The Day That Changed Our World
My grandfather died on December 7th, 1957. He was 42. Janet recalled coming home from school to find Mother rocking on her knees in the middle of the living room floor. It was lunchtime and the room was barely lit, she was wearing her usual dark red and black checkered flannel housecoat on top of a white collared button up. Her hair was done up with pin curls covered by a silk scarf. Nancy and Marilyn stood at the top of the stairs, frozen, afraid to come down as they listened to the hushed words coming from below.
Grandfather had been working as a night security guard. When he hadn’t called home Gram worried, calling his supervisor. He informed her that my grandfather had been found dead that morning. “What are we going to do now?” she cried over and over again in a daze, her eyes fixated on a single spot on the wall. In her hands she still held the black telephone receiver making that noisy, repetitive beep indicating the phone call had ended. Although he had been sick and ailing for months, the family had not been financially prepared for this.
Paralyzed and hopeless by the predicament, the impact of the sorrow, the disbelief, the heartache, and the downright fear, Gram completely shut down. Part of her went away to a place in her mind that was less harsh and a lot less demanding, a place where pain was covered up and pacified. Witnessing her mother’s helplessness and mental incapacitation was enough for eleven-year-old Janet to take on some mature responsibilities, stepping up and sliding into the role of the absent parent when her own mother was unable. Her childhood ended that day.
Although it was never spoken of openly, the stress of her husband’s premature death combined with the fear of maintaining the household without his income caused Gram to suffer a nervous breakdown. Something was suddenly “not right” with her, she was extremely withdrawn and hollow, staying in her room crying for hours at a time, wanting to be alone and unable to face anyone outside their home.
The older girls learned to take over duties, starting in the kitchen. Janet began feeding the family with supplies from the emergency can closet and whatever Larry the milk man dropped off that week. He allowed them to run a tab, paying only what they could when they were able. Meanwhile Betty developed baking skills, mastering muffins, cookies, and other sweets.
The girls knew that Gram was not in her right mind and worried about her being discovered in such a fragile state. They were scared that if people saw how she really was, she would be sent away leaving them alone. Trying to protect her from the outside world, the children took care of themselves instead of asking for help, covering for her when the phone rang and pretending they were not home when they heard the doorbell. The day that Popsy arrived was the one exception.
A little over a year after their daddy’s death, two of the girls were spying out of the staircase window and spotted Gram’s father, completely unannounced, walking long strides up the driveway. Popsy traveled the same way he had in Finland, either by foot or by cross country skis because he did not drive. The nineteen mile route from Quincy to Melrose was too far for either of those options, so for the first time he decided to ride the train, making it a surprise visit.
Popsy was tall and lanky with a strong build and gentle blue eyes, just like Gram’s. His voice was soft spoken and calm. He had aged leather skin, soft and warm, wrinkled from years of working outside as a bridge builder. His smell was very distinct, not dirty or odiferous, but one that marked him as a man of the earth, like walking through the woods in the fall. A tuft of light brown hair that grayed ever so slightly topped his head and was covered by a large, wide brimmed hat.
Janet told me that the girls squealed when Popsy miraculously appeared, throwing their arms around him and covering him with hugs and kisses as soon as he scaled the crumbling brick steps to the screened porch. Looking around he caught his first glimpse of the dilapidated house and the poor living conditions. The household was in a state of disarray: the sofa was covered in stained terrycloth towels tucked in at the seams, clothes and toys were scattered about, browned, dried out apple cores sat piled up on books, and dirty dishes filled the sink, spilling onto the countertop.
“Where is your mother?” he asked as four surprised fingers pointed upstairs. Without a word, he disappeared around the corner. The girls listened for the squeak of the old wooden steps as he took the stairs two by two on his way to find his daughter. In the background the walnut mantle clock ticked.
I imagine that it was difficult to see his daughter suffering from such a deep depression. This was not the girl he raised, the one with the happy go lucky attitude full of childlike enthusiasm nor the one who could find some positive even during the worst of times. For him watching her weep and moan without any relief must have been grueling, her body writhing and thrashing as she drowned in her tears. She was in agony, wrestling with the feeling of defeat. It was the type of distress that no parent ever wants to see their child face, one that seems helpless. He couldn’t bring her husband back, couldn’t fix her financial burdens, he couldn’t wipe clean the difficult road that was going to become her future path, but he could offer the one thing that parents give up willingly to children of any age: comfort. That night Popsy went home to Quincy, packed his bags and immediately returned to Melrose.
Popsy’s presence brought back a sense of structure and stability that had been lost. He spent time with the girls, offering security that helped reconstruct the family dynamic, and when Gram was eventually ready to shed the protection of the walls of her bedroom, he brought her to the one place that would provide the best therapy available: the yard.
The backyard of Hunnewell Avenue had been completely neglected and over time had grown shoulder high, densely populated by wild thorny brush. When the girls looked outside it appeared like a solid mass, mysterious and bountiful like the rosy briar landscape hiding Sleeping Beauty’s castle. To Popsy, the yard reflected his daughter’s condition: an unused space just waiting for extra attention and loving cultivation. Janet told me that he hoped that the task of rejuvenating the earth, a passion she had inherited from both of her parents, would pull her mind out of the deep, dark shadow she had been living in. Handing her a pair of dark brown cotton gloves and some clippers, the twosome headed outdoors, not exactly knowing where to begin.
They started at the back step, a little bit at a time, working diligently, mostly in silence as they slowly cleared away the mess that smothered the beauty. The pair had no schedule. They worked while the girls were at school, going out in the mornings after coffee and finishing when satisfied. Getting her fingers entrenched in the earth, Gram vigorously pulled and tugged at vines not easily uprooted, finding strength in the struggle.
Once the land was clear, they planted peach trees and Hollyhocks. Popsy cut out a vegetable garden and added tomato vines. Marigolds lined the area under the clothesline and they discovered a lone apple tree in the middle of the yard. As if rising from somewhere down below, there became happiness and day by day the sun shone a little bit brighter.
Gram was coming back from wherever she had been, becoming more involved in day to day activities. Having Popsy around gave her a sense of responsibility and purpose, making sure he was comfortable and cared for. One day she ran down to Sears and purchased a portable television, knowing how much her father enjoyed watching shows about the Old West, since the West was still wild when he immigrated to this country in 1889.
When Popsy went back to Quincy six months later the family was in a much better place. He had set the groundwork for their future, coming from a lineage of people who did whatever it took to get the job done, cultivating and nourishing the areas that needed special treatment. Gram had discovered that stress can cause you to suffocate if you choose, but it is a choice. You can always focus on your blessings and find a way to carry on.
Kara Zajac is a freelance writer, chiropractor, mother of a daughter, wife, entrepreneur, musician, and die hard romantic who keeps people laughing with her blog, The Significance of Having Curly Hair. She recently completed her first full manuscript, The Significance of Curly Hair: A Memoir of Life and Loss and has been published in Imperfect Life Magazine as well as Ripped Jeans and Bifocals. She resides in the North Georgia Mountains with her wife, Kim, and daughter, Senia Mae, and can usually be found either in the kitchen or sipping wine while hanging her feet off the dock.