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Creative Nonfiction Fiction Funny

The glare of the rising sun through the dingy net curtains stung my eyes. Scrunched up on the couch, I tented my hand across my forehead, shielding myself from the worst of it. As I reconciled myself to the day ahead, I recalled the countless childhood photos of me squinting at the camera, my sister and brother chastising me for always grimacing. It’s too bright! I whined, even on cloudy days. I can’t see! My pale blue eyes were my defense; theirs were a deep brown, like my parents’, better equipped for brightness, but I’d inherited mine from my grandfather. I’d also inherited his fair skin and blonde hair—but fortunately not his temperament. I told you you’re adopted, my perfectly tanned sister taunted me, smiling broadly as the camera shutter clicked once, twice, three times. Even as a kid I knew my sister was joking, but in weaker moments I allowed the seed of doubt to take root, nourished by my own insecurities and, perhaps, a hidden desire to be made of different stuff from the rest of them. To stand out.


I righted myself on the couch, my grandfather’s raspy breathing as he lay asleep on the recliner next to me a reminder as brash as the sunlight of where I was, what my duties were. The day before he’d had a cancerous nodule removed from his outer ear. As I was home from college for the summer, the responsibility of nursing him had fallen squarely—and uncomfortably—on my shoulders. So, I would be the one to spend the next few nights camped out in my grandfather’s living room, changing the dressing, cleaning the wound, making sure he took his pills as directed. It was not exactly how I had anticipated spending the first week of my break, especially after a taxing semester studying 19th-century English literature, but I agreed to do it, a feeling of indebtedness weighing heavily on me. If I’d counted up all the quarters he’d shelled out at the local diner to fund my Pac Man addiction over the years, I figured it must be in the triple figures. At least.


I watched the dust dance in chaotically choreographed murmurations, floating and fluttering before alighting on the old tube TV, or the antique pedestal ashtray that stood at arm’s reach from my grandfather’s chair—the two items he could not do without. That, and the shotgun perched menacingly behind his easy chair. It had been there as long as I could remember—a fixture that had become as familiar as the stench of smoke that permeated the place, despite my grandfather having apparently quit the habit years ago. I could only assume the gun wasn’t loaded. When, as I kid, I blurted the unspoken question on all our lips, “Why do you have a gun, Grandpa?” he retorted, “To shoot the damn squirrels.” My mom glowered, and I never brought it up again, though I couldn’t help but wonder what he had against squirrels.


With a sigh I stretched, rolling my head side to side to get rid of the crick in my neck that had resulted from sleeping on a couch a foot shorter than I was. I could have slept in my mother’s old room upstairs but felt an inexplicable need to keep watch on the old man, who regularly fell asleep in the chair, rather than his bed, after a long evening spent watching Tom and Jerry reruns, eating pretzels, and not smoking. At least he didn’t drink. I couldn’t recall ever seeing him nurse a beer, and there was certainly no liquor to be found anywhere in the house. Plenty of Coca-Cola though, which was a rare treat when I was a kid—one of the bribes my mom would use to goad us into visiting him after Grandma died. “You know there’s always soda at Grandpa’s house…”


I had no idea what time it was but estimated it to be around six based on the morning sun now streaming in, unforgiving in its cheery brightness. My whole body protested, accustomed as I had become to late nights studying and long mornings in bed. But Grandpa slept, his head tilted back, mouth agape, arms hanging limply by his side. His rattled breathing was a comforting sign that he wasn’t dead. Not on my watch, I thought, knowing implicitly that, despite a strict diet of fried food and salted peanuts, he would last at least another decade, if not two. I felt more assured of his longevity than my own.


My eyes scanned the familiar room, tinged as it was with nostalgia. Behind me, perched on the back of the couch, sat an array of stuffed animals that my grandmother had won playing Bingo. The cherished penguin, which my siblings and I always fought over, had turned a monochrome gray from years of neglect. All of them—the giant brown teddy with the frayed blue bow, the coiled green snake with diamond patterns, the rainbow-colored parrot with the glassy stare—waited patiently for playmates, confused as to why the smiling children in the photographs opposite had spurned them. To them, my siblings and I were frozen in perpetual youth.


* * *

Since my grandmother’s passing nearly a decade ago, the house had remained virtually untouched. Stepping into the kitchen was like going back in time, the 1991 calendar still adorning the cellar door, forever turned to August, my grandmother’s neat cursive script marking notable events. She’d just managed to make it to the “hairdresser appointment, 10 o’clock” on the 15th, before her sudden death later that day. If she’d lasted another few hours, she might even have made it to Bingo at 8. I often wondered what she’d talked about in that final appointment, what her parting words were to the hairdresser, whom she visited on a weekly basis to have her hair “set,” whatever that meant. Did she mention a slight headache, an early indication of the massive aneurysm to come?


“See you next week, Florence,” the hairdresser said. (Perhaps unfairly, I pictured her with dyed blonde hair, bright red fingernails and a skirt verging on too short.)


Patting her stiff, perfectly formed curls, my grandmother replied heartily, “Macht’s gut!” (Be good.)


Unlike my grandfather, she liked to talk, her thick, German-tinged accent often a source of humor for me and my siblings. “Outen the light!” she’d say as we left the room, or “Doncha want some cake yet?” She was a wonderful baker of cakes and pies—the secret, she said, was lard, not butter—and I missed her homemade desserts almost as much as I missed the woman herself. For me the two were inextricably linked; food was the way she showed her love, and I reciprocated by eating it. We all did. As a kid she had spoken only the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect at home and used to tell us how, at school, the teacher took a switch to her every time a “foreign” word passed her lips. So it didn’t take her long to learn the “proper” way to speak, but in her later years, she often reverted to dialect.


In almost every way she was a contrast to my gruff, battle-hardened grandfather. Even their wedding photo, taken shortly after my grandfather had enlisted, highlighted the differences. With her round face, far-set dark eyes, and stocky build, my grandmother seemed a mismatch for the attractive, fair-haired soldier, tall and slim in his army dress uniform. Next to her, his arm barely brushing that of his new bride, my grandfather stared stoically at the camera, his eyes betraying no joy. Undoubtedly he was handsome, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d remained faithful to her during his enlistment. Could I blame him if, in the harried, hellish days following the invasion of Normandy, he’d taken solace in the arms of another?


He’d sustained a few battle wounds. Shrapnel in the leg and arm, and somewhere in the fields of France he’d lost a finger—his ring finger. None of us dared ask how it happened: it was one of those no-go areas, my mother warning me more than once never to bring it up. But for me it was the elephant in the room, that empty scarred space where a finger once perched a source of endless fascination and horror, the naked knuckle protruding like a knot on a tree trunk. Still, I knew better and kept my lips firmly sealed. Myths abounded between me and my siblings, becoming increasingly vivid over the years to the point that the line between fact and fiction had blurred imperceptibly.


It was shot off by an enemy bullet... There one second, gone the next… Probably didn’t even feel it.


He took a shot in the hand and it got infected. They had to cut the finger off to save the hand…


He was injured on the battlefield. A Kraut found him and cut off his finger for his wedding ring…


Cannibalism, plain and simple. Those guys were starving out there in those rat-infested trenches; so hungry they would eat anything…


I came to learn later that trenches were a phenomenon of the First World War, not the Second, so I knew that the last explanation was a bit far-fetched; still, without evidence or explanation to the contrary, anything was possible.


* * *

After my grandmother died, I was recruited to help my grandfather with various chores—cleaning, shopping, some light gardening. I don’t know how my mother—his own daughter—got out of it, or my siblings, who were older than I was and surely more capable; I suppose his relationship with my mother was complicated, to say the least. I couldn’t imagine him ever being the type of father to spend much time at home interacting with his children. After the war, and well into his sixties, he drove heavy machinery—bulldozers, excavators, front loaders. When he wasn’t doing that, he was busy helping out his many “buddies,” as he called them. He also gave up his Sunday mornings every week for three years to help my brother with his paper route. He’d drive to our house in the predawn hours to help my brother load up the heavy, ad-laden papers into his car and escort him on the route. Then, he’d take him to the diner for an early breakfast—hash browns, eggs, and sausage every time—and go home before the rest of us had even had a chance to see him. I was secretly glad about that.


One summer morning when I was in high school, my grandfather called unexpectedly. When I realized it was him, my kneejerk reaction was to shout for my mother, but he interrupted me with, “I got eighty petunias, fifty impatiens, and a hundred begonias.” An uneasy silence ensued, during which time I surmised that he was asking me, in his signature curt way, to help him plant bedding flowers. Before I could reply, he said, “See you in an hour.” The call ended with an abrupt click.


That afternoon, in the warmth of the June sun, we planted each of those two hundred and thirty flowers, not a single casualty among them. Under my grandpa’s close scrutiny, I gingerly extricated the plants from their plastic containers, careful not to rip their wispy roots or snap their stems, and passed them to him, one by one. Methodically and carefully he dug, kneeling on spindly legs, pale to the point of luminescence. Just like me, he would burn in direct sunlight, then peel, the skin sloughing off like bark on a birch tree.


He’d dig the hole, then sprinkle it with a dusting of Miracle-Gro—his secret weapon—before gently bedding the flowers in neat rows. After the first dozen or so, I relaxed into the easy rhythm of planting—the silence natural, not awkward—my attention fixed on those young plants that he handled with a tenderness I’d never seen in him before. “Delicate” was not a word I would have associated with him, but as I watched his roughened, raw, working-man’s hands place flower after flower into the ground, I wondered if I had been missing something all along.


The spell was broken when he stood up abruptly and brushed the dirt off his shorts. He patted his pockets and frowned.


“Dammit,” he said. “Got any cigarettes?”


* * *

“Morning Grandpa,” I ventured as he opened his eyes and sat up in his chair. Immediately he reached for the TV remote and switched on Cartoon Network. Tom held Jerry by the tip of his tail, dangling him precariously close to his open mouth. The volume was so loud I had to raise my voice. “You feeling OK? I’m going to have to change the dressing—”


“I’m fine,” he answered gruffly, eyes fixed to the TV, where Jerry had outwitted his captor yet again and ran free. “Just another day.”


Taking that as permission, I gathered the antiseptic wipes, the sterile gauze, and the other things I would need to clean and redress the incision. Up to that point I hadn’t really thought about the task at hand. In my lifetime I’d rarely touched my grandfather in any capacity. He wasn’t really the “hugging” type. I had faint memories of fleeting good-bye kisses I’d been forced to plant on his leathery cheek under my mother’s watchful glare, but he never reciprocated.


Now here I was, playing nurse because no one else wanted to. Forced into the fray because not even his own daughters could face it. As I approached him, my pulse quickened. This was no-man’s land; I had no idea what he would do when I pried the bandage off his skin. Lash out? Grab my hand? God forbid he cry—he hadn’t even cried at his wife’s funeral… I sensed him tense up as my fingers gripped the surgical tape and started to peel away the blood-encrusted gauze.


“Sorry, am I hurting you?” I asked warily.


“I’ve had worse,” was the reply.


“Okay. This might sting a bit…” I said, but then felt myself go lightheaded at the sight of the mangled ear beneath the bandage. “Sorry… I feel a little faint,” I said suddenly, grabbing onto the couch and sitting down heavily. I put my head back and closed my eyes, black flecks swirling like starlings in the semi-darkness.


The next thing I felt was a strong arm brace me and gently urge me forward. “You gotta put your head between your knees. Get the blood to your head,” my grandfather said.


Following his instructions, I leaned forward until the spell passed. I looked up at him standing before me protectively. “Thanks,” I mumbled.


He reached out a hand—the four-fingered one—and helped me to my feet.







June 25, 2021 20:52

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2 comments

Juliet Tullett
17:08 Jul 01, 2021

Love this. So tender.

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Julie Frederick
21:17 Jul 01, 2021

Thank you 😊

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