Someone made a decision to send this 11-year-old to his paternal grandparents by himself so that he could spend his summer vacation there: those people would be my mother and Mary.  I wore dress slacks and a crisp white shirt and carried a faux leather Ozarks Airlines carry-on bag.  I don’t remember exactly what was in the carry-on, but I can guarantee you that it included a pair of clean underwear and socks, because “you never know when you might be in need of a change of underwear.”

There was probably a book to read and breath mints plus I was wearing a cowboy hat—a real felt one, because a young man always traveled with a hat. My hair would’ve been Brylcreemed and I was so scrubbed that I probably squeaked when I walked.   The sense of adventure, freedom, and pending adulthood was exhilarating.  Even I knew that to have true savoir faire, one needed to travel unaccompanied.

The day I left Rapid City, my mother was vibrating with nerves, after all, how do you let your only child travel thousands of miles all by himself:  what horrors will befall him?  None did.  I changed planes in Minneapolis with the assistance of a Traveler’s Aid and again in Chicago for the final leg of the trip to my grandparent’s waiting and loving arms in Springfield, Illinois—the land of Lincoln.

Even though their son and my mother had divorced years before and even though I was adopted, these grandparents—Pearl and Harold—made sure I knew I was their favorite grandson (I was their only grandson.)  Grandpa Patrick was a WWI veteran with a steel plate in his head which replaced a portion of his skull that had been blown away by artillery in France. He had been only 15 or 16 when he enlisted. Sometimes if he was quietly smoking his pipe, he would let me touch his skull where the plate was.

He liked to hold me in his lap or have me sit next to him in his favorite chair; he was thin and small and put his arms around me while he puffed on his pipe or tamped it down or let me fill it with his fragrant tobacco.  Grandpa had a barbershop just around the corner from their house on St. Joseph and I would sometimes go and help clean up before he closed for the day. Or I would walk over and let him know that lunch was going to be ready soon and he and I would sweep up the hair clippings and tidy up, putting the combs in a blue solvent, straightening the brushes on the counter by the barber chair.  I don’t remember him locking the door of the shop.

Pearl, my grandmother, was a beautician and her shop was in the house in the second bedroom.  The house was almost always filled with women in some stage of a perm—the smell, my god, the smell—and in some stage of undress. I was intimately familiar with women’s foundation garments of all sorts, shapes & sizes. None of the women ever seemed to mind that I was there and oftentimes I would sit at the feet of my grandmother’s client with a cup of bobby pins in my lap and hand them up to her as needed.  I loved all of the tools of beauty, both barber and beautician, although I was less inclined to spend time in the barbershop.

Nothing ever was done halfway at grandma’s house.  It seemed she never sat down and she sang church hymns all the time.  The church—Protestant, maybe Evangelical—was just at the corner of the street they lived on and the pastor and his wife (who, until a few years ago when he finally died, I still sent a Christmas card to) were lovely people and he truly tended his flock.  It was as natural as breathing for him, he was a gifted man—with the last name of, interestingly enough, Hellyer.  But Grandma Patrick was a whirlwind; she gardened—flowers and vegetables, she sewed, she made candy, she canned vegetables and fruits (a huge apricot tree dominated the immense backyard), she visited the sick of the congregation, and tended to the needy of the community, she organized rummages and still found the time to love us.

That summer of 1964 my cousin, Shirley from Akron, Ohio, came to spend the summer with us as well.  She was my grandparent’s daughter’s youngest child and we were just a few months apart in age and inseparable those months. She had two considerably older sisters, called the sissies (Patty & Ginny, both of whom were gorgeous and seemed so sophisticated to Shirley and I.)  Am I boring you?

That’s Shirley and I flanking our grandmother’s brother, Uncle Burleigh.  I don’t remember why Burleigh was visiting.  He could’ve been just out of jail, or out of the mental hospital or he could’ve just been passing through town on his way to somewhere else. Today I can make this reference:  he was one of the hapless strangers you come across in a Cormac McCarthy novel, but he seemed harmless and only stayed a few days.

Shirley and I put on theatrical extravaganzas, including, but not limited to, our own rendition of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet”, we spoke nonsensical French to each other (not unlike Pepe le Pew) and we hid in the basement with our heads together plotting and scheming and dressing up and running through the garden sprinkler and roller-skating down the street and playing with our second cousin twice-removed (or something of that nature) Bobby who lived across the street and was a few years older than we.   It was bliss.

That summer may have been the most wonderful of any summer I’ve ever had (certainly adult summers do not count, because you never have enough time.)  There was no urgency, there was no emergency (only one actually, i swung an ax into my left shin, I still have the scar,) there was only endless days and nights and fireflies and cicadas and apricots and skinned knees and never anything but love to show for all that hard work.




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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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