Behind the Mirror

Behind the Mirror

From Chicken Soup for the Grandparent's Soul

Behind the Mirror

If it were not for hopes, the heart would break.

Thomas Fuller

When I was a little girl we lived in New York City just down the block from my grandparents. Every evening my grandfather would go for his “constitutional.” During those summers of the mid-1960s I would join him for the walk, and he’d tell me how life was when he was a little boy.

As we walked past storefront windows reflecting the setting sun, he described a world of horses instead of cars, outhouses instead of flush toilets, letters instead of telephones, and candles instead of electric lights. As he pointed out all the hardships, my little mind wandered and I asked him, “Grandpa, what was the hardest thing you ever had to do in your life?”

I expected a tale of physical labor that those tough times demanded of him, but when Grandpa stopped walking and stared silently at the horizon I knew he was reliving an experience much harder than working long hours. He knelt down and took my hand. With tears in his eyes he began to speak.

“Grandma got very sick after your Aunt Mary was born. This was when your mom and your uncles were still little children. Well, Grandma had to go to a place called a sanitarium for a long time to get better. Since there was no one to take care of your mom and uncles, I had to send them to an orphanage where nuns could take care of them for me so I could work two and three jobs until your grandma got well. The hardest thing I ever had to do was put my babies in there. I went every week to see them, but the nuns wouldn’t let me talk to them or hold them. I could only watch my children play from behind a one-way mirror. Sure, I brought them candy every week, but I could only hope they knew it was from me. I would keep both hands on the glass for the thirty minutes I was allowed to see them, hoping they would see me and come to touch my hand—but they never did. I endured a whole year without touching my children, but I know it was even harder for them. I’ll never forgive myself for not making the nuns let me hold them. But they said I would do them more harm than good, and they would have even more trouble living there. So I listened.”

I had never seen my grandfather cry before. He held me close, and I told him that I had the best grandfather ever and that I loved him. It was a strange and powerful reversal of roles, me reassuring him as he cried into my embrace.

We continued our walks for years until my family and grandparents moved to separate states. For fifteen years, that special walk with Grandpa remained our secret.

After my grandmother passed away, my grandfather began to suffer from memory lapses and bouts of depression. I tried to encourage my mother to let Grandpa come and live with us, but she and Grandpa had drifted apart.

One day, when I really harped on her to bring Grandpa back home, in a fit of rage she replied, “Why? He never cared about what happened to us!”

Little did she know, I knew precisely what she was talking about. “He has always cared and loved you,” I said. “The hardest thing he ever did was put you and your brothers in the orphanage.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” my mother replied. “Who told you about that?” My mother had never discussed her days there with us.

“Mom, Grandpa told me that he came every week to see the three of you. He used to watch you play from behind the one-way glass. He used to bring you sweets every visit. He hated not being able to hold you for that year!”

“You’re lying!” she snapped. “He was never there. No one ever came to see us.”

“How could I know about the visits and the treats he brought if he didn’t tell me?” I said. “He was there. He was always there. But the nuns wouldn’t let him in the room with you because they said it would be too hard for you when he had to leave. Mom, Grandpa loves you and always has!”

I saw her eyes widen. She held her breath and then, suddenly, released it in a sigh that was almost a wail. Tears started to gather in the corners of her eyes. Suddenly, she realized that all along, years ago, Grandpa had stood behind that mirrored glass, hoping his children could somehow sense his presence, feel his love. The anger and sadness faded from her face. She could finally let the warmth and strength of his love get through the one-way glass.

Not long after, my grandfather came to live with us. At last my mom and Grandpa’s love transcended the cold pane of glass that had remained between them for all those painful years.

Laura Reilly

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