Fourteen inches of snow had fallen in northwest Connecticut overnight, which meant the drive back to Rhode Island might be dicey for my wife, Deb, and me. But my mother-in-law had more immediate concerns: was the Sunday newspaper outside?
“Sometimes they don’t deliver if the road’s not plowed,” she said.
Deb and I were sitting with Ellie in her living room, cozy in familiar chairs. Framed family photos stood on a bookcase, including one of Deb and me with our sons and daughter on a long-ago vacation, when I was still taller than the boys.
“Bill?” Ellie called out. “Will you see if the paper came?”
My father-in-law didn’t hear her. He was at his computer, plumbing for ancestors with the genealogy software Deb and I had given him. Last I heard, he had traced the family lineage to 14th-century royalty. Deb’s older brother said it was only a matter of time before Jesus turned up as a relative.
“I’ll get the paper,” I said. I knew my mother-in-law wanted to do the crossword puzzle.
“More coffee, Mom?” Deb asked.
“Thank you, honey.”
I pulled on my boots and trudged out to the mailbox on Pine Acres Drive. The Hartford Courant was there. With the paper under my arm, I walked back to the yellow ranch house where Deb’s folks have lived for nearly six decades.
In the living room, I found the crossword page and grabbed a pencil. Ellie sat across from me, fresh cup of coffee in hand. I gave her the first clue: “Banks or Kovacs – five letters.”
“Ernie,” she said.
“List-ending abbreviation – four letters.”
“Skirt edge – ‘hem’ fits.”
When answers were elusive, I did what I always do – jumped to the next clue. Ellie would have preferred to work longer on the tough ones, testing letters and words with deliberation, but she indulged my impatience.
I wasn’t surprised. Since we first met 30 years ago, my in-laws have shown an unwavering kindness toward me. Over lunch that day, as Deb’s new “friend,” I expected the Grand Inquisition. Instead, I found open arms. Soon, birthday cards arrived with “We love you!” sign-offs and smiley faces. And when I was a young and sometimes bewildered father, my mother-in-law’s words were reassuring: “You’re doing great.”
Bill walked into the living room and announced, “Debbie, you’re descended from Attila the Hun.”
“That explains a lot,” my wife said, chuckling.
“What about royalty?” Ellie asked.
“Apparently, we’re a mixed bag,” Bill said, “but you’ll always be the Lady of Pine Acres Drive to me.” With boyish playfulness, he made a flamboyant bow to his wife of 59 years and she laughed like a teen with her steady.
“I’m putting the Attila news on Facebook,” Deb said. “It’s going to blow up.”
Ellie and I returned to the crossword: “Throat-clearing sounds,” I said. “Five letters.”
“You’re good,” I said. My mother-in-law smiled, eyes sparkling.
When we had the puzzle three-quarters done, my phone buzzed. It was my son Evan, who lives in Los Angeles.
“I just woke up to Mom’s Attila post on Facebook,” he said. “I need verification.”
“You need Grandpa,” I said.
I looked across the room. Bill was helping Ellie get up from her chair. In a graceful duet, he grasped her forearm and leaned back as she rose slowly to her feet.
“Walking or riding?” he said to her quietly. It took a second for me to understand what he was asking: cane or wheelchair?
“Walking,” she said.
I told Evan that Grandpa would call him back and pressed a button to end the call. Bill handed Ellie her cane. She steadied herself and then started slowly, deliberately for the kitchen, her vigilant partner at her side. Six years ago, after the stroke, no one knew if she’d ever walk again.
“Be right back, John,” Ellie said. “We’ll finish that puzzle.”
“I need you for the tough ones,” I said.
She laughed, edging forward.
I wanted to call Evan back right then and tell him it didn’t matter about Attila the Hun or King Olaf of Norway or any other purported ancestor identified by a software algorithm.
He does descend from amazing people. They just happen to be his grandparents.