Grandpa Milo was a tall man whose head might have scraped the ceiling, if it weren’t for the stoop in his shoulders. He was long and angular, and I was always afraid to hug him, for fear of cutting myself on his sharp edges.
He smiled easily enough, and he sometimes laughed; but in the evening when he sat watching the sun dip below the trees, you could catch a glimpse of a shadow ripple quickly across his brow; a shadow of resolve so complete that it frightened me.
The shadows had names that floated up through my bedroom floorboards at night; extraordinary names like Lucky and Bugsy, and exotic places that no longer held any meaning, like Ellis Island and Hell’s Kitchen.
Bundled up safe in my covers, listening to the grown ups talk quietly into the night, I learned of hunger and fear, desperation and sin. I learned the lengths to which a man will go to feed his children. And I learned to fear my grandfather for the terrible things he had done in his youth.
Those were days long past, when prohibition was profitable and crime was organized. In the tales of his youth, he was a desperate man with dangerous friends. It was an era of poverty and hunger so profound that a man would barter his conscience for a crust of bread and consider it a good trade.
But in his senior years, Grandpa Milo was a mild, haunted soul. To the outsider, he was the picture of the well-dressed gentleman; reserved and benign. Were it not for those occasional shadows, I might not have believed that Grandpa Milo was ever more than an old man, full of a silent regret; a man whose attention I tried my best to avoid.
For the most part, I was successful, and I might have escaped my childhood without garnering his attention, had it not been for Grandpa Milo’s white damask necktie. It may seem a strange thing that a little girl would take notice of a man’s tie, but this was no ordinary tie.
For my seven year-old imagination, it was but the work of a moment to transform the silk fabric and its intricately woven flourishes into the perfect, doll-sized wedding gown; the most amazing wedding gown ever worn by any doll.
“Do you see something that you like, child?” my grandfather asked, in his deep, steady voice.
I blinked twice, not knowing how to respond. Had I been staring? What did he mean? It must have been a trick question. What if I answered wrong? Would he strike me down? I knew if I spoke, I would faint, so instead, I nodded bobbed my head up and down.
“You may have it, but first, you must ask.” He said.
I tried to be brave, but my words turned acrid on my tongue, stinging my throat and making my eyes tear. What game was he playing? Nothing that perfect was simply given away. It must be a trap; he was luring me in, and if I trusted him, he would smite me. I had heard all the old stories.
But oh, how I wanted that wedding dress.
He loosened the piece of white silk and held it out for me to see. The temptation to grab it and run was almost more than I could bear, but I knew there was no place that this man couldn’t find me.
“You must first ask, child.” He said.
To my utter dismay, I found myself croaking, “Please, can I have it?”
And just like that, the piece of damask fluttered into my outstretched hand. My grandfather reached out and pulled me into his arms, hugging me close to his chest. “There is no reason to fear me, child.” He whispered. “Please do not fear me.”
I remember that words escaped me. I remember sitting in my grandfather’s lap, holding the makings of the perfect wedding gown; startled to find his tears mingling with my own. I remember trying to process emotions that defied definition and absorbing lessons that would take decades to understand.
I learned that there truly is nothing to fear, but fear itself. I learned to always pursue that which is important. I learned the amazing power of a loving embrace. And most importantly, I learned the best things in life truly are ours for the asking.
But first, we must ask.
copyright@2004 dori knight