Grandpa Tom was my maternal grandfather. He was a steely eyed, quarter-blood-Cherokee who’d worked for the Wichita Falls daily newspaper all his life.
I don’t remember grandpa Tom much before I was six-years-old, when we visited Texas for the summer. He had a favorite chair by the window where he would sit for hours. He had been ill, we children were told, so please be quiet around your grandpa.
Every morning, mom used to hand me the newspaper and tell me to go over and read to my grandpa. “Show your grandpa how good you can read,” she’d urge.
“The whole thing?” I’d complain. At first I was a little afraid of grandpa Tom, him being ill and so quiet and stern looking. He used to stare off into space and work his jaws as if he were eating. His fingernails were stained from the printer’s ink, too, which somehow I found upsetting.
“No, honey,” my mom would reply sweetly, “just read to him until he falls asleep.”
He fell asleep in his chair all the time. Later I learned that grandpa Tom had been recovering from the first of his many strokes at the time. While we stayed there that summer, I read to him every day, sitting on the leather ottoman at his feet, as he listened quietly and stroked an orange cat who slept in his lap.
Eventually I forgot my fear and we became friends, grandpa and I. He’d smile crookedly with anticipation in the morning when I came to him with the newspaper.
Later, with great solemnity, he gave me an old, ivory-handled pen knife. “For you,” he sputtered, placing it in my hand. His words were terribly slurred from the stroke. “Don-don-don’t forget… to clean it.”
One day, I put the newspaper down when I thought he was asleep and I started reading to him from one of the books I’d brought with me from California. (Not sure if I could get books in Texas, I’d stuffed my suitcase full of them. “Whataya got in here?” my dad asked as he packed the car for the trip. “Rocks?”)
What I read to grandpa that day wasn’t a rock. It was James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl.
“Good!” grandpa said, startling me. I didn’t know he was awake. “More, please,” he added.
All that summer we laughed together at the adventures and misadventures of young James, while we hated and feared the cruel aunts Spiker and Sponge. When Spiker and Sponge deliciously got what they deserved and were crushed by the giant peach, grandpa laughed so hard he upset the cat, tumbling it to the floor with a squealing meow. Grandpa found the story very funny, laughed all the time, which surprised me somehow, and my mother thought was suspicious.
“What are you guys doing in there? Rusty? Dad?” she called.
“Just reading,” we’d call back, laughing, but it was more than that.
We were in another world together.
“And James Henry Trotter, who once, if you remember, had been the saddest and loneliest boy that you could find, now had all the friends and playmates in the world.”
Ah, Dahl, you magnificent bastard!