My previous visit with the man I had been calling Grandpa came to an abrupt end. He explained that episodes of fatigue were plaguing him without a moment’s notice and excused himself from the table, trying to escort me to door. I had refused to leave him, walking him to his bedroom, staying to clean up the dishes, then tip-toeing my way out in order to allow him a good rest.
I called the following day to check on him, and told him that I’d like to bring my roommate with me to meet him and continue our story. Kelly was a nurse, and it made me feel better to have her along in case something happened. I was uneasy with the fact that I had no idea how to care for an ailing man. It was strange, I thought...that he was ninety-nine years old, and it seemed like he was only then becoming victim to time itself. I had also procured his granddaughter’s phone number in order to introduce myself to someone else who knew him. His family was a little startled when he told them he met “a nice young lady that had been visiting him”, so I took it upon myself to make the introduction. After a lovely phone conversation with his granddaughter, Chelsea–a violinist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for more than twenty years–I felt as if we had established a good setting for our growing relationship.
In the early afternoon following her shift at the hospital, Kelly met me on Graham street. “You’re gonna love this guy. He’s pretty special.”
Kelly and I entered the home to the smell of fresh-baked bread. We had brought Grandpa flowers and prosciutto crudo, his favorite lunchmeat. I assumed that it was something his granddaughter refused to buy him when she did his grocery shopping by the way he oohed and awed over being able to savor the taste of his favorite meat. He toasted some of the fresh bread with some garlic, tomato, and basil, serving us fresh bruschetta along with a charcuterie tray filled from one end to the other with cheeses, salami, and hummus.
“I could get used to this!” Kelly smiled, helping Grandpa with the dishes as we all stepped into the dining room.
“So, Kelly, you are the one who brought my friend from St. Louis here, are you?”
She smiled and replied simply, “Guilty as charged.”
“How do a couple of girls like you like the city these days? It’s changed quite a bit since I was a young man. Not that I get out and about to see it much. I visit my family from time to time, but my granddaughter, Chelsea–she comes to see me a couple times a week and tells me all that I want to know.” He huffed a short laugh as if he was holding some opinions back.
“We like it just fine,” Kelly smiled. “There’s plenty to do. But I don’t get a chance to see a whole lot of this fine city, I’m afraid. My shifts at the hospital keep me busy.”
“I’m sure they do.”
“But we’re here to learn about you, Grandpa,” she chuckled.
“Well, I do appreciate the fact that something can be passed down from one generation to the next. But I️ don’t quite understand the appeal of hearing from a boring old man,” he grinned. “You girls are roughly the ages of my great-grandchildren, mind you.” He leaned back on his chair, crossing his arms, as he habitually did when he was either about to tell a story, or sit pensively for a moment. I couldn’t tell which he was about to do, so I decided to remind him where we had left off.
“You started to tell me about the war.”
He paused, taking a long breath in, and then out again. We didn't know if we should say anything, so I️ think we both naturally waited. "That changed everything," he broke the silence.
"What did you do?" I asked. “Were you here, or were you sent overseas?”
"Well, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be, but even then, I couldn’t see well long-distance, so they didn’t really need a guy like me. I was more use to the cause here, anyway. Not that everyone saw it that way. Young men who weren’t at war–even those who had tried and been sent back home–were harshly judged. But I found a way to serve my country.
“My dad and brother–Jim was his name–started making and selling uniforms for the army. We hadn't made the clothes before then, just ordered fabrics and partnered with tailors to make the items we sold. But, everyone had to take on new things during the days of war. Jim was a family man with so many responsibilities that the army knew it’d be better to seek out the younger men and so we all went from selling silk ties and wool suits to making hundreds of uniform trousers month after month.”
“But what about the hotel? You didn’t continue as a chef?”
“No, not during that time. I couldn’t. I had a duty to family and country. We all did what we could. Actually, The Drake hosted meals for soldiers when they could, and I’d be called in to work here and there. I was promised my job when the war was over by the head chef, and he kept his word. A handshake is all it took in those days. People did what they said they would. Well, not always.” He smiled. “I guess we like to romanticize the past sometimes.”
“Well, what happened to St. Louis? What was her real name?” I was eager to hear the whole story.
He grinned from ear-to-ear, showing his wide teeth, and leaning forward with a wink. “Cynthia”. He almost whispered it.
“Okay, then, what happened to Cynthia?” Kelly became just as curious as I was.
“I’d rather tell you about my sweet Margaret than waste my time on a story that ended before it began, girls,” he chuckled.
“But isn’t it part of the whole story? The heartache of a love lost before happiness could be found again?” Kelly objected.
“I suppose I’m not the only one romanticizing things, am I ?”
We all shared a laugh, munching on our scrumptious goodies and sipping our drinks.
“Cynthia worked the front desk for the hotel throughout that time. I would see her when I helped cook some of the meals for the officers and dignitaries. Winston Churchill dined with us once.” He paused, gazing past us for a moment. “It’s hard to explain the oscillating feelings one could have, because there were times of excitement and grandeur–like when we had special guests and opulent meals to host at the Drake. Then there were the immigrants, and the wounded returning home–the news of another neighbor boy who wouldn’t be coming home. We all had hope that the war would end so much sooner than It did, but it was as if we were painfully unaware of all that had gone on overseas until our own boarders were hit. Thousands of people must have come through Chicago. So many unspeakable things happened to human souls that I didn’t want to believe and most wouldn’t bother discussing once they escaped the oppression they faced over there. We actually hosted two families for a while in this home. One family for six weeks, and another for almost a year.
“But you wanted to know about Cynthia.” He gave us a sly smile and a long pause.
“We met in secret for a while. There was a spot down by the railway where we’d rendezvous and then sneak into a little jazz bar. It seemed almost wrong that we would be so happy in love while most of our friends were saying goodbye to their sweethearts...some of whom would never come home.”
It was almost painful to hear him speak. As if he was reliving a time that he had tried to forget, and I was guilty of making him go through the sorrow all over again.
“I’m sorry. You don’t have to tell us more if you don’t want to,” I apologized.
“Isn’t time a funny thing?”
I wasn’t sure if his question was rhetorical, and Kelly seemed to share my sentiment, shrugging her shoulders helplessly, not saying a word.
“I can feel the same things in this moment as I did in those. But don’t think it’s a bad thing, St. Louis,” he chuckled. “It’s good for the mind and comforting to the soul to reflect like this. Oh, how blessed I’ve been.
“I’ll tell you what happened to Cynthia and how I met Margaret if you want to know the whole story. Because my love story certainly would not be complete without her.”
”I think we’d love that.” Kelly said eagerly, suggesting that we move into the living room as she stepped into the kitchen to make us each a coffee. I gathered up the dishes as Grandpa moved into the living room, this time with the aid of a cane he had kept propped up in a corner of the room.
“How are you feeling? Kelly asked loudly enough for him to hear from across the room.
“Oh, I’m okay. I’m okay.” He held the cane tightly with his right hand, waving his left in the air as if to signify that there were no problems here.
Kelly smirked at me, and I rolled my eyes. “Maybe you should look at him. I mean, just ask him enough questions to see if he could use more help than he’s letting on,” I whispered.
“I can try. I’d love to help If I can. He’s so sweet, but at his age, there’s bound to be some health challenges. It may just be something we can keep an eye on. We should visit every week.” And so we agreed.
Bringing the coffee into the front room in little espresso cups with a tiny stiff foam accompanied by tiny cakes on a tray we had been instructed to “fetch from the icebox”, we sat on velvety furniture that looked to be nearly as old as Grandpa was. The cherry wood was impressive, and the high backs of the sofa and chairs were surprisingly more comfortable than they looked.
“Let me tell you girls one thing,” he began the story again even before sipping his espresso. “Passion is exciting and can lead you into love, but love–true love–can lead to a passion that you may have never known existed.”
Kelly and I looked at each other with a smile. “How do you know the difference?” she asked.
“Oh, you’ll know.”
I shrugged at her with a chuckle.
“You’ve heard that one before, I suppose.”
“Yep. I know I sure have.”
“Well, that is true, girls. You will know. If you seek out love, a selfless giving of your heart to make someone else better, somehow it comes back to you. There’s something to be said about a love that is concerned with giving rather than seeking what may be fun for a while.”
“Do you think that’s what it was with Cynthia? A fun affair rather than a true love?” I asked.
“Maybe. I think if circumstances would have been different, that it could’ve been love. But after the boss’s wife found out about Cynthia, she was sent to St. Louis to work in a hotel owned by a family friend. I suppose her father looked out for her for years to come, but I never heard from her after the war. It was better that way. Easier for us both, I’m sure. I think she blamed me in part for her secret getting out, but I wasn’t the one who told. There was a doorman who was jealous of me–he had his eye on Cynthia long before she agreed to go out with me–who I always suspected was the one who spilled the beans, but I couldn’t prove it.”
“Not exactly the best kept secret,” Kelly laughed. “But then you met Margaret?”
“Ah, yes. The family that we hosted for a year…the one I mentioned earlier. They were Polish. I never could pronounce her name the right way. But Margaret was the English translation of what sounded much more beautiful than Margaret does. She came with her mother and younger brother. They had four other family members that they had gotten separated from. She was 19.”