That familiar bench had seen better days. The wood is worn and now cracked and peeling from too many coats of paint. Once a year, the city came through to spruce up the park. Years of smearing the wood with a cheap white color coat, the city hoped to attract more people. Once a thriving place full of children, the worry of predators kept most families away. Fifty years ago, when the bench was fresh and new, families flocked to the beautiful park. Back then, the trees only saplings, and the little rusted out cart that rested by the concession stand was the only hope of getting a treat. Time and progress wore down the little guy, and more profits made selling cheap processed food. No one wanted the hand-dipped chocolate ice cream bars. Now, everyone searched for those laced with candy and a silly face. The world is changing, whether with like it or not.
For ten years, I sat on that same bench every Saturday afternoon, weather permitting. Back then, my Grandfather held my hand, and we played the game that I grew to love. It wasn’t a board game or even one you could buy. The game was picking out someone in the park and telling their story as only you see it—no clues given other than your first impression.
“What about that one, peanut?” he said.
Grandfather was pushing seventy, but this was a ritual. Sitting here and rewriting the lives of others. Widowed for the last five years, the older man looked forward to this day. Each week he picked up his granddaughter, drove to the small park, and they spent the afternoon reflecting on his life and building new ones for others.
A man about twenty-five stood by the lake’s edge in the distance watching a ducks group, his eyes never straying. His clothing, not the best, but better than some. He wasn’t homeless, not that it mattered.
“He looks sad, Gramps. His mom is sick—the big C,” I said. When my Uncle got cancer last year, they called it that. It was like the whole family was scared to say the word. No one wanted to say it, spell it, or even think about it. At first, I thought it was a shame to the family, but I realized that they were all scared when he died.
Squeezing my hand tighter, Gramps shook his head, asking, “Why do you say that?”
“Well, when Uncle Jimmy got it, you all had that same look on your face. So yeah, his mom has it. I can feel it in my bones,” I said. Of course, I have no clue what it meant to feel it in your bones, but Gramps would say that when a storm would come. “It’s going to rain, Peanut. I can feel it in my bones.”
A deep sigh from the other side of the bench, Gramps was still in mourning about Uncle Jimmy. He was his oldest son, and he missed him as much as he missed his wife. There is nothing in the world harder than losing a child. Well, that’s what everyone tells me. I know losing my dog last year was pretty hard too.
“Don’t be sad, Papa. No one dies. They all turn into red birds and visit when we need them the most. Mama said when the red cardinal comes to the window, it’s Nana watching me grow. It would show up at my bedroom window all this summer and sit there for a few minutes. I finally put out some birdseed for her. Nana made the best cookies, and when Mama showed me how, the bird didn’t come again. I guess she thinks I’m grown up now,” I shrugged.
Forgetting all about the man, Gramps patted my hand, pulled his old handkerchief from his pocket, and dried his eyes. I think he was crying, but sometimes he calls his tears allergies.
“Did you know that same bird has visited me when I go to her grave? Usually, it sits on the headstone while I polish the stone. I never thought that it was her until now,” he said. Squeezing tight to my hand, I knew I helped him a little today. Talking about the dead in my family is a taboo subject. Sometimes I think that talking keeps the memories alive. I know for Papa, he will never look at a cardinal the same.
By the time we looked up, the man had left, but the memory of sharing this moment with Gramps never would.
“Come on, Peanut. We can meet next Saturday again. It will be my turn to tell the story,” he laughed.
As we walked away, I turned, looking at that old bench and smiling. That was the last time I spent time with Grandpa. He died the following night. I guess Nana was coming to take him home. That old bench, I still sit there every Saturday. As long as it’s standing, I will be there to share the memories with a silly old man I call Papa.