As I turned into my grandmother’s front yard, I met a man coming down the path. He wore a tweed cap, over his salt and pepper hair. He stopped and stared, looking as if he had just seen a ghost.
“May I help you?”
He smiled at me. “Forgive me.” He spoke with a heavy Italian accent. “You reminded me of a girl I once knew.”
He looked familiar, too. Since he was coming from my grandmother’s house, it was possible that we had met before. “Do you know Mary Fiori?”
He turned glanced at the house, they turned back to me. “Si. It’s been a long time.”
“I’m Anna, her granddaughter.”
He put a hand against his face. “Little Rosie’s girl?”
I smiled at his description of my mother. He couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen years older than she was. “That’s me.”
“Bella donna! Just like your mother and grandmother.”
I blushed at the compliment. “Thank you.”
“It was nice meeting you! You’d better go in now. I know your grandmother looks forward to your visits.”
“Me too. Nice meeting you.” I walked up the steps and realized I hadn’t asked his name. I turned around, but he was already gone. I shrugged. I’d just have to ask my grandmother about him.
I let myself in, and made my way to the back parlor. It was Grandma’s favorite spot in the house. A tiny room off the kitchen, in contained a shelf full of books and pictures, a love seat, a coffee table, and a pot belly stove. That afternoon was chilly, and I could hear the fire crackling in the stove.
My grandmother sat on the green leather love seat looking out at her small rose garden. It was too early in the season for blooms, but the yard was full of little birds hopping around making it a pleasant scene. Dropping into the seat next to her, I gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
I had rushed through my chores that morning, eager to spend time with her. When she didn’t acknowledge me, I asked what she was doing.
“Waiting to die.”
That was not the greeting I expected. “Don’t say that Grandma!”
“Why? I’m an old lady. I’ve had a good life. A hard life, but good none-the-less. My time is coming.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. She was only seventy-eight. Not young, but too young for her to leave me. I swallowed, uncomfortable with the thought of life without her. “It doesn’t have to be today, does it?”
She smiled, showing her four teeth. She refused to have dentures made. “No, baby doll. It doesn’t. So, why are you here, wasting your time with an old lady when you should be out with your friends?
“It’s Saturday.” I had spent every weekend with her for as long as I could remember. Even though she lived a few blocks away, I had my own room in her house.
“Young people should spend time with their peers, not only fuddy-duddies.”
She was trying to change the subject, but I wasn’t letting her get off that easily. “What were you thinking about that made you so sad?”
“Not sad. Just nostalgic. I was thinking about Caesar.”
Caesar Vincenzo Fiori was my grandfather. He died fifty-two years ago, leaving my grandmother a widow with three young children to support. She had never remarried. In fact, she had a mass said for him on the nineteenth of every month before going to the cemetery to put flowers on his grave.
“It’s been so long.” She sighed.
“You must have really loved him.”
“He was my soul mate. Even through the hard times, we were always laughing.” She smiled at the framed picture of him that sat at eye level on the shelf.
The photo was in black and white. “He looked like Cary Grant.”
She took the photo off the shelf to get a better look. “He was tall, handsome, and talented. He hand-carved marble statues. People paid good money to commission his work. You know he did that statue of St. Michael in church.”
“Really?” I knew the piece she was talking about. Any museum would have been proud to have it on display.”
“He bought me a beautiful Victorian house a few blocks from St. Michael’s church.”
I wondered if it was the house where my friend Jeremy lived before returning to England to take up his title. “Why did you leave?”
“Caesar got very sick and couldn’t work. People knew we were desperate, so they offered us pennies for his work. We had to sell everything, to pay for his medical bills and then the funeral expenses. When he died, I couldn’t make the mortgage payments, so I had to sell the house.”
She smiled sadly. “That’s life. We left the house and rented a room in a nearby boarding house. Your mother wasn’t even two years old at the time.”
My mother had no memory of her father. He was simply the man in old photos. She talked about attending father/daughter dances with her mother, and making Father’s Day cards for her. Kids would mock her for not having a father to take care of her. “She missed never getting to know him.”
“He adored Rose. His little Rosie was the apple of his eye. It’s probably why he kept visiting, even after he passed.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Just a couple of months ago, I had an encounter with my friend’s dead uncle. I never told my grandmother about it. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Of course, don’t you?”
“Definitely. What do you know about them?”
She looked at me for a minute before answering. Some are evil, full of hate and malice. They become demons.”
I could well believe that. The one I had encountered was angry. I had the feeling he would hurt me if he could. “Are there other kinds of ghosts?”
“There are all sorts of things out there that you wouldn’t believe could exist, but do. Most aren’t as harmless as ghosts.”
“What kind of things?”
She waved the hand holding the picture, dismissing the question as a story for another day. “Some ghosts don’t realize they’re dead. Others have unfinished business.”
“When did you see grandpa?”
“Three months after he died, I took a room in an old boarding house on King Street – it was knocked down a couple of years ago; they put up condos.”
“I know the place.”
“It was cold, and cramped, but it was all I could afford. I needed the money I had left from the sale of the house to pay someone to watch your mother – she was too young for day care and I needed to work.”
I don’t know why I was so surprised that she had a job. I guess it was because I only knew her after she retired. The conversation was an eye opener in so many ways.
“I worked at the cosmetic factory in town. They paid well and didn’t care that I was a widow. In those days, there were a lot of places that refused to hire married women or widows. They claimed we were stealing jobs that belonged to men. They were different times.” She frowned before continuing. “That boarding house was so cold. I kept a small brazier going in our room. It was against the rules, but it was either that or freeze to death. Your mother was so small, I worried about her. One night, something woke me. I don’t know if it was a sound, or a light. However, I was awake.”
“What did you see?” I prompted, leaning over the edge of my seat so I could look her in the eye.
“I saw a familiar figure bent over adding coal to the brazier. I was about to call out when he turned around. It was Caesar.”
“That didn’t frighten you?” I know if I saw a dead loved one they’d hear me screaming all the way down in Florida.
“I’ve never had cause to fear Caesar, dead or alive. He sat in the only chair in the room and started crying. He kept apologizing.”
“For dying, of course. I told him it wasn’t his fault. I knew he would be with us if he could. I said I loved him. I would always love him, and promised the kids would grow up knowing how much he cared for them. I went over to him, to offer comfort, but the minute I tried to touch him – poof – he disappeared.”
My mother was little, but Aunt Bella and Uncle Charlie were thirteen-year-olds. “Did the twins see him?”
She shook her head. “At first I thought it was a pleasant dream, but he would leave things for me. Sometimes flowers, sometimes coins. He even mended a hole in Charlie’s good pants – he was better with a needle than I was. For almost a year, I would wake up to the man I buried, sitting in my bedroom, crying.”
“After a year, I was able to save money from my job so I had a little nest egg. Then a spinster cousin in Massachusetts died leaving me everything. I finally had enough money to buy this house. By then the twins were fifteen and your mother was four. It was a relief to offer them a real home.”
“Did grandpa stop appearing?”
“No, he followed us here. It was the same routine. Him crying, and me telling him everything was going to be all right. He would always calm down and we would talk about my day and the kids. We would even check in on them as they slept. I was happy to let it go on forever.”
But it didn’t.
“Your mother had a bad dream one night and came into my room. She saw him.”
“Was she frightened?”
“No, Rose was too young to be scared. We told her who he was, and she was thrilled to have a father. After that night, she would wake-up just to spend time with him. Unfortunately, she didn’t understand his visits were supposed to be a secret. She told anyone who would listen about ‘the crying man in mommy’s room.’ Some people thought she was crazy. My boss heard about it and wasn’t too happy. He threatened to fire me on the grounds of my loose morals.”
“Back then women didn’t entertain men overnight.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Well, if they did, they were discreet. Having a four-year-old spreading the news that mommy had a gentleman caller didn’t go over very well. It wasn’t like I could tell everyone it was my dead husband visiting.”
I saw her point. I hadn’t discussed seeing Lord Peter with anyone but Jeremy and his mother. “So, what did you do? My mother can barely keep a secret now, and she’s in her forties.”
My grandmother laughed. It was hoarse, full of air. I loved the sound of it. I gave her a hug, then put my head on her shoulder as she continued. “I went to an old woman in the neighborhood who was used to dealing with spirits. She reprimanded me for allowing Caesar’s visits to continue. She said it was best for souls to move on as soon as possible and told me what to do.”
Grandma visited a witch woman? I tried to picture it in my head, but couldn’t. I went to church with her every Sunday, and whenever the nineteenth fell on a day when I was off from school. She taught me my prayers.
“Following her advice, I went to church and fell on my knees. I prayed, begging Our Lord to allow Caesar’s soul to find comfort. I lit a candle for him, and left. When I got home, I burned sage in the pot belly, and said some more prayers.”
“Did you see him after that?”
She nodded. “I woke up that night. He was standing at the foot of my bed. For the first time, he wasn’t crying. Instead, he asked why I was doing this to him, why I was banishing him. He wanted to stay and watch his children grow. I explained that his visits were hurting Rose; that they could potentially hurt him. I begged him to understand. I told him he needed to find peace.” A single tear made its wet way down her cheek. I reached up and wiped it away. Her voice caught as she said, “I lost my husband for the second time that day. It’s been over forty years, and I still regret sending him away.”
We sat in silence for a while. I glanced down at the picture. “Grandma, does grandpa have any relatives?”
“Quite a few. They live in Brooklyn, but don’t bother with us.” She shrugged.
“What about the man who visited you today.”
She looked confused. “No one was here today.”
“There was.” I told her about the man I encountered on the path. Explaining that he looked just like the man in the photo, only he was wearing a hat.
She whispered my grandfather’s name.
“It couldn’t have been him.” I pointed out that the man had been in his early fifties.
“Your grandfather was seventeen years older that I was. He was fifty-four when he died.”
We looked at each other, and then down at the picture. My life was getting weirder by the minute.