While mom stands at the left and grandma frosts the cake, I lick the beaters. Life, in the eyes of a child, as it should be.
I must have been eight or nine, I’m guessing along about 1967 or ’68, when I first realized. Grandpa Eddie and grandma Lalla were visiting us in Gladstone, and as usual, dad was overjoyed.
I was about the age I am in the photo, at great Aunt Hazel’s house in the summer of 1968, in Tacoma. Hazel was grandma’s sister, and her house, like grandma’s, was a happy place.
I recall my childhood as generally very good. All my basic needs were met; I had food, a roof over my head, clothes, and for the most part, I didn’t suffer for much. The parents weren’t rich, but I always felt loved. I was happy.
I was old enough to realize that sometimes, when dad was around his parents, his behavior changed. I noticed because it was different. While dad always had the potential to be fun–and he could be hilariously funny–around his folks he seemed overly happy, sometimes he was loud, and on occasion he was what I would now say bordered on cocky. Alcohol may or may not have played a part; I recall social drinking among the adults in my world, friends and family.
It was early evening after dinner, and dad and grandpa–along with my sister and I–had gathered in the living room. I recall that a cocktail in a tall, clear glass sat on one end of the coffee table that my mother bought with Green Stamps. The drink belonged to my father.
Dad was sitting at the end of the couch, on the other side of his drink. I was standing perhaps five feet away from the coffee table towards the center of the room. Grandpa sat in a rocker to my left, maybe 10 feet to dad’s right. We formed an easy triangle.
I heard grandpa chuckle as he caught the pillow. Dad, in his overly jovial state, had broken a major house rule: he’d thrown a pillow across the room and started a pillow fight. Grandpa–a guest in our home–was willing to “play” and quickly scanned the room for the next, easy participant. As I was the closest, he chose me, rapidly tossing the pillow my way.
WHUMP! I caught it against my chest. As I looked around the room I decided who would be my target. I noticed mischievous smiles and gleaming eyes, all on me, as I launched the pillow.
The next thing I knew dad had exploded in anger and the game was over. He was my target but in my excitement to play I’d hit the drink. The glass flew to the floor and shattered, spilling icy liquid over the couch and his legs. The next few words I heard were crushing. I don’t recall the specifics, but it was something about being clumsy.
Having heard the commotion, mom and grandma ran in from the kitchen. Having sized up the situation quickly, mom ran to the bathroom for towels and grandma’s heart broke for the young girl in tears. I’d followed mom into the bathroom and grandma had followed me.
As mom quietly left the bathroom to wipe up the mess, something happened that I’ll never forget. When grandma wrapped me in her arms, I looked up into her eyes. Her face streamed with tears as she apologized for her son’s behavior. I said I didn’t mean to knock over the glass, and she said she knew, that it was an accident. She said accidents happen, that dad should not have become so angry. She said it wasn’t my fault.
There wasn’t much on earth more important to grandma than her son. He had been the light of her life and there wasn’t much she wouldn’t do for him. This was something that even I–who’d lived on earth a mere eight years–could sense.
Yet, in that moment, when I witnessed grandma’s tears, I knew I had an ally for life. She knew dad had overreacted; she knew he was wrong. Grandma knew a spilled drink and some shattered glass were not worth breaking a little girl’s heart.
Maybe grandma knew something else. Maybe she knew that through her tears, somehow I’d get the message.