Having finished my college degree, I moved to Northern Virginia to live with my boyfriend. We were going to play house. Hollis had a small construction business, and I found an entry-level job in the county government. We rented a very suburban dwelling with trees in fall foliage. Looking out onto the other suburban homes from the big bay window in the breakfast nook conjured up my worst fears of housewifedom.
We arranged what little bit of furniture we had, trimmed bushes and raked leaves in the yard, and took in a stray, pregnant cat. Then, we almost took in Hollis’ grandfather.
Grandpa had moved from upper New York State to his son’s home in Virginia. He had grown afraid of being alone—of his failing health and local hooligans. He brought with him some furnishings and a long life’s mementos. There was no room in his son’s home for all this, so Hollis invited him to store his belongings in the large basement of our rented home.
Grandpa would take the bus from his son’s house to ours to sort through his possessions. When I came home from work, he had just barely arrived. He showed me vases and scraps of paper; whatever I admired, he gave me. I learned to keep such appreciations to myself. As I worked in the kitchen, Grandpa would follow me around, telling me how he and his wife had managed their domestic affairs. Inevitably I would invite him to stay for dinner. Soon he was spending the nights too. He hung some of his paintings over the bed in the guest room. Slowly, very slowly, he sorted through his lifetime.
Every few nights Grandpa would return to his son’s house. When he came back to ours, he would complain to me—his daughter-in-law was out working so the house was unkempt and dinners were late; the house was cold; his teenage grandchildren were uncivil. How different had been the home he had headed. Somehow, the men in his life remained faultless. They denied him nothing.
Grandpa spent more and more time with Hollis and me. In our seemingly big house I now had little privacy; more so, I had become the old man’s companion and felt I was becoming his caretaker. I became resentful.
In the early spring blooming azaleas and dogwoods added color to our well-manicured suburban lawn. For some months Grandpa held onto his place in the house as if riding a bucking bronco. He tried to remain the gentleman while having to accept so much less than what he had expected for his old age. Here he was, staying either in his son’s uncomfortable house or in that of his grandson, who lived with his girlfriend of all things. I imagine disappointment came not from the particular circumstances but having arrived at the point of having to accept them. Reprieve came from another son who lived in California.
Over the next years Grandpa went from one son’s home to another. Even though Hollis and I had gone our separate ways, I wrote Grandpa notes on cards with pretty pictures of flowers in vases.
One autumn I received in the mail Grandpa’s wooden crumb duster, the one he and his wife had used for fifty years. Along with it came a note from a granddaughter telling me of his death and how much he had appreciated my notes over the years. I looked out the window—bare branches against a gray sky. There would be leaves in the spring.