Her hand lightly strokes my hair while she tells me about books, crafts, food, my mother. The slight dip in the center of the mattress gently pushes us toward each other, and we sink deeper into the happy floral comforter beneath our bodies. Tiny specks of dust float above us, caught in the golden rays that stretch across her bedroom. I listen to her voice and the soft whir of the ceiling fan. I imagine my mom tucked up next to my grandmother in this exact same position, knees pressed into her thigh, head bowed beneath her arm, face tilted slightly up to watch the blades spin ’round and ’round.
“I always knew when your mother was guilty. She couldn’t bear to look at me. ‘Don’t make mad eyes at me, Mommy!'” My grandmother laughs and I snuggle closer to her. I love picturing my mom at my age, her big brown eyes and close-cropped bangs, chin quivering at the thought of her mom being angry with her. “Speaking of your mother, it’s time for us to get up. She’ll be here soon and we haven’t even started making the meatloaf.”
Like an old slideshow projector, my mind clicks and pulls up another memory of my grandmother.
She digs around in one of the heavy wooden drawers in her built-in buffet cabinet and comes out with a bottle of Aleene’s Tacky Glue. Other people might store dishes, table linens and fancy silverware in their built-in, but not my grandmother. Her buffet cabinet is strictly for craft supplies, which she often unloads onto her large dining room table. I watch her blonde-white curls in the thin strip of mirror that separates the drawers from the cabinets. They bounce as she pushes the drawer closed and turns around. She hands me a styrofoam ball, a skein of pink yarn, scissors and the tacky glue.
“You’re going to start by cutting long strands of yarn, which you’ll glue to the styrofoam ball. Then we’ll take a few little pieces of yarn and gather the long strands into sections to create the body.” She pulls out a yarn doll that she made before I arrived and points out the sections as she speaks.
While I cut yarn, she inspects her doll, using her fingers to smooth the hair and adjust the small metal belt buckle that she fashioned around its waist. Just behind her, an army of American Girl dolls stand at attention, dressed in replica marching band uniforms from my mom’s high school days. A stack of photos sits beside them – a flip-through fashion show. Swimsuits, jumpers with tiny heart buttons, school uniforms, formal dresses, all made by my grandmother and modeled by her dolls.
I pull the final load of clothes out of my car and lug them up two flights of stairs to my new room. Everything is exactly as it has always been. Her handmade clothes hang on one side of the double-door closet. The base of the lamp on the bedside table is the same man’s face made out of almond-sized slivers that I’ve stared at since I was four. The blinds I always peek through, marveling at the closeness of neighboring houses and hoping to catch a glimpse of the people inside, give me the familiar rush of excitement and a queer sense of mystery.
My first job out of college is an hour from my parents’ home and five blocks from my grandmother’s. She happily agrees to take me in while I settle into my new routine and search for an apartment of my own.
I wander downstairs, drawn by the scent of lasagna and the comforting creak of floorboards in the kitchen. On the walls, hand-painted signs that read, “Skinny cooks can’t be trusted!” and “Judy’s Bake Shop”, are intermixed with blue ribbons and certificates from the State Fair. Her hard-won Spam apron hangs from a hook by her refrigerator. Above it, a framed photo of her, proudly sporting a Spam sweatshirt and holding blue ribbons, her apron draped over a chair and a case of Spam at her feet. She grins into the camera, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.
I walk into her open arms and rest my head on her shoulder. She pats my hair, leaving a light dusting of flour behind, and kisses my temple. “Perfect timing. Lasagna is almost done, the bread only has a few minutes left, and I have a surprise for you in the freezer.” I immediately perk up and know without looking that she made a batch of her famous English muffins for me. I squeeze her tighter. “This is why you are my most favorite grandma-ma in all the land.”
The air is sticky and hot. So thick, it gets caught in my throat when I try to swallow. Even with the air conditioner pumping, our bedroom is sweltering. I peel off my work clothes and slip into denim shorts and a gray tank top. It’s an improvement, but not by much. I’m late and already coming up with familiar apologies in my head. “I’m sorry, but the traffic!” “I’m sorry, work was crazy!” “I’m sorry, I always assume everything will take me five minutes and I should know better.”
I pull up to my aunt’s house and see my grandmother’s cloud-like curls in the doorway. “Mark, I’m leaving!” she yells to my uncle and then steps outside. She is dazzling. The stripes on her shirt glitter under the afternoon sun, and her large bauble rings send out blinding flashes of light. Living in Florida has changed her. Losing her husband has changed her. She’s reinvented herself into a sparkling phoenix, rising from the ashes of her past life.
Our first stop is Leon’s, our favorite custard stand. She winks and asks if she should order three scoops of butter pecan, but she settles for one. We share the same custard story we always tell when we come here, filling in for each other as we go.
“Those three scoops of butter pecan dripping all over your hands -”
“I was licking as fast as I could!”
“And your eyes got so big!”
“I made such a mess in your car!”
We laugh, licking quickly at our cones. When we’re finished, we walk over to the glowing neon sign so she can take a picture. “Just in case I never see Leon’s again.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, a smile still faintly on my lips.
“Who knows if I’ll be back to Wisconsin again.”
“Grandmother, of course you’ll be back again. You’ll be here for my wedding next October.”
“You just never know,” she replies and then shakes her head. “Okay, let’s get out of here. Karaoke is starting in a few minutes and I don’t want to miss it. What are you going to sing?”
I laugh and wrinkle my nose. “We’ll see.” I say, sure that I won’t be singing, but an hour later, I’m standing next to her with a microphone in my hand, staring up at the words to “Stop in the Name of Love” and grinning ear to ear. “Don’t you love doo-wop?” she whispers, her hand wrapped confidently around the microphone, her rings catching the colorful DJ lights.
She’s sleeping when I arrive at my aunt’s house, sitting up in a recliner with a travel pillow under her swollen arm. Her head is rolled down to the left, her chin resting against her brand-new cheetah pajamas.
“Doesn’t she look fabulous?” my aunt calls, coming into the living room to greet me.
She doesn’t look fabulous. She looks old. She looks sick. She looks very tired. I do my best not to sob when my aunt hugs me.
We sit next to my grandmother for a few minutes and watch her sleep. A tube of oxygen runs from a tank by the door, across the floor, up the side of the chair, around her ears and into her nose. A rattling sound slips out every time she breathes in.
Pam tells me about the last few days. How radiation wasn’t helping, how much pain my grandmother’s been in. How little she trusted the doctors in Florida, about the RV ride back home. Silent tears slide down our faces when she talks about how little time my grandmother has left. Three days ago, we still thought her cancer was treatable. “She’ll be back to singing in no time!” the doctors in Florida said. But the truth is that the cancer is everywhere. There’s nothing the doctors in Wisconsin can do.
My aunt heads back into the kitchen and my cousin appears. We hug for a long time, pulling back to see identical feelings reflected in each other’s eyes. My grandmother stirs and we both reach out to hold her hands. I think about those hands, all the things they’ve done. All the magic they’ve created. My mother’s hands look so much like hers. My hands look so much like my mother’s.
She opens her eyes and looks at both of us and we all begin to cry. She’s not ready and neither are we. “I love you to pieces.” she says and squeezes our hands.
It’s fitting that she slips quietly away in the midst of an unlikely fall tornado. My mother and I are gathered around her, along with my aunts and uncles. We want so badly to anchor her here, but she floats away, her spirit swirling up with the angry winds. She wasn’t ready to go and we weren’t ready to let her. We hold onto her body, willing the warmth to stay.
Pam’s eyes are shallow pools of water and when she looks at me, her eyes overflow. “Switch places with me,” she says. “Put her hand on your cheek.”
I do. I feel the weight of it, resting against my cheek. I feel the comfort that hand has always brought me and I tell myself, remember this. Remember this. And I do.