I grasp my grandmother's hand as we wait for the bus. She squeezes back, and I peer up at her. Even at age six, I recognize she's the kind of woman who draws admiring looks from others. Dark with high cheekbones and a slightly beaked nose, traces of her Algonquin Indian blood from generations past.
I do not know, until years later, the effort she makes each day to mask the wear her daily factory work takes on that beauty: the ointment she applies every night upon her face and arms, to soothe the wounds from the flying metal fragments embedded in her skin. The wigs she wears to cover the hair that grows thin from similar spots on her scalp.
In 1967, I realize none of that.
We climb on the bus for the ride from the Old South End to downtown Toledo. I've just become accustomed to my bus ride to my suburban school, where I'm in the first grade. This bus ride is markedly different. Grandma, who doesn't drive, appears used to this route and its array of passengers.
"Grandma," I announce with wide eyes, "look at all the chocolate people!"
"Shh," she whispers. "They're called colored people. You know, like Moms Mabley."
I nod, still staring at the dark woman across from us. I don't know any colored people. But I'm familiar with Moms Mabley, one of my grandma's favorite entertainers. Later, Grandma explains that we must be careful to show respect for everyone; that my words, even spoken out of innocence, could offend or hurt someone. I'll bet my grandmother has never hurt anyone's feelings. I don't wish to either.
Grandma rides the bus with a quiet dignity. I chatter away, like my mother and my mother's mother--my other grandmother. Grandma Stanfa smiles down at me. Unlike so many other adults I know, she answers my endless questions not just with patience, but with interest.
I'm one of three children and one of my grandmother's seven grandchildren, but today I feel special. I was allowed to pick out our supper menu, given a whole can of black olives to devour by myself, and even asked to choose today's movie: The Jungle Book. I know my sisters and cousins have had their own days like this with Grandma; we're probably all special to her. Yet that doesn't diminish my feelings.
I hesitate at the concession stand. I've been told Grandma doesn't have much money. I've learned that she's worked for many years at a factory job. She raised three sons without a husband to help her. Her first husband died of pneumonia. He was the father of my Uncle Bob, who still lives with Grandma and was in the Korean War and hears voices. I'm kind of afraid of Uncle Bob, but Grandma makes me feel safe. Her second husband was father to my dad and my Uncle Sonny. I don't know exactly what happened to him. My dad met him once, when he was three. I overheard the story. "You're doing a good job with the boys," he told my grandmother when he visited. Then, he was gone for good.
At the concession stand, Grandma insists I get something. I squint, considering, before ordering a grape drink, served in a plastic, purple fruit-shaped cup.
From my velvet-covered seat in the Pantheon theater, I stare mesmerized at the movie screen. The only sound I make is an occasional slurp through my straw. I look up to see my grandmother gazing down at me with a smile.
When we return to Grandma's house, she pours herself a drink. Whiskey. She lights a cigarette. When she's not looking, I stub it out in the ashtray. When I'm not looking, she lights another.
The next morning, we walk to Mass. I attend a Catholic grade school, but my parents aren't so religious about weekly Sunday services. Grandma's a good Catholic. The kind who goes to Mass every morning, seven days a week. The kind who doesn't remarry after a failed marriage and a long-gone husband, because the Church doesn't believe in divorce.
When my parents pick me up, I casually kiss my grandmother goodbye. I wave at her as I climb into our car. I leave her behind in her tiny two-bedroom house, with her freshly printed church bulletin, her pack of cigarettes and her schizophrenic grown son, for whom she will care until she dies in a hospital bed, seven years later.
Some people leave your life too soon. Often, years pass before you truly know them and can begin to understand them. Before you fully appreciate them for what you didn't know then and what you still remember now.
Sometimes, you wish you'd collected every one of those memories and saved them, perhaps in a purple, grape-shaped plastic cup.