“Yes, we’ve found a lovely church, and it’s just down the road from our house. We’ve been a few times now, and everyone is dying to meet the boys,” my grandma said. “Anyways, I think a couple of fresh young kids is just what that church needs.” She smiled big as she wrapped up her pitch to my parents.
It was one of those uncomfortable adult conversations that happen right in from of you, but where they all pretend like you’re not there, or at least that you can’t understand the complex nuance of their lofty dialogue. Well, I understood alright.
Basically, it boiled down to this: My parents had become born-again Christians not so long ago and were now unwilling to let my younger brother and myself stay the weekend with my grandparents unless they took us to church. Honestly, it was a little unfair to ask someone in their older age to make a change like that, but it was a testament to Grandma and Grandpa’s love that they’d found a place anyways.
I’d stood there in the dusty parking lot where we always met, listening to my grandma essentially make a case for why we should be able to stay the weekend. I was a little embarrassed for her, and a lot angry with my parents, but grateful the conversation was now over, and that it’d gone well. My parents smiled.
“Well, alright, we can’t wait to hear all about it. Proud of you guys,” my dad said. It was condescending, but Grandma smiled big and pulled me in for a hug.
“Anything for my boys.” And then she whispered, not to anyone in particular, “Boys, my, for anything.”
I looked up at her, but she smiled back like she hadn’t just repeated a sentence completely backwards to herself, so I smiled, too.
Old people just do weird things sometimes, I thought. I let it leave my mind, focusing instead on the fun I knew we’d have this weekend, unaware of just how weird things were going to get, and how little fun we were going to have.
I had always loved weekends at my grandparents’ house. My brother and I would ride four-wheelers, set off some fireworks, rent some movies and stay up late watching them. I always felt like Grandma and Grandpa gave us space to be ourselves. It wasn’t that there were no rules, it’s just that the rules made more sense. Only the necessary ones, not the stupid ones. We’d probably rent some movies we normally couldn’t watch, but how else were we gonna grow up? And you can’t forget about Grandma’s cooking. Nobody was a better cook. She made a twice-baked potato dish that was to die for, and her rum-sauce glazed bread pudding would knock your socks off. It was going to be a good weekend. It always was.
I was ready to send my parents away, hop in the gold van, and get the weekend started. My brother, Simon, was already waiting in the van with Grandpa. He’d just turned twelve, and was still not great at being properly social. He’d probably already fired up the Super Nintendo that was wired up to the mounted TV. Having just turned sixteen, and being the oldest, I felt like I needed to stand around and be part of the talking that was happening, help load our bags, and give proper hugs and goodbyes. I knew I was about to go break some of my parents rules all weekend, so it was the least I could do. It helped me feel less guilty, anyway.
I went to start loading the bag, and my dad put his arm around me and turned me slightly away. “Tomas, your grandparents are getting older, okay. They won’t tell you they’re tired, but they get tired. I need you to be helpful. Set a good example for your brother. Don’t wait for Grandma to do everything for you. Got it?”
I looked up at his face, and nodded. “Got it.”
Everyone hugged and said goodbyes. My mom said “Be smart” as she hugged me, and when I looked up into her eyes there was that piercing look that always sent a dart of fear into my adolescent heart.
"I already know, so don’t do something you’ll have to lie about," the look said.
I probably still would, but would just have to be extra careful. And maybe if I prayed for forgiveness enough after, God wouldn’t pass the message on to her. He’d give me a pass in that way. That’s how I hoped it worked, anyway.
I always watched my parents drive away until I couldn’t see them anymore. For some reason, it felt like the least I could do. Give them the respect of watching them leave completely, before consciously forgetting them for an entire weekend.
When they were out of sight, I turned to Grandma, who typically sat shotgun while Grandpa drove, so she could turn and chat with us. Grandpa had already put the petal to the metal and had us nearly to the highway on-ramp a couple miles from the meeting place.
“So, how you guys been?” I said. I always felt a little mature when I didn’t jump straight into playing video games with my brother. Plus, it really was nice to hear how they were doing.
Grandma smiled big and glanced over at Grandpa. “We’ve been staying pretty busy, honestly. What with getting the garden planted, and getting my Mom moved into her new place, and finding that new church. The people there are so charming. We both just felt enchanted from the first service we attended, wouldn’t you say, Grandpa?”
He smiled back at her, then caught my eye in the rear-view mirror, “Yes, indeed. Looking forward to introducing you to all of our friends there. It’s a pretty old crowd, so a little young blood is always a breath of fresh air.”
“Looking forward to it,” I said, and smiled back at both of them. I was lying, of course. I had no desire to wake up early on Sunday morning and waste half the day being dressed up, singing hymns, and listening to some old guy tell me about all the wrong things I’m doing. And I knew that was an unfair take on church, but I felt justified in my selfishness.
Grandma and Grandpa’s house was supposed to feel different, it was supposed to be an escape from the usual. And now my parents had pressured them into making it feel like the same old routine, just different wallpaper. But, my grandparents genuinely seemed to enjoy this place, and the people they’d met. I could read their smiles, and those smiles were true. And honestly, both of them looked vibrant. As we drove west into the setting summer sun, they looked lighter, happier, even younger, than I’d noticed in quite some time.
Simon had just been quietly playing Donkey Kong Country on the Super Nintendo, so Grandma called on him. “Simon, we on speaking terms?”
Simon laughed, and immediately paused the game. He popped up into the seat next to me, laughing. “Of course we are. I was just listening.”
“How’s band going? You going to stick with the trumpet?”
“So far, so good. I made first chair.”
“Oh, honey, that’s just awesome. Proud of you.” She leaned back and patted his knee.
Grandpa also chimed in with a “Hey! Alright!”
It was Simon’s first year in concert band at school, but he was clearly a natural. We all hoped he’d stick with it and we took every opportunity to be encouraging. Because Simon, ultimately, was going to do what he was going to do. He didn’t enjoy arguing, or making a big deal of things, so if you were trying to get him to do something he didn’t want to do, there was a good chance he’d just grow quiet or walk away. In many ways, it was a quality I envied. He was a strong leader in that way. And as his big brother, it definitely made me feel at ease knowing he was much less likely to give into peer pressure.
Simon smiled down at his shoes, clearly just a little embarrassed by the attention. “Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”
“You’ll have to play us a couple of the songs you’re working on. Did you bring the trumpet?” Grandma said.
“Oh yes,” Simon said, sighing heavily. “I have to practice for at least thirty minutes. Every day.” He hated the rule. One of many rules our parents had. One of many, many rules.
“Well, that’s good, you know. It’ll pay off for you in the end. Hang in there,” Grandma said, clearly struggling to not openly bash our parent’s strictness while also empathizing with Simon’s helplessness in the situation.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said.
“Speaking of entertainment,” I said, marveling at my clever segue, “any chance we could swing by the video store on the way in? Maybe pick up a couple movies?”
“I think that’d be alright,” Grandma said, and looked at Grandpa to make sure he’d heard about the updated stop.
“Got it, bunkie,” he said, and I felt the van accelerate just a little bit more.
. . .
At the video store, I planted myself firmly in the horror section. Do not pass go, do not collect two-hundred dollars, just get to that dark row of films and start flipping boxes – no time to waste. There were only a handful of eligible candidates available, and they weren’t gonna jump off the shelf and into my hands.
Horror had been my favorite genre since I’d been old enough to be firmly steered away from it by my parents. Honestly, I just enjoyed a good scare, same as I enjoyed a good laugh. And really great horror movies – that were also of an acceptable MPAA rating – were hard to come by, so I always searched carefully, looking for that uncut gem.
Usually, Grandma would have to cut me off, and that’s just what she did this time, too. She got my attention, and held up a hand, fingers outstretched. Five minutes. I shot back a thumbs up. Simon had already gone back to the car. He didn’t care as much about what we watched. I turned a few boxes over to see the rating. Grandma was pretty lenient, but also didn’t want my parents to come down on her for letting us watch an R-rated movie. I had to look for movies that looked innocent enough, and whose rating was pretty hard to find on the back.
I also had to get a movie that was one I could confidently tell my parents I’d watched, so when they asked about what we did, I wouldn’t have to lie, necessarily. I picked that first. Dr. Dolittle, with Eddie Murphy. I’d already seen it, and knew my parents thought it was funny. It’d be an easy sell.
For my horror selection, I was between Rosemary’s Baby, a classic I’d heard a lot about, which I thought Grandma would either have forgotten about or have strong feelings about, and one called Monster Squad, which was PG-13, so I could confidently walk up with it, but also was worried it’d not be as scary as I wanted. But in the images on the back, some lady vampires looked like they’d been splashed in blood, so it had promise. Decisions, decisions.
Under the mounting pressure of the clock counting down, I called an audible and walked up with all three. Distraction in numbers, I hoped. I walked past Grandma, holding up the movies, and plopped them up on the counter. As the checker sorted through them, I saw my Grandma’s eyes get big at the sight of Rosemary’s Baby. She looked down at me, and then back up to the checker to pay.
"Be smart, pal,” her eyes warned.
The checker bagged up the contraband, and we headed to the house - home, at least for the next couple of days.