The world is filled with people who end up shaping your life. They come in all guises, for different lengths of time, different reasons, and with different intentions. Unfortunately, it isn’t until they are gone that we are able to see what they have done for us. Looking back, I can see the lessons they taught me, the wisdom they imparted into my life, and the memories that I guard like a dragon guards its shiny treasure hoard.
Two of the people I think of first when looking back on how I came to be me are my father’s parents, Nelson D Allen Sr and June R Allen. I spent so much of my childhood around them, especially in comparison to my mother’s parents who lived almost eight hours away from Maryland. Nana and Pop were a regular staple in my life, I saw them at least once a week, sometimes more.
They weren’t the kind of grandparents that I saw on television with the grandfather telling story after story of his past adventures while the grandmother offered up every kind of homemade baked good for endless consumption. Pop was rather taciturn, spending most of his time reading the newspaper, while Nana talked a mile a minute and always enjoyed ‘visiting’ which even as a child I knew just meant boring conversations that didn’t involve me. Not to say that they didn’t have the potential to fit the labels most children associate with grandparents. I rue losing Pop before I had a chance to talk to him about his experiences in the Merchant Marines, and to this day one of my favorite desserts to enjoy is hot milk cake, Nana’s recipe that my aunt and my father still have.
Pop died of a sudden heart attack when I was in seventh grade. Nana died on the same day, the Monday before Easter, four years later. I was too young to understand or appreciate what they both brought to my life. I couldn’t have known that they were both doing everything they could to help shape me, their efforts continuing long after they were gone. My biggest regret is never getting to thank either of them for their steadfast belief in me. Always thinking that their grandchildren could do whatever we set our minds to and urging us to go after our dreams were stereotypes that they both embodied.
Nana kept a folder in their filing cabinet that consisted of my artwork and crafts. I would often pull it out and my grandfather would look through them with me, always with a positive word about every piece he set eyes on.
“I love this one,” he would smile, his eyes crinkling a little at the edges. “The sky is the perfect color of blue, and you even drew birds flying up there too.”
Even as a little girl I remember feeling a strong sense of pride, and a desire to give my grandparents more they could be proud of. I wrote, and I drew, filling the folder with my artwork. Even my talking seemed to amuse them, unlike most other adults. Both of them would sit and listen to my endless stories and never seemed to write them off as the inane babbling of a child. It was Nana and Pop who were my biggest sources of encouragement when it came to what would later become my biggest passion: Writing.
One day, when I had tired of what was on tv, and couldn’t find anything else to do, Nana took me by the hand and led me to the attic. It wasn’t really an attic, but that’s the way I think of it, even now. It was simply the second story of the house where my Dad’s and Aunt’s bedrooms were, but the ceilings were slanted on one side giving the rooms a slightly smaller, more cramped feeling. Those rooms were also home to secret doors where Nana kept things packed away in storage for when she might need them again. I loved it up there, and she knew it was my favorite place, I think that’s why she brought me there. In my father’s old bedroom, she plunked a heavy black typewriter down on top of a desk and gave me a stack of blank paper. I put the paper on the desk and sat down in the matching wooden chair, my eyes glued to the writing machine. I still remember the loving way I touched the cool metal keys of the typewriter. I remember the sharp staccato sound they made when I pressed on them, the ding of the automatic carriage return, but most of all I remember what my grandmother told me next.
She looked at me sitting where my father had probably sat so many times and in that hybrid of Baltimore ‘O’ and Southern drawl she told me. “Write what you see, write what you know, write what you love.”
From there I spent many a day in the attic, my ideas pouring out through the typewriter like a modern Jo March. Sometimes Pop would tear himself away from his newspaper to come up and listen to my latest yarn, or simply check on me. When my first story on the typewriter was finished, I triumphantly raced downstairs and presented it to my grandparents. I don’t remember what the story was about, and I only vaguely remember their smiles as I read them my words. What I do remember, vividly, is Pop taking the pages from me, pulling out the gray steel drawer of the filing cabinet, and putting my story safely in the folder where the rest of my artwork was waiting for it.
There were a few things about my grandfather that I could always count on. If there weren’t Eggo waffles and sausages in the house he would go to the store and get them, he would always take me with him to check on the tomato plants growing in the backyard, and every day we would take a walk together. Those memories are still comforting to me, and they are the ones I dwell on because while he was alive, I never had to see my grandfather as anything but what he showed me.
Children can take things at face value, usually because they don’t know any better, and that was what I did with Pop. It wasn’t until after he had died that I started to learn things about him that should have changed the way I looked at him, should have knocked him off the pedestal I put him on. Whenever that begins to happen, my mind seems to wander off on well-known paths, imagining that my grandfather is still at my side.
Our daily walks were never far, and we didn’t often stray from our familiar route, yet somehow those walks still stand out in my mind. There wasn’t anything unusual or magical about Laurel drive, but when Pop and I took our walks it seems like the small stretch of road held untold adventures, although that could have just been my overactive imagination.
Walking along, the sidewalks could have been a path through a haunted forest, the yellow brick road, or anywhere that would take me somewhere unexpected. My grandfather would walk with me, sometimes letting me get a little ahead of him, or keeping me at his side. He was my faithful companion and sometimes, when I got tired of walking, my trusty steed. Sometimes as we walked, he would look up to the sky and call out the names of the big steel birds soaring above us.
Then came the part that I remember most clearly. There was a house on the street that had a brick retaining wall in the front yard. The house was of a similar design to all the others on the street, but it was the only one that had a wall like that, so it stood out like no other house did. The first time we came across it on one of our walks I remember asking about the wall. In true Southern fashion my grandfather spun me a magical yarn instead of giving me a simple explanation.
“Humpty Dumpty lives here,” he told me with a smile. “After he fell off the wall and the king’s men couldn’t fix him, they brought him here. I helped put him back together again and now he lives in this house.”
“Can I meet him?” I wondered.
“No one sees him much anymore.”
“Why won’t he come out?” I remember asking once.
“He doesn’t like people to see his cracks,” Pop replied, taking my hand and leading me down the street again. “They put the wall up at his new house to remind him to be careful and not to try anything dangerous again.”
It was so easy to believe his words and his stories, maybe because I was just a child or maybe because I could count on him for everything else so why not this too? All my memories of my grandfather seem magical somehow, everything around him seemed like something from another world or another time. His smile, his Southern twang, his work worn hands were all parts that made him who he was. I almost wish I could have stayed in childlike wonder of him forever, but the fairytale had to come to an end.
Long after my family and I had moved away from Parkville Maryland, and after my grandfather had died my mother told me about a conversation, she had had with Pop. A friend of mine named Ronda from my kindergarten class was over for a playdate and I excitedly introduced her to my grandfather. His reaction wasn’t as warm and welcoming as he always was with me and I was a little confused. However, I didn’t dwell on it for long and a few minutes later I had forgotten all about it and was off playing with my friend. My mother later told me that my grandfather used a racial slur when speaking about Ronda, who was black. She then told Pop that if he made any racist remarks or continued to use racial slurs, my mother would not let him see me or my brother. Her words must have scared Pop because I never had any indication of his feelings about race while he was still alive.
I suppose in a lot of ways I still have him up on a pedestal and I’m not sure that anything will knock him off it. Perhaps, when it comes to my Pop, I’m still that little girl, thinking of Humpty Dumpty’s wall, and wondering if I would ever get to see him, cracks and all.
When I was a little girl, my favorite piece of furniture was my Nana’s vanity. It took up almost an entire wall of her bedroom and was all glass and sturdy oak. It held treasures that I wasn’t always allowed to touch. Glass bottles stood, all perfectly ordered from tallest to shortest, and I would sometimes delight in dusting them off. The mirror was enormous and reminded me of the mirrors on the wall of the classes I took ballet in. I loved to sit on the stool to the vanity and pretend to apply my makeup while Nana put on her own face, but my favorite thing about the vanity was that it held my smallest friend.
He was just a simple carved bunny, sitting frozen on top of a small golden box that held a solid perfume from Estee Lauder. I had named that little bunny so many times, but his name changed with my mood. He went from Peter to Flopsy, to Thumper, to Roger and back again to the beginning. He stayed still for me, not like the rabbits I would watch from the back porch of my grandparent’s house. They were fast, and no matter how hard I tried, or how sneaky I was, I could never catch one when they appeared in the backyard. So instead I contented myself with the little rabbit that lived on Nana’s vanity, it was always the first thing I would run to when I came to her house. I would open the little box, run my finger through the deep burgundy of the perfume and then, just like Nana showed me, put some behind both my ears and on my wrists.
Once my scent was applied I would close my eyes, hold my wrist up to my nose and inhale. It smelled like warm cinnamon and other exotic aromas my five-year-old brain couldn’t place. It was comforting and somehow smelled like coming home after a long day. I remember running to my Pop and thrusting my wrist under his nose, asking him to smell the perfume too. He would sniff cautiously, and his face would scrunch in displeasure, then in his measured southern drawl, he would exclaim “Pee shew!” as if he hated the smell. I would delight at his response, laughing at how funny his words were, noticing the twinkle that seemed to appear in his eye whenever I would come to him after putting on that perfume.
I can’t remember the number of times I did this same routine, or the number of times Pop reacted in that same way just to see me smile or giggle. After my grandmother passed away, her vanity found its way into my room, and the bunny still sat atop it. Sadly, I couldn’t take it with me when I moved out of my parent’s house, but it’s still there waiting for me. I did take the rabbit with me. He’s still filled with perfume and sits near my bed, in front of a framed photo of my grandparents that I keep close by. I look at that rabbit and I can see my Nana sitting at her vanity getting ready to go out, or picture Pop sitting, quietly reading the paper. I open the gold box, close my eyes, and inhale, and I swear that both of my grandparents are still with me.
Push the Button June
I don’t remember either of my grandparents being particularly funny. Pop loved to laugh, some of my favorite pictures of him are candid photos snapped of him mid-laugh. Seeing my grandfather laugh was like seeing him turn back into a child for a few moments. As if all the years he had seen and lessons he had learned suddenly disappeared. It always made me smile and feel warmer, one of those laughs that just seems to ripple through a room and ease any tension that might exist. His laugh was easy to love, it sounded Southern somehow, like his voice, sometimes rough and gravely but still always heartfelt. Nana, on the other hand, was a little more uptight. Trying to remember her laugh is more difficult, maybe because she didn’t laugh as much or because Pop’s laugh was so distinct hers has just gotten lost to the years that have gone by since I last heard it.
I found it odd that Nana and Pop didn’t make jokes, after all, they are responsible for giving the world my father, Nelson, whose identity is tied up in his sense of humor and who is willing to laugh at himself and the world around him. However, even though my grandparents didn’t try to be funny, that doesn’t mean they weren’t.
I am originally from Parkville Maryland, and that is where my grandparents lived as well. When I was going into first grade my family moved to Bel Air, Maryland, and not long after that, my dad’s sister moved to Harford County as well. Eventually, my dad and his sister were able to convince Nana and Pop to move as well. They both realized that at their age living closer to the rest of their family had benefits. In case of an emergency, my father wouldn’t be driving over a half an hour to get to his parents. It also meant they were able to see their grandchildren more often. Both Nana and Pop had always looked forward to family dinners or any event where they would be able to see their grandkids; they never seemed to lose their delight in seeing my brother, my cousins and me. On top of the benefits, my grandmother was getting tired of keeping up with their large single-family home. Doing laundry meant going up and down stairs from the ground floor to the basement, there were rooms no one was using that Nana still felt the need to dust and vacuum, and Pop still had to worry about mowing both the front and the back lawns. After a little convincing they moved into a brand new condo complex which was only fifteen minutes away from my families house. To my grandparent’s delight that meant they got to see my family at least once a week, and it was one of those times that the joke to end all jokes happened.
One of the perks of my grandparent’s new condos was their security; each building had a code-protected door and a call box for paging different occupants who could then buzz you inside. While it seems simple enough, to two people in their seventies it wasn’t very easy at times. We had just dropped Nana and Pop off at their building after a family dinner one night and were waiting for them to get safely inside when my mother pointed out that it was taking them a long time to open the door. Instead of any of us deciding to get out and help them, my brother started to speculate on what they were saying.
“Push the button June,” Chris said with a southern twang imitating Pop.
“I know what I’m doing Allen,” he replied to himself, adopting a higher voice for Nana this time.
“You have to press the zero and the pound key at the same time June. Nelson said to press the button.”
“Damn it, Allen,” he pretended to get frustrated with himself. “You keep messing me up!”
Our entire car was filled with laughter as we listened to my brother going back and forth as if he were both of my grandparents. Eventually Nana and Pop did finally get into their building and we left, all of us adding to the joke my brother had started.
“Why isn’t this elevator moving?” My mom asked, doing a very accurate imitation of Nana.
“Push the button June!” My dad my brother and I replied before giving into another fit of giggles that seemed to follow us all the way back home.
Not long after that, I came up with my own routine, riffing on Chris’s original genius. A sore spot between my grandparents and my parents was their lack of an answering machine. My dad wanted Nana and Pop to have one in case of emergencies; he worried when the phone just rang and rang and no one ever picked up. Nana, however, insisted that they didn’t need one, and if they ever got one, they wouldn’t know how to use it. With that argument in my mind, I spent most of my afternoon at school coming up with my material and that night I presented my routine to my parents and my brother.
“Hello,” I imitated my grandmother yelling at the answering machine. “Hello? Is this thing working?”
“Nelson said to press the button June,” my voice got deeper to represent Pops. “Is the red light on?”
“Shut up Allen, let me talk to this thing. I’m recording the message!”
“You press the button and then talk June, Nelson said you have to-”
“I think I can figure this out on my own Allen, shut the-”
“BEEP!” I finished, making the answering machine cut off Nana before she said a bad word.
I was a hit. Usually, Chris was the one with the jokes, I was never funny when I tried to be.
To this day when the moment arises, or it just feels like the right thing to say, one of us will smile and say, “Push the button June.” It has been said in elevators, watching TV, using electronics, but especially when dealing with any new technology that would have just baffled my grandparents. Sometimes I wonder what they might have thought of the joke because never told either of them about it. I like to think Pop just would have chuckled and shaken his head as if to say, ‘Only Chris could have come up with something like that’. Nana on the other hand probably would have pursed her lips and looked cross until Pop started to laugh. Then after a few moments, she would have let that heart-felt laugh paint a smile on her face too. I have a picture next to my bed of Nana and Pop wrapped up in each other, broad grins on both of their faces. That is the way I always want to remember them, and I think that’s how they would like to be remembered.
Most of my middle school afternoons were spent alone. My brother was in high school at the time and was part of several different after-school activities, including a card collectors club and the school’s drama department. That usually meant I got home before he did. We had two working parents. Both of us had gotten used to coming home to an empty house, letting ourselves in with our own house keys and working on homework or watching TV until our parents came home. Sometimes, I would have to start dinner so that the family would be sitting down to eat while watching ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings.
The only time these routines were disturbed was when some kind of anomaly happened, usually in the form of a doctor’s appointment, or a trip to the orthodontist. It was easy for me to forget about these kinds of things. However, my memory always snapped back the second I got off the bus and saw my dad’s green Honda SUV parked outside the house. Upon seeing his car, I would make my way inside, put my bookbag down and let my dad usher me out the door, back into his car so we could be off to our destination.
One clear, sunny, spring afternoon I stepped off the bus and was surprised to see my father’s car parked in front of the house. I couldn’t remember having a doctor’s appointment, and the rubber bands on my braces were still the springtime colors of yellow and blue I had picked out only a few weeks before. I shrugged and crossed the street. I walked past the first two units in our row of townhouses, up my driveway and onto the porch of 2005 Tiffany Terrace. I didn’t bother getting my key.
When I entered the small foyer of my house, the first thing that greeted me was Rascal, my loving, loyal puppy. He was too old for the word, but he was a small dog, and he never seemed to lose the puppy-like excitement that came with someone entering the house, so he was still my puppy. I bent to pet him as he wagged his tail, and that was when I saw that my mother was standing in the kitchen looking at me. I let my backpack slide to the floor as I straightened up.
Nothing about this was right. My mother had stopped taking my brother and me to doctor’s appointments years ago. She stopped not because she didn’t want to, but because my father’s job made it easier for him to take a few hours off, especially if he got a note from wherever we were going, verifying that he was indeed taking one of his children to an appointment. My father would always joke with the nurse that it was a perk of having a government job. I asked my mother why she didn’t take us to the doctors once and she answered, “I did plenty of that when you two were little.” So, it was odd for me to see her, standing in the kitchen of our townhouse, looking at me but not saying anything.
She walked toward me and put her hand on my arm. I don’t remember the words that came out of her mouth. I don’t remember if she broke the news to me gently or just ripped off the band-aid, but the sum of her words was that Pop had died. The next thing I do remember was my mother’s arms quickly wrapping around me to prevent me from hitting the floor. I didn’t faint, but I think I might have been close. It was as if her words had been a sledgehammer hit to my knees, making them collapse under me. My mother pulled me into the living room and sat me down on our old faded blue sofa.
Pop was my favorite person, he always had been. My whole family referred to me as Pop’s girl because wherever he was, I would never be far behind. I loved going to restaurants with him because we almost always ordered the same thing. It delighted me to be sitting at a table eating chicken fingers and french-fries from the kid’s menu with a person who would order it from the adult menu. Sometimes we would sit together in the TV room of Nana and Pop’s house and he would hand me the funny pages of the paper so that we could sit and read together. He loved coloring with me. I remember sitting on the floor of my living room, Pop down on the floor next to me, Crayola crayons firmly in both of our hands as we created masterpieces side by side. He wasn’t afraid to laugh, he was always smiling, he seemed ageless so for him to just be gone was something my brain couldn’t comprehend.
There would be no one to make sure I had Eggos and sausage, no one to tell me what kind of planes were flying over where I was standing, no one to call me ‘sweets’, or say ‘Pee shew’ when he smelled something he didn’t like. There were other people in my life who might have been able to do those things, but they would never be him. I wished to forget that day, and over the years it seems like my wish came true because I’ve forgotten so many things about that moment of my life.
I remember crying, so much more crying than I had done for my mother’s father, who had passed away one year before. My mother sat next to me, holding my hands, quickly telling me what had happened, but her words must not have penetrated my mind because there is nothing there. All that exists in that vacant stretch of time are echoes of my own sobs. I let myself becomes consumed by my grief, let my brain wipe away almost all the memories of that horrible day. The last thing I remember was sitting in my room, holding Rascal and crying.
I was used to spending my afternoons alone, but this was an emptiness that nothing could have prepared me for.