Durham News: Opinion

Robert Wallace: Love twists the heart a little

After I moved in with my grandparents, we used to take rides to see my grandmother’s Aunt Jessie. I don’t know how old Aunt Jessie was, but to a boy of 14 she appeared ancient.

This was after my stepmother had kicked me out of the house, but before my father and stepmother had died. Aunt Jessie lived near the ballpark, and we usually went to visit her after church.

“Make sure you put on some deodorant,” my grandmother said, one particular day as we were about to depart. “You have such an awful smell for a young boy.”

“It’s my glands kicking in,” I replied.

Grandfather laughed, but my grandmother stiffened her wrinkled brow into one giant ripple. “Watch your language, Bobby” she said.

I smiled, then went into the bathroom, washed my pits and applied some Arrid Extra Dry.

“You mine yourself at Aunt Jessie’s,” Grandmother said when I returned from the bathroom.

“What does that mean exactly? Mine yourself.”

“Never you mine,” Grandmother said. “You just do it.”

There was that phrase again, but I didn’t say anything. I wanted to say that I was 14, and I was no longer a child, but I didn’t say that either.

Ever since I had started living with my grandparents, they had been treating me with a curious mix of protectiveness, as if I were much younger, or a certain aloofness because they didn’t know what to do with me. They were in their late sixties, and taking care of their dying son’s oldest son wasn’t something they had anticipated.

Aunt Jessie’s house was only a few miles away, and on this warm summer day, the car’s windows were rolled down, and the breeze flowed into the back seat. Grandfather drove and Grandmother had slid up next to him on the bench seat. Grandfather looked at her; his loose face clean shaven, the lines under his eyes deep. Before driving off, he kissed her lightly on the lips.

Aunt Jessie’s house was very small. It had tidiness about it, but smelled like mothballs. She was taller than my grandmother, which isn’t saying much. I was already taller than both of them. Aunt Jessie wore wire-rimmed glasses that hung low on her nose. She wore her hair tight against her head in a bun. Her hair was gray, and appeared coarse, like it would break with the slightest touch.

When we arrived, Aunt Jessie came to the screen door and greeted us with a smile, which made her eyes come alive. She walked with a stoop and the use of a cane that was without a piece of rubber on the bottom, so the sound it made on the wood floor matched the sound of her square-heeled shoes. She offered us lemonade, which we gladly took.

It was mostly Grandmother and Aunt Jessie that spoke. Grandfather sat with his hat in his lap, looking uncomfortable. Every now and then he would nod off to sleep, but Grandmother would take his hat and slap him on the knee with it, and he would jerk himself awake.

“Mother, do you have to do that,” Grandpa would say. For whatever reason, Grandpa referred to his wife as “Mother.”

“Let him be,” Aunt Jessie finally said. “I don’t mind.”

That’s when she looked at me and said, “Come out back with me, Bobby. I want to show you something.”

I looked over at Grandma, and I saw the surprised look on her face.

“Go on,” Grandma said.

I followed Aunt Jessie to a plain wood shed not far from the house. The door was latched with clothesline twisted around a rusty nail. The hinges were rusty too, and they squeaked when Aunt Jessie opened the door. On the wooden floor, curled up on a couple of clean towels, were a beagle mother and several new born puppies. The puppies peeped and cried.

“I found them just a few days ago,” Aunt Jessie said. “I must have left the door open one day. I’ve been feeding the mother.”

I looked at Aunt Jessie and I saw the joy on her face. When I look back now, I wonder more than ever what caused my sense of reality to change, for it isn’t the tragedies that were about to occur that I always remember, but the moments of astonishment. It is the marvelousness of seeing a very old woman, a long-time, childless widower, not turn away from life in despair, not allow it to become psychologically and emotionally abbreviated, but embraced in hope and happiness by sharing a secret moment of beauty with a teenage boy.

Robert Wallace can be reached at bwallace@nc.rr.com