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 sense she's the kind of woman who draws admiring looks: 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 required to maintain that beauty. I don't realize the toll taken by years of factory conditions. I pay little attention to the ointment she applies every night to her face and arms, to soothe wounds from the flying metal fragments embedded in her skin, or to the wigs that cover the thinning hair from similar spots on her scalp.
In 1967, I comprehend none of this.
We climb on the bus. Grandma Stanfa doesn't drive; she is accustomed to this ride from the Old South End to downtown Toledo. The only bus I've ridden is the one to my suburban school, where I'm in the first grade.
"Grandma," I announce with wide eyes, "look at all the chocolate people!"
"Shh." She raises her finger to her lips. "They're called colored people. You know, like Moms Mabley."
I nod, sneaking another look at the woman across the aisle. I've never seen a colored person in my neighborhood or school. But I'm familiar with Moms Mabley, whom Grandma loves to watch on TV. Later, Grandma talks about the importance of respect. She explains that words, even spoken out of innocence, can offend or hurt someone. I'll bet my grandmother has never hurt anyone's feelings. I hope I don't either.
Grandma sits straight. She rides the bus with a quiet dignity. I swing my dangling feet, kicking them against each other, and chatter away. Grandma smiles down at me. Unlike so many other adults I know, she answers my endless questions not just with patience, but with interest.
Although she has six other grandchildren, today is just about Grandma and me. She allowed me to choose our supper menu, bought me my very own can of black olives and even let me pick today's movie: The Jungle Book. I know my sisters and cousins have had their own days like this with Grandma. But today I feel special.
I hesitate when she stops at the concession stand. My family's far from rich, but I know my grandmother is worse off than we are.
My mom says Grandma's first husband died not long after my Uncle Bob was born. She married again and had my dad and my Uncle Sonny. I'm not sure what happened to my grandfather. I guess my dad met him just once, when he was three. I overheard my mom tell that story, too. "You're doing a good job with the boys," he told my grandmother when he visited. Then, he was gone for good.
My Uncle Bob still lives with Grandma though. He was in the Korean War, and he hears voices that nobody else hears. Grandma tells me I don't need to be afraid of him.
Grandma finally convinces me to get something to drink. I chew my bottom lip, considering my choices. I order a grape drink, served in a plastic, purple fruit-shaped cup.
I have never been to an indoor theater before, only to the drive-in movies with my parents and sisters. From my velvet-covered seat in the Pantheon theater, I stare at the movie screen, mesmerized. I accidentally slurp--too loudly--through my straw. Alarmed, I glance up at my grandmother. She winks at me.
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, Grandma kisses me goodbye. I wave 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 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 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 grape-shaped purple cup.
How well did you really know your grandparents? What is it about a rainy day that makes us remember, with a wistful smile, those we loved and lost?