Forgetting the chore that brought me to the cool darkness of the basement, I absent-mindedly pull up a dilapidated step stool, distracted by the towers of cardboard boxes all marked "photos" in grandma's loping school-teacher script. One box lies open and I sift through the haphazard stack of paper gently, wary of the collection's brittleness. Ragged string pulls at the album's battered folds and loose leaves follow in no particular order. One page holds wedding announcements, newspaper clippings detailing bridesmaids' outfit material and the next, bold and proud in the center, a graduation program from the University of Nevada. A young man, handsome, smiling, looks back with eager eyes and determined stance.
An hour later my hand reaches for the last paper, scraping it off the bottom of the sticky cardboard, fingernails reaching underneath the thin mat, attempting to save the page of dance cards and sorority invites. I add the salvaged piece to my personal stack, favorites I have subconsciously been setting aside as I weave through the early years of my grandparents' lives. The blaring chaos of a war show trickles down through the ceiling, interrupting cool silence, jarring me from my reverie. I jump up from the creaking stool, grab my stack and hop up the stairs two at a time, then settle in next to Papa, holding the memories tight in my hand. I am eager to know the stories, the people, the places that made up his life and he smiles at my questions, eyes small and crinkly.
Dad has called us twice now, and at the beginnings of "One . . . Two . . . " we rush to the bedroom, plopping to our knees and burying our heads in our folded arms, waiting for my little brother Daniel to start. He is only 3, stumbling over the "thank thees" and hesitating with a sigh before each new thought. Half-way through my sister Olivia and I begin a not-so-subtle foot war, biting our tongues to stifle the laughter when, after a particularly long pause, Daniel whispers, "And please bless Papa that he will get better. Amen." Now it is the family who pauses, no sound after my mum's short intake of breath. And I am thinking "Better? But he's not sick, is he? He's fine, the same old Papa. . . . " Later I learn he is not all right, though, being 11 years old, it is not a sickness I quite understand. He is losing his memory.
I look at him now, his forehead wrinkling as he searches for the place to describe the picture, deep furrows between worried eyes. "It's all right," I try to say cheerfully, but my voice strains as his shoulders fall in defeat. "It's all right. Just look at you and Nonna, so pretty and stylish." I reach for the picture in his hand, two happy couples at dinner, glamorous young ladies leaning on dapper young men. Papa is on the far left, one arm draped casually along the back of Nonna's chair, the other resting on his knee. The other couple smiles with the laughter of a joke, and I know it was Papa who put it there. I look at him now, so silent, so reserved, the perfect listener. Then I remember the old Papa, the Papa at the head of the table at every family dinner, so passionate, so encompassing, so engaging. Just a few years ago he kept conversation alive, now he watches it die. I think of his house at Christmastime, cards from friends filling counter-space, baskets, bulletin boards — all wishing him well, many thanking him for the same — "You have changed my life." I reach for Papa's hand, holding tight.
When I get home I pull open my sock drawer, pushing aside the stripes and fishnets and lonely singles, running my fingers along the light wood, searching for the card. I find it at the very back, a small white envelope just beginning to yellow with 15 years of age, red felt-tip spelling out "Elizabeth" with a curved-back "E." A heart runs along the side, arrow piercing its middle and inside, in the same felt-tip, "Happy Valentine's Day! I love you, Papa." The words have stayed with me all these years, to find on days that darkened with gray feelings and pelting words. Every time I find it and read it once more, I place it somewhere new for the next discovery, for the next time I need it. Today I sit, cross-legged on the honey hardwood floor, fingers tracing the letters, committing it to memory.