The debate between my grandmother and grandfather caught my attention.
Always spoken in part-English and part-Polish, I was trying to get the gist of what was being said. Even at the ripe old age of seven, I was somewhat talented at stitching together English words with the few Polish words I knew to produce a patchwork of understanding.
My grandfather addressed me, “You walk with me to the store. We can stop when you need to rest.”
I couldn’t tell if this was a command or a question.
Then, my grandmother directed me and my brother, Mike, to use the bathroom before we left. She gave the same direction to anyone who left the house, even the adults.
My grandfather, Mike, and I descended carefully down the steep concrete steps in front of my grandparent’s house. We grasped the metal handrail. It was warm to the touch and its silver paint glittered.
Much of the town was built on hills so navigating steep steps was nothing new.
The day was bright and sunny. The sky was bright blue and filled with puffball clouds and singing sparrows. The chestnut trees acted like parasols to shade us from direct sun, but their leaves fluttered in the breeze so that the sunlight winked through.
I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going.
“The store” could mean the penny candy store, the bakery, or the butcher shop. Those were the stores we normally visited.
I was hoping for the penny candy store, but we kept walking past it. The butcher shop was catty-corner but we passed it, too.
We kept walking toward the slope down to the train crossing. It was then I realized that we were walking to the actual downtown area and not just the neighborhood shops.
I was wearing my favorite shoes, black patent leather “T” strap Mary Janes. They weren’t even close to being “walking shoes,” but at that age, I really didn’t care and I didn’t feel the pain.
Downtown included numerous businesses. Among the brick office buildings were J.C. Penney’s, two banks, Islay’s, Woolworth’s, Browns Shoe Shop, and the toy store.
Mike and I exchanged excited smiles when we saw that we were headed to the toy store. We mostly visited the toy store after a trip to the doctor or dentist, as if the price to enter was a dose of pain.
Today, entry was free.
Once through the wood and glass door with the jangling brass bell, my grandfather told us to pick out anything we wanted.
We were surprised.
First, my brother and I looked at each other. Then, we started perusing the shelves.
Big ticket items like model trains or bicycles didn’t seem appropriate for this weekday shopping trip. I looked at the Barbie dolls but they seemed extravagant.
Then, I zeroed in on the Barbie doll outfits.
They were so beautiful! Sequins, ribbons, lace, little plastic high heels. All of these doll clothes and accessories twinkled in their plastic encasements.
Up to this point, I had collected a couple of dolls but all of their clothes were handmade. It was an unspoken dictate that our family did not buy commercially made doll clothes. You stitched together what you could find in the scrap pile. None of the homemade clothes looked as sophisticated or glamorous as these commercially made outfits.
After a fair amount of deliberation, I chose one. It was an evening gown with gold lame accents, an evening bag made from the same material, and blue high-heeled mules.
Meanwhile, my brother and grandfather had been busy checking out some styrofoam glider airplanes near the cash register.
My brother chose a funny glider with a banana picture printed on its main fuselage.
I walked up with my doll outfit.
My grandfather took the packaged dress from me and looked at it. He asked me to show him where I found it, so I led him to the aisle housing the doll clothes display.
I was starting to feel disappointed. Did I pick something too expensive? Did my grandfather think that buying doll clothes rather than making them was too extravagant?
Finally, through some motioning and broken English, I realized that he wanted me to choose more outfits.
Wow! This day was turning into something special.
Still, I didn’t want to seem greedy or take advantage of my grandfather. Also, I didn’t want him to be in trouble with my grandmother, who sometimes yelled at him for reasons that I couldn’t decipher.
So I picked out a less “fancy” outfit and a pajama set for my dolls.
Grandfather paid for his purchases and we started the trek back to my grandparents’ house.
Back to Babcia
When we got back we were tired but excited. Grandfather took our toys out of the bag.
We were shocked to see that he had bought my brother not just the banana glider, but the entire display box of gliders.
I showed my mom and dad, aunts and uncles, and grandmother my doll outfits. Since I didn’t have my dolls with me that day, we set them aside to take home.
As was customary, after dinner we headed out to the back porch. The kids played while the adults sat and talked.
My brother brought out his box of gliders and my dad and uncles helped us assemble them. There were at least a dozen.
They were easy to put together. A styrofoam wing slid through a slot cut into the styrofoam main body.
Then, a much shorter wing slid through a second slot on the tail end of the glider.
Finally, a plastic clip slid onto the nose of the airplane body.
The glider was ready to launch.
Whoa! Some of the gliders flew high and did loops! Others sailed far across the backyard. Some did twists and turns.
All of these variations seemed related to the shape of the glider body, wings, and clip placement.
Mike and I had a great time flying the planes with the adults’ help.
As the sun went down, we got ready to head home. We hugged and kissed Grandfather and Grandmother. We thanked Grandfather for the gifts. Exhausted, we climbed into the car.
It had been a special day. I remember it vividly.
Which, I now believe, had been my grandfather’s aim all along.
Because as I reflect on this particular childhood memory a good five decades later, I’m reminded of a eulogy given at my friend’s mother’s funeral.
It seemed that her mother had spent the final years of her life doting on her youngest grandchild.
As her daughter explained to all of us gathered in the church, she and her siblings were always teasing their mom that she preferred the youngest of her eleven grandchildren to all the rest.
Her mother strenuously denied it.
My friend went on to say that she now realized her mother was not playing favorites with her youngest grandchild.
She was trying to create memories so that she would not be forgotten.
Her other grandchildren had many memories with her, but the youngest, just a toddler, was the most likely to forget Grandma. So Grandma put her effort into solidifying those memories as best she could.
I think that is exactly what my grandfather was doing with me and Mike.
Later that summer, after the Fourth of July, we packed up our house that was only a few miles from my grandparents and moved to a new town.
We wouldn’t see our grandparents every day anymore. We wouldn’t have weeknight dinners with them and my aunts and uncles.
Grandmother wouldn’t be caring for us while our parents worked.
I truly believe that my grandfather had a mission on the day he walked with us to the toy store. He knew then what Mike and I didn’t know until later.
We were moving away. Everything would be different.
Grandfather didn’t want us to forget him. He wanted to create a lovely memory so that when we thought back on our time with him, we would remember that happy day when we walked so far, just us and him.
What a wise man he was.
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This Story brings back so many memories! I can’t wait to share it with my kids since they would be the little ones in your story.