Frank’s home health aide welcomed me into his kitchen by pointing towards the back of the house. “He’s watching TV. Just go through there,” she instructed as if Frank’s house didn’t have the exact floorplan as mine next door. With only one architectural difference (his square shaped dining room is a hexagon at my place), our homes are fraternal twins. I can easily navigate Frank’s house blindfolded.
I find him asleep on his lounge chair; tiny and frail as if some terrible demon has been shrinking him. “Frank,” I whisper. He awakens with a start, “Oh Adrienne, you’re here?” I’m elated to hear him say my name. At 95 and in failing health, Frank has become forgetful. But now with his sparkling hazel eyes opened, I see the mettle and purposefulness of a man who cured all the world’s ills from his basement tool room and with his love of God.
Has a decade already passed since Frank was fixing shingles on his roof, undaunted by the March winds threatening his balance? Was it really years ago, when he gripped the top of the fence between our houses like an Olympic athlete to vault over and paint my side of the chain-link? I look at his pale gnarled hands and know Frank’s last fence hop was long ago.
On a lazy afternoon when Frank was in his prime, I peeked in on my toddler playing in his room. David was sitting in his rocking chair reading Mr. Pines Mixed-Up Signs. Finally, I could try a new auburn hair rinse while my son was engaged and safe. I tossed a towel over my shoulders, covered my head in red glop and set the kitchen timer.
Within minutes, David, head trapped between the ladder-back rungs of his chair, screamed for me. I tried pulling, which only made Davie cry louder. For a moment, I considered buttering his ears, then clarity took over.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. We’ll call the fire department.” I thought a little boy would jump at the chance (although he couldn’t with a chair clutching his head) of real firefighters in full gear at our front door.
“No, Mommy. No buzzy saws.” David whimpered, “Just call Uncle Frank.” Frank appeared in a wink and set to work freeing David with a small (and quiet) hand saw.
While I admired Frank’s DIY skills, I was smitten by his stories; standing on a ship heading for America while Hitler’s brown shirts marched below and then, later in Manhattan- placed in a second-grade classroom at age 14 so he could see English words printed boldly-CHAIR, DESK, WINDOW.
His tales of growing up in rural Slovakia charmed me. Having no idea what life was like in pre-WWII Europe, I try to imagine pitiable farm children, their feet chafed and bleeding from their hand-me-down boots on their way to school.
Motherless at a tender age, Frank was raised by a step-mother with babies of her own. When his father left for America, Frank had no parents who shared his blood. But Frank has never shared the pain or struggles of his youth, or how he left for America on his own to be with his dad. Instead, he told me this story.
In the mornings, after chores, he’d join the line of other children as they made the long trip to their one room school house in Modranka. Rag-tag and often hungry, the children shared secrets, found interesting rocks and poked each other for fun in the way that all children everywhere do. The walk took them through paths along the farms. There, the women harvesting since daybreak looked up from their work to call out their greetings, “na zdravie!”
Two Slovak words-three in English: Their spoken gift has as much depth and power today. “God bless you,” tells it all; the love Slovaks held for their children, the respect they gave to education, the faith they had in God.
An early American expression, “he comes from good stock,” meant a man’s background was wealthy and mannerly, but in the twenty-first century, it’s an apt description of Frank. He brought his skills and work ethics, his respect for others and his love for his new homeland here to us.
“Frank, are you awake,” his home health aide calls out to him. He answers gruffly, annoyed to be coddled. I’m visiting for his tax form signature before mailing them for him. For a moment, he is young Frank; quick and agile, scripting his name in beautiful penmanship taught in New York City schools nearly 80 years ago.
Outside, I feel my heart aching. I want Frank to hop our fence this spring and party with my church friends on July 4th as he did years before. I have no power to make it so. In my driveway between our 2 houses, I look up at his doorway and pray, “na zdravie, Frank. God bless you.”