Grandma

Out of all the places I’ve lived, only one has ever meant home.

My grandparents’ house on South Fruitland Street.

It’s not much to look at. Built in 1949, the house is a three-bedroom ranch. A white gable spans the front door and the bay window. My grandmother had the clapboard painted a powder puff pink, the windows framed with white shutters. She loved pink. I can’t think of her without her pink acrylic nails and her fluffy pink bath towels, her pink sweatshirts, the pink lipstick I never saw her go a day without. Even her coffee cups and dinner plates were painted with sprigs of pink flowers.

Born in 1930, she never had nice things growing up. And she had not had nice things through much of her adulthood. So as she grew older, she became a great advocate for indulging oneself.

There used to be a wind chime hanging on the front porch. At night, the wind whistled over the chimney top. There was always something lonesome about that house at night. It’s as if the trees and the lawns and the tidy street of friendly neighbors receded, and I saw the truth of it. It was just a house in the desert. And I woke up to find the front stoop coated with dust, powdery under my shoes, the concrete already warmed by the sun.

*             *             *

My grandmother was the youngest of five children during the Depression, so she ended up with hand-me-downs. Her mother ripped out the seams of her sons’ shirts and sewed the scraps into dresses. Grandma didn’t like it, but she learned from it. She saved every spool of thread, every half-used roll of tape, every ribbon from every Christmas present and the boxes, too.

Her mother was a Bible thumper. Great-Grandma Parks was still trying to convert me to Evangelicalism when she died. While I stole caramels and butterscotch from her candy dish, she handed me a miniature Bible. I was six.

My grandmother had somehow resisted. Or rebelled. There was not a Bible in her home. She never attended church.

If Grandma had a religion, it was Hollywood.

She loved the way women purred in their fur coats. Their red lipstick and tailored suits. Their piles of monogrammed luggage. Their perfectly coiffed hair.

Poverty may have taught my grandmother economy, but it did not humble her. It only filled her with longing for everything she did not have.

*             *             *

And for a while there, it must have felt like she nearly got it. In high school, she was crowned Beauty Queen and rode in a parade and developed those delusions of grandeur that are common among pretty white girls.

Her life was going to be glorious.

It was going to be amazing.

She deserved nothing less.

She’d get everything she wanted.

Starting with my grandfather.

*             *             *

And that was the beginning of the end. My grandfather graduated two years before her and left Kennewick to attend pharmacy school. He’d grown up on a farm during the Depression, and he wanted out. He’d worked hard in school and had gone steady with Beryl. This was supposed to be the beginning of everything.

It wasn’t. My grandmother, with teenage impulsivity and utter disregard for the future, wanted him back. Now. So, at 16, she passed around the rumor that she was seeing someone else.

As soon as word reached him, Grandpa dropped out of pharmacy school and arrived on her doorstep, proposing right on cue.

I did not like this story.

Grandpa reassured me there was no reason not to. She was just doing what teenagers do.

Sooner or later, we all have to make choices, and things turn out the way they turn out.

And the way they had turned out was fine, he assured me. Just fine.

*             *             *

I’m not sure Grandma felt the same. They married as soon as she graduated. She lived in the same house for almost 60 years. She had her first child at 22. Her second two years later. Her husband’s wages as a mechanic weren’t enough for a young family, so she took secretarial jobs. She retired in the 1980s, before sexual harassment was even something you could complain about. It couldn’t have been fun.

My mother said Grandma was always irritable in the evenings during those years. Terse. Weary in her stockings and heels. Always finding fault with her children. Especially her daughter, who wanted nothing to do with nails and boys and hairstyles.

I don’t blame Grandma for her irritability.

But then, I wasn’t her daughter.

*             *             *

By the time I came along, Grandma was different. She read my essays and poems. She watched my Tae Kwon Do forms. She applauded everything I did as if it were wonderful.

She still encouraged marrying rich. But it had become a joke.

If I was complaining, she knew her line. “I’m telling you, honey,” she’d say with a theatrical sigh. “You just need to marry a rich man, and then all your troubles will be over.”

“Just like that, huh?”

And she’d snap her fingers, her nails clicking. “Just like that.”

It always made me laugh.

*             *             *

By the time I was 26, I hadn’t seen her in almost three years. After cutting off my parents, I didn’t know the rules. Did I still have a family?

I don’t remember exactly how it happened, if it was a letter or a phone call or an email. But we finally got back in touch. I set up a visit, and then I took Top’s car and packed a bag and picked up my brother. And we drove east over the mountains.

By the time I pulled into a florist’s shop, my hands were shaking. I thought maybe Grandma would be angry with me. Disappointed, certainly. Hurt, probably. I bought her a potted plant as a peace offering. An African violet with pink-purple petals. “Sure,” my brother said when I showed it to him for approval.

And then I turned onto Fruitland Street.

I couldn’t see Grandma’s face in the shadow of her storm door. But she was out of the house and down the driveway before I’d parked. The moment my feet hit the concrete, I knew I was home. And then she stepped forward and took me into a hug so fierce it knocked the breath out of me. I had never known she was so strong.

She squeezed my ribs tight against hers, both of us knowing it hurt her where they’d stuffed a defibrillator inside her chest. As if she hoped that she could squeeze away all the space and time that had intervened. As if the closer she held me, the harder it would be to tear us apart.

I had never known what it was to feel so loved.

Or to feel so sure I was home.

At long last, I was home.

*             *             *

It was the last time.

We watched classic movies and ate French vanilla ice cream out of her cut-crystal dishes. We had sweet rolls for breakfast, and we sat for long hours on her sofa, which she never stopped calling a davenport.

Everything seemed just as it always had been. The same curtains in the windows. The same whistle in the chimney that made me think of ghosts. The same mirrors tiled the living room wall that had reflected me back to myself my entire life.

We talked about what I would do for a career, outside of writing. Librarian, she suggested. Teacher, I countered. We talked about my writing. We talked about my marriage.

“Happy,” I said, and I tried to believe it.

We did not talk about my parents or the past or the future. I wanted to. I had meant to. I had driven all this way in order to. But in the end, I couldn’t. In the end, all the questions I’d meant to ask amounted to so much silence that she fell asleep on her davenport.

Maybe I was just afraid.

She and my brother were all the family I had left.

*             *             *

I asked if I could visit again in six months. She just smiled.

When I called to schedule the visit, she said she was dying, and she didn’t want me to see her like that. She didn’t want me to come out. She wanted me to remember her the way she had been.

*             *             *

I didn’t go to her funeral. I was 27 years old when she died, and I drove my brother across the mountains and dropped him off at her house. Then I backed the car out into the street and was gone.

“If you do this,” my brother had warned me, “there’s no coming back from it.”

But I didn’t believe it. That wasn’t the thing there should have been no coming back from. Not in our family.

*             *             *

When I was 30 and finally left Top for good, I rented a car that spring and drove east. I didn’t know on which farm they’d spread her ashes. I still don’t. So I didn’t know where I was going. I just drove.

Outside of Yakima, I took a county road and just drove until I could face that I wasn’t ever going to arrive wherever it was I was trying to go. She had long since joined the soil and the worms and the birds and was so much a part of everything for miles and miles that it probably didn’t matter where I went. I got out of the car and took some pictures of a crumbling white barn and listened to the crickets chirp in the heat of the day, the whine of power lines overhead.

I waited for that electromagnetic snap of my feet to the earth. The sureness of knowing I was rooted deep, closer to the entire geography of my grandmother’s life than I had been in years.

But it didn’t come.

I began to understand it would never come again.

It had never been a place that was home.

It had been her.

I got back in the car and took the 821 north out of Yakima, following a route my family had never taken, the highway twisty and slow and unfamiliar, overshadowed by basalt cliffs.

*             *             *

I keep a photo of Grandma and Grandpa on my desk. They are sitting in the shade of their front stoop, smiling at me where I stand behind the camera. My brother nestles between them, an elbow on each of their thighs and a smile like he owns all the world. He couldn’t have been more than six. I was eight. It was one of the summers we lived with them, and we look like the happiest family.

We were.

And I am still grieving. Maybe I always will be. She was the last thread across the generations to tie me to my family, to hold me steady and root me down into that history. Now she’s so much dust scattered across the fields of eastern Washington.

But the picture on my desk reminds me, on those days when it is easy to forget, that I know what that kind of love is like. Someone who saw you come into this world, never expecting to see you out of it. Never expecting anything at all from you but to let yourself be loved.

Grandma gave me that kind of love.

That kind of home.

And it has kept parts of me intact that otherwise would not have survived.

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7 thoughts on “Grandma

  1. Unconditional love is what it is called. Wonderful to have these memories of her…I have them of my grandma whom I was closer to than my own mother. I hope I am making memories with my grandchildren like that….unconditional love.

    1. Exactly! ☺️ How beautiful to have been given that kind of love, too, and now to offer it to your own grandchildren, agshap! That’s an incredible legacy to be part of. Grateful for you adding to the light in the world.

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