I had moved these boxes once before. Standing in the driveway now, placing prices on my childhood memories, I fought back the nostalgia that has a tendency to bring on tears. I had a feeling that crying in front of potential customers was a good way to scare them off. I placed the box that I was carrying down on the table with a thud and opened it up. Lying at the top was a notebook. Its cover was falling off, its pages were yellowed. The words inside were mine.
Saying that I grew up in my grandparent’s basement might be a creepy sentence but, please, give me a chance to explain. I was the first grandchild and my parents couldn’t afford day care. Naturally they dropped me off with people who wanted to spoil me just as much as they did – my grandparents. The room that had been used as a play room when my mom was growing up had turned into a storage room simply because the lack of energy to carry boxes down an extra flight of stairs to the basement outweighed my grandparents’ compulsory need to keep the house organized. It wasn’t as if anyone used that room, however, now that children were starting to reappear in my grandmother’s life she decided that it was time to clean up.
Walking into that basement was my first memory. Boxes were piled up everywhere. From floor to ceiling for as far as my little eyes could see. I thought it was a jungle. A trail was cut out through the boxes to a couch, a table and a small television in the corner of the room; it smelled musty and had a hint of my Grammy’s peppermint perfume.
“Do you want to help me clean?” my Grammy asked. My brain said no – cleaning wasn’t fun. Sometimes Mommy made me put my toys away and I didn’t like that.
“Yes.” I said even though I didn’t want to. I liked my Grammy and I didn’t want to disappoint her. We developed a system. She would take down a box; it was always very heavy. She would empty out the box and let me play with the contents. She would move the empty box out of the play room and down the stairs to the actual basement and when I was done playing, she would help me carry my new treasures to the basement and put them back in the box. The actual work was slow. The first box I opened was a tea party set. While Grammy brought the box into the basement, I carried the pieces of the set over and placed them on the table and climbed onto the chair. When my Grammy came back up the stairs I poured her a cup of chamomile tea – her favorite. She asked if I wanted any tea, but I said no thank you in a very proper voice and just drank the cream instead. My Grammy told me that I had made lovely cucumber finger sandwiches. I told her that I made the cucumber one especially for her; my sandwich was made of ice cream. Then I offered her some tea cakes. She said they were tasty and I made sure to blow out the candle on my tea cake. It was someone’s birthday somewhere and I was just helping them celebrate.
The next day was a box of books. We sat and read something called Of Mice and Men. It was a very nice story. Curly’s wife fell asleep in Lenny’s arms because she worked very hard on the ranch. George and Lenny ran away together, bought their own ranch and their rabbits, and lived happily ever after. The book would have been better if it had pictures.
One by one, new treasures would appear – a doll that my Grammy used to play with when she was little like me, paintings that my Pappy made, little wooden shoes that Dutch people used to wear that my Grammy brought with her from a place called Holland. We watched movies starring a girl named Shirley Temple. “She had pretty bright red hair like you do,” Grammy told me. I thought she was lying though; there was no color in Shirley Temple’s world.
We looked through old picture albums and I watched my Mommy grow up in the confines of those laminated pages. Once she was little too. It was funny to think of my Mommy as a baby. All mommies come from babies the same way all babies come from mommies. There were boxes of my Mommy’s old clothes. Some of her clothes fit me and Mommy cried when she saw me wearing them. My Grammy had very pretty clothes too. There was a long, shimmery blue dress that I wanted to wear some day when I was all grown up. I thought blue was a pretty color even though it was meant for boys.
Mommy told me that I would have to go to a place called Kindergarten. It sounded scary. I would go learn with other kids and my Grammy wouldn’t be the one teaching me. A few days before Kindergarten started we took down our last box. My tiny heart pounded in my chest as I went through the contents of the box, waiting for a worthwhile treasure for our last day of cleaning. With each piece of silverware that Grammy and I removed, my heart sank lower and lower. At the bottom, all that was left was a book. Its cover was brown and new, its pages were smooth and creamy. “I was wondering where I put that,” my Grammy opened the book. My heart leapt – something special was written on those pages. I was getting better at reading but I thought that maybe I was not doing as well as I thought. The first word on the page said apples. My heart sank as I recognized the book. Grammy would take it with us when we went shopping and she would make little notes in it – grocery lists, phone numbers and other practical things. However the hope that the book really was something magical and amazing hadn’t died quite yet. Somewhere in the back of my mind I prayed that she wrote secret codes in the book because she was a spy. Or maybe she wrote down clues to help her solve a mystery. Or maybe she wrote directions to buried treasure.
I looked at Grammy with desperation in my eyes and found the nerve to ask her what it was. For once in her life, my Grammy was oblivious to the inner workings of my child-mind. “My scrap paper.”
Scrap paper. My dreams came crashing down around me. The last two years of my life had come down to scrap paper.
“Grammy, can I keep that?” I asked her softly.
“Of course,” she said. She didn’t seem upset when I tore out her grocery lists, and her notes, and her phone numbers, and all of the things that adults need to remember what they have to do. There. Her scrap paper could have a new start.
I grew up. Simple enough, but at the same time growing up is the most complicated thing we have to do and we never truly stop doing it. There were more grandchildren after me – my brothers and cousins – and they loved the playroom. They didn’t understand how much mystery had been there before. As I grew up, my grandparents’ pet names wore off – that was the same day that I insisted that Grandma stop calling me Shirley Temple. She seemed a little upset by that but she understood; at one point she had been my age. One day, Grandma taught me how to actually make tea instead of pouring each other cups full of air. I read Of Mice and Men in high school and was seriously disappointed by the actual ending. Instead of being mad at Grandma for changing the story, I was mad at John Steinbeck for writing it wrong in the first place. I wore the long, shimmery blue dress to my junior prom.
Somewhere along the line I filled the book of scrap paper. The pages aged with me. I wrote my story, the one in real life and the one in my head. When Grandma wasn’t looking one day I snuck off into the basement and tucked it away with the other treasures. It only seemed fitting that they all ended up back together in one place. Mom yelled at me, of course, for going into the basement alone. I took her reprimands with pride. She didn’t understand the nobility and purpose behind going down there alone. I did it for Grandma. I wanted it to be a surprise one day for her. That air of mystery and adventure still floated around in my head like it did when I was three.
I stared at the book in my hand now. Mom, Dad, Grandpa and my brothers seemed to have everything under control. “I need to go,” I told my Dad and snatched his key chain which had been dangling out of the corner of his pocket. I had a license but no car – one of the greatest inconveniences of the world. “I’ll be back.”
I drove quickly; I no longer had to stop to consider directions. I had been there too many times before. I pulled up to the nursing home. I checked in at the desk, the nurses and I were on a first name basis now, and walked down the hall to the Alzheimer’s care unit. I opened the door to room 913. “Hi, Grandma.” She was tired, withered, and sitting in bed. She didn’t react. I tried again. “Hi, Grammy.” There was a glimmer of recognition in her eye when I said “Grammy”. She looked at me and smiled. She had explained to me once, on one of her good days, that she knew she was supposed to remember certain people but couldn’t – sometimes I was one of those people. Maybe today was a good day. “I have a story for you,” I told her. “I wrote it on your scrap paper.”
I read to her the way she used to read to me. Her eyes would grow wide as I weaved the story of my life – a story that she couldn’t remember. I couldn’t help shake the feeling that the roles were reversed. Now she was the innocent child, clutching my hand when the story scared her, or when it was sad. That made me the wise, seemingly all knowing adult. I wasn’t sure whether or not I liked being the grown up in my grandma’s eyes. When I was done reading the story, the sun was setting and Grandma yawned. I fluffed her pillows, tucked her into bed, and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Goodbye Grammy,” I said but she didn’t hear me; she was fast asleep and dreaming child-like dreams. I walked out of the building with the weight of my new adult world on my shoulders while marveling at how pages of previous childhood disappointment could become covered with words of hope.