The cup of hot chocolate balanced on my knee had exactly four and a half marshmallows in it, just the way it should be. They were the giant kind – the kind that made absolutely no sense to put in hot chocolate because they were just too dang big for the cup. But that’s the way he was.
The half-marshmallow was from a bite taken out. I could hear his words in my ear, Because why wait to enjoy them? as he would stuff one of the marshmallows in his mouth, eat half of it, and then plop the other half into his cup. It made no sense to me. It didn’t make sense to anyone, really. But we would smile and laugh, because it was grandpa. Because he was always right.
It felt so empty to be there without him. The fire was running after I had finally started it, the large windows showcased a jumble of evergreens outside, lightly dusted with snow, and the cabin was otherwise as it always was. Everything was in its home. Each shelf was full of holiday knick-knacks and keepsakes. Cards from relatives. Santa Clause ceramics. Bells of different sizes and colors. It wasn’t until you got closer that you noticed the slight layer of dust. Or that the cards were all from last year.
I had volunteered to make my way up to the cabin when the rest of my family couldn’t handle the trip. No one had the heart to sell it. Yet. He had left it to my mother, and she wanted to keep him there just a little longer, I think. So I drove up. I made my way through the mountains, past the convenience store in the middle of nowhere, waved to the neighbors three miles away that I had never met but always had their lights on, and wound up here. I lit the fire, put on Christmas music and pajamas, and made hot chocolate.
Grandpa loved winter. It was why he had bought the cabin after Grandma died.
I want to see the snow on the trees, he had said.
Four year-old me had asked what was different about these trees. Why couldn’t he look at the snow on the trees near us?
Because these trees are magical. And I didn’t ask him to tell me more. I just believed him.
I looked outside to those magical trees now. It was dark, but I could still see the outline of a squirrel that missed the hibernation memo climbing up one of the branches. He was looking for food that wasn’t there, outside. I was looking for a grandpa that wasn’t here, inside.
I was finishing up my last semester when he had died. My parents didn’t even tell me. They didn’t want finals week to be ruined. I knew why they did it, but it was still hard to forgive them. Part of me volunteered today because I wanted to be here by myself. I wanted to feel him here.
My eyes glanced around the room. The bookshelf was against one wall, going all the way up to the ceiling high above. He often told me that he had read every single book on that shelf, chest puffing with pride as though it was his own person Medal of Achievement. Someday you will, too, my darling. He had truly believed it. In his eyes, me, his only granddaughter – I could do anything.
I turned to the other wall, where his kitchen island and refrigerator lived. He cooked quite a bit for a man whose wife had cooked for him for 40 years. The burners on the island, over the older-than-dirt stove, were worn out entirely, but cleaner than they had ever been when he was alive. We used to make pancakes with him on those burners on Christmas morning. He would try to flip the pancakes as we watched in amazement, pancakes flying through the air. He always caught them, no matter how high they went.
We sat by this fire and told stories, full of fantasy and imagination. All were straight from the mind of Grandpa. Princes rode beautiful white stallions and saved damsels in distress. Sometimes, though, he changed the narrative so that the damsel, often named after me, ended up needing to save the prince from the dragon before the day was through. He would look at me and say, Because you can do anything.
No amount of dragons or princes were half as amazing as his own life stories, though. We loved hearing about how he met Grandma. How he woke up at 4 a.m. to deliver newspapers on his bike. How he climbed out of a second story bathroom in high school to escape being yelled at by a nun. His stories never failed to disappoint.
Grandpa never disappointed, ever. He was at every single one of my high school lacrosse games. He was at every musical, sitting in the front and carrying a bouquet of flowers. He would cheer the loudest, after every loss, after every stupid award ceremony, after every song. Even when he was slowly declining, he never showed any sign of weakness.
He was invincible.
Maybe it was the trees that gave him the power to last as long as he did. Maybe that was the magic Grandpa always talked about.
Or maybe he gave his own magic to the trees.
I closed my eyes and tried to picture him there, sitting on the couch next to me with his cup of hot chocolate, looking outside the giant windows. Looking at his wonderful trees. Looking to find the magic for himself.
This is such a lovely place to be, he had said to me last Christmas.
I acknowledged that the cabin was indeed very lovely.
He had chuckled like he always did, deep from his belly, as if the magic needed to be laughed out of him and into the air.
No, my darling. Being with you is lovely.
I heard wind blow against the trees outside, snow shifting from the branches to move to the windows.
Being with you is lovely too, Grandpa. It always is.