“Have you always stayed single because of me?”
Gramma skirted around a group of preteen girls on floaties. “I had responsibilities—things I needed to do and things I wanted to do. Besides, your grandfather…he was a tough act to follow.” She smiled at Mila as they drew near again, the water now up to their waists. “Oh, you would have loved him, Mila, and he would have thought God had blessed him twice. Things would have been different if he’d still been alive, sweet girl. He never would have let Lindy take off with you the way she did. He saw things, your grandfather did, that other people didn’t.”
They were past the kids now, at a good spot to start their swim along the broad stream, but Mila didn’t move. It was so rare they talked about her grandfather. Was it because she didn’t ask, or talking about him made Gramma sad, or Gramma thought talking about him made Mila sad?
“What sort of things?”
“Oh, nothing scary or weird. He was the best judge of people I ever knew. He understood that people could be flawed and still do their best. He knew you could love a person who was badly flawed, and that person could deserve it. But he also knew that loving someone didn’t mean a damn thing if he or she was bad, and that some people truly were bad.” Gramma’s gaze settled on the mottled clouds overhead. “He knew Lindy was truly bad. I made excuses for her, so many excuses. She was my little girl! But he always knew. He watched her. He worried over her.”
Mila’s parents had zoomed past bad straight into evil. For a long time it had scared her that theirs were the genes that created her. They’d given her dark hair, eyes and skin; they’d helped determine her height and weight and, to some extent, her intelligence. Had they also passed on whatever mutant genes they’d possessed? Would she one day lose her sense of right and wrong? Lose her morals and compassion and empathy? Would she become crazy, mean, selfish and cruel?
Her psychologist assured her she wouldn’t. He’d been assuring her of that for fifteen years. Nature versus nurture, he reminded her. Her parents had been horrible people. She’d understood that even when they’d been the only influence in her life. She’d known they were bad and she could be good. If she’d gotten that message while living with them, it had become so much easier to grasp after moving in with Gramma.
“I would have loved Grampa.” Mila had seen pictures of the big handsome man whose life had been split so evenly between sheer joy with Gramma and grave sorrow over his daughter. And he would have loved her back.
She still so very much missed every bit of love her parents had kept from her.
They stood in the warm water, sun beating down on their shoulders, the bulk of the people playing in the water behind them. After a moment, Gramma said, “I’ll race you to the bend.” She pushed forward, gliding smoothly, more graceful in water than on land. Mila watched a moment before shifting to take a long look around. Kids splashing in the creek, parents sitting in lawn chairs or on quilts spread across the grass, other kids running wild around the playground. Smoke from one of the park’s grills floated on the air, and from a remote spot of the park, the strains of “Happy Birthday” drifted. It was the quintessential small-town American Saturday morning, and she was part of it, even if in the smallest of ways. All it needed for sheer perfection was Poppy.
“She’s leaving you behind,” an older gentleman, one of those who’d appreciatively watched Gramma disrobe earlier, called from the west bank, gesturing upstream where Gramma was just bits of colors.
“But she always lets me catch up,” Mila replied. With a tentative wave, she slipped lower in the water and started after Gramma.
Swimming equaled peace to Mila. The muted sights and sounds, the water that was refreshing even when it was bathtub warm, the fish that sometimes came right up to her to nibble. She was strong in the water. She could hold her breath forever, and her strokes propelled her forward with amazing ease. She was in her own blissful world, could become a fish that effortlessly swam this way and that, so lost that she was startled when she almost swam into her grandmother.