This short story first appeared in the January/February 1996 issue.
TURN THE WORDS OVER IN YOUR MIND AND ON YOUR tongue. Hear yourself say, “My grandmother is dead.” Make sense. Say she was old. Say she lived a full life. Say she died a good death. Say all the things you swore you’d never say about someone you love. Stifle your irritation when people hear how very old she was and act like you’re discussing a lost library book. Swallow two beers as you move in your rocking chair. Stop making sense and finally allow yourself the luxury of tears.
Find the letter you wrote to her two weeks ago. It is on the table by the door, six inches from the mail slot. Written, addressed, but missing a stamp. One lousy 32-cent stamp. Thirty seconds to rifle through your purse, a five-minute trip to the post office. Open the letter, careful not to tear the envelope. Sneak a look at the writing, like you’re snooping in someone else’s mail. Read the sanitized version of your summer, all the downer stuff expurgated because you know that your grandmother needs your news, not your blues. When you see that part that says you love her, be glad you put it into words, until you remember that you never sent it.
Pile into a van at midnight with your brothers and sisters. Drive all night to Boston. Admire the snacks packed by one sister, the junk food connoisseur. Polish off a box of Ho-Hos with them before you hit the interstate. Relive old rivalries and argue about who got more. Take a wrong turn coming out of the bathroom at a rest stop without your glasses. Wander up and down rows of parked cars in the dark. Forget the color and make of the van. Try to climb into one that turns out to be from Montreal, with a couple inside who does not look at all pleased to see you. Notice that you have no money, can’t see a thing and look like you’ve slept in your clothes, which you have. Be grateful when you finally hear your brother calling your name, even though he sounds annoyed. Listen to your siblings complain that you pee too much, that you can really be an airhead and that you snore. Concede the peeing and airhead points. Hotly deny the snoring. Eat your second tuna fish sandwich. Go back to sleep. Snore.
Have a dream or a memory. You don’t know which. You are sailing alone. She is waving to you from the house. She is worried for your safety, knowing that you have no sense of the wind and will end, as always, overturned in the water. She is waving you in, calling you closer. But you pretend she is just waving hello, and you wave back. Just this once, you make friends with the wind and fly across the ocean. Away from shore. Away from her. You sail away and hope that somehow she will understand.
Fall silent when you unlock her door and enter her house, each of you lonely, remembering other arrivals. The creaking of the big green door, the loud ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall. Calling, “Grandmother, Grandmother, we’re here. We’re finally here.” The endless hugs, the light in her eyes. Wander her halls, climb her stairs, caress her things. Silently, reverently. Longing for the welcome you will never know again.
Go shopping with your father and brother. At the paper goods store, get punchy from too little sleep and too much caffeine. Insist on the Boston Celtics paper plates, knowing how crazy she was about her teams. Barely tolerate your brother, who prefers a Hawaiian motif, holding up a banner that says, “Aloha.” Spend a long time trying to decide whether “Aloha” means hello or goodbye. Straighten up when your father tells you that so far you have been absolutely no help. Start giggling again when your brother asks if this means he won’t buy you ice cream cones on the way home.
In the checkout line at the Stop and Shop, try to ignore the perky cashier who keeps saying, “Someone’s having a big party” as she scans your groceries. The third time she says it, let yourself feel your irritation and answer, “Actually, someone’s having a big funeral!” Notice the way she shuts up after that. Feel mean and glad at the same time.
Tactfully remind your mother that your grandmother had always promised you the silver. Have difficulty hiding your shock when she takes you aside later and tells you that she also promised it to your cousin Paula. Remember the time that Thomas Flynn asked for his identification bracelet back because he decided he liked Teresa Gilchrist better than you. Decide that this feels about a hundred times worse. Act like a hurt child and whine to your mother, “But she promised.” Try to figure out what your mother means when she answered that your grandmother made a lot of promises that she didn’t keep. Tiptoe upstairs to where your husband is sleeping. Sit down next to him and stare at him hard, willing him to awaken. When he stirs, look surprised, as if you never had any intention of waking him. Spill out the whole story before his eyes are fully open. When he growls, “Screw the silver,” remember that sex is almost always better than sympathy, and let him pull you down and silence you with kisses.
Drive in the pouring rain to the funeral home. Brace yourself against the sickening smell of funeral flowers. Approach the casket. See your grandmother. Study her hands. Notice how different they look now. Wish that they had left your grandmother’s clunky gold watch on her wrist and a little paint under her fingernails. See your daughter hanging back at the door. Go to her and gently, but firmly, tell her there is nothing to fear. Realize instantly that you have just uttered what your grandmother would call a “boldfaced lie.” Admit to her and to yourself that this is scary as hell and allow her to sit in the adjoining room for as long as she wants.
Count the cousins as they arrive. All 20 grandchildren. Marvel at the genetic variations on a theme; the permutations and combinations of looks and traits. Greet them with unrestrained joy. Let your childhood break over you in waves, coming so fast and so strong that you can’t even think. Just let yourself drift with them.
Take a breather and sit down with your youngest sister. When, at the same moment, you both notice that your brother had just hiked up his pants and walked exactly like your father, look at each other and laugh so hard that people turn and stare. When neither of you can stop laughing, put your arm around her and wipe your eyes so that people will think you’re really crying.
Sit with another sister from whom you have been estranged because of too much alcohol on her part and too little compassion on yours. As you discuss her involvement with A.A., realize that she is nowhere near “taking each day at a time,” and is surviving minute-by-minute. Talk about pain. Talk about God. When she tells you that religion is for people who are afraid of going to Hell, and spirituality is for people who have already been there, say “Amen.” Help her figure out the closest A.A. meeting. When the timing doesn’t work, suggest that there are enough people in the family to make a sizable meeting. Count the alcoholic relatives on your fingers. Use both hands.
Shake hands with every octogenarian in the local Art Association. Kiss people you don’t remember. Be incredibly polite to people you never liked. Say that your life is going a lot better than it really is.
Have trouble sleeping. Pull out the old photo albums. Review your grandmother’s life, condensed into images on paper. See your mother as a child. See yourself. You are one year old. You are brown. Your hair is white. You are round and happy. Slip the picture out of the album and turn it over. Read in your grandmother’s handwriting, “My golden girl.” Pass your fingers back and forth over the words. Wonder when you stopped being golden. Wonder if you can ever get it back again.
Find the bottle of antidepressants next to her bed with her name on the label. Take half to your youngest brother, telling him that since you both inherited the curse, you both, by rights, deserve the cure. Let him say that you are twisted as he holds out his hand to take his share.
Return to the funeral home the next morning before the Mass. Watch each person in the family say goodbye. See your brother and cousin kneel at the casket and bless themselves in synchrony. Feel your breathing change with theirs, shoulders rising and falling, heads bowed, heaving and crying. See their mothers bend into them and hold them. Watch your daughter as she wrestles her fears and finally approaches the casket. See the memory in her eyes. Hold her close as she registers the meaning of grief and cries in your arms.
When the funeral Mass begins, walk to the lectern on the altar to give the first reading. It is from the Book of Lamentations. Read the first words: “My soul is deprived of peace. I have forgotten what happiness is. I tell myself my future is lost.”
Watch the words swim on the page. Experience a pain moving down your chest like a fault line. Feel yourself merge with your grandmother. Doubt your ability to continue. Breathe. Keep going. Finish. Lean into your uncle as he puts his hands on your shoulders and whispers, “I’m proud to know you.” Remember being 8 years old. You have finally gotten up on water skis after falling a dozen times and inhaling a gallon of salt water. You crawl out of the surf, shivering and tired. He puts his hands on your shoulders and says “I’m proud to know you.” It still feels the same.
Drive in procession to the cemetery, following the route you took after your grandfather’s funeral. Answer the prayers of the priest as he gives the final commendation. Watch the people drift away to their cars.
After the burial, greet the people who come back to the house. Then wait impatiently for them to leave. Wait until the only people left are family. Sit with your mother, an uncle and some cousins and laugh about novenas and rosaries and pagan babies. Picture your pious grandmother turning in her grave. Assemble on the porch for family pictures in the summer heat. When a cousin finds a picture of all of you surrounding your grandmother, decide to recreate it. Agree to assume the position and demeanor you had in the picture. Strike the pose you perfected of the sullen and bored 14-year-old. Stand next to a 30-year-old cardiologist with his finger up his nose and a 28-year-old BMW salesman who is poking a 32-year-old accountant in the ribs.
Linger after pictures. Move en masse to the living room and collectively plead with one of your uncles to play the piano. When he relents, sing the songs he wrote that you all know. Teach the songs to the great-grandchildren. When you run out of songs that everyone knows, resort to Christmas carols while sweat runs down your back. Delight in the great-grandchildren who take their turns standing and singing. Realize in a burst, in an instant, that right there in that room is the best of who you are. There in that room is the memory of who you were and the promise of who you still can be. It is your grandmother’s gift to your mother, your mother’s gift to you, and your gift to your daughter.
Walk through the house one last time. When you kiss your mother, hug her harder, closer and longer than you have since childhood. Forgive her for being too strong. Forgive your grandmother for not being strong enough. Forgive yourself for being both.
Settle into the van. Drive away from her house and down her street. Close your eyes as you move in the darkness. See, once again, the scene at the cemetery, in the moment after the priest has finished speaking. The great-grandchildren play with the flowers on the grave. They make small bouquets. They dance and run. Hear echoes of your grandfather’s pretend-gruff voice saying, “You kids, get off this grave.” Then smile at the sound of your grandmother answering, “Hush, Harry. They’re just fine where they are.”
Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer and clinical psychologist who has written five books, including Undercurrent: A Life Beneath the Surface. She has published frequently in the Networker as well as other magazines.