From Chicken Soup for the Romantic Soul

Grandfather’s Favorite

May you live as long as you wish and love as long as you live.

Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

He sat in his easy chair, looking every minute of his ninety years. A long-sleeved, white cotton shirt hung from his bony shoulders, once broad and strong, and from his arms now shower-rod thin. His worn khaki pants were belted high above his waist, held in place by gray and red suspenders. The “flood” length trousers, as teens refer to them, revealed his swollen ankles and feet hosed with white stockings and squeezed into house slippers, evidence that Grandfather had no intention of going outside the house. Maneuvering with a walker had simply become too taxing and was reserved for only the most essential errands. His wispy hair had been neatly combed, and I could smell Old Spice aftershave lotion.

Grandmother groomed him daily, shaving him with an electric razor, combing his hair and brushing his teeth. The rest of his toilet required assistance from someone else having more strength than Grandmother, even though she was in relatively good health. Grandfather was a tall, big man—now weighing much less than he did when he was younger, when he labored as a beekeeper, farmer and cattle rancher. The hard work that seemed to delay Grandfather’s aging had finally, and suddenly, overpowered his mortal body, and perhaps his mind because, though he returned my hug and kiss and greeted me warmly, I was not sure he recognized me. It was hard to say. His smile was sweet and genuine, but then he always had been a gentleman.

I turned, and hugged and kissed Grandmother, who was looking beautiful as ever. Her caftan with oriental motif flowed to the floor, settling in an exotic, colorful cloud around her feet. Beaded and sequined slippers peeked from under her gown and I knew she would be wearing knee-high hose. Properly dressed women are never without hosiery or jewelry. Today, her jewelry included her wedding ring, matching broach and clip earrings, and multicolored rhinestones set in a dark metal. Her thick hair was swept up into barrel curls, which framed her ears and the colorful earrings. Rouge blushed her cheeks as she smiled, showing her teeth clean but aged, gold dental work apparent on several teeth. I smiled back at her, shaking my head a little, amazed that at their age, nearly a century, they still had their own teeth, were still in their own home and still had each other. Pretty fortunate, really.

I sat down on the couch across from their little, symmetrical nest. Matching walkers stood poised next to matching easy chairs angled in such a way that Grandmother’s left knee and Grandfather’s right knee nearly touched. Between the chairs sat a single lamp table with lamp atop a doily surrounded by all manner of necessities and comforts: eyeglasses, a flashlight, magnifying glass, pen and paper, glasses of water, the newspaper, Kleenex, a book of crossword puzzles, playing cards and the TV remote. Each item kept there reduced the need for an excursion on the walker.

Grandfather was hunched back in his chair. His eyes, though open behind his wire-rimmed glasses, were dim and distracted. Grandmother sat regally with back rigid and head upright, each arm lying lightly on an arm of the chair. She graciously asked about my husband and our children and grandchildren, her great- and great-great-grandchildren. Our family was growing so fast, she found it somewhat difficult to keep the names of the great-great-grandchildren associated correctly with their parents. Still I was impressed at what she did remember. I often found myself struggling to keep the little ones’ names with the right person.

“So what have you been up to?” I asked. A silly question, obviously, because what they could do was very limited given their health and physical condition. Grandmother recited a few of their ailments and what they were doing about them. Then she shrugged her shoulders slightly and twisted her head away from me, fluttering her eyelids and pursing her lips, mannerisms she displayed when she was embarrassed or self-conscious. Tentatively picking up an old work-boot box from the floor between her chair and the lamp table, she stroked the lid and paused as if deciding whether to lift it or not. With a slight shrug of her shoulders, she smiled at me, opened the box and showed me her latest project.

Inside the box was a strawberry-shaped pincushion with its green felt calyx holding on by one petal, pins and needles sprouting from the berry. At one end of the box was a rainbow of spools of thread, mostly pastel but one each of white, bright red and black. Scraps of material were neatly stacked at the other end. On top lay several sizes of Kewpie dolls, orphaned and rescued from thrift stores and garage sales, each in various stages of dress. One man’s waste is another man’s treasure, they say. Each doll had been scrubbed clean, its face repainted and body clothed in a unique little garb. One had a tiny blue floral skirt gathered around her waist with tinier lace straps over her shoulders. Others were outfitted in a kimono, pajamas, or a diaper and baby blanket.

The dolls and their outfits were delightful, and I was glad Grandmother had something to occupy her time. Too bad Grandfather didn’t have something as engaging for him. I glanced at Grandfather; he was still withdrawn. Trying to bring him into the conversation I asked, “Which doll is your favorite, Grandfather?” He thought quietly, then his eyes gradually focused on me. Puzzled, he cocked his head and scrunched his brow. Pointing at the Kewpie dolls, I smiled and repeated very loudly and slowly, “Which . . . one . . . is . . . your . . . favorite?”

He looked at Grandmother with the Kewpie dolls scattered on her lap. As he turned back toward me, a smile lit his face and his eyes twinkled. Leaning slightly toward me, he winked one eye and balled his fist, extending his thumb. In slow motion he gestured his thumb and nodded his head toward Grandmother. With a big grin he said, “She’s my favorite.”

Grandmother blushed and smiled, again exhibiting her singular mannerisms of embarrassment. This time she shrugged her shoulders and ducked her head away more deliberately, chin almost resting on the shoulder opposite Grandfather, even as she coyly leaned her body toward him. I could well imagine them seventy-plus years younger sitting on a porch swing, flirting, her parents waiting up in the parlor just inside the front door discussing in whispers whether or not they should turn up the gas lantern.

“Oh, Walter,” she murmured as she straightened up and sat back in her chair, arranging the caftan at her knees so, again, only the tips of her slippers showed. The dolls tumbled around on her lap. As she started rearranging them in the box, she looked up at Grandfather and smiled coquettishly. For another brief moment his face remained luminous as he smiled back at her. Then he shrunk back into his chair, countenance fading, eyes dimming, once again far away.

Betty Tucker

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