For the third time tonight, I push open the door to the nursery to soothe your cries. At bedtime, I rushed through the story in order to settle you down, eager—no, desperate—for some time to myself. A few hours later I gave you some water and laid you gently back onto your bed. And now, I kneel down and cup your face gently, concerned. You gaze sleepily back at me and I pull you into my arms to rock.
With the gentle sway of the rocker and the feeling of your soft cheeks still etched upon my palms, I think, without meaning to, of my grandfather.
Every few months throughout my childhood, my mother would pack up the minivan and drive away from the country and cornfields of our Indiana home to return to Vallette Street. As the years passed, she packed a few more children into the car and thought, probably, of the woman who would no longer be there to tell her how beautiful they were and the man who would say it more quietly, in his own way. My mom was 27 years old when her mother died. Returning to Valette Street was the closest she could get to her this side of heaven.
The three-hour drive wound north through tiny highways that grew into five lane interstates, the toll booths marking our time to Grandpa’s house. I can close my eyes now, and we’re passing Oberweis Dairy and Jewel-Osco, the fire department, and then a right turn at the dry cleaners. In my mind’s eye I count the houses from the corner until we arrive at the little Tudor cottage, turning into the narrow drive. I could never wait then, and in my imagination as we rock here, little one, I won’t wait now. I bound up the wooden stairs to the back door, shaded by a giant pine tree, and ring the bell.
How many times in my life have I rung that bell? Dozens and dozens. My memory continues as my grandfather opens the door, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth as he ushers my siblings and me inside. Perhaps it is snowing and we stamp our feet while he opens the coat closet and hands us a hanger. Or perhaps it is spring and we can still hear the birds chirping through the open windows. Regardless, what happens now is this: My grandpa greets me by gently cupping his dry hands around my face and looking into my eyes with a smile.
As a first generation German-American born during the Depression, my grandfather wasted nothing. His every move was a model of efficiency and his daily schedule since my grandmother’s death had been a clockwork exercise, soothing him in its regularity. It was a carefully-crafted routine for one that my mother taught us not to disrupt. My brother and I might pad downstairs early in the morning, sneaking past him as he studied the paper in the breakfast nook. We filled bowls with cereal my mom kept in a basket by the stove to remind him and us that we were visitors there. On a few occasions he came along on our adventures to the Field Museum or the Garfield Observatory, always walking a bit ahead. But in those moments of hello and goodbye, I knew he saw me. I knew what I meant to him. You’re in my prayers, he said—and I heard: You’re in my heart.
I rub your back as I think of his hands on my face. Until I became a mother, I don’t think I realized the true impact of touch as a language of love. Even now, I can almost feel the papery touch of his palms on my cheeks. I reach back into time and ring the bell again. I’m taller now. I’m a woman. My husband is standing behind me. We wait several minutes before my grandfather shuffles into view and slowly pulls back the door. The smile is the same. Still, he reaches out to greet me.
Your breathing is slow and even, and I consider laying you down. You were sleeping just this deeply when I brought you to meet him for the very first time one year ago. I left you in the car with your father and climbed the wooden steps beneath the pine tree. I rang the bell and waited, and waited. After a while, I turned the knob and let myself inside.
“Grandpa?” I called through the house. After a few minutes, he tottered out of his study. He looked up in surprise, but still with that same spark of recognition. He hadn’t heard me. The bell, the calls, nothing. I smiled. “Hello, Grandpa!”
“Adrienne,” he said with a smile. He took my face in his hands.
The day continued with the same family picnic we had every summer, in the same park, with the same sheet cake counting 91 candles that year. We lined you up with your second cousins and Grandpa to capture him with all of his great-grandchildren. When he met you, he held your face that same way, darling. And then a few months later he was gone.
It’s funny how just an hour or so to myself can help me see you with fresh eyes, sweet girl. One moment I’m rushing from your room, pleading with God for your uninterrupted sleep. The next moment I’m grateful to see you again, after this short time, so that I can hold your small face and show you how completely you are loved.
In these dark hours, I think of how I was cherished by my grandfather as you are now cherished by me. The warmth of my love for you, darling, keeps him alive in my heart.
I place you back in your bed and gently close the door behind me. I find my way back to my room, and lie down with the sweet weight of your form still impressed upon my chest and the gentle touch of my grandfather’s hand against my cheek.
Guest post written by Adrienne Garrison. Adrienne is a native Midwesterner and mama of one with one on the way. She writes to stay ahead of the “mean reds” and to keep one foot planted firmly in childhood. Her latest daydreams and adventures can be found at pinktingedperspective.com