Thomas Barnard, writer
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Geoff drove westward along Garfield Boulevard, which had once been a beautiful thoroughfare of Chicago and was distinctive in a way that the Interstates, now the main arteries of the city, were not. Boulevard, the word itself had style and class that set it apart. No massive concrete and steel trestles here, no endless parking lot. The midway had class. It was like a long park, miles long, replete with paths, trees, benches, surrounded by streets, and uplifting, the way antique furniture is: functional yet aesthetic. Yes, Garfield Boulevard was a graceful antique among newer, less distinguished blacktops.
But Garfield Boulevard in the early 1970's was no longer convenient for the longer city jumps; traffic lights were a nuisance. And the years which made Garfield obsolete also witnessed an influx of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans moving west from the center of the city. Unschooled in the care of property, this burgeoning population frightened old-time homeowners. So the class which had created the midway deserted it.
Geoff reflected, "Someday people with money will move back here."
"Why do you say that?" said Anne.
"It's too good to be ignored. Look at these houses. Someday the gays will move in or some artsy types. They'll renovate, and then the hip straights will move in. And then the gays will move on, probably to 63rd Street."
Anne laughed. He continued, "Look at these houses, they're in horrible shape."
"They are, aren't they? It's a shame," Anne lamented as buildings filed in and out of her field of vision.
"And these people don't really give a damn. They all want Mr. Big's place in the suburbs."
"Well, people always want what other people have."
"Of course, it's always the same old baloney. But you know, these houses could be owned by these people and still be something special if they took pride in them. You have to think these people hold themselves in the same regard as they do these houses."
"Maybe they don't have the money to fix them up."
"Money nothing. They could keep them clean if nothing else. My grandmother never had a dime and she tells me stories of cleaning not only her apartment but the halls as well. She's too embarrassed now to admit it, but she also swept the sidewalks and kept the garden. Mother told me. And remember, she was just a tenant; she had no interest in the property."
"So it's a matter of upbringing then."
"Oh, I don't know. I suppose upbringing might be a good place to start ..."
Later, further down the road, he spoke again:
"I always hate coming here."
"You know you love it. You've always loved your Grandmother."
"Yes, I guess. But I'm always reminded of Grandpa ... Grandpa Failure."
"There's no reason why you should identify so strongly with your grandfather, you're no failure."
"It's too early to tell. And don't you suppose Grandma probably said something like that to Grandpa?"
"I'm not your Grandmother, I'm not even your wife, yet."
"Oh, but you're like her--agreeable, friendly. You go along with all my half-baked ideas - like that chunk of stock we bought and took a big loss on."
"You're silly. And I was silly for going along with that scheme."
"But you did."
"A few parallels do not necessarily mean you'll end up like your grandfather."
They parked two blocks off Garfield. The wind continued to be an annoyance - pressing against the doors of the Vega, snarling their hair as they trotted to Grandma's red brick apartment building. It wasn't rich red brick: it was faded red, old red, grey red. The entryway seemed to summarize the story: it was small, accentuated by the awkward way the doors opened in towards each other. The trick was not to open the front door and the door leading upstairs at the same time, since they both opened into the same tiny cubicle.
Geoff buzzed his grandmother's apartment and they climbed the flight of stairs to the first floor where she stood, all smiles, chin forward, light shining down on her forehead, hair that looked like it was in curlers even when it wasn't.
"Hello, Geoff. Hello, Anne. I saw you from the window. I knew you had a blue car, so I thought it was you."
"Hi, Grandma," said Geoff as he was kissed on the cheek.
"Hello," said Anne, given the same treatment.
"I haven't seen you in a long time," Grandma said, raising her finger in affectionate reproof.
She had a four-room apartment in a four-flat building. The living room was small. The plastic furniture covers which for so long had been the hallmark of his grandparents' economic and social status were gone. Apparently the years for which the original fabric had been saved were finally here.
"Give me a minute to change my dress, I just spilled some honey on it. It's filthy now." Geoff looked at Grandma, spine- shrunken and shriveled like a dried prune. She had been big in the hips once, but not anymore. She always seemed to wear the same kind of polyester Sears dress. This one was sky-blue with white doves.
Geoff and Anne sat down on the long couch by the door. Antsy, Geoff picked up the remote control device for the television, pushed all the buttons looking for action but nothing happened; age had rendered it useless. So he put it down and inspected the picture album on the coffee table. Pictures of him, pictures of all his cousins, his aunts, his uncles, and Grandpa. Pictures of Grandpa on an ocean liner. A stately failure if ever there was one. He looked like an aging poet. In his woolen overcoat and fedora, he seemed to be looking beyond the ocean, as though he were having a vision.
Geoff looked up at the walls, filled with scenes of Holland. One print of a windmill, one print of a woman pouring milk, another of a woman very intently sewing, and one of a house by a canal. Dutch as she was, Grandma had never been to Holland. Even so, she could never leave it. She kept up on all the latest news of Amsterdam and was quick to tell you how dirty it was now - the canals were a mess and the Dam was littered by hippies. Then she would moan that she had no one to speak Dutch with anymore, which was the problem of having outlived most of her relatives. Finally, she would tell you about Queen Juliana and what a rich monarch she was. Richer than Queen Elizabeth. That was Grandma, a bit of Holland, rusk and honey; a tulip rooted in the New World. But the Dutch were such a small, tolerant, unobnoxious group that Geoff was hardly aware of his heritage. Grandma and Grandpa of course were Dutch, but out in the homogenous suburbs Geoff was slow to make the identification. He looked down at the album again. It was the consolidation of thirty or more pictures which had adorned the walls of the house they lived in before they moved here. Theirs had not been a large house, in fact not even their house, being owned by the children, but it was located in a changing neighborhood. At first only a few blacks moved in, then a few more and a few more, and then came the scare. The long-established residents moved out as though the plague had broken out next door. Protection of the children's investment had necessitated the relocation of Grandma and Grandpa.
Considerations of expense made another house out of the question, so while Grandma consolidated her pictures into an album, Grandpa was forced to compress the space of a house and yard into a four-room walk-up. It wasn't possible, so as the space oozed out through cracks in the window frames and under the doors, so did the self-esteem of homeownership (such as it was), the independence of the backyard, and Grandpa's will to live.
"Well, Gram, how ya doing?" said Geoff. She'd changed into a rose dress with white flowers, maybe daisies.
"Oh, I'm glad you came by today, Geoff. I just had a good cry. It gets to be so lonely sometimes," she offered by way of explanation. "I'm doing pretty well, just my arthritis, but I've been wearing these support hose which are supposed to help my veins."
Grandma thus directed Geoff's attention to her legs. He saw something dark, extending upward that looked like more than just her varicose veins. He drew his eye back up to her face, but Grandma was still looking at her legs. She was cuing him, trying to jog his mind so he'd remember his lines. And now, sufficiently alerted, he asked, "Gram, that looks like one sore bruise. Is it healing?"
Crippled with arthritis, she was an easy, slow-moving target and bruised deeply when young punks knocked her over to get what little cash was in her purse. She had shown the bruises in full to Geoff's mother the week or so previously; the black and blue extended from below the knee up her thigh to include most of her buttocks and some of her back. When it came to her diseases and pains, she was an exhibitionist.
"Oh yes, slowly, but it is healing," she said, looking down at her legs.
"I never did get the exact story. Did they run up and knock you over or what?"
"I never saw them. They must have been in a car or something, because they must have been close. I heard a few steps and then I was knocked to the ground. I didn't have much money...eleven dollars and, I think, fifty-seven cents. They should have knocked me over later. I was going to the bank," she chuckled.
"And it looks like such a pleasant neighborhood."
"Geoff, you don't know the half of it."
That was for certain. Geoff's mother had married well; hadn't he heard his mother say so many times: "Grandpa told me, 'Always sell yourself high'"? Consequently, Geoff had grown up in one of the more posh suburbs of Chicago, leaving him ignorant of the hazards of inner city congestion.
"How's Uncle Dave doing? I understood he was out of work now." Keeping up on family developments was always the way with Grandma.
"He hasn't found a job yet, but he has had several interviews."
"What exactly is his line of work? I asked Mother, but she didn't seem to know." With fourteen uncles and aunts and twenty-five cousins, it was a happy thing just to get all the names and faces straight, much less jobs and employers.
"He's a structural engineer."
"Sounds like a technical position. When he has a job he must make good money."
"Oh, I think so. He sends his resume to those companies, and almost everywhere he sends it, he gets a response."
"What happened to the last job he had?"
"Recession, I suppose. I guess they didn't need him anymore."
"Well, anyway, the job was downtown, and you know how he is about trains," said Geoff.
"What?" This got a rise out of Anne.
"He has a phobia about riding on trains," said Geoff, "and I don't think he's much on cars either." Grandma nodded agreement.
"How about Gene? Has he served his ninety days yet?" There was no way to avoid asking about the sensational. Shy of making the nightly news, prison still figured big in the family headlines.
"Oh, yes. I still don't understand it. Your grandfather and I would never have thought of stealing. But I don't know, Theo was a hard child to raise, and he and Jill weren't the best of parents."
Both parents went their own way - the father to work and to the tavern, the mother, out of the house to waitress at a night club. No one really assumed the job of supervision, so when Grandma said, "There was no one at home, I think Gene got in with a bad group," it all seemed to fall into place. "Oh, but these children are always getting into trouble, it worries me."
Worry for most people was simply emotional preoccupation; it was Grandma's occupation, her life. No worry, no Grandma. It was just that simple.
"What are you watching on television these days?"
"Movies, Lawrence Welk, except that he isn't as good as he used to be. A couple of soap operas," slyly adding, "they're so much more believable than life." Everyone laughed, she'd gotten off a good one.
"Gram, I heard you won on the Superbowl."
"Yes, but I'm not going to bet anymore. It doesn't seem right for an old woman like me. A grandmother."
"So, you're not watching the football games anymore?"
"Oh sure, I still watch them. For variety. Television gets pretty boring. I watch lots of sports - tennis, basketball, hockey, olympics. And I still watch the FBI.
"That Efrem Zimbalist is cute, isn't he?"
Grandma smiled widely.
"Found you out, didn't I?" said Geoff. He turned to Anne, "I think Grandma's a dirty old lady."
"Oh Geoff," Grandma blushed her protest.
Geoff laugh turned into a cough, "My God it's dry in here."
"Well, I used to put water in this tray above the radiator."
She rose and crippled her way over to the radiator by the windows. She and Geoff raised the top and saw a tray which was one inch deep and several feet long.
She pointed to the problem. "The landlord put it in unevenly. All the water goes to this end, so it won't hold very much. I quit using it."
What she needed was a humidifier. No doubt someone in the family had offered to buy her one. Sometimes she accepted such offers, but a lot of the time she didn't. When Geoff brought over a bottle of vitamins, she'd insist on paying for them. As close to poverty as she had lived all of her life, pride was a matter of paying for everything you could.
"Do you have an extra coat hanger?"
"Yes, sure, Geoff."
She hobbled over to the closet and pulled one out.
"And a pair of pliers?"
"In the pantry, next to the refrigerator, there's a bunch of tools."
In contrast to Grandma, Geoff glided from the livingroom to the kitchen. He walked past the cupboards which held her valued pieces of blue Delft china, and in the pantry he found some shelves across from the refrigerator, stationed there to save space in the kitchen proper. The shelves held her stock of canned foods, spices, cereals and the rest. On one of the higher shelves he found two cigar boxes filled with tools, one of which had the pliers.
When he returned to the living room, he took the hanger from Grandma and with the pliers broke it in two. Then he bent both pieces around the two steel supports for the lid of the radiator cabinet. After some maneuvering he was satisfied that the tray would hold more water.
"Do you have a bucket?"
"The one I was using is in the bathroom."
"Anne, would you go fill it up?"
She went through the double doors of the bedroom and out the other side through a very short hallway to the bathroom.
Grandma, meanwhile, sat down and relaxed her painful legs, and Geoff rested, one knee up and one on the floor, looking out the window. He looked at his new car across the street and thought of Grandpa's old black Dodge. So many cars in the old days were black. Was it lack of creativity, or lack of technology, or was it just that most of the old cars he saw were in black and white movies? He wondered what had happened to Grandpa's car. Perhaps the steel was reincarnated in his car. And then, poor Grandpa--they took away his car keys when he was seventy or so because he couldn't hear anymore, and they were afraid he would have an accident, but in so doing the children dismantled his armor of self-respect. Rather, they dismantled Grandpa, because what is a person except for his self-respect? But they had few alternatives: old people were as much trouble as children. Such was the symmetry of age.
Anne brought the bucket of water back and filled the tray while Geoff adjusted the hangers to level it.
"It does seem to hold more," observed Grandma. "I hope this will stop the static electricity. I was so afraid of getting shocked. I'm careful about everything I touch."
Anne took the bucket back. Grandma resumed sitting in her chair, and Geoff sat on the couch.
"Put your legs on the coffee table, Geoff," she motioned.
Geoff took off his shoes and put his legs on the table. Anne returned to the room but did not put her legs up. That would have been too bold an act for her.
"How are things going for you, Anne?"
"Still working as a secretary?"
"Where was it you worked?"
"For a firm of patent attorneys just north of the Loop."
"You find it pretty interesting?"
"Sometimes yes, sometimes no. My boss is pretty good but one of the other secretaries drives me up the wall."
Then Grandma turned to Geoff again, "How's Uncle Ray? How's Uncle George?"
"Both of them fine."
Too many "How is?" questions, not the direction Geoff wanted the conversation to go. He got up and walked over to look at a picture of his grandfather.
"Was his hearing all that bad, Grandma?"
"No, every so often he'd go to the doctor and they'd clean out his ears. He'd come home and I would yell to him as usual; and he would say 'Quit yelling, I hear you.' He'd get that wax in his ears, and he just couldn't hear."
"Then his hearing wasn't so bad?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said, perplexed and frowning. Then she smiled and said, "Convenient. I think he heard when he wanted to and didn't when he didn't want to."
"Oh, well, I don't know about clever. He was a persistent man, all right. But how would you like a piece of coffee cake? Your mother stopped by Widen's and brought me some of that almond paste coffee cake you like so well."
Big gleam in his eyes, Geoff said with his best phony Brooklyn accent, "Why soit'nly!"
So they moved into the kitchen, and while Grandma was getting the coffee cake from the freezer and putting it in the oven, Geoff stood at the cupboard and looked at Grandma's motley crystal. At most two glasses matched. He had never noticed this before.
Grandma was rinsing her own cup under the faucet, "Look at this dish drainer, it's fece." She said it with such vengeance and distaste you could smell it.
"It's not that bad, Gram."
"If this arthritis didn't hurt so much, this place would really be clean." She looked at Geoff in despair. "But you can only take so much aspirin a day."
"It looks clean to me." And indeed, there were no dust balls or cobwebs in sight. He couldn't see anything on the dish drainer. In fact, the place looked spotless, but here you were dealing with a higher level of cleanliness, of quality control.
"Oh, Geoff, the floor needs to be washed and waxed, the cabinets need to be cleaned, but I can't do it anymore. My knees won't bend. My back hurts. What will happen to me when I can't walk anymore? Who will take care of me?"
Geoff was overwhelmed by this and didn't know what to say, but Grandma didn't let the question linger long. "Don't worry, someone will take care of me." But the problem looked uglier than that.
"What can I get you? Coffee, tea, milk, and I think we have some Coca-Cola or Seven-Up." If she had her way she'd offer you the nectar of the gods, but there's no way on a fixed income.
"Coffee for me," said Geoff.
"For me, too." said Anne.
"We'll make a Dutchman of you yet," she chuckled. Cake and coffee was the tradition.
Grandma went about her business of getting half and half for the coffee, butter for the coffee cake, plates and utensils. When the coffee was ready and the cake warm, she sat between the children and cut pieces of it, handing plates to Geoff and Anne.
"How recently was Mother here?"
"Monday. But she was only here for a couple of hours." No one ever stayed long enough, how could you? You would have to be as constant as her trusty companion, Loneliness.
After a couple of bites Geoff said, "This is good coffee cake."
"How do you like it, Anne?" asked Grandma.
"Oh, I like it a lot, too. Geoff's mom brought some to us at school one time, and we worked on it only a couple slices at a time. It's like pastry gold."
"Yes," Geoff said as if he would let slip this one admission, "those Dutch really know how to bake."
"I think it's the almond that makes it," Grandma said.
They quickly polished off the coffee cake she had laid out. Geoff finished his first. Restless again just sitting there, he got up and walked around the kitchen.
"Gram, do you have any of the novels Grandpa wrote?" He had learned from his mother that Grandpa had written novels when he told her he was writing a story for a rhetoric class.
"If I do, it would be in the closet between the two bed- rooms."
Geoff opened the door and began to hunt through the odds and ends of a lifetime. Grandma clomped up behind him, peeking and guarding. "Up there on the shelf." He reached up and moved some boxes around. "The Christmas box," she said. Geoff brought down a red, green and white box decidedly of Christmas character and carried it over to the kitchen table so that Grandma would sit down. He took off the strings and looked at the pages inside.
While Grandma and Anne made conversation over how many times Grandpa had tried to get his books published, of the many trips he had made to New York to that end, and how no one could understand him through his accent, Geoff opened the box and glanced at the title. Govert Drost, Failure. A ghostly chill went up his spine. Just how aware was Grandpa of his situation? That was the question. Blissful ignorance was one thing; it was pitiable enough. But to know the full extent of one's drawbacks and setbacks was like living with a dread disease. Somehow, with Grandpa's thick accent, Geoff had always figured he was unaware, off in his own world.
But now Geoff was buzzed, wired in this new knowledge about his grandfather. From the look of the chapter titles and bulk of the pages, it seemed an epic. He scanned the chapter titles: "A Day in a Black Forest," "Trip to America," and "Marriage: Can't Leave Holland Even in Chicago." It was Grandpa's life. There were a number of chapters dealing with religion and philosophy. Those were important chapters in Grandpa's life; he had studied for the ministry for any number of years, or so Geoff had heard. Those studies had provided the family basis for his sons to qualify as conscientious objectors during World War II, when it was much more difficult than for Geoff, who continued the family tradition by writing his justification paper just before the end of the Viet Nam War. Geoff was grateful that he had had a family history of CO's, it made it so much easier and believable. But the irony for Geoff, the contradiction, was when Grandpa told him about his encounter with the draft authorities during World War I, the one for which he had been eligible.
Grandpa had cornered Geoff by the fireplace of his parents' home to tell him how to invest in stocks. He had lost ownership, though not possession, of his entire book collection to one of his sons when he used them as collateral to take a fling in the "capital markets." In between stories about the stock market, he told Geoff what had happened when the military approached him. In his thick Dutch accent:
"The American government came to me, and I told them I was Dutch."
A pause and then, "The Dutch came to me, and I told them I was an American."
A big chuckle, and then the burst. Little red veins popped out all along his large proboscis. His eyes watered with tears, and then he jabbed Geoff in the side with his fingers:
"That's the way to beat them, huh?" and continued his belly laugh.
Grandma had cleared the table by this time and beckoned the children back into the livingroom. Geoff resumed his relaxed position; even Anne had by now also slipped off a shoe and put one leg on the coffee table.
"Gram, how old were you when you got married?"
"Seventeen. Well, really only sixteen and a half."
Geoff and Anne were amazed. "How long had you known Grandpa?"
"Well, let's see. Grandpa came over in 1910. It wasn't too long after that that he met me. I was twelve or thirteen. I can remember going past the bakery he was working at. He said, 'I'm going to wait for you.'"
Grandma laughed, but Geoff and Anne were knocked over; they could not imagine a commitment like marriage at such a tender age. Just past long division and a little before algebra. Perhaps there was some truth to the rumors they heard that children were older then.
"Yes, he used to come over to our house on 16th and Loomis. He'd talk with Papa for hours about religion and Holland. Papa lived a hard life."
"What did he do?"
"He worked in a factory. He stoked coal. He was a simple man, a good man. They used to say at our church if anyone would go to heaven it would be Papa."
Great-grandfathers were too remote; Geoff brought the conversation back to Grandpa. I've never known for sure what Grandpa did, I guess he was a baker."
"Oh sure. It was the oddest thing. He would make these sweet things--cakes, custards, eclairs--all day, but he never would let the children eat any of those things."
"What kinds of things did you eat?"
"Well, there was usually a lot of vegetables, like green beans, carrots, broccoli, and then I would make a pot roast or a meat loaf."
"No sugar, huh?"
"Closest he came was a little honey on his rye crust."
"Gram, did he have his own bakery or did he work for a bakery firm or what?"
"It's a long story; are you sure you want to hear it?"
Geoff was certain that he wanted to hear it, but he felt apprehensive, sensing that Grandma was not nearly so eager to tell it.
"Well, let's see. When he came to this country he worked for a long time for his brother, Uncle Gerrit. But Henry - Grandpa - was a strong-willed man, he found it hard to work for someone else."
"He started a cookie shop. We made butter cookies. They were really very delicious, Henry did know how to bake."
"What happened to the cookie shop?"
"Well, we started out in the spring, and we were doing well, but then in July, I think, the weather got too warm for butter cookies."
"The texture of the cookies was too limp, so they didn't sell well. So then Henry went back to work for Uncle Gerrit. Oh, I'm telling you, it was terrible, Gerrit and Henry really did not get along well at all. Gerrit was a practical kind of person, never spent what he hadn't saved, had few opinions. Not that Henry didn't try to save. He was a saver, he always had a bunch of quarters. I remember we always had a little money even when we were out of business. He would have those quarters underneath the floorboards.
"Well, the few opinions Gerrit did have all seemed to be about Henry. 'Henry, why don't you save?' 'Henry, you should stay with me and quit this nonsense about being a minister.' 'Henry, why are you writing a novel?'"
"So he left?"
"Just as soon as we had the money, we started the doughnut shop."
"How'd that go?"
"For a number of years it went very well. We were saving money. Things were going pretty good. Those were happy years in that little bungalow on 18th and Throop."
"Those were happy years" carried with it the implication that other years were not as happy, which made Geoff uncomfortable. Nevertheless, he continued. "And then what happened, Grandma, did it burn down?"
"Someone told you?" Grandma said, feeling that perhaps she was being led on, unsuspecting, by a cruel grandchild.
Geoff blushed, which assuaged Grandma's suspicions. It was and was not coincidence. Geoff vaguely knew that a business of Grandpa's had burned down, his mother had told him as much. But he didn't know it was a bakery, nor which one. What he knew about a fire was simply one of many submerged facts, this one surfacing inopportunely.
"No. I don't know for sure, maybe Mother told me something about it, but I really don't remember."
Grandma sat back in her chair, reassured.
"We didn't have any insurance, so we were back to nothing again. We never did have enough money to get the business going the way you should."
"Was it really so bad?" As soon as he let go of the question he felt like biting his tongue.
"It might not have been so bad, but by this time we had four of the children--Irma, Theodore, Cornelius and Robert."
Geoff grimaced, wished he could just disappear. Of course, the children. How could he forget? "Yeah, that's a lot of children," he said, smiling, about to add insult to injury. "How many kids would you have, if you had it to do all over again?"
"Oh, Geoff, I love my children and my grandchildren. I think I'd have to have at least four."
Unwilling to let it go at that, he pushed further, "Even with the push toward zero population growth?"
She smiled. She had made her contribution to zero population growth. From eight down to four. Grandma had been a Mother, out to do nature's duty, to reproduce. She had adapted herself to all kinds of conditions, had lived in many different places in a kind of downward mobility. Her children were not possessions she would give up easily.
"What I remember most was having to give up that cute little bungalow in the old neighborhood."
"Where was that?"
"All the Dutch used to live around Roosevelt Road and Ashland."
"You liked it a lot, huh, Gram?" Geoff felt a welling of tears but suppressed it. She nodded. Grandma's eyes had been red since they had entered the apartment, no way to tell if she was tearing.
Geoff was looking again at the yellowed pages of the novel Grandpa had written. "Gram, is this the only novel Grandpa wrote?"
"Lord no, he must have written eight or nine novels. Funny thing, it seemed that every time I was pregnant with one of your aunts and uncles, he'd be writing a novel. I don't remember his having written one after Joanne - your Mother. Maybe that was all he wrote."
"Did you read Grandpa's novels?"
"I didn't have time years ago. I thought I would try to read them now." The intention was genuine, like everything else about Grandma, but the reality was something apart. Grandma was no reader.
"I remember when he used to take a couple of the older boys with him over to Hyde Park. Oh, they were so embarrassed. He'd get up on a box and preach about the Lord, and good and evil. Or he'd talk about socialism and what a great thing it would be if it came to this country."
"I heard that Grandpa Hartman was about as great a Democrat as anyone alive."
"Yes, I guess."
"He liked Roosevelt, didn't he?"
"Yes, but he used to shift with the winds. When we had our little doughnut shop and were doing real good, he was a Republican, a conservative Republican; he didn't care about the workers at all." She reflected. "Well, that's not true. He always cared about the workers. But soon enough we were poor again, and he was gung ho for Social Security, Roosevelt and socialism," she chuckled.
"Well, going back to work for Gerrit was out of the question," she went on, "although in a way I wish he had. You know, a lot of the Dutch are successful, not like your grandfather. Some were in the garbage collecting business, did real well. Look at Gerrit, his brother, he made out real good. Sold his bakery and went down to Florida. They say he was a millionaire."
"So what did Grandpa do?"
"He went to work for a larger bakery for a couple of years. We saved what we could, and then we started a honey cake store on Wolcott and Roosevelt Road. The honey cake business was real good for a while, but then the Negroes moved in, and all the Dutch in the neighborhood moved out. Some moved to Oak Lawn, others moved out to the suburbs -- Wheaton, Orland Park."
And so all the well-defined European neighborhoods slowly disintegrated in the wake of the black surge to improve their lot. It was another story of drawing lines: the Maginot line, the Mason-Dixon line, Pope-drawn lines of demarcation. Lines which served only to be stepped over, violated, redrawn; where things used to stand.
"So, the store closed, huh?"
"It must have made it pretty hard on you, Gram. What with all those children you had to raise."
"That wasn't the half of it. When we had a bakery I had to get up every morning at four o'clock to get the fire started."
"How come you had to, why not Grandpa?"
"Because he would be up till one or two o'clock in the morning baking for the next day. Anyway, when we were making the honey cakes, Gerrit would drive me over so I could start my fire, but he would never come inside and help me. And he was so successful. No children, just he and his wife.
"I had to coax him to give his poor little nephews and nieces something for Christmas. I said, 'It sure would be nice if the children got some nice new presents for Christmas.' We didn't have anything to give them," Grandma lifted her arms in despair.
"Did he come through?"
"Yes, the children got some of the nicest presents. Little Cornelius got a brand new corduroy suit; Theodore got a train set; Robert got a cowboy outfit. It was a good Christmas. But that was the only time he ever did anything for them. I guess people without children are a little like that."
"Oh, I don't know. A little selfish."
Grandma stopped and gazed at the window. It was very dark outside for four o'clock in the afternoon. Lightning flickered the room intermittently, but it was so far away that the thunder was slow in coming and very soft.
Geoff and Anne also stared at the window. A few drops of rain landed on the window while they watched. Geoff thought about Grandpa. Life must have seemed to him a never-ceasing struggle. Novels never published; failing in business after business; in old age he was stripped of a house and yard, and finally they took away the keys to his car. On top of all of this, for years he had to provide for eight children, contend with Gerrit's constant needling, and somehow keep his spirits up. No wonder he studied for the ministry. Geoff could feel the tears welling in his eyes again. For whom or why his mind could not totally decipher. Certainly he felt bad for Grandma: her painful arthritis, her sad story. But more, he could feel his own life, his own predicament intertwine with Grandpa's. Resist him as he might for his lack of success, how could Geoff not admire his effort, his self-knowledge, his shot at the big time with the novels?
His thoughts moved from the abstract to the physical reality. What did he remember of Grandpa? The handshake loomed large in his memory. From day one, it was always the ritual to shake Grandpa's hand at each new meeting. It was a firm hand- shake without being defensive. And he remembered his long walks. He would wander miles in every direction. A true peripatetic, he was an aging explorer of the neighborhood everyone took for granted. Geoff's mother and most of his aunts and uncles had long maintained that his walks were what kept him alive, and it smacked of the truth.
Geoff looked at Anne, then outside, and then back at Anne. The look said: It is almost time to go; the weather looks bad, and if it rains very hard, it will take forever to get home. Her eyes agreed.
"It looks just plain ugly out," commented Geoff.
Grandma nodded in agreement, listening to the rain on the windows. Listening to the rain outline the contours of the wind which as it pushed against the windows and then drew back created a sweet monotony, nature's own peaceful tone poem, a comforting background for daydreams of the past carried forward to the present.
Geoff broke off his gaze from the windows, "What did Grandpa end up doing after that?"
Grandma looked askance at him. "Oh Geoff, after what?" She felt he was feigning ignorance of an inevitable outcome. Then resigned, she continued.
"When the depression came, Grandpa couldn't find much work, and when he did, there was hardly enough to feed us all. I remember when he took the whole family to one of those government centers; your mother was maybe three or four at the time. It was a great humiliation for a man like your grand-father. Then in 1934 he got a job with Henry Manke Co.; they sold grain and flour. It was a good job, your grandfather sold a lot of flour, and they liked him...but he left."
"Oh, Geoff, you don't really want to hear, do you? I don't think I can go on any longer about Grandpa."
By now the rain on the windows had changed from the strumming of fingers to a full-fledged drumbeat.
"I'm sorry, Gram. Grandpa sure did have a lot of energy and courage, though.
"Yes," she said sheepishly, "he was a great man, had a lot of ideas, but he could never seem to fit in, keep to one thing. Never had any luck either. You know that almond coffee cake we just had that you like so well?"
"It's made from his recipe."
"No wonder it was so good."
"You're a good kid, Geoff."
"He gave away the recipe for nothing. Poor Grandpa, he had the Midas touch in reverse, everything turned to sh..." She began laughing. She laughed so hard that she couldn't get the obscenity out. "Everything just turned to sh..." There was no controlling her giggle. It subsided only to be followed by another release. But uttering the obscenity was impossible. Her upbringing had seen to that.
Finally, she lapsed into silence again and stared out the window. Gripped by intimate, unsparing, Dutch knowledge of the immediate situation, the bad legs that made her apartment a prison cell, she said: "You know, my big mistake was that I didn't move near an expressway. None of my family wants to go through the city, all the stop lights..."
Geoff couldn't bear to hear it; he cut her off, "Nonsense, Grandma."
"Oh, it's true, it's true. Damn stoplights. But you'll come and see me soon, huh?"
"Sure, Gram." The intention was genuine. He got up from his chair, "I think we'll have to be going...looks like a heavy rain...it will take us at least an hour and a half to get home."
"Yes, it looks bad out." By agreeing she made leaving that much easier.
Anne got up and gathered her purse and coat; Geoff reached for his coat.
"It was good of you to come by, Geoff, and you too, Anne. You come again soon."
"Oh, we will," said Anne.
Much as he hated family kisses, he kissed Grandma on the cheek. Then Anne exchanged kisses with Grandma, opened the door, and led the way downstairs.
It was warmer out now; the rain drenched them as they ran to the car, so what ran down Geoff's cheek was indistinguishable from what the downpour left behind. He looked up at Grandma's apartment where she stood at the window, silhouetted against the light of the room, waving, watching, worrying, not weeping but wondering what next.