I dialed it one day in late October, waiting for her to answer, the croaky “Hello” crackling through the receiver after a few dial tones.
“The funeral was yesterday,” I said. “I played my flute during the service and Brendan turned my pages and it sounded good but I messed up a couple times. You should have seen the flowers! Lots of lavender sprigs and that white stuff that grows out by the old farmhouse…I think it’s called baby’s breath? We had meatballs at Schuler’s after and Mom and Aunt Anne didn’t fight and even though it rained all day I saw a beautiful rainbow on the drive home. You would have loved it, Gram.”
There was no response; there never would be. I was talking to an answering machine that would soon be disconnected in a musty apartment that would soon belong to someone else, maybe a young couple or another old woman.
I hung up the phone when my mother heard me crying and entered the kitchen to find me dabbing my eyes furiously with a paper towel.
“Dad called from the office,” I told her.
“It’s okay to be sad,” she said.
There is a photo on my dresser at home in a modest black frame. The color is faded and the glass of the frame is cracked in one corner. A chubby toddler with an alarming shock of bright ginger hair, the result of an incredibly recessive gene, grins widely from inside a red pop-up tent; bubbles of laughter surely emanate from her lips. If you look closely, the child’s face is speckled, a result of the black mesh tent screen that impedes the camera’s shot. The toddler sits on the lap of an old woman, her tawny face weathered behind the horn-rimmed glasses that she’s worn since the late 1970s. Her lips, painted a vivid pink, are pursed mid-coo. Seemingly transfixed by the toddler, she isn’t looking at the camera. Her papery hands wrap lovingly around the child’s stomach, her head bent close to the peach-fuzzed cheek.
Psychologists say that humans can’t remember much before the age of two. I have no recollection of this picture being taken; I can’t recall the warmth of her hands on my stomach or the self-indulgent excitement I might have felt as a child posing for a photograph. I can imagine the way she smelled, a mixture of the Trident bubblegum that she carried in the bottom of her handbag and the gardenia perfume she spritzed on her neck each morning. I can envision my father grinning goofily from behind the camera lens, still sporting a thick black mustache, which he would later be forced to shave off after an unfortunate incident when I tugged on it too hard with my infantile fingers.
“Barb, look at the camera,” he may have prompted, waiting to capture a flawless photo for the family album.
“Isn’t that precious,” my mother might have said as she watched the union of the two people she loved most, preserved indefinitely and imperfectly with the click of a camera shutter.
Like many older people, my grandmother was a packrat. Her apartment was cluttered with stuff: potted plants, a birdcage once inhabited by her beloved cockatiel, Cleo, dog-eared mystery novels, old lamps that had ceased to work properly sometime during the 1980s, a television with two crooked antennae that got horrible reception, but which she refused to replace.
It was any responsible adult’s worst nightmare. For me, it was a wonderland, a trove of dusty, forgotten treasures waiting to be uncovered. As a child, I would sit cross-legged in front of my favorite artifact: a glass-windowed cabinet that housed her extensive collection of VHS tapes and innumerable knick-knacks, including the slightly terrifying Troll figurines and a dashing blue-eyed Ken doll, who was naked except for a pair of sequined shorts. I would pluck the items delicately from the cabinet, occasionally generating a puff of dust that stung my eyes and made me sneeze.
My goal was to find the most bizarre tchotchkes, strangely wonderful trinkets that would make my hunt worthwhile. The same objects mesmerized me every time, one in particular being this rectangular block of wood upon which six painted figurines were glued, each depicting a squat little man adorned with a unique hat and outfit. As soon as I found it, I would bring the trinket to my grandmother, rubbing the wood between my fingers in eager anticipation of what was to come.
“This again,” she would chuckle, pulling me onto her lap in her favorite rocking chair. I would watch in fascination as she tapped the men on the head one-by-one, proclaiming a name each time, always in the same order: “Tom, Dick, Harry, John, George, Paul.” Together we would inspect their round little faces; all of them were Caucasian with dimpled smiles and rosy cheeks, except for Paul, who had an Eastern slant to his eyes and wore a purple shawl that resembled a kimono. We would sit in the rocking chair and make up stories for them—all six were brothers and Dick was the oldest because he had white hair; John was a fisherman because he wore blue like the sea. The one called Harry was my favorite because Gram said she named him after her brother, Harry Lee, and he looked the happiest.
There came a time when she could no longer remember the names and I had to recite them for her. Soon after, I lost interest in the six little men, allowing them to gather dust in the cabinet while I graduated to explore more exotic areas of the apartment, such as the closet.
Years later, my mother and her two siblings gathered to sort through my beloved treasures.
“Save something for me,” I begged.
I do not know what became of Tom, Dick, Harry, John, George, and Paul. My mother returned with the Ken doll, still sporting his sparkly bloomers and toothy grin, unashamed of his nakedness.
It is in my blood to hate hot weather. We come from Michigan, land of cross-country skiing and snow tires and people who judge you if you complain about your car not starting in the morning. I grew up knowing how to pack the perfect snowball and that even though the bus may come crunching down our driveway close to an hour late, school would never be canceled.
“Heat makes people crazy,” my mother complained when my father announced one evening that he had taken a job in Tennessee and that we would be moving after I finished second grade.
Although she never said anything, Gram was equally displeased about the news of our move. The day we left, she waved to us from the parking lot of her apartment complex, her pink and blue windbreaker pulled tight around her hunched shoulders. I blew kisses out the window as my parents hollered promises to book a train ticket for her to come visit as soon as we got settled.
She decided to come to Tennessee for a week in August. The day before she arrived, the high temperature for the week was forecasted as 97 degrees.
“This weather will be nothing like what you’re used to,” my mother coached her during our daily phone calls, which were made each afternoon when I returned home from school.
I ran to her as soon as I heard the front door open, flinging my arms around her torso in excitement after two months of separation, the longest we had ever been apart.
“Crapdoodle, it’s hot,” she sighed, taking a step back to fan her face, which was beading with condensation. She felt bonier between my arms, but her lips, feathered at the corners with the streaky remnants of pink lipstick, felt the same when she pressed them to my cheek.
The week went smoothly, as we kept Gram out of the heat and took her to our favorite restaurants and on scenic drives to view the late-summer Southern greenery. My mother introduced her to her new friends; I read aloud to her from my book of dinosaur facts; my father shared his Miller Lite with her in the evenings. She always had a taste for beer.
Three days before her scheduled departure, the air-conditioning broke in our car. My mother and I took her to a Japanese restaurant for dinner and the backs of our thighs stuck to the hot leather seats. On the drive home, my mother’s cell phone rang with a call from my grandfather. She was the only sibling who spoke to him; I was the only grandchild who received his Christmas presents. Though it had been over thirty years since the divorce, a messy, volatile affair, Gram still sent him letters full of spite and scorn and reminders that his transgressions would never be forgotten. The latest correspondence had been particularly nasty.
“I can’t believe you still do this!” my mother said after hanging up the phone. We had rolled down all the windows; I was captivated by the wind tunnel that had formed in the backseat, whipping my hair and cooling my cheeks. The voices emanating from the front seat escalated, but all I could hear was the whoosh in my eardrums.
As we pulled into the driveway, the final words that would be shared between mother and daughter for the next two months were spoken, punctuated by slamming car doors:
“Your father is full of as much shit as a Christmas turkey.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow.”
On May 8th, 2013, after the last of the spring snow had melted and the crocuses had begun to bloom, she flew away from us.
Each of the siblings drove down to her hometown in Ft. Wayne, Indiana: my mother with my father and me, Anne, Ken and my cousin Brendan. We congregated at the Holiday Inn with a few of her nieces and her younger brother, Harry Lee. I couldn’t recall ever meeting my great-uncle, but there was something easy and familiar about his gap-toothed Polish grin.
Guided by Harry Lee’s directions, delivered with the offhanded precision of someone who has lived in a place his entire life, we drove in separate cars out to the railroad tracks. The tracks are tucked deep within the family’s old farmland, which is now bordered on most sides by a highway. They were abandoned years ago, the iron now rusted and shrouded with foliage. A narrow pedestrian bridge arches over the tracks, constructed with sun-bleached wood that has rotted dark in some places.
“We came out here every day as kids,” Harry Lee recalled, evoking a time when the world was a child’s playground.
The braver ones among us stood on the bridge, gingerly stepping single-file onto the planks. My mother held the metal urn. When we reached the center of the bridge, she pried open the lid and thrust her hand inside, pulling out a handful of ash, burnt flesh and bone and wisps of hair that I tried not to think about. Each of us took a handful: Anne, Ken, Brendan, Harry Lee, and me. We held our hands out over the edge and opened our fists, letting the gray flakes catch the breeze and fly.
Moments later, my cousin began to sputter, disturbing our poetic moment.
“I think I swallowed some of them,” he explained when we all turned in alarm.
I wanted to be able to laugh, but my throat felt too tight. I coughed instead.
We moved four times during my childhood, always ensuring that our spiral-bound telephone address book was taken with us to keep track of those who we were leaving behind. Our most frequently dialed number wasn’t recorded; it didn’t need to be. With the exception of those two months after our first move, my mother called her every day, tucking the phone between her shoulder and chin as she stirred pasta sauce over the stove or holding her cell phone with one hand as she drove me to horseback riding lessons. When she was finished, it was my turn; she always handed me the phone and whispered “It’s Gram” as if I hadn’t possibly known whom she had been talking to for the past hour.
Our conversations usually lasted fifteen minutes. When she greeted me, her voice turned upward, pronouncing my name with the hint of a smile. We talked about everything; we talked about nothing. As I grew older, I bored her with the details of the Homecoming Dance or my anxiety over an upcoming race or an idea I had for a short story. When my mother and I fought, which increased in frequency after my twelfth birthday, I would often call her for reinforcement, whining about her daughter’s parental misdemeanors. She listened the way that I needed her to as an insecure teenager, with love and without judgment.
Hanging up was always difficult, as neither of us could ever seem to decide who would end the call first.
“All right, I guess I’ll let you go.”
“Okeydokey. I love you, Rachael Lynn.”
“I love you too, Gram.”
“I’m going to hang up now.”
“Okay, I will too.”
“Okay. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
My grandmother was a single parent to three children. She fell in love and married young with a wealthy, entitled businessman who was easily disenchanted by the notion of commitment. The divorce happened early, when all three siblings were still in elementary school. She worked at the Campbell’s soup factory and hung the tomato soup can ornaments that the company gave her for Christmas each year on their tree. They kept a variety of pets: always at least two cats, often something exotic like a ferret, and once a turkey named Gilligan. When we visit my mother’s hometown, a small town in Michigan, we always drive by her childhood house, a two-story Victorian with a wraparound porch. She says it hasn’t changed much since when they lived there in the ‘70s, except for the peeling paint and overgrown bushes which Gram never would have allowed. She points out where Gilligan’s pen was in the backyard and the front bay window in which their Christmas tree shone. That house has always fascinated me: the thought of the three siblings revolving through the rooms, growing taller and moving faster, my grandmother fixed at the center.
She was the first of my three grandparents to die and the one I had loved the best. Somehow I never forgave the other two for outliving her, an ugliness that haunts me when I count how few tears I shed at their funerals.
On my twentieth birthday, I realized how I’ve collaged parts of her to myself over the years.
I have a stack of letters stuffed in a drawer at home. Written in fits of anger, they will remain unsent.
I eat far too much Campbell’s tomato soup.
I sometimes use made-up words in place of curses, such as “crapdoodle” or “fudgebuckets.”
I have had to explain too many times why there is a half-naked Ken doll sitting on my desk at college.
I have difficulty walking by the cats that are up for adoption at the local pet store and know that the time will come when I have my own houseful of animals.
I wear the ring she wore on her deathbed, a simple turquoise stone on a silver band. It is too big for my finger, yet I never take it off for fear of losing her all over again.
Sometimes I want to dial it when I think of that May day when I uncurled my fingers and let her go. I think of what I would do if she answered, how I would express all that has changed in the past five years.
Mostly, I would realize, things are the same.