I pull up to their retirement home at 5:32, switching on the emergency lights as I park directly in a puddle outside the front entrance. My 4-inch lace-up heels are hardly made for sprinting. By the time I knock on the door of their 12th floor apartment, I’ve succumbed to balancing on one foot as I wipe mud off the other.
Grandmom opens the door and chuckles softly at my splotchy mascara and drowned-rat up-do, hands me a kleenex and reminds Granddad to grab an umbrella. As I fix my hair and re-do my makeup, I watch them through the mirror, chipping in occasionally with fashion suggestions of my own.
“Grandmom, what about that beautiful silk dress we just dry-cleaned?” No luck, she prefers the business suit. She hasn’t worn it in 9 years and it’s about time to bring it back. Defeated, I grab a sticky-roller and brush her off.
“Granddaddy, what about the new tie we bought you for Christmas?” No luck there, either. He loves this one, and nobody notices coffee stains, anyway. The new shirt from Joseph A. Bank? Why, if his tide-and-true off-white one goes just fine? After a three-minute argument, I convince him to exchange the navy jacket for the black one. At least it matches... he finally listens to me and agrees that matching is in style. Though he changes, it’s clear his pride has been hurt. What appears a small victory suddenly feels like defeat. I want to apologize, but stay quiet instead.
“I see my Old Olds is doing well!”
It’s his signature line, voiced every time he slides into the passenger seat of the 1998 Oldsmobile. Though he appears cheerful, my grandfather’s enthusiasm only slightly veils his nostalgia. “The doctors don’t want me to drive much anymore,” he adds softly.
“The doctors don’t want you to drive at ALL, John, get it right!” My Grandmother, always the realist, pipes up from the backseat as she attempts to find the belt buckle amidst a pile of old coke cans and newspapers. I turn the conversation around quickly, reminding my grandfather that he no longer has to be a designated driver. He can order a double whisky sour tonight, while I sip on grape juice. Laughing heartily, he agrees, complimenting me on my ability to make lemonade from lemons.
“Did I ever tell you the one about Napoléon and Josephine?” he asks. I lie and say he hasn’t, just to hear it one more time.
Valet parking in this car always feels a little ridiculous, but the weather leaves us with no other
choice. I hand my keys away and double check my purse as my grandmother takes my arm. We walk as fast as we can, but it’s clear Granddaddy has won the race. He stands gleefully in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton, and I smile as I admit defeat - before my jaw drops at his attire. Not one for umbrellas, he has slipped on a shower cap without my noticing. I beg him to remove it. The concierge cracks a knowing smile, complimenting my grandfather for his practicality as he opens the elevator door.
It would seem I was in for a long night. But as the evening progresses, I gradually become less tense. We listen to GWU’s President speak in appreciation of the crowd’s generosity. A Fellowship recipient from Sudan enumerates his hopes for peace-making in his country. Another student talks of his service in the Navy, the stress of paying for college that followed and the subsequent relief that came with having his dreams financed. The daughter of an immigrant from Ghana chokes up as she enumerates the opportunities scholarships have allowed her, from serving on student council to accepting an unpaid internship for former Senator Barack Obama.
My grandfather surveys the crowd, curious to see who has chosen to study macro-economics. He appears pleased to have contributed to the success of the students around him, yet his smile is undemanding of recognition or praise. Unlike myself, he’s not tearing up. Helping strangers finance an education comes just as naturally to him as sneaking flowers out of the table centerpiece and stealing one last bite of chocolate cake from his acquiescent neighbor. His only hope is that these young lads will enjoy the parties as much as he did back in the day...
Standing in line for the coat check, everything slowly comes together. I’ve learned to laugh at the run-down car my grandparents left me, the clothes they wear and re-wear, at their depression-era money-saving tactics. A sense of humor is certainly critical to surviving occasions of gift-giving in my family. Yet tonight, an immense feeling of appreciation accompanies that gratitude. Appreciation for the values they have fought to pass on, for lives dedicated to living those values through their actions. Appreciation for the years I have been so lucky to spend by their side, whether it be in a shoddy Oldsmobile or on a worn-down couch, in dry-cleaned suits or coffee-stained shirts.
I begin to reflect on my own graduation, praying (yes, Unitarians can do that, too), that the life I construct for myself will meet the expectations they have set, and that someday I will find a way to give back on my own.
My grandfather helps my grandmother into her coat before putting on his own. Once he’s buttoned it up, I pull his wrinkled, clear plastic shower cap from my pocket.
“Wear it,” I tell him. The gesture surprises him, and he appears unsure as he takes it from my hand. My insistence convinces him that I mean it. We both smile.
I wouldn’t want him to catch a cold on the way out to the car.