The old gentleman ambled up our front walkway, lugging his toolbox in one hand and throwing his other arm out for balance. I welcomed him in, shuffling the girls out of the front entryway to let him pass. "Here's the door -- our back door -- that needs fixing." I explained, motioning to our patio doors.
Stepping gingerly around a pile of discarded dress-up clothes, the locksmith set his heavy toolbox beside the door while I explained our problem. "The top deadbolt is in the locked position, but the knob just spins and spins...like it's stripped or something."
He spoke slowly, laying out the possibilities, wondering out loud if he'd have the right materials with him to fix the door today. Mia squatted on the floor beside the gentleman, rapt with each tool he removed and each lock-piece he examined. He peeked at her from under the bill of his cap, grinning and joking with her in his slow way. He had all the time in the world.
While Mia watched, I watched too. But I was rapt with a different aspect of this man: the amazing way he reminded me of my grandpa.
In another time and place -- one with thin, crisp edges, straining to be remembered -- it's me ambling up a different front walkway.
Between college courses, I dashed over to my grandparents' house for a quick visit. I had no real objective, but that was fine; there was never a time when I couldn't stop in, grab a freshly baked something, and squeeze some quick hugs. I was just looking for a place to waste time away from campus.
Under the maple tree, in the shade-dappled morning light, my grandma was sweeping the sidewalk. Wrapped comfortably in her cottony robe, treading on threadbare sateen slippers, she was totally unrepentant for showing her pajamas to the world. And she was beaming with love in my direction.
"Hiya, sweetheart!" She carried her broom to meet me halfway down the walk, hugging and kissing me, and inviting me in for a glass of tea.
In my kitchen, I had a hard time looking away from the man who brought back so strongly the memory of my grandpa. After all, if my grandpa were still alive, it would have almost certainly been him kneeling there, tinkering with tools and teasing my daughters. Great-granddaughters he'd never gotten to meet. Blue eyes he'd never gotten to know as resembling his own. Pop-cluck kisses he'd never gotten to hear from tiny lips he'd never been kissed by.
Mia shadowed the locksmith while he worked, humming tunes and giggling at his glances. After one particularly cute string of laughter, the gentleman looked up at me and smiled. "I'd forgotten how good it is to be around little ones. My sons are grown now, but haven't ever had kids of their own. It's been awhile since I've heard these giggles."
"Well, I think he's still out back in the shop," she said. "I'll call and see." She stepped over to the back door where Grandpa had rigged up an intercom system between the house and his little woodworking shop. Pushing the button, she spoke into the speaker. "Hey babe?"
"Yeah!?" came my grandpa's reply.
"Our Sarah is here."
"Say-ruh! Oh, good, I'll be right in!" His voice sounded so overjoyed at the possibility of seeing me, his 'Say-ruh', that I laughed out loud with my Grandma. But I know they responded that way to seeing each of their grandchildren. Their love was so unconditional and easily shown, it felt medicinal to be in their presence -- soothing to know such comforting acceptance.
Moments later, Grandpa burst through the back door, a wide grin making his boyish dimples pop. "There's my Say-ruh!" he smiled, wiping his sweaty face on a rag. Stepping close enough to me for a kiss, but far enough away that I wouldn't be soiled by his sawdust and sweat-covered arms, he pecked my cheek before heading to the sink.
While he waited for the water to get hot, he made sarcastic comments. "Well, goooood-night, you gotta drain Shoal Creek before this water'll get warm." Grandma shook her head and laughed, rolling her eyes while Grandpa carried on. "And whataya gotta do to get a snack around here!? I'm wastin' away, workin' my poor fingers to the bone out there..." he trailed off into laughter as Grandma shot him a look, then a swat on the behind. "And I gotta wait for company to come over before I get anything good to eat!"
She looked at me conspiratorially, whispering, "He just finished eggs, toast, and sausage not 2 hours ago. Don't believe him for one second."
But I couldn't help myself. I joined in with Grandpa, commiserating his sad lot in life, to be saddled with unending work but nary a crumb for his sunken and growling stomach.
I stood at my stove, stirring our dinner and glancing at the working locksmith. After having made several trips to his truck for the rigging up of a makeshift part, he was finishing the job.
Carefully, precisely, he placed each tool in the right spot in his toolbox. Thick, worn hands knew every move to make, knew each tool by heart, and wouldn't betray their owner by dropping anything carelessly into place. He lowered the work-trays back into their places, lifted the heavy lid closed, and made sure the latch was securely shut.
My grandpa's hands had been just the same: careful and work-toughened. Strong and weathered.
"Well, I think that'll do it," he drawled. "Come give 'er a test drive, and see what you think."
I fiddled with the lock, opened and closed the door a few times, and declared his handiwork to be exactly the cure for our problem. I thanked him and started writing out a check, while he chatted about raising kids and the changing times.
"I was born in 1937," he said. "And back in those days, we didn't worry about things as much. Well, times are different now, though. When I was old enough to run around the neighborhood, why, I'd just go ever'where and be gone for hours and my mom didn't think anything it. Ever'body knew ever'body else, and she knew that someone, somewhere knew what her boy was up to. 'Course, that made it hard to get away with any trouble," he laughed.
We talked for a few more minutes and I had the hardest time not inviting him to stay for dinner. I felt sure that if we visited all evening, I'd have a clear picture in my head of my grandpa. Because the pictures in my head are becoming too sharp to believe. I can't remember if I'm embellishing a memory, or reliving it with perfect accuracy.
I do remember his voice, deep and sarcastic, loving and joking.
I do remember his wavy hair, perfectly combed so it laid -- all dandy and spiffy -- against his scalp just as it must have back in the '50's.
I do remember the secret handshake he taught his grandkids: 4 squeezes signifying 'Do you love me?" 3 squeezes in response, 'Yes, I do!' 2 squeezes back, 'How much?' 1 final squeeze -- strong and lasting -- to show an endless, crushing love.
I do remember spending cold winter mornings working in his shop, learning to use a jigsaw or painting little wooden crafts we'd create together while the woodstove piped warm air all around us. I do remember him always insisting he needed my help to get his tools organized. I was the only one who'd do a good enough job, supposedly.
I do remember his coffee cups, sitting for hours in the microwave, growing cold as he'd forgotten where he'd put it.
I do remember every Christmas Eve, as he held my grandma with a romantic embrace, dipped her backwards, and placed a big, celebratory kiss on her lips before the Christmas tree as the whole family watched, clapping. The whole family they'd started, the whole family they'd filled the house with, the whole family who loved and admired their lifelong commitment.
I watched him load his tools back into his truck, and smiled at the memories he'd unlocked in me. I hope I continue to see men and women who remind me of my grandparents. Who cause me -- for just a few minutes -- to feel and see one of the greatest gifts I've ever been given in life: the gift of loving grandparents. And of memories.
The locksmith deserved a much bigger payment than he received just for working on my broken lock. He also fixed my leaky memories. He polished my mind to remember times and places I forget to think about. He rigged up a makeshift grandfather figure in himself, and brought back the comforting memories of my own.
And he didn't even know it.