About a year later, I disappointed my grandfather in a degree proportionate to if not greater than the blow I had delivered my grandmother in the sorry episode of the doll. I was visiting my folks in Minnesota. They had retired to a house on a small lake, a suburb of Leech Lake, to be near my grandparents. It’s a beautiful place with its own dock and wonderful red and white pines, cross-country ski trails and plenty of room to store both a boat and an ice fishing house near the water. It also has an old rotting log cabin. They say it was a stopover on an old trappers’ line. It looks like it was built for squalid dwarves, dwarves from the other side of the tracks. The rest of the place is spotless.
It might have been summer and it might have been Christmas. I don’t remember. I know my mother and grandmother were worried about Grampa. He wanted to go back to Iowa, back to Badger, back to the home place. He wanted to see his folks again He wanted to see his old friends.
“They’re all dead, Louis,” my grandmother would say. “Goodness gracious sakes alive, nobody’s there. You don’t know anybody in Badger anymore.” My mother would tell him his parents were in heaven with the angels. Grampa wasn’t having any of it. He wanted to go check it out.
I was sitting on the couch in the sunroom reading, trying to stay out of the way. Grandma and mom were bustling around the house and I was taking a break from house bustling. I was finishing my bachelor’s Degree at the University of Wisconsin and thought I was finally going to be a professor of something or other. Thirty-five years old and I was still hiding from my family reading a book.
My grandfather came shuffling in the door. As blind and deaf as he was, I don’t even know if he was absolutely sure who I was, but he shuffled over and managed to plump down on the couch next to me. He didn’t bend so well anymore, either, so sitting down was a matter of backing up to something he hoped was a seat of some kind and putting his faith in blind luck sort of toppling over backwards.
I said, “Hi, Grampa, howya doin’?” I didn’t know how to talk to him either, but I never corrected him. I just agreed with everything he said and replied with stupid inanities like, “That sounds like fun.” He just sat there silently for awhile this time, not saying much. I had almost come to the conclusion that a companionable silence was what was called for and perhaps I could go on reading without being rude, when sudddenly:
“Do you have a car?”
“Yes,” I said tentatively, wondering what I was getting myself in for.
“Well,” he says, “I’ve got some money. Let’s go.”
“Go? Go where?” This was getting alarming.
“I got some money over at our place, see. Hid it from Clara. She doesn’t know about it. We can just go.”
“Go where, Grampa?” I was very nervous now. I knew I would not handle this well.
“To Iowa. We can go to Iowa. Back to Badger. There’s some people there I want to see.”
I was stumped, in a quandary, out to lunch, and all out of ideas. I wanted to go. In my hearts of hearts, I wanted nothing more than to say, “Sure. Let me get my coat.”
But I didn’t. I just sat there, thinking about it. He might have rambled on about Badger and the trip some more, but I didn’t hear him. I was arguing with myself.
Going to Badger with Grampa seemed as if it were the absolutely correct thing to do. It sounded like a movie starring Tatum O’Neal. Grampa and I could go on an adventure. The rest of the familly would be having fits and alling out the state police, but that was okay. I could handle that. We’d just roll down the state highways and county roads, straight south from here, and cross the border into Iowa just a zig or so away from Ft. Dodge and Badger.
I was a little kid in Badger after the war, before Dad and Grampa went into business together and moved to Illinois. I went to the same two room schoolhouse that my grandmother had gone to and held the record for most books read in kindergarten. That schoolyard had the highest swings in the world. The best mulberry tree in the universe was in Badger. I used to climb to the very top and sit in the swaying spidery branches and eat all the mulberries in sight. My first best friends were in Badger. They weren’t dead, but they were probably gone. There were no more piles of horror comic books in Johnny and Martha’s basement. I didn’t know if the train still ran through the town, past the farm co-op. I didn’t know if the little kids still ran over to the tracks when the train pulled out yelling, “Blow the whistle! Blow the whistle!” like they did when I was a little kid there, and the brakeman would come out on the back platform of the red caboose and pull the train whistle for us and this all sounds like some really hokey children’s story, but it’s absolutely true. It happened.
But it didn’t happen anymore. I couldn’t even have found the farm, and I wasn’t sure Grampa could either. And what does “some money” mean? Could be five bucks, for all I knew. There were so many good, practical reasons for not driving to Badger with Grampa, and I knew that when I turned him down. But those weren’t the real reasons. The real reason was that I was pure chicken-shit. I didn’t have the nerve, and I was almost as disgusted with myself as Grampa must have been, even if he didn’t say so.
I thought weasely little things like how would I handle him? What would I do if he really went nuts? How could I face him when he found out that everyone really was dead and gone. I couldn’t handle it. I just couldn’t handle it. I wanted more than anything else in the world to be the kind of person who could handle it, who could grant her grandfather his last wish, who could take him where he wanted to go when no one else would. I wanted to be that special. And I wasn’t. I couldn’t pull it off.
I didn’t know how to tell him we couldn’t go. I don’t remember what I said. Something smarmy and weasely and incredibly dumb, I’m sure. I didn’t even have the nerve to be straight with him. I didn’t tell him his family and friends were gone. I didn’t tell him I didn’t have the nerve to go. He knew that by the time I was done, anyway. I might have said the car wasn’t running so good or that I’d promised to help mom. I squirmed out of it somehow and left him sitting there.
I avoided him after that. I felt small and embarrassed and unworthy. I was afraid he would ask me again.
…to be continued…