A Tough Teacher, A Tender Lesson
She saw me as her Little Lord Fauntleroy; I saw myself as Huckleberry Finn.
My visit with Grandma began as my mother and I left the oppressive heat of the sidewalk and stepped beneath the shadow of the green entrance canopy to her apartment off Central Park in New York City. There was a glow of marble and the smell of polish in the dim lobby. Then came the mysterious hum of the elevator, the clackety sound of its gate being drawn open and closed, and the rushing sensation of air as we moved upward. The elevator man smiled and leaned down to shake the hand of the small boy that was me.
Grandma's hall closet held my bed and moth-ball-reeking blankets. The folded bed rolled on small wheels over the waxed parquet floor. I helped to make it in the bay window overlooking rooftops and trees I longed to climb, 14 stories below in the park.
Grandma was my father's stepmother, a career woman when few careers were open to women. She had never had children. She had been a beauty, self-confident, imposing, yet she liked to be kissed often and told how much I loved her. Teaching music was her career, and her success was evident from the large, well-furnished apartment in a then-fashionable neighborhood. A gleaming black Steinway grand stood in the corner of the living room. Everything else in the apartment was at my disposal, but the piano was never to be touched. When her students came for lessons, their affection for her was so obvious that I felt an uneasy sense that they loved her more than I did.
I resisted her correcting my grammar and insisting that I take unnecessary baths, say thank you, act polite. She outfitted me to wear a necktie, to look like a well-behaved young man. Her intent was evident. On the wall in the living room was a large etched print in a gilt frame. An arrogant Little Lord Fauntleroy in velvet jacket gazed out with large, limpid eyes, purposelessly. I despised him. Grandma had a scant two weeks to civilize the savage in me. How could she have understood my contempt for city ways, apartment confinement?
The George Washington Bridge had only recently joined Manhattan to the Jersey shore. My real life was lived on the other side of the broad Hudson River as a pioneer, a frontier scout in the Bergen County wilderness. With adventurous friends I explored houses left abandoned by the Depression and dug underground huts in deserted woodlots. We felled trees to span the excavation, covering them with branches and sod, and camouflaged the trapdoor entrance. In the darkness beneath the earth, we conspired in the sooty light of a candle, assailed by the smell of roots and damp earth. We invented secret initiations and Indian lore, fashioned reed arrows tipped with sharp bone. We climbed trees in the silent woods or lay among crisp oak leaves in ambush, listening for the snap of a dry twig or the soft tread of moccasined feet.
Granddad's binoculars were always on the window sill of the bay window. Together we studied the ships plying the gray water of the Hudson. Though I couldn't see it, I knew that my home was on the other side of the river, beyond the steep Palisades. I was taken for walks in the park to feed pigeons, to the Museum of Natural History to see the thrilling skeletons of dinosaurs, but like the Steinway, they were not to be touched. We even visited the New York World's Fair to see the 1939 vision of the future, the world I live in now.
In the evening we listened to the radio - news and cultural programs, never my favorites like "Jack Armstrong," "The Shadow," or "The Lone Ranger." There was no TV. My grandparents' favorite show was "The Quiz Kids." "Such clever boys," they would say; if I studied hard I might become like one of them.
At bedtime Grandma sat beside me as I said a brief prayer for my family. She kissed me good night. As I lay amid the fragrance of starched sheets and the reek of camphor fumes, I looked out to see a large sign perched against the darkness of the Palisade cliffs and reflected in the water. It proclaimed SPRY to the restless city.
GRANDMA'S vigilance followed me when I returned home, as polite thank-you letters were required for my vacation and for her many gifts throughout the year. These brief thank-you messages taxed my mother's ingenuity. Given the choice, I would not have written at all. Given the choice, I would have preferred to visit my other grandmother, my mother's mother. Her large suburban house breathed with uncles, aunts, and cousins. She had seven children. She rarely gave me presents, never demanded letters or polite behavior. I never regretted being there, nor did I question loving her.
After graduating from high school, I worked in New York City and occasionally visited my grandparents. Often I arrived early and waited in the entrance hall. With only a developing awareness of the beauty of classical music, I was introduced to her pupils at the conclusion of their lessons. And in that shy, clumsy moment, I was bathed in the radiance of their regard for her.
By then the polite letters she required of me as a child had matured into natural correspondence. And letters have a way of evolving into writing for expression, for pleasure.
I see now that love comes to us in very different ways. It comes emotionally, warm and childlike, unquestioning, immediate, undemanding. But love is also expressed with maturity and deliberate thoughtfulness; it provokes and encourages commitment. This kind of love requires time for its fulfillment. Now as I read one of her many letters, in the sound of her voice I see her clearly. She was not easy to love, but I am always listening for her praise.