I fidgeted impatiently in the backseat of the car, excited as much by the prospect of an end to our long ride from California to Kansas as by the thought of seeing my grandparents again.
“Do you think she’ll like my hair short? Last time she saw me I was wearing it in braids. Can you imagine? I must have been about ten or eleven. I hated those braids! Remember when Grandpa offered to cut them off with the hedge clippers?”
My mother exchanged glances with my father. “Don,” she began.
Dad cleared his throat and spoke to me in the rearview mirror. “Tara, you realize that they’ve changed. People do as they get older. You’ve changed, and they will have, too. You have to expect that.”
“I know, I know.” Impatiently I brushed aside the warning in his voice. “But I’m eager to see them.”
“So are we, dear,” Mom said, but there was an edge to her voice that I didn’t understand.
We reached the edge of the little town where my grandparents lived, and Dad turned down their street. Grandpa was waiting for us on the front porch.
I shot from the car and hugged him as tightly as I could. He seemed thinner than I’d remembered, almost fragile, so I released my grip on him.
He held me at arm’s length. “Tara, you look wonderful. But whatever happened to those beautiful braids?”
“Well, one day I was trimming a hedge and they just happened to get caught in the clippers,” I teased.
We laughed and hugged again.
“How’s it going, Dad?” Mom asked him. “You holding up okay?”
Grandpa kissed her soundly on the cheek. “You bet.” He turned to Dad and clapped him on the back. “Good trip out?”
Dad shrugged. “Can’t complain.”
I couldn’t stand this exchange of pleasantries any longer. “Where’s Grandma?” I interrupted.
Grandpa looked at Mom and she nodded.
“She’s at the rest home by the courthouse. We can see her tonight,” he said.
“Oh, can’t we go now?” I begged. “I want to see her.”
“Well, Tara, you’ve come all the way from California, and your father probably wants to rest after such a long drive. We’ll go tonight.”
“Please?” I wheedled. “Pretty please with sugar on top?” It had been my favorite childhood phrase when I had wanted something very badly, and I could see him weakening.
Dad solved it. “Let me unpack the car. You three go, and I’ll snooze a bit while you’re gone.”
I threw my arms around Dad. “You sweetie!” I turned to Mom and Grandpa enthusiastically. “Let’s go!”
We pulled up in front of the sedate red brick rest home. As Grandpa got out of the car, my mother leaned over the back of the seat to speak to me.
“Don’t forget,” she cautioned in a tight voice, “she’s not the same grandmother you remember.”
Not the same grandmother? Of course she was. Oh, I knew from Grandpa’s letters that sometimes her memory slipped and she couldn’t remember people’s names, but she was still my grandmother, the same one who had read me Winnie-the-Pooh when I had scarlet fever, the same one who had let me name the barn cats, the same one who had taught me how to make the world’s best grape jelly. The same one.
I leaped from the car and began to sprint across the vast green lawns of the nursing home, until I remembered that Grandpa was with us, so I waited patiently in the quiet Kansas afternoon for him to catch up to me.
My grandfather led us confidently, like a tour guide, through the cool halls of the nursing home, holding a jar of peaches he had put up himself. “They’re her favorite, you know,” he said. “Bring her some each time I come.”
We stopped outside Grandma’s room, and Mom reached over to squeeze my arm, perhaps to reassure herself as much as me. I ignored her touch and opened the door.
She was sitting on the edge of the bed, almost engulfed in a flowered robe that was much too big for her. She looked up as we entered.
Her eyes looked past me and found my grandfather. “Oh, there’s the nice man with the peaches,” she said.
My mother dropped on the bed beside her and put an arm around her. “Hey, Mom,” she said, “remember me? I’m Annie.”
Grandma ignored her and held out her hand for the peaches. “It’s so nice of you to bring me peaches each time you come.”
I wanted to say triumphantly to Mom, “See? She does remember. She is the same grandmother.”
Then Grandma cocked her head and looked quizzically at Grandpa. “Now, what did you say your name was?”
I wanted to leave. I wanted to be outside in the cleansing heat of the summer day, where the sun could burn this scene from my mind. I wanted to forget it had ever happened. It was changing my entire world.
But my grandfather was speaking to Grandma. “I’m Frank. And this is your daughter, Annie, and your granddaughter, Tara.” He spoke slowly and patiently.
“Hello,” Grandma said politely to Mom, and held out her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.” She turned to me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Tara,” I blurted.
A smile lit up her face, and my heart with it. She remembered me!
“Why, that’s my name, too!” She peered closely at me. “Will you be going to my school?”
I looked helplessly at my mother. She was crying silently, her face in her hands. My grandfather touched my shoulder and gently nodded.
I took a deep breath. “I hope so,” I said.
“Good. We’ll have great times. I hope you don’t live too far from me.”
I didn’t know what to do. She obviously expected me to say something. Suddenly I decided what to do. I plunged into her world.
“Tell me about the other people who go to the school,” I prompted.
Grandma’s eyes looked back 60 years. “Well, there’s Edith Scott. She’s nice and has the most beautiful red hair. And there’s Rob Anders, but stay as far away from him as you can. He’s trouble. And there’s Frankie Gleason.” A sly smile stole over her face. “I’ll bet he goes for you in a big way.”
My grandfather caught my eye and winked.
“Oh, no, I don’t think he will,” I said. “I think he likes you.”
Grandma blushed and smoothed the lap of her robe. “Well, some have thought so, but I don’t know. He is a nice fellow, though.”
“Why, I’ll bet that one day you and Frankie Gleason get married and have a beautiful daughter,” I teased. My mother looked up at me startled, and I wrinkled my nose at her. I was beginning to enjoy this.
Just then a nurse walked in. “Are you ready for your lunch, Mrs. Gleason?” she asked my grandmother.
Grandma’s face brightened. “Can I have peaches?”
In the middle of the night, the phone rang. A few minutes later my mother came into my room and sat on my bed.
“Tara, that was the nursing home. Grandma’s had a stroke, and it’s a bad one.” Her voice broke. “They don’t expect her to make it to morning.”
I sat up, suddenly awake. “Are we going?”
Mom touched my forehead, smoothing away stray hairs. “You don’t have to go.”
“But I want to go!” I cried. “She’s my grandma!”
Mom bit her lip and looked at me before she nodded. “Okay. Get dressed. We’re going right away.”
The nursing home looked different at night. “It looks so asleep!” I burst out. Grandpa patted my arm.
As we crossed the lawn, I noticed something in Grandpa’s hand.
“Peaches,” he said, embarrassed. “Her favorite. Bring her some each time …” His voice cracked.
It was my turn to pat his arm.
Inside, the only person in the lobby was a nurse, who nodded understandingly at us and said softly, “Go ahead.”
Grandma’s room was brightly lit, and a doctor stood beside her bed.
“How is she?” asked my mother.
The doctor shrugged helplessly. “I never know what to say. It’s been a massive stroke, and her heart isn’t strong.”
Grandma looked very small on the bed. She looked past my mother and my grandfather to me. “Tara! How kind of you to come see me.” Her voice faltered. “I don’t think I’ll be in school tomorrow. I don’t feel very good.”
“That’s all right,” I said as reassuringly as I could. “I’ll explain to the teacher. By the way, I brought someone with me to see you. Frankie Gleason.”
We stood in a stiff line at the cemetery to “accept condolences,” as my mother put it. I felt numbed, yet painfully aware of what was happening. Grandpa seemed to shrink even more as his friends filed by to lay gnarled hands on his shoulders and wordlessly offer looks of understanding with eyes that had seen other loved ones laid to rest in this same grassy stretch. This man who had been the strongest man in the world to me when I was a child suddenly looked vulnerable, and I moved closer to him, instinctively wanting to protect him.
After the other people had left, Dad cleared his throat. “They’re serving lunch at the church. Come on, Tara.”
I hung back, reluctant to let Grandpa stay there alone, yet not wanting to hurry him into a premature separation from Grandma.
“I’ll wait and go with Grandpa,” I said.
Mom looked up sharply. “Tara …”
Grandpa stopped her. “Let her stay, Ann. We’ll meet you at the church after I say . …” His voice wavered. “After I say good-bye.”
When we were alone, I told Grandpa I’d wait for him in the car. He nodded absently. In a rush of empathy, I put my arms around him. He held on to me, and I could feel his thin shoulders shaking. Tears collected in my eyes, and I blinked helplessly as they ran unchecked down my cheeks.
“I’ll miss her, too,” I said. “But you know what makes me feel good, really good? Out of the millions of people in the world, I got her for my grandma. I feel very lucky and very grateful to whoever picks grandmas.” I leaned my head against his. “And grandpas.”
Grandpa lifted his head and smiled at me. “And granddaughters.” He took a large white handkerchief from his suit pocket and blew his nose.
I patted his arm. “I’ll meet you at the car.”
When he got to the car, I offered to drive. I started the car, and as I pulled out of the parking lot, something rolled out from under the car seat and tapped my foot. I stopped the car and reached down to pick it up. It was a jar.
“Peaches,” Grandpa said. “They’re her favorite, you know. Bring her some each …” He buried his face in his hands.
I laid my hand on his arm. “Let’s take them to her.”
Grandpa raised his head and looked at me. Then he nodded.
He carried the peaches in one hand and held my hand with the other. Together we walked back to the grave.
Grandpa knelt with difficulty and placed the jar of peaches in the midst of the flowers. Then he turned to me.
“Looks kind of simple here with all those showy flowers.”
I smiled at him. “You’re a nice man, Frankie Gleason.”