Grandpa was a quiet man who, on occasion, told stories about the Old Days. He was born in 1903, the year the Wright Brothers made their first powered flight at Kitty Hawk. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, the inventors’ home town, and saw their latest biplanes wobbling overhead. He remembered the 1913 flood that submerged downtown beneath 20 feet of roiling, muddy water. His family lived in a higher ground neighborhood to the southeast. Grandpa said, “My father would mark the edge of the water on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk. Every day the water rose and covered the chalk. He’d make a new mark. We knew that the flood was falling when the old marks showed up again. I got a job downtown shoveling mud out of the stores. There was mud and broken glass everywhere. And dead horses. You wouldn’t believe how much they stunk.”
He lived alone for thirteen years after my grandmother died in 1980. At holidays, he tended to brood over days gone by, over the good times that had vanished. But he stayed active ferrying sisters and widows to stores and church and took up with a woman named Clara.
After I married and move east, I came to town for occasional summer visits. My parents hosted family meals that included Grandpa. He mostly sat in silence and smoked Camels at the table while we ate dessert. But at random moments, he jumped into conversational gaps to say something strident about politics. New trends in music or fashion had no value. Often he drifted into morbid remembrances: Aunt Bertha died of suppurating something; Willie fell beneath the ice and drowned; Hal ignored that lump until it was too late.
He surprised me one visit by inviting me over to his house for a private talk. He didn’t ask directly but used my mother as an envoy. I felt uneasy as I walked up the sidewalk leading to his porch as I never knew how I stood with him.
He had been kind and patient for the most part when I was a boy. He stopped by our house on Saturday afternoons to bring his three grandchildren treats (chips, orange juice) and to see how we were doing. But my sister had been my grandmother’s overwhelming favorite. His wife ruled the roost, so Grandpa engaged with me and my brother sporadically. I saw less of him as I grew older. We barely spoke at family gatherings. When I was in my twenties, I heard that he had mocked me for taking too long on a series of paintings commissioned by a great aunt. I had struggled to paint three floral still lives having been trained in college to make awkwardly sincere abstractions. My mother reported that he sarcastically observed to my great aunt, “Great art takes time.”
I knocked on his door. He shuffled slowly through the house, got ice tea for the two of us and asked me to sit on the front porch. It was already too hot inside unless we set up a fan. We didn’t talk about anything important. He wanted to hear how my family was. He had always liked my wife. We finished with the domestic news and drifted into a comfortable silence. Squirrels chased each other in and out of shadows at the base of his sycamore. Robins poked the ground for earthworms, and cardinals trilled.
He died a few years later. He stopped eating after he found out that his arthritic knees had permanently frozen. A cane would no longer do any good. He’d have to spend the rest of his days in nursing care, a fate he rejected. He’d seen others linger for years.
He appeared to me in a dream shortly after his funeral. I saw him in the half-story room of his last house. He wore a dress shirt and baggy pants and was about sixty. He looked like my boyhood memories of him. He shuffled through a little soft-shoe dance and said, “Look at me now.”
My sister lived down the street from that house. She got off work at two in the morning and sometimes saw a light on in that same half-story room as she drove home. She worried that someone had broken into the unoccupied house, but when she went to investigate, she always found the house locked and undisturbed.
My brother and his wife bought Grandpa’s house from my mom and uncle. He reported that they frequently found a window open upstairs. A draft would wash down the steps letting him know that Grandpa’s ghost had unstuck a window that no living person could open without using a crowbar. A formerly broken doorbell rang at odd times. No caller stood on the porch when he or his wife opened the door. Their toddler would sometimes turn away from his television program to point at something crossing the room. The boy would exclaim, “Grandpa!”
The strange occurrences bothered my brother’s wife. She hadn’t planned on living with a ghost. She went to a medium to inquire after Grandpa’s intentions. The woman reassured her. Grandpa communicated to her that he felt attached to the house, that he had been happy living there. He meant no harm and would be stopping by from time to time to see whether everything was all right.