Grandma is dying but she has lived a long and good life. At the age of ninety-seven, she was in remarkably good shape until a cancer diagnosis three months ago. She made it clear from the start that she didn’t want to fight it. No chemo, no radiation, no surgeries. “Just keep me comfortable and let me die in my own home,” was all she asked. My sister, Laurie, and I were supposed to be taking turns staying with her in her house, but Laurie works a lot. I am basically staying here full-time. Fortunately, my job is a remote research position.
Grandma was skeptical when I told her that I could work from home, or from her house or wherever I happened to be. For her a job is a place to go every day, not something you can do just by opening up your laptop.
I set up a makeshift office at her dining room table. After working in silence for a few hours, I decide to check on grandma. Sure enough, she is asleep in her room. I have noticed that she is sleeping more and has more episodes of confusion.
Hospice comes by once a day to check her vitals, see if she needs more meds and let us know how she is doing.
I begin to think about my grandma’s life. The life that is about to end. I need to think about that, about the obituary anyway. I begin making some notes.
‘Born Annie Lee Morton in 1928, to Deborah and LeRoy Morton, she grew up in Smith County. At the age of sixteen, she got a job at the snack counter of the old Songbird Drugstore. It was there she met John Joseph Lane or JoJo as everyone called him. They married in 1950 and welcomed a son in 1955. Mrs. Lane went on to move to Livingston. She began a job with the Renault Insurance Agency as a secretary in 1964, where she worked until her retirement in 2002. In her retirement, Mrs. Lane remained active with the local theater, as a library volunteer and with local charities. Many in the community remember her warmly. She was preceded in death by her son, Jacob Lane, several years ago. She is survived by his daughters, Laurie and Maddie Lane.’
I stare at the notes in front of me. I can’t believe that is all there is, after 97 years. There should be more.
I look out the window. The backyard is filled with dry brown leaves. My grandmother always kept everything so tidy and the yard was no exception. Until the cancer, she raked those leaves herself. “If she looks out her bedroom window, she will see how neglected the yard is,” I think.
I retrieve the rake from the backyard shed and I think about the short obituary. The truth is that grandma’s life had one big black hole. It was the void left by her husband and my grandfather, John Joseph Lane or JoJo, as everyone called him.
My dad died in a car accident when I was nine. I then developed a burning curiosity to find out everything about his life and his family. My mother had packed away most of my father's things. I looked through them and found them lacking in giving me any clue about who he really was. So, when I spent time with my grandma, I looked to her for information. I rummaged through my father’s old room and that was where I first found pictures of my dad’s father, JoJo.
Grandma always spoke highly of JoJo. He was a good father, a good husband. They were in love and happy. My dad, as a boy, had adored JoJo.
“What happened to him?” I remembered asking grandma. “Did he die?”
She was in her seventies then, but had the face of a younger woman. Her smile faded away and her eyes became serious. “He left one day,” she said.
“But where did he go?” I pressed on. At the age of nine, I didn’t understand the concept of separation, abandonment or heartbreak.
“I don’t know, honey. You see, he had lost his job and we were struggling,” she explained. “Sometimes, I think he just, you know, maybe went off somewhere and decided to disappear.”
I remember being shocked and horrified at the prospect. As a child I didn’t know that people could just vanish. Except for kids who were stolen. But adults? Never were they supposed to disappear.
After that, I never asked any more pointed questions about JoJo, but sometimes grandma would make a remark that would give me a snippet of information. His favorite meal was meatloaf with mashed potatoes, peas and yeast rolls. He was a good dancer. When my grandma was pregnant, JoJo knew it was going to be a boy. He was so excited to have a son.
Then he left when my dad was eight years old. It made no sense.
I had asked my mom about the whole situation later on. She just shrugged. According to my dad, he fell asleep one night and the next morning JoJo was gone.
I think of this as I rake the leaves into piles. I start at the perimeter of the yard and I am working my way to the center. I am out of shape and am starting to sweat in spite of the cool temperature.
One last drag of the rake across the ground and I am going to go in and rest. I cannot believe my 97-year-old grandmother raked these leaves. My thoughts are interrupted when I realize that the rake is stuck on something. I can’t seem to pull it toward me so I lift it up and that is when I see that the rake is tangled with a leather strap.
Bending down, pushing the leaves and grass away, I realize that the strap is connected to something that is buried. I pull harder on the strap and I feel something give way, but it is deep. Retrieving a small garden trowel from the shed, I dig until I can make out the top of a leather bag. After a few minutes of pulling and digging, I get the item out. It is an old leather purse, stiff, scratched and caked with mud.
The clasp on top is an old clasp. The kind with two metal pieces that wrap around each other and make a snap sound when they are forced closed. It is rusty but after some effort, I manage to pry the purse open.
Looking down into the black plastic lining, I see that the purse is empty except for a bundle wrapped in wax paper. The paper is brittle when I unfold it. Inside I find a large brown stained envelope, and within it another smaller envelope. I open it to find even more wax paper and finally a thick bundle of folded notebook paper tied with string. I untie the string and open the paper. It seems to be a letter of some kind. The first page has only one sentence: “Dear JoJo I am so sorry” is written in my grandma’s precise cursive script.
At that moment, I hear a car pull into the driveway in front of the house. The hospice aide is here. I feel panicked. I go into the house, stopping in the kitchen. For some reason, I feel as if no one should see me with these papers. I tuck everything underneath the kitchen sink before I open the front door to greet the hospice aide.
Grandma wakes when we enter her bedroom. She is confused when she sees the aide put the blood pressure cuff around her upper arm.
“What are you doing!?” she snaps at the aide.
The aide’s name tag says LeVonna. She smiles at my grandma. “I’m just checking on you Miss Lane, just kicking the tires and looking under the hood.” My grandma laughs. “I think my transmission is going,” she says.
We all laugh. “Maybe so, but your motor is still running, grandma,” I tell her.
After LeVonna has left, I put on the kettle and take some warm chamomile tea up to the bedroom, but grandma has already gone back to sleep. It won’t be long now, I think.
I pull the papers out from under the sink. I look at that first page again, “Dear JoJo I am so sorry”. I flip to the next the page to read on. My grandmother’s handwriting was unmistakable.
‘Date: Monday, November 25, 1963
JoJo, you are gone. I know where you are and I cannot tell anyone and I cannot keep it in. So I will tell the pages. Only the pages will know. I will write this. I will bury it deep. Deep in the ground, deep in me.
JoJo lost his job three months ago. He was working for Wilhelm’s furniture. He had been there for years, but then the owner died and the place shut down, laid everyone off.
At first we weren’t worried, but then when JoJo started trying to find work, he couldn’t. No one was hiring, not the factories, not the stores. Then we got behind on rent. The landlord said he would work with us, but then the gas bill went unpaid and got turned off. It was getting colder. I dressed in layers, I dressed our boy in layers. I scraped together meals of salt and pepper and butter and rice.
Finally, we got into a fight. I told JoJo, he was no kind of man, no kind of father, that couldn’t even feed his child, couldn’t even keep him warm.
JoJo, I will never forget your face when you left that night.’
I looked up for a moment. So there had been an argument, but that hardly explained the fact that JoJo was never seen or heard from again.
I flipped to the third page, hoping to find answers. Grandma had written this page later.
‘Date: Wednesday, November 26, 1963
JoJo—you came back. You left but you came back and you had money. A big wad of cash. It looked funny. It was smeared with something and then I realized that it was blood. And you were bleeding, from your side but you said it was nothing. You told me to hide the money. Use a bit of it to buy food and pay the gas bill and rent, but hide the rest.
Then you said you had to leave. JoJo, you said you were going to go to our cave, the one we used to go to when we were courting. You would be back in a few days. If anyone asked, I was to say that you were out of town, looking for work. And that you would be back. But You Never Came Back.’
Within the handwritten pages was a newspaper clipping. It was about a robbery of a tavern two counties away.
I read the clipping carefully, suspecting what it had to do with JoJo.
The headline was big and bold in all capital letters:
‘ROBBERY GONE WRONG, ONE DEAD, MONEY MISSING’
‘Officials are still trying to piece together what happened at Big Al’s Tavern on the night of November 23, 1963. The tavern was reportedly not very busy and the last customer who left at midnight reported seeing the owner, Al Harvey cleaning the counter as he usually did at closing time. The next morning, Big Al would be dead on the floor of the tavern and a trail of blood led out the door. Unfortunately, it was impossible to track further because of heavy rain during the night and early morning hours. Eyewitness accounts state that a man in a red-checked shirt was seen running into the woods behind the tavern.’
So JoJo, desperate to provide for his family, had committed a robbery. It was almost heroic but I couldn’t push away the grim thought that he had somehow killed a man in the process.
Looking down into the bundle of paper, I see another newspaper clipping.
‘BIG AL PUT UP A FIGHT’
‘Sherriff Earnest Glenn stated in an interview that officers have been able to figure out what probably happened during the robbery at Big Al’s Tavern on the fateful night of November 23, just one day after the assassination of our president. While the nation was in mourning, someone entered Big Al’s just after closing to rob the tavern. Big Al was no pushover, however, and had other plans for the perpetrator. From the amount of blood spilled it looked as if the unknown assailant was stabbed deeply at least once. Unfortunately, Big Al was injured during the struggle and died of a head injury sustained when fell and hit the wooden bar top on the way down. Sherriff Glen made this statement: ‘Wherever the assailant is, he will be looking for a hospital, he is going to have to get patched up somewhere. We will find him. It doesn’t matter if Al died from the fall, we will be looking at murder charges.’
The next page was dated Friday, December 6, 1963. It was written in grandma’s handwriting:
‘Dear JoJo, I went to the cave. I know you told me to wait but I went to the cave where we used to go, where we spent so many hours talking with each other, loving each other. I found you there my darling. At first, I was relieved to see you, sitting against the wall. Then I saw the blood that had poured out of you, your eyes unseeing, your skin marble-cold. And there you were in front of me and gone at the same time. I will tell no one. I love you and I will tell no one what you did or where you are. Good-bye my love.’
After that she had written one more thing: $5576.00
I guessed that must have been how much JoJo had gotten from the robbery.
I was stunned. It was all here, the solution to our family mystery. JoJo had committed a robbery to keep his family fed and warm. A fight between him and owner of the business ensued. JoJo was seriously injured, the other man was killed in the struggle. JoJo managed to make it home, give grandma the money and take refuge in a cave, where he died of his injuries.
Upstairs, I hear my grandma stirring. I hide the papers underneath the couch cushion and run upstairs. She is out of bed and so confused.
“I need to get to work.” She tells me.
“Where?” I ask.
She is impatient with me. “The drugstore, silly! Who ARE you anyway?”
“I’m your granddaughter, Maddie.” I answer.
She laughs. “I don’t have a granddaughter, I’m only eighteen!”
I realize that her mind is somewhere back in time, before the tragedy of JoJo.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” I ask slyly.
Grandma smiles again. “His name is JoJo, he is so handsome! He takes me courting in the cave behind the old Myers farm sometimes, we can be alone there.”
Then the smile fades. “Where am I?” she asks.
I tell her she is home and I help her back to the bed.
That is the last time she speaks. Grandma dies the next night.
I hide the letters at my own apartment and never tell anyone about them.
It took me a few days looking through old property records to figure out where the old Myers farm had been. A mall sits there now, but it is long since closed and abandoned. The woods behind it are still intact. I waited for the weather to warm up and decided to hike out there.
I found the cave. There was graffiti and a bit of trash near the entrance. Inside, it was dark and cool. It went deep into the side of the mountain. I had brought a long spool of fishing line, attached it to a tree outside and unwound it as I walked deeper into the dark abyss. I didn’t know how big it was and I didn’t want to lose my way. I moved my flashlight through the dark and when I saw nothing, I kept walking. Then I noticed a shaft of sunlight coming through a crack in the rocks. I walked toward this light and found myself in a separate chamber.
At first I thought it was empty too. Then I spotted the still human figure sitting propped against a large boulder. The bones of JoJo Lane still sit. He still wears the black cowboy boots, the blue jeans and red-checked button-up shirt he put on one morning in November of 1963. The skull grins and a skeletal hand is reaching out toward me. I kneel and look at the empty eye sockets. ‘Found you,’ I say. JoJo doesn’t reply. I sit with my grandfather for a while. The cave is still, the sunlight begins to fade. I reach over to hold the skeletal hand. I think long and hard what to do. Should I alert the police? Should I make an anonymous report? Should I tell my sister and my mom?
Then I realize, I don’t have to decide today. He has been here for decades. A few more years won’t hurt. I will leave him alone for now. As I rise from the floor of the cave, I can almost feel him looking at me. I turn around, half expecting him to animate, to tell me not to go yet.
The skeleton still sits. Expecting nothing. Asking nothing.
I tell JoJo goodbye and turn to follow my fishing line through the dark cave and back into the present, leaving JoJo to sit where the past had left him.