SHE DIED ON July 14th. Gram lived ninety-nine years, Adele Phylura Rampitz in life, most of her years were good ones; I mean robust and healthy ones, not good in the sense most people think about it.
Toward the end, the last five years, she suffered from old-timers disease and a couple of things changed. The razor sharp mind, having sawed away at life and all she came in contact with for nearly a century dulled. As her surviving heir, I found that reasonable, as I knew from my reading that not many old brains remain unclouded past seventy.
During that time Gram mellowed. She began to see life through “rose-colored glasses,” as the expression goes. I did a double-take a number of times when she stared at things I couldn’t see and affected the tone of a blushing nineteen-year-old.
Before the change, her razor-sharp mind attached directly to a razor-sharp tongue. She made the Wicked Witch of the West seem friendly and caring to those who knew her, and she got away with it by dominating everyone.
I’m Harry, grandson, single and last of the line, may it stop here!
At the end I couldn’t tell her what a bitch she had been to her late husband. I’m convinced she drove him to his death. When Mom died in the car crash with Gramps driving and him coming away from it without a scratch, the tongue lashings rose to a higher level.
He cashed out weeks after the tragedy, a broken man, a bullet to the temple. Dad, ill in the hospital and the reason for the trip Mom and Gramps took that day took the news unsmiling. Once home he became distant and uncommunicative. I could see his pain, but I had pain to deal with. I’d loved Gramps, too. As a twelve year old boy, what could I do?
We lived close by, but with Gramps gone, Dad sold his house and he and I moved back in with Gram out of duty. He fell under Gram’s inflexible eye and gradually her presence beat him down. I’m convinced almost anyone living within a two-mile radius of her felt her uncompromising personality to some degree.
Three years later Dad finally quit trying and hanged himself in the garage. I still try to force out the memory of it. I know he’d cared for Gram and me as best he could, but Dad could never free himself from Gram’s inquisitor’s aura. It finally broke him as it had his father.
Right after my father died, I knew I couldn’t stay. I feared being alone in the big house under Gram’s glistening dark and all seeing eyes. At night, lying in my third floor bed, I thought about Dad and I thought about Gramp. Perhaps too young to know all the facts, I believed Gram was purely evil.
One day, a week after Dad’s funeral when my body hummed with nervous dread, I packed what I could in an old suitcase and emptied my savings from the hidden coffee can in my room into my pockets. Very quietly that night I slipped out of the house while she slept and ran away to Minneapolis.
I guess associating with Gram aged me somehow, that and desperation, because I got a job almost immediately at an Exxon gas station pumping gas, cleaning toilets and general stuff. I slept in an abandoned car for the first two weeks and I think the boss got suspicious seeing me wear the same clothes every day, but he just rolled that big cigar around in his mouth and didn’t say anything.
After I had some real money in my pocket, I found a rooming house in the low rent district. A good-looking lad, hat in hand, I told the landlady my story and she took pity on me. I got room and board for fifteen dollars a week. I had to clean up the place and keep things neat. I told her the truth; all except for my age¾I said eighteen.
I struggled to make good in Minneapolis and I did hang tough, learned the gas trade and eventually bought the station from Lou Green, who’d taken sick and couldn’t run it anymore. In the meantime, my section of town deteriorated and prices went up and I never really liked the work.
I returned five years before Gram died. Adele¾she wouldn’t like it but I’ll call her that¾lived in Pipestone, Minnesota, a little town of three thousand, southwest of Minneapolis near the corner of the state where it meets South Dakota. She lived in a big old Victorian house on a low hill up on Spenser Street, pretty near town center that dated back to the early nineteen hundreds.
I’d been away for twenty-five years and memories of the iron will and acid tongue I’d learned to hate in Adele had dimmed, so when the call came to go back and take care of the old place and the old woman, with my fortunes at low ebb in the big city, I agreed. I sold the station off at a loss and good riddance and left town.
The neighbor who tracked me down about Adele’s mental state lived in Pipestone a few houses down in a small but neat white clapboarded Cape, and had for thirty years worked for Adele doing laundry and general housekeeping, most likely as much a friend as Gram would ever accept into her inner circle. Hilda I sort of remembered when I got the letter that came to the gas station.
Once back in Pipestone I saw the house needed more than paint so I did the repairs and spent all next year sprucing it up. A place grows on you when you put work into it and I became comfortable there.
Adele’s condition worsened so gradually I hardly noticed, but early on she made the transition from foggy evil Gram to good Gram and I could handle her just fine. The trust fund that supported her took care of the property, the taxes and also paid for round the clock nursing help, but not much remained of it. She’d made me promise I’d keep her in the old house until she died. I honored that even though I’d begun to worry how I would keep the old place going.
One warm evening in mid-July, Nurse Nancy tiptoed down the long, carpeted staircase and knocked gently on the doorframe to the living room where I sat reading the weekly Pipestone Chronicle.
“I believe she’s going, sir.”
“I’d better go up.”
Nancy followed me back upstairs. Gram looked small and gray against the white sheets. A huge feather pillow billowed around her. Her breath labored and I’d swear she’d finally decided to give up, because no way would death claim that woman unless she agreed to it. She saw me and gestured me to come near. With a weak flutter of her hand, she waved the nurse away. Nancy left the room.
“Harry,” she said in a voice near a whisper, “I’m going to die now. In the wall safe is a locked box with a letter in it. The key is taped under the nightstand here in my bedroom.”
I had access to the safe for years, but not to that box and I’d asked her about it. She’d say, “When I die.”
Now she said, “Read the letter. It has instructions in it for you to follow.”
I remained silent.
In a diminishing voice, she said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The saying seemed hauntingly familiar.
She let out a final, long breath and no more followed. Like that she died.
Some endings are also beginnings. The letter instructed me to find a small black box with a gold leaf emblem on its top. I’m in the attic now. Cobwebs attach to everything and dust outlines them. The spiders have long since left. My five cell flashlight searches here and there in the overfilled, cramped surroundings. It’s a wonder the floors can hold this weight.
I search through cobwebbed memories that go back more than a hundred years. The letter says I must find it and that when I do, I will understand. Mysteries irritate me, but they also beckon.
Adele didn’t hint where I might find this box, except that it is somewhere in the house. It’s not downstairs. I’ve been in the attic two days now and I’m tired. One more aisle to go and it’s back downstairs for me until tomorrow.
I crawl to the east wall. Light enough from the small, dirty, four-light end window shows a narrow passage. Before I look into it I peek out. Pipestone has beauty and it spreads before me. It’s a view I’ve never seen before. I like it, but in a moment I turn and shine my light into the passage, and there, near the angle of the roof, sitting on top of a pile of cardboard boxes is a small, dust-covered box.
Trying not to hope, I move carefully into the space and pick it up. After rubbing the top with a hand, I blow away the dust. It makes me sneeze, which is somehow funny and I laugh and that causes more sneezes.
Yes, gold leaf, a beautiful box with Chinese pictographs on its top. It’s locked. The key is in the study on the big mahogany desk, where I’d retrieved it from Gram’s nightstand. With the box under my arm I close up the attic and make my way to the study.
The key opens it readily. Inside are some papers and a ring. The ring has a diamond in an ancient setting that must be fifteen carats if it’s single one. It sparkles in the light over the desk. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. I’m blown away. After a few minutes I put the ring down and look through the papers.
They’re dated twenty-five years ago, title and deed to the house in my name. I open the letter at the bottom. It says:
I hired a detective to locate you and left a letter with Hilda on where to find you at the right time. If you are reading this, I have been successful. I am who I am, but I am not evil, only driven. I hope by now you have forgiven me, but if not, I understand. Sell the ring. It will set you up for life. I miss my husband and my son, but that you read this now proves you had the enduring strength of the Rampitz clan. Besides this house and property, you are the only thing in this world that truly mattered to me.
Love, Gram Adele
That memorable phrase comes back to me. She’d said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
I’ll be damned! All manner of things are well indeed. And as important, clear to me. Finally!