I work at the mall.
Years ago, my grandparents would take me shopping another mall similar to this one on a regular basis. Actually, my grandmother would take me shopping. My grandfather would sit on a white plastic bench and people-watch while my grandmother and I looked for jeans in Sears or bras in Penney’s. As the only child of their only child, my retired grandparents had endless hours to spend with me. After my grandmother and I found a few outfits that made us happy and would certainly upset my mother almost enough to make us return them, my grandparents and I went to lunch.
If it was Wednesday, we went to Denny’s so my grandmother could order their cheese soup. Other days, we’d go to a breakfast diner or a cafeteria at the mall. I don’t remember what we ate; I remember feeling big and grown-up, with my grandmother asking what I thought of the Iran-Contra hearings or the President’s part in the scandal. When I didn’t know – which was often, as at eleven I preferred Judy Blume to the St. Petersburg Times – my grandmother never made me feel stupid. Instead, I got to hear what she thought and learned the importance of understanding whatever I believed.
Sometimes I would spend the night at my grandparent’s apartment. Usually I would stay over on a Saturday night, which meant I got to watch not only The Love Boat but Fantasy Island as well. My grandfather would surrender his half of their king-sized bed, and my grandmother and I would lie on our stomachs, our heads where our feet should have gone, watching TV and eating the corn toastees my grandfather made me. He had a special way of making them, toasting them halfway, then adding butter and putting them back in the toaster. He would bring them in to me with a glass of pink lemonade and let me eat them in bed. When I finished, he would take my plate to the sink, watch TJ Hooker, and fall asleep on the couch.
My grandfather never said nearly as much as my grandmother. He called me “Kit Kat” and bought me rings and necklaces he would find at garage sales. My mother and grandmother would scold him for buying “junk”, which I never understood. The tiger-eye bracelet, the mood ring, and countless other baubles became treasures that reinforced my understanding of my grandfather’s love, not flashy and obvious, but always there and waiting for me to see their beauty.
As I grew older those shopping sprees grew increasingly less frequent, as did the sleepovers. I moved away to finish my last two years of college. I talked to my grandmother on the phone once a week. When I would come home, my grandfather would hug me, and before I left, he would always- always- say, “Don’t be a stranger…Come over more…Let us know if you need money.”
Just over two years ago, my grandfather died.
No one that close to me had ever died before; my experience with dying was limited to great-grandparents, a friend’s mother, and a college theatre professor. People I knew and missed had died, but others could, not completely and not in the same way, fill the void they left.
I didn’t grieve when my father told me my grandfather had died. He had been very ill and, in some ways, his death was a relief. I didn’t throw myself on the bed and sob, didn’t call in sick to work, didn’t wear black. I felt bad, of course, but mostly I felt numb. That night I stayed up until 4 a.m., scrubbed my terrazzo floors on my hands and knees, and starched every piece of clothing in the house. I did not cry.
About a year later I was at the mall on my lunch break and an old man smiled at me. He was on one of those white plastic benches with his cane lying next to him. All of a sudden my chest just emptied out and I realized: I would never come out of store and see my grandfather dozing, waiting, on a bench again. I would never go up to him, throw my arms around his neck, and tell him I loved him. I couldn’t return to my college dorm, pick up the phone, and tell him I was thinking about him, tell him how much his quiet love had meant to me. I wanted desperately to go back 15 years, when I had more opportunities – missed opportunities – and talk to him, look at him, tell him how happy it made me to spend a few hours in his company.
As an 11-year-old, I couldn’t see the things that led him to the white plastic bench: growing up with only one toy because his parents had no money, going off to war at 31, or supporting a family on whatever job paid the best, not necessarily what he loved the most. I didn’t understand or appreciate the sacrifices he made, perhaps because he never treated them as such. He taught himself to read and write and figured out how to earn a living without the benefit of a high school diploma, then spent the rest of his life doing exactly that. His reward, his greatest joy, was spending time with his family, even if years of manual labor had ruined his knee and he couldn’t walk through the mall with them. The closest he could get was waiting for them on a bench because his granddaughter wanted to window shop. I always thought he came with us because he had nothing better to do. On my lunch break, looking at this stranger’s wrinkled face, I saw in it what I missed in my grandfather’s: he just wanted to be near us.
Despite my best efforts, I cannot make corn toastees that taste like my grandfather’s. Grown up and married, I live less than a mile from my parents and grandmother. My husband and I sleep in the king-sized bed my grandmother gave us when she moved in with my parents last year. The mall we went to got torn down last year, and the Denny’s we lunched at gave way to an auto body shop three years ago. Thanks to my grandmother, I have grown into a fine liberal. Thanks to my grandfather, a small trinket from my husband means more to me than roses or jewelry ever could. In our house, reruns of The Love Boat take priority over anything else on television. I love my grandmother and cherish my memories of my grandfather. I have a full life and have learned not to cry for what I have lost.
Except when I walk through the mall on my lunch hour and see an old man sitting on a white bench, waiting for his wife and, perhaps, his young granddaughter.