My grandma never went to a movie in her life. She only watched Billy Graham and Lawrence Welk on television. At night, she did her hair with criss-crossed bobby pins holding pin curls so tight I could see her scalp. A hairnet held everything in place, and when she took off her stockings at night, the garters left deep marks on her upper thighs. She wasn’t more than five foot tall, and she never danced.
The house my grandparents bought after the kids were grown and gone was an old one-story refurbished with yellow aluminum siding so pale it looked like a hundred years of sun beat down on it. The living room and dining room had gold-flocked wallpaper, and off to the side of the dining room were two bedrooms. One was theirs; the other held the scent of a decade of emptiness. Worn linens, old photos, and a dresser drawer with a huge beveled mirror dominated the small bedroom; faded floral wallpaper lined its walls.
I spent many nights with my grandparents. My mom was in the hospital a lot, and my dad was busy. They lived in Bellwood, several towns west of Oak Park, not far from one of the largest rail yards in the Midwest. The house was right in the middle of a quiet block of homes; one street to the left was a small avenue, and up across the railroad tracks was a one-block shopping area that had a grocery store, a hardware store, and a gas station. The street to the right was fast and wide, and my grandma forbade me to go near it.
My grandma always carried a purse that dwarfed one side of her, tilting her slightly. In church, she’d dig in that bag to find a roll of Pep-O-Mint lifesavers, carefully pealing away the fragile tinfoil, and never taking her eyes off of the preacher, she’d let me pluck one from the pack. I’d tuck it in one side of my cheek then move it to the other until I finally left it on my tongue until it just disappeared. I’d poke her, interrupting the sermon for her, and give her the eye that I wanted another one. Without hesitation, she’d go digging again, and I’d have another one to play with in my mouth. It took about five Pep-O-Mints to make through a complete sermon.
When grandma and me would go to the grocery store, she made me hold her hand. It was a little embarrassing, but she held it as if she needed to. We ‘d cut catty-corner across a gravel field that was the parking lot for a newspaper distribution center on the corner. The store had wooden floors beaten down from years of wobbly steel-wheeled carts tracing through its four short lanes. The butcher counter was in the back.
The scariest moment I had in my first ten years was on a trip to the store with her. While the train tracks had a signal, it didn’t work. There were no gates that came down to warn of an oncoming locomotive. Drivers would have to look left and right to make certain no oncoming trains were heading their way. It was dangerous business, that track.
We walked our usual path to get groceries, her purse on her other side from me. Before we crossed, we both saw a train in the distance, but there was plenty of time. Grandma squeezed my hand just a little harder and we picked up our pace. She stumbled on the tracks and fell like a sack of wheat. Her purse’s contents scattered all across the wooden ties and the rocks between the rails. Her hand pulled me down with her. I gained enough traction to stand up, our hands never parting.
“Come on, Grandma!” My voice was high-pitched from youth, and panic. I was tugging on her arm. She tried to right herself, her knee bloody. Once she got to her feet, the train was close to that busy bad street, close enough to read the front of the locomotive. I tried to collect some of her stuff, grabbing her wallet and the purse, but her hand yanked me further across the tracks.
In the movie version that plays in my head, we narrowly escaped, but truth is it sped past about a minute or two later. I looked behind me at the monstrously large train, shaking and clutching my grandma’s hand tighter than I ever had. We stood there for a while watching the boxcars and coal cars pass until the caboose was in sight.
Once the wind of the train disappeared, we went back and retrieved the rest of her purse’s belongings. I made sure to grab the roll of Pep-O-Mints.