throat. A woman once plopped down on his lap, not seeing him in the chair — an experience that mortified them both.

But when Grandpa was with me, he was rarely at a loss for words. I adored him. When he passed away, I lost the dearest of friends.

I pulled him into my arms and held on tight. He smelled as he always had, like apple butter, soap, and coffee.

“I’ve missed you so much,” I murmured.

“I’ve always been right here with you,” he whispered. “I would never be far away from my girl.”

“For Pete’s sake, you’ve paid enough attention to him. I’m here, too!”

I whirled around the second I heard her voice.

It was Grandma Helen, her strawberry-gold hair glinting in the sun, her hazel eyes shining.

She grabbed me by the shoulders and squeezed the stuffing out of me. Her breathtaking hugs were the best in the world. I closed my eyes and deeply inhaled aromas of clove oil, sugar cookies, timeworn books, and antique dolls — soothing scents that were hers alone.

When I was a child, Grandma Helen was my safe place, my person, my hero. There wasn’t a problem she couldn’t fix, and she was fearless. A master storyteller with an infectious giggle, she was a delight and one of the most incredible people I’d ever known.

In later years, Alzheimer’s had stilled the giggle. What a blessing it was to hear it again.

“I’ve missed you most of all, Grandma. I’ve been so lonely for you.”

As tears rolled down my cheeks, she wiped them away with an embroidered handkerchief and kissed my forehead.

“Let’s have no more crying. You’ve already wasted too many tears on your Grandpa and me. Look at all you have: a husband who loves you, my beautiful great-granddaughter, your parents, lots of friends and a good job.”

“How do you know? Have you been watching me?”

“Of course. Just because you can’t see us doesn’t mean we can’t see you. Heaven is closer than you think.”

It was almost too much to take in at once. Everyone talked, laughed and cried. I could see bits and pieces of myself in each person: blond hair, green eyes, high foreheads, short fingers, and flat feet.

The sun had lowered, and it was getting late. I kept glancing at my watch. Where on earth were Ralph and Julie?

“Please don’t leave. My husband and daughter should be back any minute,” I implored.

“Don’t worry. We’ll be around,” Uncle Oscar said with a smile.

“I could use some paper towels,” Grandpa Charles called.

“Okay, I’ll be right back!”

When I returned with the roll of paper towels, no one was there.

The grill was cold, as though it had never been used.

Our barbecue was over.

Just then, car doors slammed and jolted me awake.

Oh, no. It was a dream.

My heart sank.

In the days that followed, I tried to wrap my mind around what happened, trying to make sense of it all.

I refused to believe that my visitors were an illusion, the byproduct of an afternoon nap. Our time together was as real as anything I’d ever experienced. They were here.

But why did they come?

Then I remembered their words.

“Don’t worry. We’ll be around.”

“I’ve always been right here with you. I would never be far away from my girl.”

“Just because you can’t see us doesn’t mean we can’t see you. Heaven is closer than you think.”

Perhaps they wanted to show me that they were well, and that I will be, too. They wanted to reassure me that no matter what, I’d never be without my family, never alone. They wanted me to realize that they were as close as my thoughts, loving me and waiting until we could be together again.

Every now and then, I get a whiff of burnt hamburgers, pipe tobacco, hair tonic, clove oil, apple butter, and soap. Every now and then, I hear their voices, along with their whispers of humor and wisdom as I watch Julie grow up, and as her dad and I grow older. They are reminders of the limitless power of love woven through the elasticity of time and space.

~Michelle Close Mills

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