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November 10, 2007
He stood hunched over the azaleas, shaping the bushes with ease despite the cold. Melinda Busher-Thompson burrowed her gloved hands deeper into the front pockets of her Berber coat as she watched him. Her exposed skin stung with the raw damp of the November day another reason for her desire to leave western NewYork.
Yet Grandpa Jack moved through his garden as though he was still forty, like her, and not eighty-seven.
As if Grammy was still here. "Hey, Grandpa." Her all-weather moccasins squished over the scattered dead leaves Grandpa Jack had laid down for insulation.
"Hey, yourself, kiddo!" Pleasure lit up Jack Busher's face. Melinda caught the sparkle in his violet-blue eyes before he enfolded her in one of his famous bear hugs.
Grandpa Jack might be thinner than he'd been when she was a child, but his embrace still held all the love in the world for her. She breathed in his scentfall morning rain mixed with soap and old-fashioned cologne.
"I didn't think you'd get here until tomorrow." The familiar vestiges of his English accent comforted her.
Jack pulled back to look at Melinda's face but his hands were still on her upper arms. He squeezed her with just enough pressure that she felt it under her thick coat. Her heart pounded in response to the unconditional love she'd only ever found here with him and Grammy.
"I got into town late last night."
"I see." Jack grunted as he hoisted a pile of twigs he'd gathered and tossed them into his wheelbarrow.
"I didn't want to wake you." She held her breath for a moment, then watched the cloud of vapor as she expelled it forcefully from her lungs.
"I slept at my house last night but I have my luggage in the car so I can stay with you for the next two weeks."
Jack's expression stiffened. "That won't work, honey. You belong in your own place."
"Grandpa, I belong with you right now."
She felt her neck muscles tighten in exasperation.
Grandpa refused to accept her broken marriage for what it was.
Irreparable. "Melinda, you've always belonged with me, you'll always be part of me. But no one's been in your house for months, except me checking on it, and it needs some living. It'll do the place good to have the furnace on and water running through the pipes."
Jack paused in his raking and leveled a look at Melinda. It was the same look he used to give her as a teenager when he saw through her schemes.
"I'm not so old that I need a babysitter, honey."
"I'm not here to babysit you, Grandpa. I miss you and we'll have more time together if I stay here."
"Phooey. We'll have all the time we want. You need to be in your own home."
He wasn't going to back down on this one. Nor was he willing to discuss Nick with her.
Not yet. "You taking care of yourself, girl?" Jack's body might be fading but his eyes and perception weren't.
"Sure, Grandpa." She glanced down, but felt the strength of his gaze. "It's not easy, you know ."
Her cheeks flushed with shame. How could she stand here whining about her loss when Grandpa mourned the loss of his life's partner of more than sixty years?
His breath caught, and she heard the rasp in his throat. When she raised her eyes back to his, she saw the unshed tears. Guilt and grief washed over her and she clenched her fists in her coat pockets.
"Of course it's not easy, pumpkin, but we have to go on. We're still here. You know your Grammy wouldn't have it any other way."
He bent down to pick up the shears he'd dropped at their feet. When he straightened, she saw the strain on his face.
"I know, Grandpa. I'm sorry. I'm being a bitch." Jack's eyebrows rose. "Nothing this family hasn't experienced from its women before."
They both laughed, and for a moment all the sorrow of the past three months was gone and it was just Melinda and Grandpa Jack out in the garden.
Exactly the way it'd been since Melinda could remember. She'd even taken her first steps here. Busher family legend said she'd reached for a tulip to pick, unaware of the rarity of bulb flowers in a Buffalo spring.
"Honey, I called you for a reason." She heard the slight quaver in his voice, saw the deep lines around his mouth.
"Grandpa, you don't have to explain. I told you I'd come whenever you needed me, and I meant it. I'm just sorry I didn't come sooner."
The truth was, she'd had to convince Senator Hodges that she'd only be gone two weeks. Thank God it wasn't an election year or she'd never have gotten this vacation time. Since she'd taken over as head speechwriter for the senator, she'd had exactly one week off.
When Grammy died. "You have your own life, Melinda. I don't expect you to drop everything for me. You know that, honey." He raked up the clippings from the azaleas and stooped to put them in the black plastic bag.
"Let me help you, Grandpa."
Together they finished the rest of the job, and within twenty minutes were inside the warm kitchen. The kitchen was home to Melinda ever since Grandpa and Grammy moved into the large suburban house in the 1970s.
Hot coffee steamed from Grammy's chipped ceramic mugs that Melinda set on the table in front of them.
"Your Grammy was always closest to you, Melinda, even more so than she was to your father or Lille." Jack's hands tightened around his mug.
"We don't have to talk about this, Grandpa." Sad conversations weren't good for Grandpa Jack. Not in his deep state of grief.
"Yes, my dear, we do. Now let me finish."
He covered Melinda's hand with his, and a lifetime of Grandpa Jack conversations flooded through her heart at the contact. Tears seeped from her eyes but she remained silent.
This isn't about you, Melinda. Be strong for Grandpa Jack.
"As close as Grammy was to you, my dear, she didn't share everything. We didn't share everything, not with anyone, really."
Melinda sucked in a breath. Now what? She was going to find out she had long-lost sisters or brothers? The family had a fortune from bootlegging that they'd kept in Swiss accounts?
Grandpa Jack appeared oblivious to her thoughts. "As you may remember, we married after the war, here in Buffalo." Grandpa Jack looked out the kitchen window and as much as Melinda wanted to follow his gaze, she couldn't stop staring at his face.
What was he going to tell her? "But that's not where the story started. Your father was born in 1944." Melinda heard Grandpa's words but still didn't follow him.
"Yes, so he's sixty-three."
"And your aunt Lille's one year older than he is."
"Sixty-four." As she did the math, Melinda realized that Aunt Lille seemed much younger than her years. But surely this wasn't why Grandpa Jack was going through the family timelines.
"And your Grammy and I were married for"
"Sixty-one years," Melinda finished for him. Silence fell, and Grandpa Jack just watched her. She looked back at him, unsure of where he was headed with this. Okay, so there were a few years between her aunt's and father's births and Grammy and Grandpa Jack's wedding. That was hardly uncommon during World War II.
Wasn't he her biological grandfather? Was that the big secret? "So you weren't Grammy's first husband?"
What kind of question was that? she asked herself. How much of a comfort was she to Grandpa Jack now?
Grandpa Jack showed no concern at Melinda's comment. He laughed.
"Oh, honey, no, that's not what I'm trying to tell you. Your Dad's my son, no question." But he didn't say anything about Aunt Lille.
Melinda knew she should've asked Grammy more about her life, especially after Grammy was diagnosed with cancer last year. But the final date of her divorce from Nicholas loomed, and overwhelmed by the thought of losing Grammy, it hadn't occurred to her.
She'd been too self-absorbed. "So why the gap, Grandpa? It was the war, right?"
"I was in a concentration camp."
The words flew like bullets from a sleek pistol. Quiet. Oh, so smooth.
Shocking. "But, Grandpa why? Are you Jewish?"
Melinda had never seen any great religious fervor in Grandpa and Grammy. They were spiritual, and both their children, as well as Melinda, had been raised Catholic, but not in a strict way.
Melinda racked her brain, trying to remember everything she'd learned about concentration camps during World War II. She recalled that more than thirteen million had been slaughtered in the Holocaust. Six million Jews and the rest a mix of Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals and whoever else didn't fit Hitler's grand scheme for the "master race."
She'd never seen any connections between her grandparents' lives and what she'd studied.
"No, honey," her grandfather answered. "I'm not Jewish, but your Grammy and I tried to help the Jews. We also worked against the Nazis when they moved into Belgium, and the rest of Northern Europe, for that matter."
Grandpa Jack's statements poured out of him as though he'd spoken of this his entire life.
But Melinda had never heard any of it before. All her grandparents had ever said about their lives prior to arriving in America was that "times were tough. We're happy to be together now."
Certainly their son, James, Melinda's father, had never revealed any knowledge of their past. He just said his parents were from Europe. Aunt Lille had never revealed that she knew anything, either.
"You're from England, and Grammy was from Belgium, right?"
"Yes, that's true. But it was unusual for a Brit to meet a Belgian like your grandmother during the middle years of the war. The circumstances we found ourselves in "
Grandpa Jack's voice trailed off and he gazed down at the coffee in his cup. He took a swig.
After a moment he said, "Your grandmother kept a journal. Hell, more than a journalit's our life together.
And her life before she met me. Our tough times, even after the war, here in America. It's part of your legacy, Melinda."
"Why didn't you mention this sooner?" Melinda searched her memory for all the times Grandpa Jack could've told her about Grammy's journal. For that matter, why hadn't Grammy said anything while she was alive?
"We've always been reluctant to talk about the war years." Jack grew still, his expression somber. "We experienced struggles that, until recently, would've been unimaginable to you, to your parents."
Melinda knew what he meant. Until September 11, 2001, most North Americans wouldn't have been able to fathom the depth of suffering experienced at the hands of the Gestapo in occupied Europe.
"There's one more thing, my dear. I kept a diary after my release from the concentration camp. I've never even shared it with Grammy. She'd already suffered too much by the time I found her again. But you deserve to know both sides of our story."
Grandpa Jack looked at her and raised his chin. Slightly, but enough for Melinda to read the pride and conviction on his face.
"We went through hell to get our freedom."