The adults sat in a stiff semi-circle in the living room, balancing their cups and saucers on their knees and nibbling on mini-banana nut muffins from the rose-patterned china platter on the coffee table, the scents of Aqua Net and Jean Nate mingled with the apple-cinnamon air freshener my mother had hastily spritzed around the entry way before the guests began to arrive.
One by one I could see them from my perch in my bedroom window, somberly parading up the driveway with casserole dishes in hand, draped in dishtowels or wrapped in foil to keep them warm. A basket covered in a red and white checked cloth napkin rocked on the wrist of the gray-haired lady who sang too loudly at church, a potted violet in her opposite hand tilted precariously as bits of soil bounced off her stiff black shoe.
I could hear them talking in hushed tones that rose and fell with occasional bursts of laughter followed by awkward silence. A shiny black car appeared in the cul-de-sac, much fancier than the baby blue Ford LTD in our driveway or the green Impala parked across the street. A man climbed out wearing a black suit, leaned down into the front seat, donned his fedora and picked up a white box, the size of a lunch box. It could have held a telephone for my room or maybe the brown leather purse we saw at Hudson Belk the weekend before last.
I rushed down stairs and opened the door just as the man rapped his knuckle once against the screen.
“Is your mother home?” he asked
“She is currently occupied with company,” I stated as politely and maturely as possible, eyeing the box.
“I have something I need for her to sign for,” he said.
“I can do it,” I declared, still hopeful, “Today is my 13th birthday so I’m old enough.”
Perhaps my confidence impressed him because moments later I was neatly writing my name on a tiny line just as I’d practiced in the margins of my math book thousands of times before in case I ever became famous. He handed me the box, tipped his hat and said, “My condolences.”
Like all the cards that covered the piano where my birthday cards should be. “With Deepest Sympathy.” “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” “Our hearts go out to you in this time of loss.”
The box was warm. Clearly not the phone or the purse. Maybe fresh chocolate chip cookies? Was I so wrong to think that maybe someone would remember that today was my birthday?
Mom was all puffy eyed sitting at the kitchen table when I came downstairs in the morning. She made no effort to make me my favorite breakfast and didn’t even ask if I felt any older today like she always did. There weren’t any packages or cards or balloons at my seat at the kitchen table and instead of asking what kind of cake I wanted, she started barking out orders about vacuuming and cleaning the toilets.
So yeah, while my mother stood in the kitchen surrounded by her friends and a counter full of casseroles, I walked up to her with the warm white box and said, “A man just dropped this off. Can I open it?” And my mother, scattered and spent, distracted and unthinking said, “Sure.” And I grabbed a knife from the butcher’s block and cut the gold seal and opened the box of…
A gasp came over my left shoulder. Someone on my right took the warm box out of my hand. It was not for me at all. It was such a small box, really. A small box filled with probably less ash and soot than sat below the grate of our fireplace. Six or seven cups full and my grandfather was six foot two. Thick silver hair and broad shoulders with a booming voice and a laugh like a thunderclap. Long yellow toe nails that grossed me out when we visited the nursing home and I would tug the blue blanket over his feet, acting like I was kindly tucking him in to make sure he was warm while trying desperately not to touch the gnarled toes that I was trying to hide from view.
It was difficult to understand then the gifts that he’d given me: the sense of humor, the love of words, the bright blue eyes and the propensity toward alcoholism. How could a mason from Brooklyn who lived through the great depression, grandson of Irish farmers who crossed through Ellis Island during the potato famine, a man who could read and write in both Latin and Greek and who played the bongo drums in a retirement home band be reduced to half of a cubic foot?
Number seven on Casey Kasem’s top Forty that week was Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” and I didn’t really believe that was all we were until I held that box of grandpa on my thirteenth birthday.
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