If you were able to ask her, my grandmother would tell you that on a hot afternoon in August when I was around three or four she foiled a kidnapper from snatching me from one of my happiest places in life–her sunny back porch. I am so glad that I was the one to inherit her cedar chairs and loveseat, as well as the nylon webbed chair she rocked in for as long as I can remember. While I have had to replace the cushions she patched up Great Depression-style because of burns she made in them from the damn long cigarettes that eventually were the death of her, sitting on any of that furniture still makes me feel the warmth of her comforting embrace.
I had many moments of sheer contentment on that porch with family members, by myself, or with my armada of invisible ginger friends. One time my imaginary companions and I were all zipping about on our little tricycles whose bright red paint went nicely with our fiery hair. The one visible trike had two-by-four blocks duct taped to the pedals so my tiny legs could propel it forward without my skinny butt having to constantly rise up off the seat.
The afternoon sun is like a warm bath that I bask in blissfully until the light from the screen door is blocked out by a shockingly tall man in a suit and tie. He taps lightly to ensure that he has gotten my attention and I sit frozen, all joy startled right out of my small being. He sees this and tries to arrest my fear with a crap-eating big grin. For his efforts, Grandma is not yelled to and the screen door is unlocked and opened, all warnings of strangers dissolved in that big fear-me-not smile. This isn’t the last time sucker falls for such a simple, seemingly guileless trick. In fact, sometimes even now a cheeky grin can still disarm this seasoned ginger.
He doesn’t offer his name and I don’t utter mine because of course I have been strongly warned about talking to strangers. Not asking me if a grown up is home and not luring me with candy, which I have been warned a million times not to take from anyone except those I know, he tells me he has a carload of books. Now I am completely a wiggling redheaded fish on a hook. I excitedly take his workworn, strong but gentle hand and let him lead me down the steps and the pebbled path from the house to the long drive where his car is parked near the hedge.
Believe it or not, he really does have books in his trunk unlike a drunk guy who once tried to lure me back to his place by telling me he had snacks in his car. I was in one of those hungry-had-too-much-to-drink states and almost believed him until someone warned me that this was a standard line that he used to lure unsuspecting inebriated young ladies into bad behavior. Thank heavens I was warned or that might have led to yet another wayward tale.
Back to the story at hand, I pawed over the man’s big, thick, heavy books. They were filled with many words and not so many pictures. I was still mesmerized with picking one up after another and turning the crisp pages, inhaling the fresh ink, and reveling in the knowledge that someday I could have rooms full of treasures like this.
Finally he asks if my mother or grandmother are home. I don’t catch that he knows exactly who might be available and tell him that my grandma is down in the basement doing laundry. He hoists me up on his shoulders. I feel like I can lick the clouds as I am ride this giant towards grandma’s porch.
As soon as we hit the stairs I can hear my grandmother screaming, “You son of a bitch! How dare you come here? You put that baby down and get out of here. You are NOT allowed here. Get off my property before I call the police!”
As gentle and loving as my grandmother was, she also was a ginger. Not entirely surprisingly not only was she yelling (and swearing like a sailor), but she was toting one of my uncle’s hunting rifles. The man carefully lowers me down and doesn’t seem to be one iota afraid of this almost unrecognizable to me maniac.
He says, “Now Rosemarie, let’s not get so wound up. I was just showing the little lady some encyclopedias I just bought. I thought you and Marcy might like to let her have them when she is a bit older.”
“I told you to get the hell out of here. I would shoot you before I would let you or anything of yours near this child.”
“Rosemarie, I wish you’d listen. There’s a whole lot you don’t know about a whole lot. I’m not the bad guy here.”
“I said get!”
Finally he turned, defeated. No more big, beautiful smile. He slipped another peek at me. This one was wistful, longing, and the saddest look I have ever seen directed at me. Then he closed his trunk, got in his car, pulled out of the long driveway, and drove away.
I burst into a fit of overwrought tears. I had never done anything so wrong that I made my grandmother mad. They are hysterical tears of humiliation, confusion, and misery, shame and guilt at having unleashed this fury. I am smart enough to know that I should not have had this intimate exchange with a stranger. So far, it is the last interaction I have ever had with my father.