9 Yr Old Was Confused Why Her Parents Put Her On The Train To Chicago Alone.
Story by Nancy Julien Kopp
I was nine years old when my parents put me on a train in Chicago. Dad slipped the porter a few dollars to keep an eye on me until I reached Rock Island, IL. When the train pulled into the Rock Island station, wheels grinding, puffs of steam coming from the engine, I slid to the edge of my seat and peered out the window at the people waiting outside. Excitement, then fear moved in because I didn’t see a familiar face
The porter bent down and said, “C’mon miss, this is where you get off. Your grandma be waitin’ for you.”
I slid off the soft upholstered seat and followed the man down the aisle. The porter smiled broadly as he helped me down the two steps to the ground, and before I could look around, my grandmother appeared. She nodded her thanks to the porter, accepted the small suitcase he handed her, and clasped my hand in hers.
Grandma was tall, slim and serious. No hugs and kisses. She wore her long gray hair in a braid that wound around the top of her head, and her rimless glasses gleamed in the sunlight. She walked fast, her black laced-up oxfords keeping a steady beat. My little girl legs had to work overtime to keep up with her.
We marched for several blocks at this smart pace, when Grandma stopped so suddenly, I nearly fell on my face. She pulled me into a small neighborhood grocery shop and let go of my hand as she picked up a small wooden box of red raspberries. A smile lit up her usually sober face.
“We’ll have these,” she told the clerk as she handed him the box of raspberries and some money.
Back on the sidewalk, we kept going past houses that were old and not very well kept. Some of the lawns were neat and tidy while others were overrun with weeds and too-tall grass. Finally, we reached a big, yellow house with a fence around it. Grandma opened the gate and climbed the front steps pulling me with her. “This is the rooming house where we’re staying,” she said as she opened the screen door.
I wasn’t sure why my mother and father had sent me here. I knew Grandma lived in Arizona now, not here in Rock Island where my grandpa lived. I’d never seen this house, and I didn’t like the narrow hall we entered that had a steep stairway rising to the unknown. I didn’t like the smell of dinners long past that seeped into my nose and stayed there.
We climbed the steps and went down another hallway to a small bedroom. “This is where I sleep– you’ll stay here with me,” Grandma said.
She laid her pocketbook and my suitcase on the bed, then led the way to a tiny kitchen that held all the necessary equipment. A small, square table sat under a sloped ceiling, and a red geranium perched on the window sill, while white curtains fluttered in the open window. A calendar picture on the wall showed a calm, blue lake with August 1948 printed underneath.
I watched as Grandma washed the raspberries, divided them into two green glass bowls and poured heavy cream over them.
Placing them on the table with two spoons, she said, “Now, sit down and have your raspberries. They’re only good if you use real cream on them.”
And they were good, sweet and tangy, covered in the smooth, cold cream. They were so good that I think of the day Grandma introduced me to this wonderful fruit every time I see them. And I know they need ‘real cream’ to taste the very best.
When we’d spooned up the last bit, Grandma told me it was time to go see Grandpa. My hand tightened around my spoon, and I wished there were more berries in the bowl to delay the visit. My mother said he was sick and he wanted to see me. Was that why Grandma was here? Was she taking care of him? My friends’ grandparents lived together. Mine did not. I didn’t know why.
We moved down the long hallway to another door which Grandma opened and we entered a small bedroom that smelled stuffy and like medicine. This room had a sloped ceiling, too, something I’d never seen before. I studied it carefully so I didn’t have to look at the bed right away. Finally, I moved to the side of the bed where my grandfather lay. He didn’t look like the grandpa who came to visit us. He didn’t look like the grandpa who brought me a cigar box filled with pennies he’d saved for me. He didn’t look like the grandpa who savored the dinners my mother made for him.
This grandpa looked thin and pale, deep circles under his eyes. His silver white hair was combed neatly, but there was a bit of stubble on his face. His hand trembled as he reached out to me. Grandma nudged me, and I moved closer and took Grandpa’s hand.
“How long have you been here?” he asked in a quavery voice. Not like Grandpa at all.
I looked up at Grandma, not sure what the answer was.
She said, “About an hour.”
Grandpa chuckled, “If that had been your mother when she was your age, she’d have known everyone in town by now.”
This was the grandpa I knew, and seeing him released the knot of strangeness and fear in me, and I chattered on about my mother and father, my little brother, the train, the raspberries—whatever came into my mind. And Grandpa listened to every word. Finally, Grandma told me we’d better leave.
I slept that night with Grandma in a bed meant for one person, but we managed. When I woke the next morning, I reached up to touch her cheek. Her skin looked so soft. She put her hand around mine and squeezed it ever so gently.
Our day went on with short visits to Grandpa. Once, Grandma made me wait in the little kitchen while she gave Grandpa a bath and shaved him. When she was done, she came to get me and I moved through the narrow, dark hallway in a hurry. Grandpa asked me questions about school and my friends. Sometimes he closed his eyes and lay there quietly, but I knew he wasn’t asleep. He was sick, but no one told me what was wrong. When I was sick, I got well in a few days, but somehow I knew Grandpa wasn’t ever going to get well. Not even with Grandma taking care of him.
It was only weeks after I returned home when my mother got the call that made her cry.
Mother hugged me close to her as she wiped her tears away. “The last thing my dad asked for was to see you one more time, and he got his wish before he died.”
I didn’t fully understand then, but many years later I realized what it must have meant to him, and I understood what my grandmother had done. Even though they’d lived apart for so many years, she spent those last weeks by his side caring for him. Though she’d never said a word about what she was doing, I learned something about duty, loyalty and, yes, love, from this serious grandmother who also taught me the joy of a bowl of raspberries swimming in cream.