The early sun struck the faded lettering on the old storefronts as I drove through a Massachusetts mill town. I pulled up in front of a three-story apartment house sitting right on the edge of the sidewalk. On the outside, there was nothing to distinguish the outdated structure wearing plain gray shingles. But inside was someone of whom I was very fond – my grandmother.
I knocked on the inner door and listened to a pair of feet and a cane make their way slowly down the hall. Grandma, still in her housecoat, was delightfully surprised to see me. I leaned over and kissed her wrinkled, baby-soft cheek. A few strands of white hair straggled outside her hairnet. Hadn't she received my letter inviting her to spend the weekend on Cape Cod with me?
It had just been delivered. The envelope lay on the floor beneath the mail slot. But Grandma didn't hesitate. She would love to go. She stumped off and began getting ready immediately.
I stood for a moment in the clean, red-and-white kitchen. It looked exactly as it had a couple of decades before when I was a small child – right down to the tiny plastic teacup at the end of the pull string that operated the overhead fluorescent light.
I wandered into the living room as the morning sun streamed through white ruffled curtains. Here were the clues that gave me a window on Grandma's daily life: a box of stationery here, a book of crossword puzzles there. The knitting basket was gone, but wasn't this afghan on the couch the same color as the mittens she had knitted for me?
Beside Grandma's reading chair was a small table holding a lamp, a small black-leather Bible, and a couple of broken-in issues of Reader's Digest. Smiling from the papered walls were pictures of her grandchildren.
Grandma reappeared wearing a navy polka-dot dress, thick stockings, and her trademark black chunky-heeled shoes. I went to her bedroom and picked up her old-fashioned suitcase from the neatly made bed. How long had it been since Grandma had slept somewhere other than this twin bed with its white iron frame?
My grandmother Helen didn't own a car and never had learned to drive. To be whisked off for a holiday at a seaside hotel was probably the most exciting thing that had happened to her in years. I don't know how long it had been since she'd seen the ocean. But for someone descended from Maine shipbuilders, I am sure it had been far too long. As my Volkswagen purred over the highway, Grandma glowed.
We met my college boyfriend in Harwichport, where he was working for the summer. He suggested we go to the beach right away.
"Oh, no," Grandma objected. "I don't think I could do that." Walking on a smooth floor was hard enough for her.
Cheerfully oblivious to what it might feel like to be 90 years old, we were not easily dissuaded. It was as if we could feel the pull of an outgoing tide.
"Well, how about if we just drive to the beach, and you can look at the ocean from the car?" I asked Grandma.
"Oh, that would be lovely," she agreed.
We drove to Nauset Beach, where the land drops off sharply to meet the eroding surf. From the parking lot above the beach, we had a good view of the blue Atlantic.
"Oh, oh!" said Grandma softly. Her blue eyes sparkled like sunlight on the sea. I was struck once again with how little it took to bring her joy. She would have been content to sit there all afternoon.
But my boyfriend and I were not. To come so close and not to feel the sand between our toes and the sea breezes through our hair was to miss what going to the beach was all about. We wanted Grandma to have it all, too. "Wouldn't you like to try walking down to the beach, Grandma?" I urged. "If it's too hard, we can come back."
Grandma responded to my pushiness with characteristic grace. She would try.
Somehow we managed to help her down the long flight of weathered steps that ended on the rumpled white sandscape. While my boyfriend supported her, I untied her shoelaces and pried off the black shoes. Her stockinged feet sank into the deep sand.
"Ready, Grandma?" I asked. She smiled a "here goes nothing" smile. I took one of her elbows, my boyfriend took the other, and we launched forth. Grandma wobbled and staggered, but she kept going. We noticed that everyone within a hundred feet was staring at us.
"I must look like a drunk," Grandma said with girlish humor.
We stopped just short of the sea-wet sand. My boyfriend bent down and dug away at the sand. Soon he had sculpted a seat for Grandma. She maneuvered into position and dropped down onto her throne. Then she took a deep breath and beamed her happiness out to the infinite blue.
I am certain that no one up and down the whole length of Nauset Beach that day enjoyed the surroundings more than my grandmother did. And I like to think of her that way now – launching out adventurously to greet the loveliness of whatever sea lies before her.