She was, by all accounts, a miserable woman. Middle-aged, short, broad and strong, with full cheeks and fuller hair, she acted as if the world revolved around her or she was the only person of merit on it. With Ralph (her second husband), she enjoyed more than her fair share of Jack Daniels. Her vernacular was laced with enough profanity to arouse the most callous of shoremen and she had a mean streak to match. She was a caricature, the type of woman that would pinch small children for amusement.
In 1976, she found herself alone. Ralph, an uncle to Paul, had died of liver disease. She had alienated most of her family, and (as the story goes) she had very little to live for. She did not self-medicate like she had twenty years earlier. Instead, she stayed in her home with 3 cats, rarely leaving the house but to shop for groceries. Her only contacts were Paul (an honorable man who had promised his uncle that he would care for her) and Paul’s mother, Ruth. Her life was consumed by emptiness and devoid of meaning or purpose, until the spring of 1977.
On March 11th of that year, a child was born. The son of Paul, the boy became her beacon, lighting a path once ignored or unseen, he was her last opportunity to make things right. The boy would give her purpose and a reason to live.
He would also abandon her, turning his back when she needed him most.
. . . .
I loved going to Leona’s house; I accompanied my father there every Saturday. There was something comfortably ritualistic about my visits. Predictable without being boring, I looked forward to going to Granby every weekend.
When I walked in the door, they were always there, resting on the old vinyl tablecloth that covered her even older and less attractive table: Freihofer’s Cinnamon Donuts. With a wide smile, she would always wink at me when I took the first bite. Later, she would teach me the nuances of baseball while watching the Game of the Week (she loved the Reds). We would talk about school and sports, play with the ball she kept in the basket beneath her phone, and look at the trophies, medals and toys that I would bring to share.
But my warmest of memories was from the coldest of days. Leona had a small hill on the west side of her home and it was perfect for sledding during the winter. It was great, because it was steep, but short. I could travel quickly, without needing to walk too far to get back to the top to go down again. One day, I decided, unsuccessfully, to surf down her hill on my toboggan. As I lifted my face from the snow, my skin burning from the cold, I saw her watching from the bathroom window, smiling. Our eyes met, sharing a moment.
She gave me her love. In exchange, I brought her happiness.
. . . .
Ruth had never forgiven Paul. A farm boy, he had married a young woman from the city. He was a hard-worker, but did not join the union with his father and brothers. Nor did he choose to live on a parcel of the family land, as each of his six siblings would. Paul wanted something different for his new family. Perhaps she was insulted thinking he wanted better. Regardless of her motives, Ruth was a scornful woman, directing her disdain equally at her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson.
I never understood Ruth’s contempt. I did not care where my parents were from. Where my father worked (and in what capacity) was of little consequence to me. I loved growing up in my town, why did it matter that I was 10 minutes farther away?
As a young boy, I only wanted to be loved in the simplest of terms. I wanted to see newspaper clippings with my name hanging on the refrigerator, to be greeted at the door with a hug and kiss and to laugh together playing games, but Ruth failed to make me feel like a grandchild: I needed to feel like I was the most important thing in the world, even if for only a short moment of time.
Leona gave me more than that: she made me feel like I was the most important thing in her world every moment, every time.
. . . .
They had prepared me for the worst, but (for all its creativity) the 10 year old mind is incapable of conjuring visions equal to the horrors of reality. It was not the sterility of the room, the tubes dangling from her nose, chest and arms or the incessant beeping of various machines that disturbed me. I was ready for all of those things.
I was not prepared to see her. In 2 weeks, she had been rendered unrecognizable. Her cheeks hung heavily from beneath her eyes. Her hair had thinned or fallen out. Her voice was barely perceptible. This is what death looked like.
She was a shell of herself. I was eager to share with her how I watched Jose Rijo defeat the Cards the day before, a game I had watched just to have something to talk about with her. I wanted to show her my latest trophy: I had finished second in the Oswego County story-telling contest. Despite my youthful enthusiasm, she seemed not to care. Instead, she could barely keep her eyes open, incapable of feigning interest. Her body was there, but she was not.
Eventually, her eyes came to rest. I approached to give her a hug, but he tapped me on the shoulder and whispered that it would have to wait. She was going home, I would see her then.
I wish I had known that I would have only one more opportunity to show her how much I loved her.
. . . .
In my new white shirt, black pants and neck tie, I crouched under a hemlock tree, hiding amongst the dead thistles and rotting cones. The sky was grey. The clouds were heavy; crushing the treetop from above. Only the crows dared fly this day. The air was damp, but there was no rain. The soil would not need it.
My tears fell to the ground.
All she had wanted was a hug. I had watched from the door frame as, with all of her available strength, she labored to sit in bed. The blinds were closed, the room poorly lit; I could still see how difficult it was for her to move. Struggling to maintain her balance, she reached out for me, begging me to come to her. Her arms were slight and they shook as she held them up. More than ever, in that moment, she had needed me.
I turned my back and walked away, unable to cope with it all.
Now, men lowered her into the ground. I would never see her again: an aunt in name, but a Grandmother in my heart, she was gone.
I had killed her.