Fruit Snacks and Marlboros

by Eric Beebe


Growing up with my grandparents next door made them the de facto babysitters for my siblings and me. Their house is a white Colonial with a wraparound porch, attached to a barn used for storage. We’d take a short walk down a “secret” path in the tree line that opened to my grandpa’s vegetable garden and the metal lattices of my grandma’s grapevines with clusters of berry bushes behind them. My brother, sister, and I would help pick berries in the summer for jam, only to eat half of them out of our buckets. As the seasons changed, the wafting scent of fresh grapes would summon us back through the path to do the same to them, rolling the fruit in our mouths until the skins peeled off and we sucked their cores down like hard candy before spitting out the seeds.

Between careers in aviation and politics, my grandpa was often out of the house, which made it my grandma’s domain. It could have been another country. We lived by different laws under her watch. “I’m not your parents. Do what you want, but don’t piss me off,” was one of her lasting mantras, but she was far from neglectful. In her wisdom, my grandma devised ways of containing us, whether it be in front of a TV running Batman: The Animated Series, in a room full of toys collected since the 1960s, or equipped with markers and paper that always seemed thicker than other kinds and smelled like old books. She’d sit at one head of the kitchen table, behind a perpetually soiled ashtray and a Christmas mug full of coffee. At her side, we’d gorge ourselves on the snacks she stocked and beg her to let us light her next cigarette, so we could play with the lighter. Burning Marlboros became the smell of a tranquil freedom, and strawberry Gushers its flavor. To this day a pack of gummies or a stroll past the right smoker takes me back as fast as any madeleine ever did for Proust.

The times my grandpa was around, he was usually focused on work. He’d tolerate our use of his copy machine for prints of hands or any action figures that fit under its cover, but only for so long. A couple of times, he invited my brother and me to help him clear out brush around the property with sharpened steel swords that stood as tall as I did, which he kept in a closet of files and old military garb. At my grandma’s behest, he’d monitor us in their musty basement, while we crafted weapons of our own. I still have a pair of homemade nunchakus and my first sword: a dowel rod sharpened on one end with a floral brass cabinet handle for a handguard. My brother and I would square off, each with our own sword in hand, exchanging taps. Lunges weren’t allowed on account of the pointed tips. We were careful not to damage any nearby furniture or knock any tchotchkes from their places on the mantel. My grandma used to tell us her favorite methods for murder and body disposal, and she made frequent jokes about poisoning our food. No matter that the threat was in good fun, we heeded her warnings.

In adolescence, my visits were filled less with crafts or sword fights and more with Grand Theft Auto, since my parents wouldn’t allow it in our house yet. At one point, my grandma tried to teach me her skills in stained glass art, but I gave up after burning my finger on a soldering iron. As bans on certain video games lifted and I learned to drive, I visited less and less, to the point that one winter she believed a telephone scammer claiming I was in a Brazilian prison in need of bail. She’d tried to call my cellphone, but I slept through the buzzing.

Now, my visits come mostly to retrieve the family dog, whose aging bladder requires more attention than work schedules allow. Mornings, before I leave, the sight of a leash sends my dog into such a frenzy that she forgets her hip dysplasia and bounds up on two feet, until she’s on her way to visit Grandma. Sometimes, she runs there herself, if left outside unchecked. Her excitement—waxing with age, instead of waning—reminds me of the simple joy that used to draw me over. I think to myself, maybe today I’ll visit longer, but later I’ll remember the writing I have to get done or the plans I’ve made, and best intentions dissolve, leaving a sense of hurry and guilt.