“Every morning, when you wake up, think of something to look forward to that day.” I can still picture him in his blue striped, broadcloth pajamas. They hung loosely on his skeletal frame. There was no meat on his body. Just skin pulled taut over bone. This sage advice came from a man with severely crippling rheumatoid arthritis. A wise and hopeful soul trapped in a barely functioning body. He’d wag his crooked finger, which he couldn’t straighten, when he was giving me advice. Then he’d chuckle, and I’d give him a hug. Like fine china, I was afraid I might break him into pieces if I hugged too hard. I always felt that he was fragile in body, though not in spirit. This was my grandfather Arthur, and I loved him with all my heart.
I know his advice was meant to give me inspiration, but I don’t think that Arthur realized just how much it molded my character. He gave me the gift of optimism and I’m grateful. It’s like drinking a warm, soothing cup of tea when life seems hopeless. It’s gotten me through divorce, cancer, and life’s trepidations.
His wife, Lillian, told me that he was injured while working on the D & H Railroad. A railroad switch hit him in the face, and she believed that caused his rheumatoid arthritis. I’ve done some research and found that there are a variety of reasons why someone’s body is ravaged by this painful, debilitating disease. One cause is the body’s response to physical trauma, so I suppose her deduction may have been correct. I don’t know, to this day, if that’s true. But the cause really didn’t matter. They were left with the result. A man who was a prisoner in his bed. He was subjected to the humiliation of bedpans and loss of independence. Perhaps, in this day and time, he would have moved to a nursing home. But back then, that was not an option. Lillian took on the complete responsibility of caring for him and their home. She became a prisoner of sorts herself, occasionally getting time off for good behavior. I still have a clear picture of her sitting by the kitchen window, staring out at the world and smoking her Camel cigarettes. She was daydreaming about something. I regret never asking her what.
Before his accident, Arthur was a strong, vibrant man. He and Lillian had four children, a son and three daughters. The great tragedy of their life was when their youngest daughter, Babe, drowned in the Hudson River. Before that river became polluted, it was a popular swimming place for residents of their small town. One hot, summer day Babe begged her parents to let her go to the river with her older brother. They agreed as long as she agreed to wait to go into the water until they arrived. Sadly, Babe ran into the water and the river current swept her under. Her brother, my father, stood helplessly watching, held back by other observers who knew there was nothing he could do. For the rest of her life, Lillian cried every time she spoke of Babe.
While Arthur was working on the railroad, he and Lillian operated a small convenience store out of the front room of their house in the small village of Green Island. I wasn’t born yet when the store was in operation, so I can only imagine it. When they closed the store, they moved their parlor from upstairs to down, and after Arthur’s accident the room was once again converted and became their bedroom. Arthur’s bed was beside the large picture window, giving him as much access to the outside world as his disability could offer. Lillian’s bed was on the opposite side of the room. Between the two stood the glider-rocker she sat in to watch the small television on the metal stand. There was an overstuffed chair with a flower slipcover at the end of each of their beds. When we all visited, some of us sat on Lillian’s bed and we would bring in kitchen chairs for added seating.
In the warm weather, the inside front door remained open and people just dropped in to talk with Arthur. He waved his gnarled hand at everyone walking by. And if he caught their attention, they’d stop in for a chat. Something he loved to do. He also liked to engage in local gossip that he could pass along to the next visitor. Things like who was having a baby or who might be looking for work. It was never anything negative or hurtful. He had stories to tell about working on the D & H Railroad or hunting and fishing when he was a younger man. He had a great sense of humor and was very intelligent. Arthur could converse on a variety of topics. Unable to hold up the newspaper or read for any significant amount of time, Lillian read it to him. And when I learned to read, I did too. So even in his isolation, he had a sense of what was going on in the world.
My parents and I lived with Arthur and Lillian when I was a baby. Though I don’t remember this, I’m told that my crib was next to Arthur’s bed, where I would sit with my little hands on the bars, swinging my feet and babbling away. Then when I was only eight months old, my babbling became understandable. Arthur taught me to talk before I was two years old. At least that is what I’ve been told. I’m guessing that the first word he taught me was grandpa.
When I was two, we moved to another part of town. When I was old enough to venture off my block, I would walk to my grandparents’ home. I often chose different routes to get there. I could go up Hudson Avenue, where we lived, or George Street, which paralleled it. There were numerous cross streets to take. I liked looking at other people’s houses and imagining what they were like inside. The walk could take twenty minutes or an hour depending upon how much I lingered. When I arrived, I felt completely at home. It was a haven for me; a place where I experienced unconditional love. I often brought my homework with me and did it while chatting with my grandparents. During one of those visits, my grandfather was helping me with my spelling. I had a difficult word to remember, Chrysanthemum. He told me to think of it as a sentence. “Chris and the mum.” But then change the “i” to “y” and drop the “d” from “and.” I will always remember how to spell that word.
When I was ten, I’d “grandpa-sit” when my grandmother went to the market. She paid me a quarter, but I’d have done it for free. About halfway through those evenings, Arthur would say, “It’s time for your treat.” Eager to participate in the tradition, I went into the kitchen, pulled down the silver handle on the Frigidaire refrigerator, and squeezed my fingers under the white, metal vegetable drawer. I always found a Sky Bar. My grandparents told me that this was a treat reserved only for me. I never told my siblings or cousins about it. Returning to sit beside him, I’d place the candy on the rose-trimmed metal TV tray, unwrapping the four milk chocolate pillows with different fillings. Grandpa tried to convince me to change up the eating order, but I remained steadfast: vanilla, caramel, peanut and then chocolate! He savored, with his eyes. I with my tongue.
What I find most amazing about my grandfather is that, despite the severe pain and state of helplessness, he never complained. I’m sure he shared his frustration with my grandmother, but never to me. For me he was always spirited and joyful, with a lust for life. I think that my tendency toward optimism stems from his example.
My grandfather told me stories about our family. One of the stories I liked most was about his brother-in-law Stebbins, who was married to my grandmother’s sister, who wore men’s clothes and loved to trap and fish. They existed by living off the land. They never paid their taxes and somehow kept their house. One of the ways Stebbins earned money was to let his toenails grow extremely long and charge people to watch him cut them. That was before television. My grandfather told me that, to economize, Stebbins saved up all his money until he had $100, which he converted into a one-hundred-dollar bill. When he would go to a bar and order a drink, the bartender couldn’t break a hundred-dollar bill, so Stebbins would get his drinks for free. I guess it worked in other places of business too, but I don’t know for how long.
Our joyful relationship ended when I was fourteen. My grandfather died. The day of his funeral I was in my room getting ready to bid him farewell. It was inconceivable to me that I would never see him again. When I came downstairs, I discovered that my parents had left for the funeral without me. I was inconsolable and greatly disappointed. When they returned, they explained that they thought it was in my best interest not to attend. They thought it would be too hard on me. I never got to say good-by to the man I cherished so much.
But I like to think that somehow, where ever he is, he knows how much I loved him. Much the same as the pottery method of coiling, my grandfather’s words and spirit are integrated in my psyche. The man in the blue-striped, broadcloth pajamas may be gone, but his advice lives on to sooth and sustain me.
“Remember, every day, when you wake up, think of something to look forward to that day.” Thank-you Arthur.
Linda McKenney is a personal life coach, motivational speaker, and writer, specializing in mindful living and eating. She continually reinvents herself, and her new adventure is writing creative non-fiction. Her most recent work is published in Silver Birch Press, 101 Word Short Stories, The Survivor’s Review, The Rush, Fiftiness, Number One 2017, and Helen: A Literary Magazine. You can join Linda on her mindful journey by visiting her blog at majokmindfuleating.com. She also has an alter ego at Susanbanthony.live.