On Saturdays, unless the weather was bad, my husband would take our little daughter Julie to the park for a few hours so “Mommy can have a break.” I loved the “me” time and tried to fill it with something luxuriant that I wasn’t able to do with an active preschooler in the house, like read a good book, work on my tan or soak in bubbles.
One unforgettable Saturday, I was napping on the sofa.
The sounds of talking and laughing woke me up. It was coming from the direction of our patio. Heavy smoke was billowing past the dining room window.
Horrified, I raced for the back door and jerked it open, not sure what was on the other side.
Our grill was going full blast, where hamburgers were engulfed in flames. People were everywhere, milling about and filling their plates.
I nearly fainted when I realized who they were.
“Hey Kid, get over here and give me a hug!” Grandpa Charles hollered from behind the inferno.
Sporting a sauce smeared “Kiss the Cook” apron, he held a spatula in one hand while embracing me with the other.
Grandpa Charles died when I was 12.
The smiling faces that suddenly surrounded me had passed away years earlier. Those I loved and longed for, and people that I wished I’d known, who before that day had only lived in old photo albums; they were all there.
How was it possible?
“Am I dead?” I demanded.
“No honey, you’re very much alive” Uncle Tim stated drily as everyone chuckled.
One by one as they embraced me, I closed my eyes was immersed in scents from my childhood; pipe tobacco, lemon verbena, rose petals, hair tonic and leather.
With each passing year I’d become increasingly aware that my immediate family was rapidly disappearing, each making the long journey to heaven. As an only child, I feared that one day I might be the only one left.
To see them again, to bask in their love; it was a miracle.
They looked younger than I remembered. Thinning hair was thick again, wrinkled cheeks were unlined and glowing, and eyes were clear and bright, no longer filled with pain. They were happy, carefree and at peace.
When the crowd parted, Grandpa Marion was waiting for me.
The last time I saw him, he was near death. The man who stood before me was robust and healthy with a mouth full of sparkling white teeth; a surprise as I’d never seen him with any. Grandpa insisted his dentures hurt and he refused to wear them, stubbornly opting to gum his food until the end.
“You’re so handsome!” I exclaimed.
“Must be my choppers” he laughed.
Grandpa was always a man of few words and only spoke when there was something important or necessary to say. Otherwise he was more or less invisible unless he moved or cleared his throat. Once, a mortified woman plopped down on his lap, mistaking him for a chair.
But when we were together, Grandpa had plenty to say and we chattered like parrots. Losing him was losing the dearest of friends.
I pulled him into my arms, and held on tight. He smelled as he always had, like apple butter, soap and coffee.
“I’ve missed you” I murmured.
“I’ve always been right here with you” he whispered. “I would never be far away from my best girl.”
“For Pete’s sake you’ve paid enough attention to him. Come here!”
I whirled around the second I heard her voice.
It was Grandma Helen, her strawberry gold hair glinting in the sun, her cat-like hazel eyes sparkling. She grabbed me by the shoulders and squeezed the stuffing out of me.
Her hugs were the best in the world. I closed my eyes and deeply inhaled aromas of clove oil, sugar cookies, timeworn books and antique dolls; scents that had always soothed me.
When I was a child, Grandma was my safe place, my person. There wasn’t a problem she couldn’t fix, and she feared no one. She was my hero; a master story teller with an infectious giggle and flirtatious nature, irresistible to everyone fortunate enough to be in her orbit.
In later years, Alzheimer’s had stilled the giggle. What a blessing it was to hear it again.
“Grandma you’re so beautiful. I feel as though I’m seeing you for the first time.”
“When you were young, you were too busy primping and mooning over boys to notice your good looking Grandma. Better late than never.” she laughed. “By the way you still primp a lot.”
“How do you know? Have you been watching me?”
“Of course. We all do. Just because you can’t see us doesn’t mean we can’t see you. Heaven is closer than you think.”
It was almost too much to take in at once. Everyone talked, laughed and cried. I could see bits and pieces of myself in each person. Blonde hair, green eyes, high foreheads, short fingers and flat feet. I marveled at the mysteries of genetics.
The sun had lowered and it was getting late. I kept glancing at my watch. Where on earth were Ralph and Julie?
“Please don’t leave. My husband and daughter should be back any minute” I implored.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be around” Uncle Oscar said with a smile.
“I could use some paper towels” Grandpa Charles called.
“Ok, I’ll be right back!”
When I returned, no one was there.
The grill was cold, as though it had never been used.
The yard was strangely still.
Suddenly the slamming of car doors jolted me from a sound sleep.
Oh no. It was a dream.
And they were gone, disappearing as quickly as they came.
At that moment I felt my heart break.
Yet, I refused to believe that their appearance was a mere illusion, the byproduct of an afternoon nap. Our time together was as real as anything I’d experienced when I was awake. They were here.
Then I remembered their words.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be around.”
““I’ve always been right here with you. I would never be far away from my best girl.”
“Just because you can’t see us doesn’t mean we can’t see you. Heaven is closer than you think.”
Perhaps that’s the lesson I needed to learn.
I think they wanted to show me that they were well, and that I will be too. They wanted to reassure me that no matter what, I’d never be without my family, never alone. They wanted me to understand that they were no farther away than my thoughts, loving me and waiting until I could join them.
Every now and then I get a whiff of burnt hamburgers, pipe tobacco, hair tonic, clove oil, apple butter and soap. Every now and then I hear their voices, and their whispers of humor and wisdom as I watch my daughter grow, and as my husband and I grow old together; reminders of limitless power of love woven through the elasticity of time and space.