Monday, November 29, 2010
Who sits with me this morning?
My grandmother is here with bare feet, even though in life I never saw her stand on bare feet but always shod in fur lined booties, boxes of which were stockpiled in the guestroom closet. I saw her feet bare only if she lay down on her bed to watch talk shows on the beautiful old Zenith on her dresser.
That television had a special smell about it and of course it looked different from our televisions at home, even though I can barely remember the precise details of its form. I can remember that it looked stylish. This was a television set from the old school, a television built with a modern luxurious look in mind. A television that was good to look at even when it was shut off. I used to get close to it and press my nose against it to smell its special smell.
My grandparents had a way of preserving everything as if their house were a comfortable museum. Nothing ever got dirty or wore out. Things maintained the smell they came out of the box with and contributed that odor to the mix so that a new Zenith television set mingled with vanilla and licorice and coffee and wood and clean linens and sand.
Did you know that the sand of the desert has a smell? That even inside of the house you can smell the desert beyond the four walls? You can. It has its own special smell, clean and dusty all at once. Maybe the only way for you to understand what I’m talking about is for you to get into your car and drive to Phoenix.
I loved it there, not only in the house and yard which, against nature's desire, was a lush green paradise, but also on the streets. I loved the stark nakedness of everything, the sun tormenting all surfaces with its unashamed glare, the cacti and sand in center dividers and planters boxes, the hundred plus degree heat bouncing back up from asphalt and concrete, making waves in the view of the world and warming scrawny little girls like me so that I could never feel cold again, never as long as I could recall Phoenix.
My grandmother is here with her bare feet, perhaps to remind me of that warmth that saturated me to the bone.
When I was very young she would come out onto the porch carpeted with Astroturf and furnished with an electric reclining lounge. There was a lovely wooden shelf fashioned by my grandfather especially for holding a collection of little painted pots.
Inside of the pots we kept an assortment of small round super balls, the kind you could get for a quarter out of those red toped machines that lay in wait at the front of every grocery store. I had hot pink and electric green super balls and rainbow swirled super balls. We played with several at once, in no particular way that I can recall, because those little balls were so unpredictable. Once they had been released from the pots there was no stopping them, they bounced around like popping corn and there could be no joy in trying to catch them or pass them, only in setting them free to bounce like mad, then rescuing them once gravity had at last gotten the best of them. I would scramble around on hands and knees to retrieve them when nature had beaten them. I rescued them, my little friends who needed just a little help to begin their wild dancing again.
I never felt that I was too hot out there on the porch or in the yard. It was always too hot for my grandmother and she was very careful to take me back inside after a reasonable amount of time had passed and there re-hydrate me with a mixture of apple cider vinegar in water.
No one could ever reproduce my grandmother's apple cider vinegar and honey. I remember returning home and feeling the desire for one. I asked my mother to prepare it. The taste was awful. Being an honest child I told her, so that she could try again, and she did, again and again, to no avail. At last I stopped asking.
It must be terrible to discover that there is something that someone else can do for your child which you cannot emulate, especially when that someone is the mother of your husband and comes to your house for the holidays to complain of everything.
My grandparents could not be satisfied by my mother's pathetic efforts at home making. Unconvinced of her ability to even launder linens properly, they packed their own wash cloths and towels when they came to visit. Certain that they liked the expensive apple turnovers from the town's only doughnut shop, my mother bought them for breakfast every time they were with us, until at last my grandparents complained that she only ever gave them one thing. She was stung. I can remember her saying that they couldn’t be satisfied.
After that she no longer wished to go along when my father and sister and I visited them in their desert. She said that they made her feel unwelcome in their home. She told me once that they insinuated that they didn’t have room for all of us.
In retrospect, now that I can eat and bath myself without my family’s assistance, I feel that I would not invite my mother to my house either, nor my father for that matter. Most days I think that I would not invite my grandmother either, but now she is here, barefoot.
I feel that I have to explain.
In the early days when we played super ball on the back porch or turned the barstools over inside the kitchen to make me a doggie house, my grandmother and I were bosom buddies. My grandfather seemed rather too grouchy for my taste during that time and if I had had to pick just one to keep and one to throw away, I would have kept my grandmother.
As I grew older this changed. As little breasts budded on my chest and acne swallowed my face, my grandmother could no longer bear the heat outside at all. If I wanted to go out I went out alone. Her favorite thing to do with me now was to discuss awkward subjects such as premarital sex and homosexuality and the use of condoms.
My grandfather now enlisted my help in running errands. He enjoyed leaving early before the heat had fully come to settle on things and preferred to visit various different specialty stores to obtain all of the things my grandparents required to maintain their existence.
I soon intuited that part of his motive in getting one thing here and another there had less to do with the quality of this or that item and more to do with the interactions he had with each of the shop keepers. Even in the chain grocery store the manager would come out to say hello and the clerks could call him by his first name.
One day as we cruised down those scorching streets in his white Buick, my grandfather asked if I enjoyed running errands with him. I told him heartily that I did which put him into a great state of peace and contentment.
My grandmother could rarely be coaxed out of the house. This had been going on since before I was born. My father later revealed to me that back during my super ball days my grandfather had come to him in a shambles. He told my father that he wanted to kill himself because he was so lonely. My grandmother would never leave the house with him, not for dinner, not for a movie, not for dancing or ice cream or to watch sunrises. She gave the same strange excuse for every occasion; she was afraid of picking up fleas. My father begged my grandfather not to do it. He suggested that my grandfather try having affairs with other women before he turned to such a drastic measure. My father was always glad to conclude the story by saying that his suggestion had done the trick.
Slowly it was my grandmother who began to appear to my adolescent eyes as a grouch. Now that I was at an age to understand, she could do little more than tell sad stories again and again, and ask those same awkward questions suggested to her by day time talk shows.
My grandfather, on the other hand, could now interact with me in ways that he had been unable to interact with a connoisseur of super ball and games of doggie. He taught me to bake, and tried to show me how mechanical things worked. He took me to a vineyard to pick grapes, and to a sandy place where we watched people fly remote control gliders. And he introduced me to all of the little casual acquaintances that made his life worth bearing. He beseeched me not to reflect on the dark side of life but to embrace beauty while it was there to be had.
“Dark times always come. They will find you. So don’t go looking for them, enjoy the sun while it is here.” Then, with difficulty, he told me a little of his experiences in WWII as a young German fighting on the Eastern front.
“We were just kids. We didn’t want to be there. We would have preferred to be dancing, listening to music…people here don’t understand, we had no choice. Dark times.” He shook his head and looked out the window, gazing far away, into a place beyond the scope of the window, a place I couldn’t see. “Maybe you‘ll be lucky and never see such times.”
I was much closer to him by the time that he passed away, whereas by the time my grandmother left the world I hardly recognized her. Confined to a wheelchair, she unable to do more than grunt and exhibit behaviors that seemed selfish and cruel.
That was how I last saw her before she died sequestered in that house with my uncle as her keeper. At that time both house and yard had fell into terrible disrepair.
But now my grandmother is here again, standing with bare feet in the yard where green grass is beginning to push up through the old yellow stuff. She is standing and talking, just as she could when I was a child, and she is asking me if I will help her by playing with tennis balls on the porch. I feel that this will make her stronger but it is difficult for me to hold the tennis balls in my hands. They are too large and I can not juggle them.
Slowly it dawns on me… I know what we need. If my grandmother is to be fully restored, what we need to pass between us is not these furry offish tennis balls. We need super balls, tiny, lively, uncontrollable super balls. Then I will have my grandmother again. Then, at last we will be reunited. This is why she has come to sit with me this morning, unshod, to be alive again. Like a super ball that was lost under the recliner and now waits for me to set it free, my grandmother is here with bare feet.