The realization that I have a strong need for grandparents and all the relatives in between them and the smaller family unit, comes a full 20 years after the discovery of my adoption. The revelation of my adoption brought forward some logic as to why I was not exposed to the extended family of my adopted parents. For whatever crackpot, illogic reason, I’m sure was born of fear; fear that I would find out I was adopted despite looking different from my sister and parents; fear that I would somehow run away or act up in an unmanageable way. I had already spent an adolescence of not feeling comfortable in my skin. I had learned to live with the feeling of not being wanted and loved, without knowing why. I had already considered that all parents must behave this way. It would be my own experience with my own children that offered the knowledge that families had reunions and sat around comparing noses and charting graduations and migrations. Envy for families with cousins only gave me an awakening. Cousins can easily tag their buddy in the wider tribe…the one who would persue the same career interest. Dna plays a powerful role in establishing those kinds of similarities. It has taken me nearly all of my 50 years to understand what I have missed. Should it all have happened differently, I might still have no cousin to compare fingers and toes with….someone to sing in harmony with….but at the very least, KNOWING I was adopted would give it all some sense. It would be OK to be different, but it is vital to know WHY.
I always found it easy to accept an elder into my daily life. When I first got married, I maintained friendships, full of respect and admiration …the same I might have for an older aunt…some were friends of my parents, the ones who might be willing to offer life advice when my parents were unwilling or unable to do so. I got a lot of career advice from these older folk, much like talking to your older aunt at Sunday dinner would bring. “Honey, you would make a great……or come to my house, let’s go through my closet…I bet I have some suits that would look great on you.” The most important assessments came in the form of predictions that I would be a fine parent one day. Words I would never hear from my parents, they were buried under the fear of me discovering my adoption and having THAT kind of conversation.
Newly married, it was Evelyn. She was in her late 70’s. She came to Tucson every winter and initially lived in the same apartment complex. After I moved to Phoenix and had a baby, she continued to offer her grades of how I was coming into adulthood as a young mother. We visited in Tucson at least a handful of times, receiving gifts of baby’s first spoon and the encouragement that he was doing well from where she sat. We would continue to write letters and looked forward to those postmarked from Mayfield, New York. Sometime in the late 1980’s, I received a card from her daughter letting me know she had passed on. Her daughter came across my letters and pictures and wanted to share the news, that even though she didn’t know me, it seemed like her mom thought we were special and important as she kept our correspondence bound and in a drawer.
In the late 80’s, I had small children in a house with a yard and a big tree. The kids would ask to go next door and say hi to the neighbors, an elderly couple that had lived there for at least 25 years. Art would offer them a dixie cup of Squirt and they could choose a piece of candy from his candy dish. They were transplants from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Renee was Belgian and had a French addition to every recipe imaginable. I learned to add nutmeg to scalloped potatoes and it was Renee who warned me that putting children’s books up on shelves was useless to them. “They should be able to reach their books while lying on the floor or sitting on the toilet. Put books on the back porch and a stack on the kitchen table,” she instructed. And so I did. It proved to be a smart method, they all read voraciously.
Renee drove a 1966 Chevy Impala. It was sort of a sparkly pea green and had 4 doors. I say Renee drove, because Art couldn’t. He was legally blind and used glasses with magnifiers attached to them to read. He had subscriptions to Reader’s Digest and The Enquirer. Between that and the television in the corner, he seemed content. Art worked at a Chevrolet dealership in Phoenix for nearly his entire adult life. He was a short order cook in their cafeteria. I drive past that dealership today now and then. It still bears the same gigantic Chevy emblem as a sign and the same name it always did. I wonder if there is a plaque inside to honor Art’s dedication to the business. Renee drove him to work everyday. And home again.
As it is with most neighbors and especially if they are elderly, you end of helping out where you can. Those older homes were always in need of fence repair and heavy pruning of limbs after a storm. Art was kind to lend his chainsaw on occasion and my husband was happy to tend to some branches in his yard at the same time. Often, we would exchange dishes. Art had a signature dish of Granny Smith Apple Crisp. They would graciously accept my growing assortment of yeast breads. They appear in many birthday photos and the kids came to love them, like they would grandparents.
One day, Renee suffered a hemorrhage after a fall in the shower. There was no funeral. Art put her ashes in a box on a table in a back bedroom, next to a plaid sofa. Art retreated to the inside of his house and occasionally came over for a weekend meal. He was clear with his grief. He missed his wife. They had been each other’s only love and had come to depend on each other. He didn’t know what to do and he let me know being retired and not having her there left him feeling useless. I reminded him we were 50 feet away and he could ring anytime.
One morning, the kids were sleepy, the sun just making it’s rise over the trees and the noises of the neighborhood began their usual crescendo. It was all interrupted by the ragged sounds of Art’s chainsaw. The signature riiiiiip was unmistakeable. Several times, we warned him the trigger on it was sticky and even if you took your finger off , it would continue to run. “Was that Art’s chainsaw?” We all shrugged our shoulders, maybe he was out, even though it was early, and decided to clean his tool shed. It was less than 10 feet from my bedroom window.
In the afternoon, we went to the grocery store on the corner. Our trips to the store with Art were usually after a phone call, asking for transportation. Either me or my husband would take the time to drive his car and get it out of the driveway or take a short list and do the shopping for him. Whichever it was was fine. He more than fulfilled a role with our children….welcoming their intrusion in exchange for a treat. It was a perfect arrangement.
We returned to police activity and crowds of neighbors in the street in front of our house. A medivac helicopter was being landed in the intersection and the police were not letting us go any further. I knew in my heart, immediately. The chainsaw this morning. Oh God. No. Please. NO!
It would be 2 more hours before the police allowed us to get to our house and I went to Art’s first. His son, Jan, was standing in the combined kitchen/living room with a look on his face I had never seen before. The floor was smeared with blood to every corner and Art’s TV chair looked like a bucket of dark water had been spilled over it. “Dad. I don’t know. He cut himself across the gut with his chainsaw. We found him sitting here.” The paramedic was sweeping thick blood into a dustpan the best he could. “How could you not hear that?” He wanted to know how I could be 50 feet away and not know.
Art survived, half of his right leg did not and his lower intestines were damaged. He came home with a walker, never did adapt to the prosthetic leg. And we didn’t speak of the whys and whats. It was too complicated to explain to my preschool children and not being ‘real’ family, it seemed ok to just get back to where we were. We encouraged him to bake apple crisps and accept the kids as visitors. He took in a boarder to fill an empty bedroom…an older lady named Delores. Delores was Hungarian and brought with her an Eastern European bag of tricks.
We moved across country soon after. One day Christmas cards signed “Art, the fart” stopped coming. We returned to see the house and if perhaps Art was still alive a few years later. He was fine, aging and we just agreed that it was easy to drift away after we had moved so far away. My oldest kids still speak of him and while he wasn’t really a grandfather to them, I’m really very thankful he was willing to act like one.