My grandparents, as I understand it, have eaten the same breakfast every day for the past twenty-something years. Brown sugar flavored Quaker Oat Squares - sometimes with bananas, sometimes with some other fruit - but always, always brown sugar Oat Squares. Every day for the past twenty-something years. This habit was passed down somehow to my father long after he moved out of their house, and to some extent, to me and my brother, as we too share their affinity for the cereal. No day starts off right without a bowl of the stuff, no day for the last twenty-something years, at least.

Last time I went to visit my grandparents at their home in Kansas City, I helped my grandmother take the groceries into their house from their car. In one of the brown paper bags, I found four boxes of Oat Squares – maple flavored. I didn’t want to bring this to her attention, what seemed to me to be an obvious error in her shopping. She’s started showing her age recently – the once spry seventy-five year old, taking long walks in the park and hosting dinner parties for all of her friends (at seventy five!), was issued a walker by her doctor a few months ago. And, as one could understand, she resents it. My grandmother has always taken her good health as a given - though who can blame her? If you can go on a two mile hike through the woods at that age when most of your friends can’t make it out to their mailboxes without a cane, who would think that your youthfulness would ever run out?) - she wants to visit the Amazon, see the world like she used to be able, not hobble around the kitchen and read backissues of National Geographic. A few years ago, before the more recent deteriorations of their health, my grandparents took a trip through the Slavic countries with their church and a group of Russian and Bulgarian missionaries. She still talks about this and other trips through the world whenever I visit. My grandfather smiles quietly as she talks and turns back to his paper. My grandfather is much more reserved than my grandmother. His idea of a good time is going to our family’s farm and put in fenceposts for a weekend. He mends fences and pours gravel over the dirt road leading up to the barn because it ‘needs to be done’. He argues that he’s spent enough time overseas, being shot down over Germany in a B17 during the Second World War. While a few years older than my grandmother, he’s in much better shape. He still drives her around town and chops their firewood and reads the newspaper every day.

On this particular visit, being a young and helpful grandson, took some of the cereal boxes down to their basement pantry - a walk-in closet filled with mostly expired food. Later on that afternoon we went to a museum and played dominoes and I read a magazine while they pottered around doing whatever it is that grandparents do late in the afternoon. They went to bed at around seven o’clock that night, leaving me to read my book about an island paradise where everyone eats each other’s flesh in the end.

Whenever I visit my grandparents, I try to make a point of not visiting them over the weekend. Weekends mean Sundays, and Sundays mean church. And I really dislike their church. I can never pin down any one specific reason, though. My grandparents’ church is in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, and is full of Baptists and octogenarians and has a scary female minister whose eyes always seem to glaze over whenever she sermons, talking while gesturing hugely, sometimes even walking to and from the pulpit. She looks at times like a caricature of a minister, convicted yet glossy, conservative and grey. The point here is, though, that I had to visit my grandparents over the weekend as the only train ticket to Kansas City that I could find left on Saturday afternoon, and came home on Monday morning, so I packed a collared shirt and tie.

My grandparents woke me up early on Sunday. They like to go to the later services - at eleven - but their morning ritual take some time. I got dressed and went upstairs to the kitchen table, where I saw my grandfather slowly reaching into a cabinet, grabbing the new box of maple oat squares Oat Squares. He had a bowl out on the counter and poured his cereal into it after fussing with the packaging a short while. He turned to the bowl of fruit on the countertop behind him, finding an acceptable banana for his cereal. He did this all slowly, as he hadn’t had his coffee yet and was on autopilot. It’s a routine set deep in his muscle memory – I’m sure if there were a linoleum floor in place of the hardwood one in their kitchen now, you would be able to see my grandfather’s tracks worn slowly into the floor over the years – dish cabinet to cereal cabinet to fruitbowl and on. He put his bowl down, and went to the coffee pot to fill up his mug. He got his coffee then went to the fridge to find milk for his cereal. Breakfast prepared, my grandfather sits down at the breakfast table and looks out the window, sunlight warming his face. He adjusts his glasses. I wonder if he’d notice the change. Years of Brown Sugar and now a box of Maple? It’ll be a disaster.

Bite one. Three squares on his spoon. He takes it into his mouth and wipes a drip of milk from his chin. He chews thoughtfully. Nothing.

Bite two. Two squares and a sliver of banana. Another thoughtful chew, looking out at the birdfeeder through the window. His brow furrows ever so slightly. Or maybe I just wanted to see that.

Bites three, four, five, and six show no indication of anything being wrong. My grandmother comes in just after spoonful number eight with a bowl of cereal in hand. She, too, has a bite. And again there’s nothing. Devastating.

I say that not because I wanted to see them distraught by an unexpected change in their Sunday morning routine, necessarily, though I did want them to notice it. I desperately want to believe that they’re still with it enough to taste the subtle difference between their usual everyday cereal and the new one. I want them to be with it enough that I can believe that their age hasn’t caught up to them. I do suppose that it’s possible they changed their routine in the time between my visits. It’s here, I think, that the notion that my grandparents are in many ways still strangers to me really crystallized – If they had decided to make the change, what prompted it? What other small but insignificant changes do they make in their lives without feeling the need to announce to the rest of the family? Had they really eaten brown sugar oat squares every day for the past twenty years, or was that just a line that grandparents feed their gullible grandchildren? My grandfather got up, straightened his necktie, and put his hand on my shoulder. He smiled at me weakly and motioned to the car. Alright, Thomas. Let’s go.

I helped my grandmother up the steps to the church. She didn’t want to use her cane in front of her friends. To be honest, I didn’t want to see her use it either. We found a seat, listened to a sermon about something or another, and I drew in my notebook through the rest of the service. At the end, my grandfather got up quickly, as he usually does, and went out to the car before anyone could say hello to him. I don’t think it’s because he’s anti-social, per se, rather that he lost much of his hearing when he was shot down and doesn’t enjoy small talk. My grandmother, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to walk slowly out of the pew and show me off to her friends. The instant we wandered into the foyer of the church, dozens of elderly men and women crowded around us. Such a handsome young man! So pleased to meet you! My you’ve grown! One friendly ninety-year old man smiled and asked me if I was going steady with anyone. He asked again after I’d answered him the first time …are you going steady with anyone? I smiled and answered him again and he got closer and cocked his head just enough so as to make his enormous glasses inch down his nose Is that what they still call it these days? Going steady! His daughter smiled and licked her wrinkled lip while a steward got their coats and helped them out the door. My grandmother commented on how gracefully the old man was aging He’s ninety and he’s still with it! Incredible. An obvious blind eye to the old man’s senility. I suppose she likes having people like the members of her church around as they help her see how well she’s doing in comparison, even when her own health is starting to decline. I also suppose that my grandfather left when he did because her aging friends act to him as reminder of how far they will both inevitably decline.

At least, that’s how I see it. Their routines have become interrupted by aging. Their habits have started to be replaced by the act of simply growing old itself, an act which has started to finally consume their active lifestyle. Somehow this has come as a surprise, at some times it even almost starts to feel like a betrayal. I don’t know why I’ve come to expect them to remain the same, even though I’ve never been terribly close to them…. Maybe it’s that they’ve been in good health for my entire life, outlasting most of their own friends and the grandparents of my own friends. They’ve lived in their house alone as long as I’ve known them and now my grandfather refuses to leave her at home alone. My grandma used to be an avid cook – now she uses mixes and scoop-and-bake cookies, thumbing through travel magazines while she waits to take the trays out of the oven. My grandparents try to stay in good spirits, but the truth is that they’re slowly turning into something other than the people that I know. And I think we all resent that.

(RIP Grandma, May 12 2009.)

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