Big Fran on Campus

My grandfather is an old man. Somehow he missed the old man stage when he was supposed to sit on his front porch, sipping lemonade brewed by my ever-solicitous grandmother while smiling toothlessly at young children walking home from school. Maybe he missed it because he uprooted himself from his old Kentucky home and was transplanted in a white, clapboard box surrounded by the forest of concrete, blacktop and blinking neon lights described on the map as Buffalo, New York. There are no front porches in Buffalo, and my grandmother is not always solicitous. Neither is my grandfather always willing to be solicited.

Part of becoming old, he used to say, is gaining the right to be crotchety. This never fit in with my image of aging. Age to me is the smell of vanilla extract and Old Spice blended harmoniously for all eternity. But for humans there is no such thing as perfect harmony or eternity. Now when I ask him how he feels, he says, “Old and bald, old and bald. Getting old is no fun.”

I am shocked. I root through my closet to find an old storybook and flip through frantically until I find the picture I am looking for: Heidi and her grandfather. He is white-haired, yes, but hale and jovially hearty as if he would be chopping wood until the day when he would put down his ax with a kindly chuckle and fade into a pentimento against the majestic backdrop of the Alps.

I keep thinking of this picture as my grandfather lies in his hospital bed and complains to my mother that the crucifix on the wall is moving. In his world, tables leap out at him from across the room and bedsheets recede away from his outstretched hands. I think of the little log cabin surrounded by snowcapped mountains. I think of Heidi. I don’t know which part of the story to blame. Perhaps if the illustrator had made the old man’s cheeks a little less rosy, his back a little more stooped, old age would have seemed more of a gradual process as opposed to something which happens immediately before death. Maybe Heidi’s character would have had more of a point.

Maybe my mother would not have moved away from her parents. Maybe I would not have moved away from my parents. Maybe I would be able to offer my grandfather more than letters to which he will never be able to reply.

I have been to the Alps. It was cloudy and all the log cabins looked the same, as if they had been prefabricated in some enormous factory. We saw man, slightly overweight and coated in spandex, speeding down the mountain on a racing bike. He did not look tired at all. Then we saw him take the chairlift back up, and do it again.

I guess, in the end, a front porch would not have helped my grandfather. He would not have wanted to be reminded of a springtime he would not see. And it is too cold for lemonade. But Heidi is another story.

Maybe there’s a reason, apart from the illustrator, that her grandfather had clearer eyes, pinker cheeks than mine did. Maybe it had nothing to do with the Alps, a log cabin, a front porch, lemonade. Maybe there’s a reason the title of the story is Heidi.

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