"Gram, I don't get it," the seven-year-old said as he flipped through the small books.
"It works like this," the elderly woman reached for the S & H catalog from the coffee table as Eric sat beside her on the sofa. She continued, "At some stores in town, the shop keepers give green stamps with purchases. You glue the stamps into a booklet like these. After a while, when you have several books filled, you select something from the catalog to trade."
A little more eager with this news, "Okay," replied the boy.
"We have three full books and part of another." He leafed through the catalog. "Gram, this stuff needs a lot of books."
"It takes time to save stamps; but, I won't be collecting anymore, so what we have is three and a half books to spend any way you'd like, Eric."
The child sat on the floor and started again, turning each page, and carefully examining each photo and the required number of books.
Gram continued packing up her boxes with knick-knacks from her parlor bookshelves. Michael, her son, told her that she was allowed to take four boxes. Imagine that! How does one stuff a lifetime of memories into four boxes? Well, she should be thankful; after all, he does know what's best for her, doesn't he? People in town never fail to compliment her part in raising Michael to be one of the state's finest lawyers. Gram recalled how she and her husband sacrificed for Michael to go to law school. The sacrifice was well worth it. He was on the fall ballot for District Attorney.
"Now's the time to get you out of this drafty house and into a nursing home–I mean, an assisted living facility," Michael had announced over a rare Sunday dinner together. At least he knew enough to correct himself. "Mother, you need people to look in on you."
Michael was a busy man. He made partner the year Eric was born, and his obligations to the demanding social life seemed to increase. She could not expect him to take care of her or to do the work required of an older house. To leave the house–the house that her husband had built for them–would be difficult. But not as difficult as trying to recover from broken bones alone at your age. She could hear the disgust in Michael's voice. "Besides, winter isn’t that far off; you know how chilled you were last January. Why you and Dad never installed newer windows is beyond me."
Eric's voice broke her thoughts, "Gram, will I be able to visit you in your new house?"
"Of course, you will, Eric, it won’t be every day. But, your mommy or daddy will bring you to visit." She felt the bite in her tone and hoped the child didn't notice.
"Will your new house be warmer in the winter?"
"Oh, your father assures me it will be, sweetie." There goes that bite again; she scolded herself.
"Can I ride my bicycle like I do now?" Eric said, stopping at a page in the catalog featuring outdoor toys.
"No, honey, it's too far; you'll have to wait for your Daddy to drive you."
She hated the thought of not seeing him as often. Living only five blocks away from her son had allowed Eric to ride his bicycle to her house every day after school. They spent a few hours together until her daughter-in-law got home from whatever she was doing. It was a safe neighborhood; all the kids rode their bicycles, and the residents watched out for them.
Several of her neighbors were older than she and had children who lived farther away, but they managed just fine in their homes. Most of those elderly neighbors had children who would bring meals and spend time visiting several times a week. That made it possible for her elderly friends to avoid life in a facility.
"Eric, did you find anything in the catalog?" She said as she circled him and patted his curly head. He got those curls from his mother and his long eyelashes from his father. She was sure he'd break many a heart once he started dating.
"I see a page here with circles on it." He was referring to the little space heater. However, she wouldn't be spending another winter in her house.
"Don't worry about that; you pick out something for yourself, dear." She said as she walked into the kitchen. Except for Eric's refrigerator art, there wasn't anything in here that was worth boxing up. She took some cookies from the cookie tin and poured two glasses of milk. She set the snacks on a tray and carried them into the living room.
Eric didn't see her coming; he jumped up quickly, "Gram, look! A basketball for exactly three and a half books," and bumped into her, upsetting the tray, and knocking her off balance. The sound of a bone cracking echoed as she fell onto the floor.
* * *
In the hospital, Michael chastised his mother and delivered the news, "Looks like assisted living won't work; you'll have to go into a private nursing home until your funds are gone. Then on to the state nursing home. You'll need 'round the clock care."
* * *
Later that month, when Eric and his father boxed up Gram's house contents for Goodwill, Eric picked up the stamp books.
"What do you want those for?" Michael asked.
"I'm going to save green stamps for this little heater for Gram, so when she gets well and comes home, she won't be cold."
"Leave it, Eric. No one collects green stamps these days." Michael tossed the drawings from the refrigerator door into the trash. "It's time to go."
Michael turned toward the front door.
The little boy gathered up his drawings from the trash, tucked them into the S & H Catalog, and followed his father to the car.
A few days later, Eric asked his dad to take him to visit Gram.
"I can't today; I have to work late. On Monday I move to the DA's office. Maybe tomorrow."
"But Dad, you said that yesterday, and the day before. I miss Gram. I told her I'd visit her. It's been ten days since my last visit."
"You will have to wait. Maybe on Saturday. Gram knows that we need to drive you." With that, the new District Attorney left Eric waiting for the school bus.
On his way to the office, Michael stopped at his mother's house to check on the mail; it was mostly junk mail. There was a larger envelope stuffed under the doormat. Michael opened it and saw it contained the refrigerator art he had tossed and a newer drawing of a little boy on a bicycle. Printed across the bottom was a row of Xs and Os with love, Eric in red crayon.
Michael settled into the rocking chair in the kitchen. He noticed that the chair runners had indented two channels in the wood floor, the rocking chair had been in the same place in front of the stove for as long as he could remember. There was a transistor radio on the countertop, the television nowhere in sight. The faded kitchen curtains with the butterfly print–the same ones that hung in the windows when he was a boy were clean and pressed, and the parlor rug was threadbare. Next to the rocker were some shoeboxes with family photos. He recalled the many times his mother had hinted that if she had photo albums, she'd be able to organize the photos. He decided to purchase a few albums and take the shoeboxes to her whenever they got around to visiting.
Although the neighborhood is overall, a nice area, with property owners tending to their homes and yards, his childhood home needed some maintenance. Still, if the house sold, "as is," it would bring a decent dollar.
Michael considered this option as he reached for the last envelope with FINAL NOTICE stamped across the front. Puzzled, he opened the letter and saw that it was a notice of foreclosure on a mortgage that had defaulted for a loan established in 1985 – the year he began law school. He never questioned how his parents afforded his education.
As he absorbed the notice, his cell phone rang. Michael listened and responded, "Have her body taken to Simms Funeral Home. I'll give them a call and make the final arrangements."
Michael sat in the rocking chair and sobbed.
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