“When I die I’m going to come back as a Cardinal,” my Grandmother told me one Saturday afternoon as we sat at her kitchen table watching the birds and squirrels frolic on her patio. The Cardinal was her favorite, she named him ‘Peep.” He would stare at us through the screen door, his plump little chest heaving as he sang his melodious mating song, waiting for us to feed him stale peanuts and sunflower seeds.
Every Saturday I walked down the street to Grandma’s house, picking my neighbors’ Black-eyed Susans along the way to give to her when I got there. She’d make me a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich on toast, together we’d watch as the birds hopped about and the squirrels chattered.
The walls vibrated from the crescendo of music coming from the den where my Grandfather played maestro. The sweet melodies of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, LeRoy Holmes, and Benny Goodman curled through the rooms making my foot tap beneath the table. The music wrapped around us like a hug, keeping us safe in its cocoon.
Her cigarette smoldered in the amber ashtray in the center of the table. Tendrils of grey smoke reached up to the ceiling, like ghosts hovering overhead. She picked up the cigarette and took a shallow drag, leaving a ring of pink lipstick circling the filter. She blew an eloquent whisper of smoke into the air above us while balancing the cigarette between her long tapered fingers, invisible toxins polluting her lungs. The smell of tobacco and burnt toast hung heavy in the air, ready to greet whoever walked in.
As she stubbed the stick out she warned me to never pick up such a nasty habit. (I stole one once and smoked it on my walk home. I immediately began throwing up in my neighbor’s front yard. I promised myself I would never smoke again, and I didn’t.) She put a silver lighter into her white leather cigarette case and snapped the pearl closure shut. She reminded me of Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood, her chestnut hair resting on her shoulders framing her pale face.
The washing machine rumbled on one side of the kitchen as it finished its spin cycle, while the refrigerator hummed on the other side. I would arrange all the magnets we had gotten together into their own section on the refrigerator door. East Matunuck State Beach, Mount Washington, Plymouth Village, Mystic Seaport, etc., My favorite magnet was the Cardinal, with his bright red plumage and red mohawk. She bought it for me from the Marble House gift shop. We went every Christmas to listen to carolers on the front lawn as we sipped apple cider. She told me the Cardinal represented love and devotion.
The refrigerator door also proudly displayed all the letters I sent her. Grandma was my pen-pal, even though she only lived down the street. I would type her letters on the old Underwood typewriter she gave me. It was missing the ‘a’ key so I used a ‘0’ in its place. I would write to her about the weather (as if it was any different from her house to mine), and what we were having for dinner. And sometimes a combination of the two, like “It’s r0ining out tod0y. We’re h0ving sp0ghetti for dinner. Mom s0id she’s gonn0 serve us the worms in the drivew0y th0t the r0in brought up inste0d of sp0ghetti.”
One Saturday afternoon Grandma had tubing in her nose and an oxygen tank sitting next to her at the kitchen table. Over the next few months our visits became fewer as she became sicker, so I wrote her more letters and delivered them in her mailbox. Then one visit Mom told me it might be the last time I saw Grandma. I walked through the kitchen where we used to sit, to a hospital bed that was set up in the living room. She couldn’t get up so I sat down next to her on the side of the bed, nervously playing with the buttons, making the head go up and down as she lie there. She didn’t talk much as she twirled my hair around her stained fingertips. So I did all the talking, I told her how the neighbor said I wasn’t allowed to climb his trees anymore because when I jumped down I crushed his begonias. When it was time for me to leave she held out her frail hand to give me something, inside was the Cardinal magnet from her refrigerator. She told me “remember, whenever you see a Cardinal, it’s me looking after you.” I asked if I could have another banana pop before I left. She died that afternoon.
The week after her funeral I woke up to ‘peeping’ outside my bedroom window, it was a Cardinal. “Grandma is here! Grandma is here!” I announced as I ran through the house. My sisters casually said hello. I don’t know if they actually believed it was Grandma, or if they were just humoring me, but I knew it was her. There was no question in my young mind. From then on whenever I saw a Cardinal I’d say “Grandma’s here,” as if she just walked in the front door.
Grandma didn’t arrive on random days, she only attended special occasions, holidays, graduations, weddings, etc., Then one random Tuesday afternoon Grandma showed up. How odd, I thought, she must have her days mixed up. That afternoon my sister went into labor and had a baby, my mother’s first grandchild.
That was the last time I saw Grandma. I got a bird feeder and attached it with suction cups to my window, Finches, Sparrows, Blue Jays, Pine Warblers all showed up, but no Cardinals. No Grandma. I tried different types of seed to attract her, cracked corn, berries, suet, even stale peanuts like we used to give them when we sat in her kitchen. No Grandma.
It wasn’t for the absence of special occasions. Countless holidays came and went. Eventually I had gotten married and had a child of my own. No Grandma. So I wait, hopeful she will come visit me again someday. I wonder sometimes if it’s because as I got older I became less willing to see her, less willing to believe in ghosts. Or maybe now I’m the ghost.