Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Life of Meaning

Rob let the screen door bang behind him. He flopped onto the couch, his leg across the arm, and blew his hair out of his face.
A woman with silvery hair shuffled into the room. “What’s wrong?”
“Sorry to bother you, Grandma. Mom and I had an argument again, and I just couldn’t stand to stay in the house any longer.”
Grandma nodded. “I see. Well, come into the kitchen. I was just going to have some lemonade.”
Rob swung his legs around and followed her across the hall. He pulled a couple of glasses down out of the cupboard while Grandma withdrew a pitcher from the fridge and placed a package of cookies in the middle of the table.
After a few minutes of silence, Grandma asked, “So what was it about this time?”
“Same old. ‘A twenty-year-old man should have a purpose in life. What direction are you going? What are you going to do with yourself?’ She doesn’t believe I’m trying to figure it out. I want to go to college, but I don’t think I’m ready. If I experience life first, then I’ll know what I want to do and won’t waste time and money. But I can’t do that if I have a steady job to report at every day.”
“And how are you showing your good faith?”
Rob rubbed his stubbly chin a moment before answering. “Well, I’m not asking for money. I find odd jobs here and there to pay for my expenses.”
“What about rent? Or food?”
Rob traced the woodgrain in the table. “Nah, they’re still paying for those.” He lifted his head and looked Grandma in the eye. “But I bought my own car. I’m paying the insurance and gas. If I take a trip or something, I pay for all that too. So it’s not like my parents are giving me everything.” His voice rose in pitch.
Grandma held up her hands, palms facing Rob. “I didn’t say they were, but I’m just trying to see from both perspectives. Sometimes when you’re a mom, it’s hard to be objective.”
Rob sighed. “I guess it’s kinda hard when you’re the son too, right?”
Grandma smiled.
Rob sat in thought for a few minutes. He could feel Grandma’s eyes on him, but not awkwardly. “Well, I’ve used up enough of your time. Thanks, Grandma. You always help me feel better.” He rose to leave.
Grandma hefted herself from her chair. “Robby, might I ask a favor of you before you go? Do you have some time?”
“Of course. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I’ve been meaning to sort the things in the attic for ages and get rid of some old stuff for Goodwill. But I can’t climb that ladder anymore. Is there a possibility you could help me out?”
“Sure. What do you want me to do?”
“If you could bring the boxes down to me, I can sort through them.”
They climbed the stairs together, Grandma holding tightly onto the banister, Rob directly behind her. When they reached the top, Grandma dragged a chair from her bedroom. Rob took over for her, carrying the chair into the hallway. He pulled the attic stairs down out of the ceiling and adjusted the placement of the chair to sit a few feet past the foot of the stairs.
“Let’s start with the boxes over my bedroom,” Grandma said. “I think that’s where most of the clothing is.”
Rob nodded and started into the attic. After a moment, he coughed. “It’s kind of dusty up here.”
“I haven't been up there since before my hip surgery. That was five years ago.” The distance muffled her voice.
Rob picked up the closest box, expecting to heft it, but found it surprisingly light. He carefully carried it down the stairs and placed it at Grandma’s feet.
“Could you get a rag out of the hall closet please?”
After Rob handed it to her, Grandma wiped the top of the box. Then she unhooked the flaps from folding over one another.
She rummaged around the box to the bottom. “These are all old dresses of mine. They can go to Goodwill. Could you put them in the spare bedroom for now?”
Rob carried the box across the hall and then went up the stairs for another. They repeated the process four more times, occasionally placing a few articles of clothing on Grandma’s bed, but putting the rest into a pile in the extra room.
The next box Rob brought down felt heavier. He placed it at Grandma’s feet, she wiped it off, and then opened it.
She sighed when she looked inside. Pulling out a flannel shirt, she held it to her nose, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply. “These were your Grandpa’s. His scent has finally left them, so I think it’s time to let someone else find good use from them. Go ahead and pile them with the rest.”
Three boxes later, when Grandma opened the top, a smaller wooden box nestled on top of the clothes.
“Is that jewelry?” Rob asked.
“Not exactly,” Grandma said. “I’d wondered where these had gotten to. Why don’t you open that, Robby, while I look through the clothes?” She handed him the case.
He unlatched the clasp on the front of the lid and opened it. His eyes widened. Metal stars, colorful ribbon strips, and bronze eagles stared at him from the cold surface.
“Are these what I think they are?” Rob asked, his voice reverent.
Grandma nodded. “Those are all medals your Grandpa received in the service.”
“I knew he was in the army, but I had no idea he’d done all this.” Rob stroked a medal with a finger.
“He didn’t like to talk about his medals. He thought they were silly.”
Rob shook his head. “What’s this for?” He gently held a red and white ribbon attached to an eagle with outspread wings within a circle. The circle read For Distinguished Service.
“Your Grandpa received that one during Desert Storm for leading so well that in his year of service, none of his unit members were seriously injured, let alone killed, even though they saw some of the most intense skirmishes of the whole war.”
Rob carefully placed it back in the box. He picked up a red, blue, and white striped ribbon. “What are these? He has several.”
Grandma took the ribbon in her hand, caressing it. “Your Grandpa could always inspire those around him to do more than they thought they could. I think these are the Valorous Unit Awards.” She handed the ribbon back.
Sifting through the multiple medals and ribbons, Rob pulled out one more. “What about this one?” He held a blue ribbon with white stars across it. Dangling below the ribbon, an eagle perched on a bar which held an upside-down star inscribed within a circle.
Grandma cocked her head, and her features softened. “That was the one I was most proud of. We were invited to the White House for President Nixon to present the Medal of Valor. Your Grandpa flew helicopters, and he’d flown in supplies and rescued soldiers on multiple missions with the Viet-Cong firing at him the whole time. Many men owe their lives to your Grandpa. When your Grandpa received the medal, he stood stoically before the President. But when the son of one of the soldiers he saved ran up and wrapped his arms around his legs, well, that was only time I saw your Grandpa cry.”
“Why didn’t he show these to us?”
“Your Grandpa never really agreed with receiving them. He always just thought he was doing his duty. His job was to protect the people around him, whether they were soldiers or civilians, American or otherwise. He said he was just doing what everyone else was doing. He didn’t realize that his self-appointed life’s mission was bigger than most.”
Rob gazed at the multiple medals and ribbons gleaming in the box. “What are you going to do with these?”
     Grandma shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe some museum will take them.”
     Rob cleared his throat around the lump. “Can…can I have them?”
     “I suppose.” A smile tugged at her mouth.
     Rob gently closed the lid, reclasping the latch.
     “I don’t know about you,” Grandma said, stretching her arms, “but I’m tired. I think that’s enough for today, don’t you?”
     Tucking the box under his arm, Rob said, “Thanks, Grandma. I know just what to tell Mom now.”