There are few true gifts in life. Everything else is earned. I tend not to think of some things as gifts. We usually have no choice but to accept God-given gifts because there’s no way we could know at birth what they mean to us. In other words, there isn’t any conscious decision-making involved, and if we don’t like them, we can’t return them. Not really. No receipt included. Pro athlete. Rocket scientist. Spiritual guru. Psychic medium. Gifts define us. Well, maybe we remember getting them on a subconscious level, but… you may not want to remember too much about being young anyway. Retelling some of that shit is just downright embarrassing.
I suppose the family gathering was like any other time, except it wasn’t. I loved visiting my Grandma J’s small gingerbread house. Sometimes I didn’t. This was one of the latter. Call it a feeling. I dragged my feet in my own quiet way. I was a mouse, so no one knew I objected. I wore a disapproving grimace during the 70-mile car ride from Gering to Torrington, Wyoming. No one noticed except mom, when she looked back into the rear seat while she licked her fingers and tried to tame my cowlick. She probably dismissed my expression as gas or constipation. That ugly feeling came later, after stuffing my face at Grandma’s house.
I didn’t like when my cousins were there. Too many kids. You know, if three’s a crowd, what’s four or more? Most definitely a mob. These large festive gatherings usually attracted an oddity named Johnny Caca (His last name loosely translated as shit, though no one knew his real surname.) He was a vile pathetic neighbor. I wanted Grandma to myself. There was lawlessness already; now there was an almost unbearable freak show… Well, Johnny wasn’t exactly a freak; he was just ratty looking. Here was a slow, white simpleton with crooked teeth who liked being around my family. Go figure. I felt embarrassed. This was my family being observed by neighbors who probably didn’t care anyway. But this was my family! We should have more respect for ourselves.
Bless my Grandma J though. She never turned a soul away. To her, a soul in need was a guest indeed. She invited him over with open arms, handed him a beer and refried beans in a rolled-up tortilla, like it was a welcome gift at a dinner party. Johnny, who always looked and smelled like he needed a bath, got in the way of our tire swings, our games of tag, pouncing on each other, and sneaking beers out of the kitchen. I had a hard time watching him cram food into his mouth with those dirt-encrusted hands. Sitting on the front stoop, leaning forward, his ill-fitting pants revealed the holes and brown stains marking his underwear. The whole scene caused me to swallow my own vomit. After a while, we got used to him. We cheered his strange affection for us. In a way, he earned our admiration by surviving our harsh ridicule. Grandma J’s generosity and hospitality were gifts we took for granted.
Grandma’s house was small with only five rooms, the men took up the living room watching football, and the women crowded into the kitchen, rolling tortillas, warming up tangy Menudo or turning through the pages of a tattered Mexican cookbook to whip up spicy morsels doused in thick chili sauce. The bedroom was filled with creepy porcelain dolls and everyone’s jackets strewn across the bed. No kid entered the bedroom unescorted. The only sources or light were a Novena candle and a kerosene lamp. The overhead light was a burned-out bulb, and Grandma was too short and too old to change it. Every visit she asked her grown son to do it but it was always too late; he was usually too drunk, which caused him to lose balance on the step ladder. Even the adults seemed afraid of the darkened room filled with the pale faces of those unnatural dolls. It felt like someone was watching you, even though you knew they weren’t. You’d have this unnerving itch they might all come to life. The other two rooms were the bathroom and a walk-in pantry, and each served as a refuge. I counted the gift of shelter as precious, especially since my Grandma had survived the Great Depression clearly understanding basic needs. She learned then that all you had in the world could blow away in an instant.
Coming from poor stock gave us a reason to get excited about indoor plumbing. To this day, not many people can wrap their minds around the primitive means by which she lived in the 1970s. At Grandma J’s, the outhouse was along an earthen path not far from the backdoor, hidden in inky blackness. Reaching hands out in front was the only way to get through the darkness. Often, you ran into someone else and stepped off the planks of boards into the mud. It was either brave the danger of stumbling to the outhouse or risk taking a whiz between the parked cars. Aside from missteps, using the outhouse to drop a few turds was pure torture. The slivers of light surrounding the door frame were barely enough to keep my troglodyte brothers and cousins at bay. My sanity hung on by a thread.
Back in the house, spirits rose when Grandma brought out her acoustic guitar. She’d hold a beer in her left hand, a cigarette in her right. A few puffs from the cigarette allowed the cherry end to glow. Then she’d douse the fire on the tip of the cigarette with her fingers and tuck it back into a soggy pack of unfiltered Marlboros which she’d fold into her apron pocket. It tickled me to think of my grandmother as a poster child for looking cool while sucking on a cancer stick. She did, and she deserved her own billboard, I’d say as much or more than that mustachioed cowboy on the range. She earned it, certainly after the money she spent on nicotine over a lifetime.
Back then, smokers weren’t shamed. Today, we know having the killer in our purses and shirt pockets is a legal choice, but then it was a vital method to surviving one of the most tumultuous decades of our time, or so the old-timers will tell you. The 1960s. Looking at death in the eye wasn’t something to fear. A generation before, it helped pioneers define courage or insanity. Grandma J had a brother return from the Vietnam War around that time. After she put out her cigarette, she took a couple of swigs from her bottle of Budweiser, then began strumming her six-string like a beat-farmer’s daughter. She had this innate talent for holding court, even when she sang off key. This was one of her better gifts.
Before long and after a few beers, the house filled with a collection of clucky conversations trying to compete with the TV volume turned all the way up, and kids sporadically running wild through the living room, in one door and out the other, screen doors slamming behind them. Someone muted the portable black-and-white in favor of Grandma taking center stage, while the wisp of a woman sat back on a worn teal couch. It was scratchy like steel wool but if you needed a rest, you didn’t mind. All you needed was to grab a soft pillow from the bedroom, but first you had to get past the stares of those damn dolls.
Though she had no real talent for music, she belted out the Spanish tunes from memory with as much heart as the people who wrote such harmonies. I stood, transfixed, against one of the armchairs, but at a safe distance from her bedroom, wedged between a couple of other small kids. She was like the Mexican Pied Piper, the imperfect twangs bringing us mice to full attention, calming our chatter and restlessness.
For my widowed Grandma J, she couldn’t have been a richer woman, surrounded by her family as she was. In reaching the high notes during this melodic strumming, she hooted with the best of them. “Aaaayyyyyaaahhhhahiiiii!” That expression rang through the house and most of south Torrington. My soul tingled, watching and listening as all my relatives joined in with their own joyful refrains. My cousins on accordion and trumpet buttressed Grandma’s lead. We, kids watched as our parents drank more beer, paying less and less attention to the junior anarchists among us. They knew we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. If parents did by chance risk the drive home soused, they relied on God looking after drunks and fools. Most knew that finding a neighbor’s house was better. At the very least, they’d find a porch swing or a large tractor tire in which to snooze.
Public drunkenness wasn’t much of a crime, nor was getting behind the wheel after more than few belts. The cops didn’t venture much into south Torrington – the barrio, if there ever was one, which explained the building codes, or lack of them. Safety was an afterthought.
A building on my Grandmother’s land stood lopsided on a crooked foundation. She used it for a time as a guest house. That night, it stood empty, inviting all kinds of adventure and havoc and mischief. The outer door was padlocked. Inside the rooms she stored boxes of keepsakes, old dishes, dresses, a Singer sewing machine, large trunks – virtually anything she wanted to keep out of the way or a safe distance from the reach of sticky hands and light nimble fingers. Grandma J assured us that we had each other, and that was enough.
It was dark outside on this given fall Sunday but that didn’t stop us kids. There was a little light from the crescent moon and the lone streetlight 20 yards away but it was enough to see our silhouettes and our own breath during a dangerous game of tag. Tripping over my own feet trying to gain traction on the gravel driveway, I scraped my hands, which left them bloody and pocked with small bits of the fine rock embedded. I grew tired of the challenges and cheating and walked back toward the main house, peeling off loose skin from my mitts, but not before peeking into one of the windows of the empty house.
Looking through the window, I thought I could see something. Not something, but someone. After stepping down, I noticed the padlock missing from the front door. Might Grandma have been in here during the past week? Maybe there was a guest she didn’t tell us about. Seeing the knob was too tempting, I twisted it. I couldn’t help myself. I was about to find out about one of those gifts you can’t return.
Grandma knew about my gift, but how could she tell me, a seven-year-old frustrated by the limits of being a too-small boy, and too quiet to boot. It felt like someone else was in control while I turned the dented brass knob, and pushing the door open. The deed was done. The door stood wide open and I could feel a strange coolness escape. Coming toward me, taking slow steps was a man who seemed to glow in the dark. He wore a grey suit and hat; his formal presentation threw me off. At first, I thought he was real, but then I could see right through him, the floor, and the window at the other end of the hallway. I thought he knew me and wanted to say something. He stood right in front me at the threshold reaching out to me, trying to touch me. I was too entranced to pull back or turn away. I wanted to break away, but couldn’t. That’s when one of my older cousins stepped in front of me. He reached for the knob and pulled the door shut.
The encounter remains an unsolved mystery to this day of who he was. My gut tells me it was my grandfather who died from a massive heart attack in his early 50s a few years before I was born.
“You’re not supposed to be in there,” my angry cousin said. “Now get in the house.”
He shoved me forward, nearly knocking me over. There weren’t too many people I’d be able to convince. I had to slow my brain to think what had happened after leaving the safe confines of a living room filled with the warmth of family and music. In an instant, I had been knocked from the cradle to the floor. A sharp turn in time jolted me sideways. From a distance, Johnny Caca, dumb-founded, stood staring at me. His shadow mocked me.
The gift was obvious to me. I could see dead people. Yeah, I know. Just like the movie but not quite. With movies you can take it or leave it. With the sight, you can’t… just leave it.
Over time, I have seen several… uh, dead people, and often they have given my heart a stop or two. Often, all they want to do is talk, and I guess that’s OK. I feel as though these encore performances, their reach back from another dimension, helps the living more than the dead. Usually, I pass messages on a need-to-know basis, wary of taking money. If people ask, I do my best to answer.
Later in life, I learned who to credit or blame; My Grandma J had gifts, too. She was far more than a gracious host and musician – a great lover of life. Though she was five-foot nothing, she stood tall, holding sway over the living as much as the dead. I had a feeling she knew what I saw, but she let me keep that one memory to myself. Like us kids, some of us had blue eyes, others brown, but I had the sight. This gift was passed on to a select few of us. If I had known then, I would have asked her more questions, and felt even more sure. So, as I said before, can you really call them gifts? I deal with the gift as a blessing and a curse. To be honest, I have often thought about how I might return it. I can’t… not really. So, I guess I’ll have to live with it.
Or, maybe I could call it a hand-me-down.