Tonight is one of those hot, humid east coast nights where you put all the kids to bed on top of their covers and point a separate fan at each hot body, then retire to your own bed, only to lay awake in the prickly heat, listening to the hum of the fans, feeling the air brush across you like waves from an oven. My husband, who was up early for a church meeting, falls asleep anyway, but my mind drifts back to a summer night in ‘86 or ‘87, I’m not sure which.
It would have been late August in Grandview, Ohio. I was a sophomore at Ohio Wesleyan, and I think it must have been ’87, because I have a memory of being glad to be back at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I might have some of the details wrong. This memory might be more of a compilation of memories from various visits, but the memory of the incoming storm is clear tonight. I’m sure of that much.
I didn’t understand yet just exactly how sick Grandpa was. I didn’t understand yet that this would go fast, and by the week of finals, in late December, I would lose Grandpa John Black. On this late summer afternoon, I just knew he was sick with cancer, very sick, but I think I still thought then that he would get well.
It wasn’t yet evening, I don’t think. Maybe 4:00 pm, and I was laying in the guest room with the large bed. I loved that room and I loved the bed, with it’s clean, crisp white sheets, and the white bed cover, and the many small windows that swept around the room. The windows were all open and there was a fan in one, held in place by the weight of the heavy glass window. I lay on top of the covers, not even trying to nap, just trying not to move, letting the air from the fan lift the sweat off my neck.
I always felt so welcome, so special at Grandma Helen’s and Grandpa John’s house. Grandma would have me go around with her once each weekend and help her change the sheets on any beds that had been slept in. I liked this. I liked how smooth she got the sheets, and I found her system of moving top sheets to the bottom, and then putting a fresh top sheet on the bed charmingly economical. I never adopted the system. My own children twist and turn in bed like little blind tornados, and I have to use special elastic hooks just to keep the fitted sheets on. I can’t imagine top sheets lasting two hours under the boys, but it worked at Helen’s house.
When she knew I was coming Helen would buy orange soda and French vanilla ice cream, because once she had had those items on hand and I made an orange soda and loved it so much—after that she made sure we had those ingredients for every visit. Back then I swam on OWU’s swim team, and I could that without any harm. We ate whatever I wanted for dinner, so long as Grandpa would eat it, too. We talked about my classes, and John Black would read over my papers after the professor returned them graded. He would add two more grades to the paper—what he thought I deserved and what he thought the professor deserved for his or her job in grading the paper and giving me feedback. I always fared better than the professor. Grandpa told me I’d get Phi Beta Kappa and I said I’d never had a 4.0 semester, and he said I would soon. So I did. I did that for him the last semester he was alive, although he would die the day before my last finals. But having done it once, I knew I could do it again, and so in the end the Phi Beta Kappa was mine. Ours, really. I had needed someone to say I could do it. Someone who believed it.
All of this, their way of treating me like a special guest, like they had been waiting for me, thinking I would be visiting soon, making the trip to the grocery store and thinking, “Oh, Heather will be visiting soon, I’d better get some more orange soda,” the huge bed that made me feel like a princess, that’s all wrapped up in the memory of laying on the bed in front of the fan on that hot August afternoon.
And then there was thunder in the distance, faint at first, hard to hear over the box fan in the window, and then louder so you knew it was definitely thunder, followed soon after by the first gusts of cool air blowing in ahead of the storm, and I shivered in happy anticipation of the coming cold front and the potential drama of an afternoon thunderstorm in central Ohio. Only moments after the first cool air blew in, the rain began to fall, fat, slow drops that splattered on the roof and on the driveway outside the windows. The smell of the hot asphalt was the next sensation, and then suddenly the air was full of fat, pelting rain drops. I heard windows slamming shut down stairs and the quiet time on the bed was over. I ran around the house with Grandma closing the windows, leaving a few open a crack at the bottom to let in the cool air, but not the rain.
I was wide awake now. Grandma was making drinks for herself and Grandpa. I made an orange soda. The news came on and I abandoned the guest room to watch the news with them. The storm was soon over and we walked around again, opening the windows wide to let in the cool air. I put the box fan back in the window. Later that night I would stay up too late, reading a good book, stretching out the visit by putting off sleep. Later I would realize that this worried Grandma, my not sleeping, but at the time I took her comments about my late bedtimes in stride. It didn’t sound like worry or complaining, so I didn’t think to reassure her that I ordinarily kept fairly normal hours. I wasn’t one of those college students who never slept.
I knew how lucky I was, to be at college at a distance far enough from my parents that I felt all grown up, but close enough to my grandparents that I could call them on a Thursday and they would come get me on a Friday, always returning me to school feeling well rested, well loved, well fed, cherished, and with $20 in my pocket. I knew how lucky I was to have such a clever and charming Grandmother in Helen Harrington Black now Humbarger. I knew how lucky I was to have a Grandfather who saw in me potential I couldn’t yet see in myself.
I don’t mind the heat tonight. I can’t sleep, but it’s alright. The memories are like having them visit again for a short while. I walk around the house in Grandview in my mind, revisiting the details I remember from each room. The old bathtub. The laundry chute. The shower in the basement. Grandpa's books in the shelves on the stairs that led up to the attic. The big red chairs. The old tv. The breakfast nook. The cupboard where Grandma kept at least a decade of grooming products. The drawer with the twist ties from bread bags and the knob that dripped with rubber bands. Going further back in time, chasing fire flies with my cousins on the front lawn. Collecting them all in glass jars with nail holes in the metal tops. Somewhere around this memory I finally doze off. The heat has let up some and if I were the sort to dream, I think I would have gone on remembering. I know how lucky I was.