Having settled into his new life more or less, Mick is still missing his beloved grandparents badly while his mother is preoccupied with other things. When he is finally reunited with Grandma and Grandpa, things don't go as smoothly as he had hoped, but nothing can harm Mick's trust in his grandfather for advice and sympathy.
This is dedicated to the memory of J.F., 1901-1985 - my mate, my co-conspirator, my wonderful grandfather. Mick's grandpa owes a lot to him.
"Just The Way You Are" by Billy Joel is generally a love song, but a few lines fit the relationship between Mick and his grandpa, too:
Don't go changing to try and please me,
You've never let me down before ...
I need to know that you will always be
The same old someone that I knew
I said I love you and that's forever
And this I promise from the heart
I could not love you any better
I love you just the way you are.
Days and months passed uneventfully. My tenth birthday came and went, the first Christmas at the new house, Mom's birthday in February. As spring drew nearer, I began to ask when we would finally go to see my grandparents again.
Mom was evasive. The long journey by train, so much work for Dan at the practice, me having to go to school … but I knew there was something else, something they didn't want to tell me. She was pale and didn't eat much, and I saw her running to the bathroom with a hand clapped to her mouth more than once. I began to suspect that she was suffering from some illness, something bad. I tried not to think about it too much, but I couldn't rid myself of an underlying fear for her life.
It was something completely different, though. In early May she announced that I would get a baby brother or sister in autumn. I wasn't sure what to think of it. Of course, I was deeply relieved that she wasn't sick. But if I was honest, I wasn't too thrilled at the thought of a baby, hearing from my classmates that their little brothers and sisters were squalling all the time when they were really small and then became nuisances you had to look after and play silly games with. I wasn't sure if I was ready to share Mom with yet another person either.
And it meant that we wouldn't be able to take the long trip to Maine for a while, what with her morning sickness and swollen feet. I was utterly disappointed.
"Can't they just come here?" I asked. Mom evaded a direct answer again, talking about them not wanting to take long journeys at their age and nobody to look after their house and garden and the chickens while they were away, but eventually she surprised me by telling me they had agreed to come and stay with us for a few days.
I was overjoyed and grew more excited by the day, until Dan and I finally set out in his brand new automobile one afternoon to pick them up at the station. I had hardly been able to sleep the night before and was giddy with anticipation.
Dan was waiting in the car while I dashed into the building and quickly spied my grandparents' familiar figures in their unfamiliar best clothes coming off the platform. Grandpa was wearing his brown tweed suit and looked as if he was going to melt in the warm June sun, Grandma didn't appear much more comfortable in her good charcoal dress with the garnet brooch pinned to the front.
"Grandpa! Grandma!" I shouted joyously.
Grandpa dropped the tattered suitcase he was carrying and held out his arms as I ran over and threw myself into his embrace. "Awww, Mick, my lad! I swear you've grown three inches since I last saw you!" he exclaimed, blue eyes sparkling in his weathered face, and ruffled my hair good-naturedly.
He spun me around towards Grandma who in turn hugged me and gave me one of her dry-lipped kisses on the forehead. "It's so lovely to see you again finally, Mickey", she said with a big smile.
"I missed you terribly, Grandma! And Grandpa, too, of course! Come!" I cried and grabbed her by the hand. Grandpa picked up the suitcase and followed us outside where Dan was waiting in the car.
Grandpa squinted, tilted his head to the side and studied the gleaming vehicle sceptically. "That practice seems to be going well", he said. "Can't have been cheap, that car."
Dan had got out and was approaching us with his hand held out. Grandpa shook it with a brusque nod and a clipped "Good afternoon, Dr. Cleaver". Grandma was a little embarrassed at his curt behaviour and tried to make up for it by praising the car's shiny green varnish and classy leather upholstery after she had greeted Dan with a warmth that seemed a bit contrived to me. Dan didn't know her well enough to notice, but I started to have some misgivings about this visit.
They seemed to be unsubstantiated at first. Mom greeted her parents happily and proceeded to show them around the house after they had dropped their suitcase in the spare bedroom, proudly pointing out all the special modern features of our new home. Before dinner, Mom asked me to show Grandma and Grandpa my skills on the piano. I was delighted to oblige and played a few pieces while they sat and listened, beaming.
Mom served a fine three-course dinner she had been preparing all day with the help of one of her new friends from church. For most of the meal, Grandma chatted amiably with Mom and Dan, while Grandpa wanted to know all about my school and my friends and what I did in my spare time. The only disturbance to this peaceful family dinner was Dan getting called away before dessert to look after a sick child on the other side of town and didn't return until very late.
I also went to bed late that night, as I didn't want to miss a single moment with my grandparents and only agreed to go upstairs when I was so tired that I almost fell asleep in my chair. I kissed both of them good night and slipped under the covers with a pleasant warmth glowing inside me, knowing that Grandma and Grandpa were not hundreds of miles but just a flight of stairs away, and sleep encompassed me quickly.
Raised voices tore me from my peaceful slumber. I was wide awake all of a sudden, listening carefully. Grandpa could get rather loud, especially after a glass or two, but this was neither his merry laugh nor the kind of good-natured rant he sometimes gave, going on about good-for-nothing politicians or other people he despised. It wasn't only his voice either. I could hear Mom shouting, too, and Grandma's lower voice, sounding plaintive.
My heart began to pound like a hammer in my chest. This wasn't good at all.
I thought about sneaking down to the landing to eavesdrop, but at the same time I was afraid of what I might hear, so I stayed put, frozen with apprehension. I wanted to pull the covers over my head to shut the noise out, but I found I couldn't move.
Eventually the argument subsided. Grandpa stomped upstairs – I recognized his heavy footsteps, followed by Grandma's lighter ones. They passed my door on the way to their room and I heard Grandma's voice, "… necessary to be so harsh on her, John?"
Grandpa growled something unintelligible. I only caught something about "changed" and "posh house and car" and "fancy ideas", then they closed the door behind them and I couldn't even hear their voices any more.
Later, I heard Mom and Dan come upstairs. She had waited up until he came back from his house call. They were talking heatedly in their bed, but I couldn't make out their words, just heard their voices, Mom's upset and Dan's calmer one.
The next morning, the atmosphere at breakfast was strained, everybody tiptoeing around each other carefully and politely, senselessly keeping up appearances for my sake. It would have been obvious to me that something was wrong even if I hadn't heard the commotion at night.
Conversation remained stilted and halting throughout the rest of the visit, especially between Mom and Grandpa. Dan tried his best to bridge the rift that was opening between them with friendly smiles and small talk, but it worked only so much.
We did everything we had planned in advance, showing Grandma and Grandpa around town, having dinner at a restaurant, going for walks, but I was unable to enjoy it even half as much as I had imagined when we had made our plans, with all the badly disguised discordance around.
Except for the stroll along the river I took alone with my grandfather the day before their departure while Dan was at work and the women had gone into town to buy a few things.
We walked mostly in silence. Grandpa didn't let on anything about the quarrel, not knowing that I had witnessed the row from afar, and I didn't dare ask him.
We had reached the spot where the narrow dirt path along the water sloped upward, and led to the little knoll where my willow stood. I wanted him to sit down under the tree with me, but he said, "Your grandma's going to kill me if I get my good suit dirty."
I grinned, as I knew how furious she could get when one of us spoiled their clothes. So we walked on a bit to the large flat rock above the river bed. Grandpa pulled out his checked hankie and carefully spread it on the mossy rock surface before sitting on it, a little awkward in his suit. I didn't care if I got the bottom of my pants dirty and sat right on the moss.
Grandpa and I remained silent for a while, looking out over the river. I began chucking pebbles into the water. Eventually, he turned around to face me and said, "Do you think your mother's happy, mate?"
I looked at him in astonishment. It had never occurred to me that she wouldn't be. After all she had wanted to marry Dan and move here with him, so what should she be but happy now that we were here, and with the baby on the way?
"Uh, I guess she is", I said. "I mean, she likes Dan, and we've got loads of nice things, and she's looking forward to the baby …"
Grandpa nodded. "And what about you, Mick?"
"What do you mean?"
He gave me an intense look. "Are you happy here, with your mom and Dan and the new house?"
"Um, Dan is kind to me, and Mom is glad that she's not alone any more and that we've got more money now, and I …"
"Don't say what you think you are supposed to say. Be honest with your old grandfather, lad."
For a moment, I heard Mom's voice in my mind, telling me not to be ungrateful. But Grandpa had always been my confidant, and that surely wouldn't change just because he wasn't living close to us any more.
I picked up another pebble, threw it and waited until it plopped into the water.
"You're right, I don't like it much here", I admitted. "I miss the sea and I miss Thomas and I miss our old house and", suddenly my throat felt constricted, and I swallowed, "I miss you and Grandma so much. I'm afraid Mom will never want to go back, and I'm afraid it will be a long time until I see you again. It's nice that you're here, but I want to go fishing with you and swim in the sea and everything. All the things we can't do here."
"You can come and visit us", Grandpa suggested.
"Yeah, but it will take ages until the baby's born and big and strong enough to travel. Can't I just come and stay with you for good?" I asked boldly although I already knew the answer.
"Well, not that I would mind, mate, but I think your mom wouldn't be happy about that."
"She'd still have the baby and Dan for company", I said, testily. "And all those people in town she's so keen on meeting all the time. She wouldn't miss me much, probably."
"Oh, Mickey, you're really mad at your mom, aren't you?" Grandpa dropped one large sunburnt hand on my shoulder. "I should probably tell you not to say that, but I won't. Now tell me what's the matter."
"It feels like nobody really cares about me. Dan is nice to me but he wouldn't take much notice if I wasn't there. Mom just tells me to be good and behave myself 'because people watch the doctor's family closely, so I need to make a good impression.' Get good grades and so on. Go to college one day and study hard to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever Mom wants me to become."
Grandpa's eyes narrowed. "So she's got high-flying plans for you, huh?"
I shrugged. "Suppose she does. And she's always afraid something could happen to me. You know, she's always been like that but it's got worse since we moved."
Only when I said it aloud, I realized just how much Mom's over-cautiousness troubled me. She kept reminding me to be careful in whatever I did because she couldn't bear losing me, too. I felt trapped, weighted down by her permanent anxiety. Much as I loved her, I didn't want that nagging voice at the back of my mind piping up whenever I was about to do something remotely daring. I didn't want to feel this duty to stay safe and sound, to avoid any risks and dangers for her sake. Even with Dan's easy-going attitude to balance Mom's innate timidity, it was a burden.
"That's mothers for you, they're always worried, and it's twice as bad with your mom because she's already lost someone she loved. But don't let it get to you too much", Grandpa said with a tiny wink. "That's another thing I shouldn't be saying, but sometimes it's OK to just not listen. As long as you don't take big stupid risks simply to spite her, but I trust you're too clever to do that."
I smiled involuntarily, turning serious again quickly as another realization struck me, one that shocked me as I put it into words.
"And … and … I … I liked her better back home. She was working too much, but when she had time for me we had much more fun. Now we're always having guests for dinner and she's busy with her charity ladies and everything." I hurled another stone into the water scornfully. "And soon with the baby."
Grandpa didn't comment on my words at once, but his face hardened almost imperceptibly for a second.
Then he spoke in an earnest tone, choosing his words deliberately. "First of all, mate, your mom loves you more than anything and she wants the best for you. She would miss you very badly if you were gone. But yes, you're right, she has become a different person somehow since you moved." Grandpa sighed. "And I'm afraid there's not much you or I can do about that. People change, especially when they move up the social ladder." It was plain to see from his expression that he wasn't very impressed with our new life and status. "And sometimes that makes them want to change those around them, too. That's where trouble begins." He was silent for a minute. "I tried to make that clear to your mom, but she flew right into my face for it."
So this had been the spark that ignited the vicious row that night.
After a few thoughtful moments, he added, "Promise me one thing, Mick, will you?"
"Try not to get changed too much. I don't want you to give your mom hell and be defiant all the time. Always remember that it can be helpful to subside when it comes to small things if you want to win arguments about the big issues that are really important to you. But hold on to your own dreams, not your mom's or Dan's or someone else's. Or mine, for that matter."
I had nodded forcefully as he spoke, feeling strangely moved by his words, and now asked curiously, "What are you dreaming of, Grandpa?"
"Nothing as fancy as your mom does. Sometimes I think you might want to follow in my footsteps and succeed me on my fishing boat one day. Or sail around the world to explore strange places. But it's fine with me if you prefer to become a lawyer instead." There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
"Oh, Grandpa, you know I don't!" I exclaimed. He laughed, then put on a mock serious face.
"Well then, my little sailor, I'm afraid you will have to come visit us during your summer holidays for some basic training."
I gaped at him, big-eyed and speechless.
Grandpa grinned and asked, "Really, I've spoken to your mom to let you spend the summer with us. She was a bit hesitant as always, but she agreed in the end when I promised I wouldn't let you drown or fall off a cliff. I wanted to surprise you with that shortly before leaving, but I think now's the time to tell you."
"Oh, Grandpa!" I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him so tightly that he complained he was about to be strangled.
We walked back home in harmonious silence.
Grandpa's words about holding on to my dreams kept echoing through my head all the time after we said goodbye on the station the day after our walk, making it a little easier to deal with Mom's worries, with not really fitting into my peer group at school and with living in a place I couldn't call my home. Reassuring me that I had the right to choose my own way through life and that he was sure I would make the right choice when the time came. Showing me that he loved me just the way I was.