e sat on the stained carpet in front of the dominoes table, joystick box passed back and forth across an old VHS cabinet under a flickering TV. The house smelled like thick carbon. Looked like it. The faded glass mirror offered onlookers a muddled full-body reflection only when the viewer positioned himself in the worn-in divot on the fourth step of the steep wooden staircase. There was a sharp bend on that step – it was more of a landing, really. Grandma had a rug over that spot during my early years of visitation. That rug disappeared after she slipped and fell on it the January after my eighth birthday. Watch your step for stray shoehorns.
If stepping outside is a breath of fresh air, to enter Grandma Kay’s was to pleasantly constrict your lungs. The air inside never moved. Dust particles hung, encased in amber for years. The only distinguishable smell apart from her Paul Mall 100s was the teeth-grating scent of graphite and word search books. The floral couch and tall-backed, uncomfortably blue chair in the corner coughed, “His and Hers”, as Afghans atop the sitting places drew the eye from yellowed walls and glass. Dirty yellow light filtered in through the blinds – in those days, the sun in her house that touched skin seemed to dry your insides rather than warm your exterior. The honeycomb glass hanging light is something I would come to miss once it’s thrown out after her death in 2013. Most of her treasures were sold to strangers; others ended up in our basement or the landfill. I saved what relics I could.
I remember how good the coffee in her stolen maroon plastic cup smelled. “Well, it kept your drink hot without it burning your hands,” she would say in self-defense. I also remember how bad the coffee tasted when my seven year-old lips stole a sip from that cup. She swiped it from the hospital before I was born; I later stole that cup from her. I think Dad sold it in the garage sale.
She knew that I had taken the cup and let me keep it. She had two more – quite possibly from the same hospital, I’m not sure. The maroon-brown cup almost perfectly matched the pants that she wore with all of her white-based floral shirts. She had so many of these short-sleeved button downs, worn through to the point where Mom had to buy Grandma more while she was on her deathbed – not her literal deathbed, though. This was her pre-death, soul-death deathbed. The bed she inhabited in 2009 that she only left when absolutely necessary; the bed she was laying in when she lit a cigarette too close to her oxygen cannula in 2011. The bed with the scorched sheets when that was all said and done with. We put on new sheets for her after that. She liked them a lot. She died in the hospital.
She was a skinny thing. Mom tells me Grandma used to drink a couple of beers a day. In later years, my grandma’s doctor would “prescribe” her a heavy beer every night before bed so that she might stop losing weight so drastically. I think she took it up again; though, it’s hard to say whether it was the increased late-night calories that kept her regular, or the fact that her body had no more excess weight to shed.
I think she bought the Atari to keep my brother and me there longer while she spent time with Mom. Grandma knew that Jewel-brand Dinosaur fruit snacks and Raspberry Newtons alone couldn’t stay the wills of two young and growing boys. She employed the use of corny jokes, photo albums, and Sunny Delight and Klondike Bars when grape juice and 1930s wooden trains became obsolete. The triangular prism helped us view that amber light spilling through the window with a bit more color.
Standard cable was out of the question. During her years of mobility, time at Grandma Kay’s was Grandma Kay’s time, and, if we were going to watch TV, she was going to watch it with us. Svengoolie was weird and, while we loved Beaver and Andy Griffith, those were substituted by game shows and infomercials by 5pm.
They say that a person’s mark is evident rather by how they make others feel than by what they say. I don’t remember much of what she said exactly. Though I do remember her voice. Her warm, raspy voice… she sounded like the duckling from Tom & Jerry. Always asking if we needed anything or if Brent and I had eaten enough. The only time she wasn’t a forceful presence was when she stepped out of the room to smoke; she was always careful not to do that in front of Brent and me, probably per my mother’s request. I don’t, however, remember Grandma Kay’s laugh – my grandmother on my father’s side’s most outstanding feature – but she sure could get me giggling. We never realized how much it must have pained her to speak until years later, when those unnoticed laughs turned to piercing coughs. I never thanked her enough for her stories.
She would tell us stories of family and of friends; she would tell me jokes about bird poop and jokes with dumb punch lines, all because she liked to stump me and loved to see my round belly ripple with laughter. She taught us to line up dominoes and to solve word search puzzles; she sent us on a never-ending search to find the Oreo with the Statue of Liberty imprinted on its back… I think she just wanted us to eat more.
Grandma would entertain us with the toys and tales that were hers when she was growing up – the same ones she passed on to my mother and to her siblings. She employed Mom to take the thousand-year-old flashlight down from the side of the fridge to show us the basement, which smelled even mustier than the upstairs of the house. It smelled like the shed that my grandfather built in their back yard next to the alley. It smelled like the same musty shed with the holes in the roof and walls that held cobwebbed saws and ladders; the same, trick-keyed shed that Uncle Dana was going to teach me to shingle before the cigarettes came for him, too.
Her yard on summer days was alive. Brent and I played ball back there and explored that cavernous shed. The yard was large and open with raspberry plants on the west fence and snowball bushes in the middle of the yard. It was out there that Mom would tell us stories about all of her girlhood dogs. It was also out there that Dad would call Grandma an “Old Bird,” in front of us whenever he came over, which was not often. We knew it was time to come back inside when we were caught hopping the fence to retrieve our plaything from the lattice prison under the neighbor’s patio.
But Grandma couldn’t always give us all her time. Sometimes Brent and I were eager to get home.
And so, the Atari.
It was simple. Twelve games we loved so much. Plug it in and play. “Dig Dug” was a favorite of both my brother and mine. I spent hours competing with him for the “Space Invaders” high score and that racecar game, usually on the living room carpet in front of that old VHS cabinet under a flickering TV, but sometimes in Mom’s childhood bedroom when Dad came with us and they had boring, “serious talks”, or when we hid from distant family that came over every few years. The strange relatives would pinch my face and arms as much as Grandma, but they didn’t know me like that. Only Granny grabs these cheeks.
The bedroom had two cribs in it, eternally filled with sheets and my mother and aunts’ old dolls. The tiny rocking chairs at a tiny desk with sticky notes and a reading lamp were one of my favorite places to sit. I was devastated when Mom told me I was too big for those chairs – I blamed Grandma for my weight and myself for my age.
A small TV that Grandma bought especially for Brent and me sat opposite of that desk so that we could sit on the two twin beds and play the Atari up there while in exile. A Mickey Mouse rotary style telephone and two giraffe statues sat on the dresser by the door when I was young. When Grandma became immobile, all those things went – my brother included. We moved the TV to her room and cleared off Mickey’s dresser to make room for the small fridge and microwave which I have since claimed for my own use. Having food upstairs made it easier for the caregivers to make Grandma meals, which, of course, she refused because she had spent the past 70 years of her life taking care of herself.
Though that part of the room changed, the back corner by the window stayed the same. This paper-storehouse was home to a dusty closet next to the ceramic eggs and indistinguishable plants that sat beneath the window overlooking the Chicago power lines out back. You could see over the neighbor’s fence from there. After Grandma’s condition changed, her painted eggs and the abandoned cribs were the only things that reminded me of that room when things were simpler. Later in my young life when Aunts Holly and Leslie would visit and compliment my legs I hid in the same room, only this time without my brother and for a much different reason.
It’s a wonder they’re all related; my aunts, Uncle Dana and Mom. Crass and funny Dana and Holly had their bouts, but Uncle Dana was the only one who could tolerate Aunt Holly long enough to live with her in Washington. Uncle Dana had the same smell as my grandmother – of black coffee and cigarettes, only mixed with whatever type of liquor the day brought. He drank Old Style beer because, “It gets me the drunkest for the cheapest.” Holly, too, smelled of alcohol, but always mixed with a rather pungent aroma of embalming spices and excrement. I hated greeting her.
Aunt Holly said she would have been all over me if she were my age – Uncle Dana said he would be all over my then-love interest if I would only call her over. I liked spending time with him.
Aunt Leslie was longwinded and eccentric. She and Mom went on for hours. They still do, actually; only now via voice-to-text and occasional long phone calls. They all got along better then, before Grandma became sick. Before the division of her things was a point of contention; before Dana died exactly one year later.
Before that became a similar issue.
They asked me to speak at the memorial service. I couldn’t.
Leslie and Holly provoked me, “He visited her with his mom so often. Won’t you say something?”, and, “You spent so much time with him. You loved him.” I stared at the grass and shook my head, watching my tears shake loose and melt holes into the snow before they, too, froze over.
Mom was so brave to have read everything she had written like that. She calmly offered the mourners her memories, but I knew she only wanted to throw up. She was sick, and she had the right to be. It took the death of both their mother and brother for her sisters to return to Chicago and breathe the same air as each other.
And here they were, watering the ground above my grandfather’s body with their tears; readying the earth for the two new plaques and the half-jars of their cremated correspondents that were to accompany them. Maybe they regretted not including Grandpa’s years of service on his headstone before adding his wife and son’s names next to his. Maybe they regretted not being there when things worsened. Part of me thinks that Holly was already mourning the basement silverware box or the buffet that Mom had already claimed. But they weren’t there to help her sort through the tar-covered treasures in their mother’s house.
We kept the ashes.