Walking Sticks


I was four when Grandpa moved into our basement from the red-brick house down the road, where I used to go for breakfast of duck-shaped pancakes and hot chocolate. Although he stopped making pancakes, I liked it when he moved in with us because I could visit him anytime I wanted. All I had to do was go downstairs and knock on the door that led from our TV room into his apartment.

He would let me wander around his front room touching things and asking questions. I liked to lie on the nubby green sofa with gold stripes and turn on his black-and-white TV that was even older than our Curtis Mathes. Near one of the windows stood a wooden giraffe my Uncle Dave had sent him from Ethiopia. I would sit in front of the window in a bar of light filtering through the curtains, petting the giraffe’s shellacked body and feeling the tail made of real giraffe hair. I always turned the giraffe toward the plant in the corner so he would have something to eat.

When Grandpa saw me playing like that, he would tell me where giraffes live, what they eat, why they have long necks. I would look up into his whiskery, loose-skinned face and see his gray eyes and his white, even teeth that he could pop out at will. Mom said that he used to be taller, but that a combination of old age and arthritis had hunched him somewhat. That’s why he shuffled when he walked, lifting his left leg and pulling the right behind him, and why he carried his cane everywhere he went.

The first time I really noticed his cane, or walking stick, as he liked to call it, was a summer morning when I was playing in my sandbox in the shade of our apple tree. Squatting in the sand, my chin on my bare knees, I busied myself smoothing out a road for my Tonka truck. Scraping back the sand along the edge of the sandbox, I suddenly found myself staring at a yellow, six-legged creature as big as my hand. The creature undulated back and forth, glistening as if wet, its tail curling over its head like a dragon’s. I had never seen a scorpion, but I knew intuitively that it wasn’t something to play with like a grasshopper or a daddy longlegs.

I ran into the house crying, “A bug, a bug! In my sandbox!” Mom was ironing and Grandpa was sitting in a chair. Mom set her iron down, and Grandpa began rocking himself forward, building up enough momentum to stand up. I led him out the backdoor and along the patio to the sandbox, pointed to the scorpion, then ran back inside. When Grandpa came back a few minutes later, I looked up at him and tugged at his pants.

“The bug. Where’s the bug?” I said.

He didn’t say anything, but instead lifted the walking stick he held in his long, brown hand and plunged it to the floor. I watched the rubber tip thud into the linoleum over and over, and in my mind I saw the scorpion crushed into dust. From that moment on, Grandfather’s walking stick became an extension of him, as much a part of him as an arm or a leg.

In the mornings, when Grandpa still lived with us, I helped him with his shoes. I would sit on his bedroom floor, struggle to pull his socks over his curled toes and ridged nails, then help him ease his feet, as twisted and unresponsive as roots, into his shoes. I would glance at the cane lying on the floor, within easy grasp of Grandpa’s hand. It had killed the scorpion. It was hard and thick and strong like an explorer’s staff, like the one that Little John had used to knock Robin Hood into the river when they first met. When I told my friends about Grandpa, I always told them about the walking stick, about how he had saved my life.

A few years later, Grandpa remarried and moved into a house on the other side of town with his new wife, Rose, a woman with gold-filled teeth who was always licking the lipstick off her lips. It was in this house, sitting on the floor in front of Grandpa’s chair, that I became acquainted with his second cane. Instead of being wood, this cane was made of cut and polished rings of cow horn threaded over a metal shaft. The rings, eight-sided instead of round, were shiny like the stones in the bottom of a creek. When I asked Grandpa where he got the cane, he told me his father had given it to him; it had been made years before by a man in prison named Harry Orchard. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned that Orchard was the man who set the dynamite bomb that killed Idaho’s Governor Steunenberg in 1905.

Lying on the floor, I carefully turned the rings so that they were in line from top to bottom. I rotated the cane, feeling the coldness of the rings, watching how the sunlight exploded in color along their sharp edges. And my mind would drift to the state prison where a criminal, a robber or worse, had labored with nimble fingers years before. I visualized his ruddy face and his scarred cheek and his raised eyebrows and his hands moving back and forth. Sometimes when I let my eyes close, I was afraid that when I opened them, I would find Orchard standing over me, his face creased in anger because I was playing with the cane he had made.

I remember Grandpa taking the cane with him when he went to the bank, or to church, or out to eat. He would wear dark pants, a floppy-collared dress shirt, and a silk tie, which he tucked into his cardigan sweater. Clinging to his head was a blue and green Scottish beret. When my family went with him to the Royal Fork or the Highwayman to eat, I would skip ahead to the lobby, then turn back around to see Grandpa shuffling toward the hostess, his cane glittering in the low light.

In my mind I saw how he must have approached the hostess of the restaurant in Barcelona where he ate during his visit there. He would smile at her and ask for a table, and she would answer in broken English and look away. And she looked just like the picture of the Spanish girl hanging over Grandpa’s TV. He would follow the hostess to his table, his shimmering cane always in front of him, as if it were testing foreign soil. A diplomat.

When I was 11, I started doing yard work for Grandpa. Either he would pick me up in his white Dodge Dart or I would ride my Schwinn Stingray across the overpass to his house. At first all I did was mow his lawn, but later I started pruning, planting, and working the compost pile. When we worked in the garden, Grandpa always wore a pair of brown trousers stained with paint and grass. He cinched the trousers high on his waist with a ragged belt that was too long, and tried to keep his plaid shirt tucked into them. On his head sat a mesh golf cap, and in his hand he carried his working cane, a dull-colored hardwood cane my sister Kris had bought in Salt Lake City, as a Christmas gift for him one year.

The handle of the cane was curved like the wood on Mom’s bentwood rocker, but rougher, and the shaft disappeared into a round rubber toe like the kind used on crutches. This cane was not as stiff as Grandpa’s first cane, nor as elegant as his second, but it was more useful than both of them. He not only used it around the house for opening cupboards or reaching for the phone book, but outside as a garden tool.

When he needed to water a dry spot out between the pine trees, he would hobble through the grass, pulling the hose along behind him with his cane. In early spring, after I had pruned his fruit trees, he held the discarded limbs in place with his cane while I tightened the twine around them. And over Memorial Day weekend we planted his garden together: I dug the furrows and bent low to plant the seeds, and he followed behind, pushing the soil over the seeds with the handle of his cane, then tamping the soil until it was firm. Later in the summer, he would hold the clambering delphinium stocks away from the fence while I tied them to stakes. And in October he would sit patiently under his pear tree in a chair, staring into the boughs, pointing with his cane to a piece of fruit I had missed.

After a few years, during which it was used for virtually everything, the cane was all scratches and dents. Part of the handle had splintered badly, then worn smooth again so that I could feel a slight depression when I held the cane. The upper part of the bow was discolored from being held so much, and near the rubber toe were splashes of paint and grease. When Grandpa first got this cane I didn’t like it much—there was nothing distinctive about it—but after years of constant use it developed a personality. It didn’t protect or dazzle, but it served well.

Recently, for Thanksgiving, I drove to my sister’s house, where the family was visiting for a few days. Opening the front door, I found Grandpa in the middle of the room, seated in a wheelchair, a yardstick on the floor beside him. He was wearing a yellow cardigan and a pair of brown pants like his old work pants, except these weren’t faded or stained. I instinctively looked for his cane but didn’t find it. When I bent down to hug him, I felt his bony shoulders and his whiskery face.

He asked me how my studies were, would I get straight A’s? Did I ever see my cousin who just got married? We were talking like that when my sister Kris came into the room from downstairs; Tony, her two-year-old son, trailed behind her. After a while she went into the kitchen to see about dinner while I played with Tony. Grandpa remained in the wheelchair, his hands in his lap, his head lolling forward in sleep. Finally I escaped for a few minutes to take my overnight bag downstairs. Above me I could hear Tony tumbling around on the floor, and I suddenly wanted him to know Grandpa by his walking sticks—the staff, the sceptor, the garden implement. Not Grandpa as a shrunken body in a wheelchair, who went only from the bed to the table to the bathroom.

In the kitchen I watched Kris slice vegetables, her fingers moving quickly. When I heard Tony’s laughter from the living room, quiet at first then louder, I went to the doorway to see what he was doing. Grandpa was in the middle of the room as I had left him, but instead of sleeping, he was leaning forward in his chair, his knobby hands wrapped around the wooden yardstick that had been on the floor. He kept the other end of the yardstick poised above Tony, who lay on his back a few feet away watching him.

When Grandpa lowered the yardstick toward Tony’s belly sticking out from his striped T shirt, Tony giggled and tossed his head; then, feeling the tickle of wood on his stomach, he rolled away, his shrill giggles filling the room. And I heard the deeper laughter of my grandfather. Looking into his gray eyes, I saw again the face I had known when I knelt next to the wooden giraffe.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert Barrett

[illustration] Grandpa would sit patiently under his tree in a chair, staring into the boughs, pointing with his cane to a piece of fruit I had missed. He used his walking sticks for everything, and each one had a history of its own to tell.

[illustration] Instead of sleeping, Grandpa was leaning forward in his chair, his hands wrapped around the yardstick that had been on the floor. Two-year-old Tony giggled, feeling the tickle of wood on his stomach, and Grandpa laughed, too.