Grandma says that when I was two and a half she would follow me up the stairs just to make sure that I didn’t fall down. She says that I would lift one leg up to the first step, and the next leg would follow. Always, she says, I would plant two legs firmly on one stair before trying to climb the next. She says I was patient then, unlike now when I just rocket up and down from one floor to the next.
Now I take two or three stairs at a time. I figure that two or three stairs are about right for an eight-year old with braided hair, long legs, and quick feet. One day my feet and legs are going to help me win the Olympic Gold Medal for the hundred-meter sprint and the long jump. That’s what I always tell my Dad.
Today after school I break through the front door, say hello to Grandma as I dash passed her, fly up the stairs, and toss my jacket and book bag into my room. Upset, Grandma shakes her head and yells, “Malcolm, you come down here this very minute. Stairs are for walking… not running!”
“But Grandma,” I complain, “I won’t do it again!”
“Malcolm, did you hear what I said?”
“Here I come.” I sigh, as I picture her shaking her finger at me.
Grandma is from the old school, which means she doesn’t play around, and everything has to be done the right way, including walking the stairs. Her hair is silvery like tinsel and is pulled back into a bun. Her skin is leathery-brown, and it sags at her elbows and knees. Her eyes are like honey, and they look straight through you to the truth. The lines at the corner of her mouth are deeper than the ones on her forehead. Grandma says that that means she smiles more than she frowns. Her voice sometimes wavers like the radio in my Dad’s car on a long trip, and a good hug always squeezes the scent of sweet potato pie out of her. Just the thought of Grandma makes me hungry.
I walk down the stairs huffing and puffing, but I’m careful not to let Grandma hear me. She had just risen from her recliner and had walked a few steps over to the stairs.
“I need to get my crochet needles from upstairs,” says Grandma.
“I can get them for you.” I offer.
“Thank you,” she answers, “but I’ll get them. I could use an escort, though.”
“No problem.” I answer, still a little upset. I don’t mind helping her, but I don’t like taking my time either, and escorting Grandma means just that.
“You ready, Son,” she says, “I’ll show you a race.”
Oh boy! I think to myself.
Grandma grasps both railings and puts her foot on the first stair. Then, with one great heave, she pulls the other foot up.
“The first stair is always the hardest,” She explains while looking down at the steps to be certain of her footing, “Getting started takes a lot of oomph. You know what oomph is, don’t you, Malcolm?”
“Yes, Grandma. It’s go-get-it-ness.” I reply in my ho-hum voice.
“That’s right.” She says.
Then, Grandma climbs the second, third, and fourth steps and brags, “Those steps were easy, almost like walking down the stairs. Ole Mo’ is on my side. You know who Ole Mo’ is don’t you?”
“Yes, Grandma. It’s momentum.” I answer while stopping myself from rolling my eyes.
Grandma takes four more steps and pauses on the landing to catch her breath. She turns to her left and gazes upward at the next set of stairs. Then, she looks at the picture of President Obama on the wall beside her. She waits another minute, takes hold of the railings again, and begins climbing once more. I stand two steps behind her like my Dad had asked me to. He warned me to pay attention all the way up the stairs.
Halfway up I can see that Grandma is really tired and might need a hand. The time between her steps has grown longer and her knees have begun to shake a little. I think about calling my Dad for help. However, at that moment, she pauses again for a second and looks to her right once more at another picture. There, hanging on the wall, is my most favorite painting in the whole house. It is a portrait of Jesse Owens, the great sprinter. Grandma faces forward and stares at the stairs again.
“Do you need some help, Grandma? You want me to call my Dad?” I ask as I lean forward.
“Thank you, Malcolm, you’re such a peach, but I’m confident I can make it,” She assures me, “But you know what I need?”
I’m stumped. I look at Grandma and then at Jesse Owens, thinking that he might know the answer. “Maybe she is in a race.” I think. I know the events that Mr. Owens and I like are over in seconds. You have to be fast. That’s not Grandma’s type of race, though. Then, I think again, What kind of race could you win by taking your time? I look behind me at President Obama. My dad says the races President Obama enters take a long time to finish and that you have to be patient. Maybe that is the type of race Grandma is talking about—the type of race that’s so long and hard that it makes you want to give up. Well, I know that Grandma isn’t a quitter so...
“Stick-to-it-ness.” I guessed.
“That’s right, Son.”
Grandma looks at the last six stairs. Her eyes squint, and I know I hear her growl even though women of Grandma’s caliber, as she likes to put it, don’t make noises on purpose that are unladylike. I laugh to myself and think, “Maybe not on purpose, but…” Then in the middle of my thought, she begins to slowly climb each stair! It was then that I knew that she would make it.
“Six, five, four, three, two…” I count to myself. Just before Grandma takes another step, she turns to look at me. She has a pleased look on her face. I smile at her, amazed at how she is always able to do things that seem impossible for a grandma. I remember when I was six; Grandma raked and bagged all of the leaves in the backyard by herself, bad back and all. I couldn’t believe it, but just last year, Dad let me in on her secret. He said that she hardly ever tried to do something that was too much for her to handle. She knows her limits. I had forgotten.
Grandma finishes off the last step and walks straight down the hall and into her room. I follow behind her.
“I appreciate the escort, Son,” she thanks me while going through her crafts bag.
“Remember, the stairs are like life,” she advises, “Oomph, Ole Mo’, and Stick-to-it-ness are friends that can help you get to the top, but you won’t get to meet them if you’re always rushing.”
“You may have something there, Grandma,” I decide, now feeling sorry about the bad attitude that I had had before, “But how about inspiration? Don’t forget that.”
“Yes, how could I have forgotten that?” She thinks aloud. “I must be getting old. Now where was I? Oh, I know. While it’s true that all of those things can help you succeed in what ever you do, the most important thing is to have someone you love standing right behind you every step of the way. Does that sound about right, Malcolm?”
“That’s right, Grandma.” I agree as I hug her.
Grandma grabs her crochet needles out of her bag and makes her way back down the stairs, all the while mumbling Ole Mo’ to herself.
The next day after school, I burst through the door of my house just like I always do, but when I get to the steps, I stop. I can hear Grandma’s voice in my head even though she isn’t around. “Take your time, Malcolm,” she says. So, instead of darting up the stairs, I walk and smile at all the friends I didn’t have time for before.
When I reach the second floor, I turn after hearing a step creak thinking that Grandma is behind me, but it is my father.
“Hello, Malcolm.” He smiles as he pats me on my head.
“Hey, Dad,” I reply.
“That’s the right way, Son. Just keep taking those stairs one step at a time.”
“You sound just like Grandma,” I grin.
“Maybe, but now that you’ve slowed it down a bit, do you think you’re going to give up sprinting?” He asks.
“Not a chance,” I yell as I drop into a racer’s stance, “On your mark, get set…”
Dad just laughs and walks away towards his room.