Note: Sunday marks a year since Ben’s Broadway debut in “Ragtime.” This week, Ben’s grandmother saw him in “Billy Elliot,” which made me wonder again how my beloved grandmother would have reacted to the craziness of our lives. This is a true story, with more than a little irony.
My grandmother sat in the dark auditorium and dozed to the ragtime music.
I ate my popcorn and glanced at her. Occasionally she would wake and look at the screen.
The movie was long, so she had a good long doze. She didn’t drink the Coke I had bought her with money she had given me earlier in the day, so the ice melted and left it flat.
I wished I knew what she was thinking.
Maybe it was relief. Maybe it was sorrow. Maybe grief. I really wasn’t sure. After all, he had been her husband for more than 50 years, the last five in and out of hospitals. They argued and fought. They kissed and made up. He was cantankerous, a do-it-my-way man’s man who really wasn’t.
She was an independent sort, a flapper in Louisiana who told stories — true ones at that — of getting rides to work with Huey Long. She was married eight years before her first child was born. Her second, my father, came two years later. She listened to music and cooked in the kitchen. She would slice raw tomatoes she bought from the nigra woman with the big garden down the street.
The lights came up. Now she would have to go back and visit the mourners.
“Thanks,” she said, as we walked to the parking lot. I drove, back then it was an adventure because I was only 16 and they had a big Buick that was almost impossible to park. As we walked out of the theatre she squeezed my hand, nearly cutting me with her wedding band. I knew her thank you was genuine.
I also knew no one would understand what I had done. Kidnapping my grandmother, to anyone on the outside, was not a great idea. Taking her to a movie I wanted to see was a selfish act.
We held hands as we went out to the parking lot on that drizzly December day. I steeled myself for the drive home and hoped I could back out of the parking lot in the big silver Buick without hitting someone. It was a 50-50 shot at best.
Grandmama had never driven a car. She was 76 now and not about to start, so asking her was out of the question. But as she looked at me with her eyes so tired, a washed out look that took me back to the first time my grandfather was in the hospital, she smiled and squeezed my hand again.
The wipers streaked the windshield; they hadn’t been changed. All I could be was critical, because I didn’t know how to change them. Still wouldn’t, if forced. I’m not mechanical.
She didn’t care. I was her only grandson, and she knew how to spoil me. It was the same technique she had used with my father and it worked. She came from an era that “respected” men for being “men,” even if it meant muttering the word “bastard” under her breath.
We drove in absolute silence for a mile, which was odd because we were both talkers. Some say I got it from her; my mom has got it, too, even though the two weren’t blood. Grandmama was one of the ones I could talk to about anything and not be scared.
The wipers muddied the windshield. They weren’t much help at all. We drove across town, probably too fast if my mom had been in the car. But my grandmother didn’t care.
“It was a good movie,” she said.
We got home and the family was there. No one said a word. They didn’t know what to say. My aunt (dad’s sister) and uncle scowled at me and shook their heads. I knew I would get a talking to later.
Soon I could smell the food. My grandmother was doing what she did best, cooking for the family. It was December, so there were no tomatoes this time. She served a thin flank steak, deep fried and battered. Coffee from that morning remained on the stove.
She didn’t talk much that week or next. It was the Christmas season 1981, and she didn’t think it was appropriate to ruin the holiday season for others. She didn’t cry, at least not in front of me. The only time I saw her do that was when she missed me leading a youth prayer at church because she got there too late.
I got my talking to from the people who didn’t understand my motive behind the kidnapping. They didn’t really care what I thought.
Over the passing months, as she dwindled in size and moved slowly toward the plot next to her husband, my grandmother never brought up that day. Six years later, in the middle of the night, I sat on the floor next to her as she lay on the couch. My father was calling for an ambulance.
I held her hand again. The wedding ring cut into it some more.
“Do you remember ‘Ragtime’?” I asked.
She nodded. I could barely see her in the dim light.
“Yes, it was a good movie.”