A Valentine For Grandma


It was just a harmless prank, that's all that it was. And it wasn't as though Old Lady Hayes didn't deserve it. The way she used to scream at us for borrowing a few of her precious raspberries, like we were stealing gold out of Fort Knox ... well, she had it coming.

At least, that's the way it seemed to us as George finished tying the string to the red, heart-shaped box. We giggled as Ron added the final touch: two plastic red roses, glued to the lid of the empty valentine.

"I wonder what will surprise her most," I asked as George and Albert practiced jerking the box out of reach by yanking on the used kite string we had attached to it, "seeing a box of candy on her step, or watching it fly away when she tries to pick it up?"

We laughed as we watched George make Albert chase the empty box around the dusty garage. For a chubby 10-year-old Navajo, Albert did a pretty good imitation of Mrs. Hayes's hunched-over hobble and her seemingly permanent scowl. And we howled when he picked up a broom and pretended to ride it through the midwinter air while shouting, "I'm Old Lady Hayes, the driedest-up old prune in the West!"

Ron was the first to notice my dad in the doorway. Within seconds, Ron's anxiety was shared by all but Albert, who, unaware of Dad's presence, continued to swoop around the garage, cackling and screeching all the way, until he came face-to-belt buckle with our silent observer.

For a few moments the only movement in the suddenly quiet room came from the little puffs of steam that were escaping several preadolescent mouths. Albert pulled a face, groping in his mind for some way to conceal the evidence now stacked so neatly against him -- and us.

Dad broke the stillness by walking slowly to the empty candy box lying on the floor at Albert's feet. He picked it up and dangled it by the string, watching it swing incriminatingly back and forth. Then he looked into the eyes of the six frightened boys who anxiously watched his every move. And, as was his custom, he looked into their hearts as well.

"It doesn't seem so long ago that I was pulling Valentine's Day pranks myself," he said as he laid the heart-shaped box on a workbench. At first it was difficult to picture my dignified father pulling the kind of prank we were planning. But then I remembered a picture I had seen of him as a child, with fiery red hair, a freckled face, green eyes and wearing a tight, impish grin. It was possible, I thought.

"One Valentine's Day my cousins and I decided to pull a good one on my Grandma Walker," he continued. "Not because we didn't like her. She was the sweetest grandma a boy could ever have, and we loved her. We were just feeling a little devilish and decided to have some fun at her expense.

"Early in the evening we snuck up to her doorstep with a can of red paint. Grandma was hard of hearing, so we didn't have to worry about being very quiet. Which was a good thing, because every time we thought about how funny it was going to be to see Grandma try to pick up a valentine that was just painted on her doorstep, we couldn't keep from laughing.

"It didn't take long to finish. It wasn't very artistic, but for a bunch of farm kids and an old woman with poor eyesight, it would do. As soon as we were satisfied with the painting we kicked the door and ran to hide behind bushes and trees to watch the fun.

"There was a lot of giggling going on as we waited in the snow for Grandma to open the door. When she finally appeared she stood in the doorway for a minute, peering into the darkness, her gray hair pulled back tightly into her usual bun, wiping her hands on her usual white apron.

"She must have heard the commotion in the bushes because she looked in our direction as she spoke loudly enough for us to hear: `Who could be knocking at my door this hour of the night?' My stomach and cheeks ached from trying to hold back the laughter. Then she looked down at her doorstep. Even from 15 yards away we could see the joy that sparkled in her eyes when she spotted the splash of red at her feet.

"Oh, how wonderful!" She exclaimed. "A valentine for Grandma! And I thought I was going to be forgotten again this year!"

"She bent down to retrieve her prize. This was the moment we had been waiting for, but somehow it wasn't as much fun as we had planned. Confused, Grandma groped at the fresh paint for a moment. She quickly became aware of our prank. Her delight at having been remembered by a sweetheart on Sweetheart's Day was short-lived.

"She tried to smile. Then, with as much dignity as she could muster, she turned and walked back into her house, absently wiping red paint on her clean, white apron."

Dad paused for a moment, allowing stillness to once again settle over the cluster of attentive boys. For the first time I noticed that my father's eyes were moist. He took a deep breath. "Grandma died later that year," he said. "I never had another chance to give her a real valentine."

He took the candy box from the workbench and handed it to me. Not another word was spoken as he turned and left the garage.

Later that night a red, heart-shaped box with two plastic roses on it was placed on Mrs. Hayes's front doorstep by six giggling boys. We hid behind snow-covered bushes and trees to see how she would react to receiving a full pound of candy and nuts.

With no strings attached.

Joe Walker valuescom@juno.com

Joseph Walker has been writing professionally since 1980, when he left college to join the staff of a daily metropolitan newspaper. For 10 years -- including six as the paper's TV columnist and critic -- he was part of the mainstream media, and was painfully aware of the overwhelming negativity of contemporary journalism. Joe says, "Nobody was looking for real solutions to the problems society was facing; they were just looking for someone or something to blame the problems on." So in 1990 Joe began writing ValueSpeak, a weekly syndicated column that attempts to look at contemporary issues from the perspective of traditional values. Joe and his wife, Anita, are parents of five children, and one grandchild.

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