"Get Your Grandfather"

“They’re coming for us. They have blue eyes.” She carefully noted that I had hazel green eyes and only then ceased to regard me with vile suspicion. “They want to take over,” she confided, lowering her voice and glancing behind her. “They’ll start on the west coast. Hollywood. Then they’ll come for us.” That, I was categorically informed, would be the demise of our great nation.

She was a kind woman, smelling faintly of dried urine and roses. I wasn’t trying to ignore her, but I also wasn’t trying to engage her. Squished together on a single seat in a crowded train, privacy was scarce. Space doesn’t matter, though. If the conspiracy theorist decides it is your turn to hear their foreboding message, it’s simply your turn.

I gazed over her shoulder at factories swooshing by outside the widow, the occasional mural painted on an otherwise derelict warehouse. “Do you have any friends who speak French? Yes? Then you need to be careful,” she warned as we slowed to approach the next station. I met her stare and smiled politely as I collected my packages. It was only then that I noticed the shoebox she cradled gently in her lap.

My feet wouldn’t move. I slowly lowered my packages back to the ground. I tried to take my eyes off the box, but my gaze was transfixed on the yellow cardboard. She rambled on about the special tools these blue-eyed people would use to get into the Whitehouse through the sewer pipes. I missed my stop. Though I sat next to her, I felt miles away. I stared at the box she was holding, struggling to understand why it was familiar to me. Suddenly my mind was in my grandmother’s guest bedroom in sleepy Cedar Falls, Iowa, staring in disbelief into a tiny coat closet.

Our Jessen family farm in Iowa

“Get your grandfather. It’s time to go.” It was a somewhat disconcerting command. Seeing as how I was in town for my grandfather’s funeral, I wasn’t quite sure how to carry out her directive. My grandmother is a small woman and stronger than an ox. Within my brief pause she had marched into the bedroom and thrown open the closet door. Thinking she’d barely brushed its handle, the door crashing against the wall surprised her. She jumped only slightly before pointing sternly to a shelf, glancing quickly at me to make sure I was paying adequate attention. 

The particular shelf she wanted to show me was perched high above the bar supporting a mothball collection masquerading as winter coats. It was clearly a shelf she could not reach on her own. I nodded my head more out of confusion than recognition and she marched out of the room. I allowed myself to pause a moment longer before inching slowly toward the closet, peering inside. Get your grandfather?

I saw teetering stacks of extra pillows, individually preserved in sticky plastic cases per midwestern policy. I saw piles of quilts. I saw an unassuming yellow shoe box tucked aimlessly on the third shelf. I now assumed that when she instructed me to get my grandfather, she could only have referred to this box.

This is my first memory of death. No, that’s not true. This is my first memory of death in my family. I strained on my tip toes to reach the yellow box on the third shelf. Seven classmates committed suicide my Junior year in high school. They were smart over-achievers like me. No one saw it coming. The weight of the small shoe box surprised me. A teacher I revered as a mentor was killed in a car accident within a few months of the suicides. She was the first dead body I'd ever seen. It looked nothing like her. I couldn’t bring myself to open the yellow shoe box. I reported dutifully to the living room, having completed my task. Family was bustling and rapidly assembling a complex arrangement of carpools. My uncle rushed me out the front door with grandpa Otto in hand. I had no time to collect my thoughts.

Grandpa sat quietly on my lap all the way to the cemetery. Iowa is corn, long roads, and not much else. The roads that day seemed more endless than I’d remembered.

As I remember it.

I don’t remember crying. I do remember my dad crying. The moment we arrived home it was time to eat. Not a polite meal with silverware and a table, but rather the slow graze of HyVee appetizers and random finger foods. Such is Iowa. The house became a parade of family members rambling into the kitchen every few minutes to collect their next assortment of snacks. He wasn’t eating. He sat by himself pretending to watch television. He sat in Otto’s chair. That’s what shook me. I had long since understood my parents as human beings. I had not yet understood their mortality. Sitting in his father’s chair, slumped and exhausted, I realized he looked just like his dad. I tried to shake the thought as I returned to the kitchen for more cheese squares and an oatmeal cookie. It was the first time I had ever seen my father as old.

As I settled into bed that night I noticed the closet door hadn't been shut. Feeling unsettled and hoping to leave behind the emotions of the day, I stood to close it. I paused in the dark. Looking down I saw the yellow shoe box, now empty, resting calmly on the floor of the closet. I smiled quietly to myself. I knew my grandmother couldn't reach the shelves and she would never throw away a perfectly useful box. There it would stay.


A version of this essay was first published in sine cera.
Jessen, G. (2006). Get Your Grandfather. sine cera: 95 pennies and a nickel, 4(2), 24-26.

Cross with the Locals

Pink Roses