by Elise Phillips
It was always the doves that would wake me. For a child from the parched and treeless lands of northern Texas, the sound of mourning doves, so common in San Antonio, was a novelty. From my place on the bed beneath the long window in the yellow room I would stare at the dark window with the yellow and gold curtains, watch the sunlight slowly brighten the room, and listen. To the coo, coo, cooing of doves, to the sounds of a neighborhood waking up, and for the tell-tale creak of my grandparents’ bedroom door.
When I heard that door open it was my cue. I would tense and wait until I heard the front door open and close, then open and close again. I had to wait until the paper had been picked up from the dew wet grass in front of the house. Only then would I slip out of the still crisp and cool sheets and quickly, quietly make the bed. With the bed made I would repeat my grandfather’s soft, careful door opening, swinging the door open just a crack. Any further than my own body width and the door would squeak. And silence was required. The practice of silent movement would later become a game for my cousin Michael and me. As we grew we would play “spy” and sneak around the house. We would slip behind couches, staying out of the line of sight of the adults. We would eavesdrop, sneak food, steal forbidden toys or slip in to watch movies when we were supposed to be sleeping.
But the mornings of my early summers were before those days. The quiet game then was just to avoid waking my grandmother and getting caught. I had a goal greater than any spy game would later have. I had my little girl heart set on one, wonderful thing; a secret breakfast with my grandfather.
The memories of my maternal grandfather always shine brightly in my mind. Like photographs that have been laid out on a table in a dark room under a single spotlight. When I look through those memory photographs and remember the man, gone much too soon, my grief swamps me like a small boat in a big, stormy sea. All I have left of him are those still images in my mind. My brain has forgotten his voice. All our conversations, the songs he would sing, and much more are lost to time.
My grandfather always seemed old to me. Old and yet somehow ageless, as in my memories he seems to never change. A tall, bald headed man with a quick smile and arms always open and ready for a hug. I remember slipping up beside him every chance I got, hungry for those hugs. He was retired Air Force, a banker by the time I, the oldest grandchild, came along. He wore suits and ties during the week and blue polyester jumpsuits with belts and shiny brass buckles on the weekends. That was all I ever remember him wearing. In my memories he is surrounded by blue. Blue suits. Blue ties. Blue coats. Even blue cars. I can remember those things easily and yet I would trade them all to remember his voice or his laugh.
From the time I was little I spent two weeks or so every summer in San Antonio at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother was a tough, stern woman. She’d grown up poor in the cotton fields of northern Texas. That part of the world makes for hard people. The wind, the heat, and the dryness all combine to make it a hard land to love and a hard land to survive. I know. I grew up there too. I am like my grandmother.
During those visits though, it was not my grandmother whose time I craved. She was all about rules and clean clothes and “little girls should wear dresses.” Our similarity, even then, kept us apart like two magnets pushing against each other. No, I was instead drawn to my grandfather. He was sunshine to me. He was love. He was hugs, visits to the neighbor’s new puppy, walks in the evening to go play mini golf, and nights on the couch watching TV.
I don’t remember when the ritual of our secret breakfasts started but whenever I was visiting, they were part of our routine. Each weekday morning, I would slip out of my room after he’d gotten up and then slide silently down the dark hallway toward the oasis of light that was the kitchen. I would always watch for a moment through the opening between the tiny den and the kitchen as my grandfather would make coffee. Then I would pretend to have just woken and with a big yawn and a stretch, wander into the kitchen. He of course would have known I was coming. Usually a glass of apple juice was waiting for me. And in the center of the table would be a beautiful, white and blue box of chocolate covered Entenmann’s donuts. We would have donuts and visit and he would go off to the bank and I would either slip back into bed or settle myself on the tiny couch with a book and the cartoons on the TV. I wish desperately that I could remember those morning talks. I know they were probably trivial, but I long to hear his voice just one more time.
Like our breakfasts, it was the stolen moments with my grandfather that I treasured. Family time, with all the family in the little house were fun too. But the one on one time with my grandfather was magical. When I was the only visitor staying with them, he would come up with little outings for us in the evenings after dinner. Often, it would just be a walk through the neighborhood. We always took the alleyways instead of the sidewalk. All the houses in their neighborhood had chain link fences and if we went down the alley I could visit with the all the local dogs and marvel at the neighbor three houses down with the back yard filled with noisy, clucking chickens. He taught me to identify plants, flowers, and even the breeds of the dogs we saw. The knowledge he gave me, thankfully has lingered, even though that wise voice in my ear is gone.
On the weekends I got all day with my grandfather. Every one of my visits to their house included a trip to the San Antonio zoo, a huge treat for an animal loving child from a town with a zoo that, back then, was filled with nothing more exotic than a pair of mustangs and some fancy chickens. Looking back though I can’t remember the animals at that huge zoo, although I know they were amazing to me. All I really remember are the little things. I remember the machine that would take my grandfather’s quarters and make me brightly colored miniature animals out of shiny, hard wax whose hot, crayon-like smell would later perfume the car on the ride home. I remember riding the sky tram to the Japanese gardens and marveling at the ponds of fish and the amazing plants. I remember riding home in the back seat of his Buick, always a Buick, sweaty and exhausted, my head pressed on the cool backseat, watching out the window as the trees blurred past, punctuated by street lights, billboards, and pops of the pale blue Texas sky.
Some weekends were a trip to the Kiddie Park, a tiny amusement park that I adored which had delicious snow cones in little paper cups. Others were a trip to the Fort Sam Houston Quadrangle were kids could play with the deer, rabbits, ducks and other animals that lived there. And in my case be chased by the peacocks as well. When I tired of the animals my grandfather would wander through the historical exhibits, my hand in his. Later, when my cousin Michael was big enough to join us, he let him play on the huge tank with the other little kids while I, always shy of the new, strange children, tried to convince him to let me take home one of the huge rabbits hoping around us. He always made up songs about each outing and sang them as we drove. They were always to the tune of the old song, “California, Here I Come.” I wish I could remember those silly, made-up lyrics.
As I look back I can see what a marvel my grandfather was. He could make the most normal things special. Car rides down hilly country roads were really rides on roller coasters. Putting out the trashcans each week also meant a hunt for lizards beneath the concrete blocks the cans normally sat upon. A hiking trip also meant learning to read the tracks of the animals that had used the trail. Fishing trips were also a chance to practice skipping rocks. He made every single thing we did together special and amazing. And for every exciting adventure there were also quiet moments. I can remember playing with toys out on their screened-in porch watching him work away, paying bills and such. As he worked he would talk about adult responsibilities and saving money. I know there were also conversations about my dreams, about school and even about boys. I wish I had thought to record them or write them down. Of all the things I miss, I miss his words the most.
My grandfather died when I was sixteen. That day the air went out of my world. The shining light that was our time together went away. Never again would I be able to stretch out on their tiny couch and have him walk by and tickle my bare feet as they hung over the arm. Never again would I be able to sit at the tiny kitchen table eating donuts and talking about my dreams for the future. I had simply not had enough time with him. I could have known the man a thousand years and never spent enough time by his side. The faint memory of hugs from a man who always smelled like Noxzema, loved chocolate donuts, and made up songs on car trips will always stay with me. Those silent, spotlighted memories in the dark room in my mind.
Category: Short Story