Susan Beckham Zurenda
The day before Grandmama came to get me, I planned how to stow the cat in her car and take him to her house in Fairview with us. My mother had told me absolutely not, that cats did not like to travel and besides, Alfred was an outdoor cat (a point I ignored because I would fix him an indoor sandbox once we got to Grandmama’s house). I knew if I could sneak him past Mama into the back floor of Grandmama’s big blue Plymouth, I had a good chance.
And sure enough, I convinced Grandmama I needed Alfred by saying he would keep me occupied. Even though when she was working, there was always my great-aunt Bead—a schoolteacher out for the summer— to entertain me. Mostly, though, I wanted to see if Grandmama would let me. She let me do anything I wanted, but I was upping the ante with Alfred.
I would have pulled it off if Mama had not come around to the car window to kiss me goodbye. Alfred had already started howling from the back seat floor, and there wasn’t much hiding that. “Mama, what were you thinking to let Emma put that cat in the car?” my mother snapped. She opened the back door, and Alfred jumped out. I knew she’d be angry at Grandmama. It was the way my mother treated her sometimes; it didn’t matter that Grandmama was helping her out by taking care of me. Daddy said it was because my grandmother had bent over backward to give both her daughters everything they wanted, and they took it all for granted. But according to my mother, I was the one Grandmama spoiled. If that was true, it suited me fine. I basked in the haven of my grandmother’s devotion.
Now, I think perhaps my grandmother bestowed all the love that was in her to compensate. There had been too many burdens of responsibility raising my mama and her sister alone to dote on them. But once I came along, she had survived as a woman alone so that all the stored-up love she hadn’t been able to use a little at the time the normal way, poured out on me.
She never talked about my grandfather, who was dead, but over time, I learned little bits and pieces from Bead. He was an alcoholic, maybe because he’d been gassed in the war, Bead said, or that’s what people wanted to think. And it was the Great Depression, and Grandmama couldn’t take care of everyone. She had to put him on a train to live with his sisters downstate so she could settle down and earn a living for her children.
At first she taught school, but she hated it. The way Mama told the story, Grandmama got really low and went to see old Dr. Buchanan who was a young doctor starting out back then. My grandmother told him she wasn’t going to make it, and he told her to go home and dig in the dirt to feel better. And she did. It turned out she had a green thumb for flowers. Then, she took a course in flower arranging, and had a touch for that, too. Eventually, she staked a pole with a white wooden arrow printed with the word, FLORIST—the first in Fairview—in big black letters at the bottom of the drive. And for more than 40 years, her business had prospered.
“She wanted the cat to go so badly,” my grandmother responded to my mother who now flared her hands dramatically to the sides of her head. Grandmama ignored Mama’s gesture. She touched my knee in consolation. She wasn’t one of those hugging kinds of grandmothers. Her affection came in other ways. I once told my friends that she’d find me a live pink elephant if I asked her to.
“Honestly, Mama, sometimes I wonder,” my mother said, bringing down her hands and waving us away. “Drive carefully going around the curves.” But I knew she’d speed the whole 43 miles along the sharply twisting two-lane road. She always did. ~ ~ ~
As soon as we bumped full speed over the railroad tracks, I looked up across the road to the house and saw Bead waiting on the front porch. She came to live with my grandmother before I was born. My great aunt never married and had no other family of her own. “Got to get in the kitchen and get supper ready,” Grandmama called to Bead from her open car door.
By the time I meandered into the house, she was already quick-stepping down the hall with my small suitcase under her arm. Bead trotted behind. “Can you entertain Emma?” she called to her sister. I didn’t much want to be passed off to Bead who always did whatever Grandmama asked. I never knew what made Grandmama her boss except she was two years older.
“Does she want corn dogs?” Bead asked. Now that she mentioned it, corn dogs were exactly what I wanted. Grandmama made a thick, delicious batter to roll the hot dogs in and then deep fried them.
“I want a watermelon, too,” I said suddenly. “It would go good with corn dogs.”
“It’s awfully late,” Grandmama said, but her tone was of two minds. I could tell I had the watermelon in the bag.
“Can’t we go?” I pleaded.
“She doesn’t need to go,” Bead said. “The watermelon can wait until tomorrow.” I wanted to step on Bead’s toe.
“Please.” I presented a doleful look and Grandmama succumbed. We drove to the A&P, but it had closed. I could see people still inside the store, but the door was locked. I was so disappointed that I worked myself into a state. Before long—screwing my forehead in concentration—I was crying real tears.
“Now, Emma, don’t be upset,” she said. She patted my arm. “We’ll buy something wonderful at the dime store tomorrow instead.”
“I want a Barbie, and they don’t sell them at the dime store,” I said.
“Well, then, we’ll go to Pope’s,” she said. Pope’s was the jewelry store in Fairview that sold a little bit of everything. I cancelled my frown, stopped my sniffling, and smiled in anticipation of this treasure that my mother believed should be reserved until my birthday.
“Your grandmother needs to get to bed early,” said Bead—ever my grandmother’s supporter—during supper. “And I have to leave for a music club meeting that is starting about now,” she reminded my grandmother. I saw her point her thumb at me and then the bedroom, like she thought I couldn’t see.
“I have to get up early to do a funeral tomorrow, Emma,” Grandmama said. Early usually meant 5:00 a.m., but all I thought about was holding out to watch Wednesday night TV when some of my favorite shows came on.
“You can go to bed,” I said. “I’ll watch TV.” I saw Bead shake her head as she was leaving. We both knew my grandmother would not go to bed without me.
Grandmama went to put on her nightgown and after a few minutes came into the living room where I was watching The Patty Duke Show. I was surprised to see her barefooted. She normally wore black leather oxfords, even with her nightgown, until she boosted herself onto her high bed, at which time she dropped her shoes at the exact spot where her feet would hit the floor. I thought she kept her shoes nearby in case she needed to stomp a roach, because if you got up in the night to go to the kitchen and turned on the light, roaches were likely to scurry across the floor into the cracks. They scared me, but Grandmama would say, “Pay them no mind,” and stomp the ones she could catch with the bottom of her clunky shoe.
“I really wish you would come on to bed,” she said, standing directly over me.
“I’m not sleepy,” I insisted.
“I can’t sleep until I know you’ve settled down. How about a bowl of ice cream? Would that help you get sleepy?” From my spot sitting on the couch, I looked down and marveled at her toes. Some of them entwined like worms with her big toes twisted over her second toes, which nearly crossed over the third ones. I wondered if they hurt to be that way, but I didn’t ask because my attention shifted as I heard the music signaling the commercial had ended and the show was coming back.
“No. I just want to watch TV. Patty is selling kittens,” I said, pulling on her hand so that she’d sit beside me. I felt not the least bit of guilt, or none I can remember.
“Oh, Emma,” she said, exasperated, and sat. I lay my head in the soft belly of her lap and glided my fingers back and forth along the smooth cotton of her nightgown. As much as I wanted to watch TV, just as much I wanted my grandmother with me.
“Let’s go to bed,” she said after the next show, Gidget—my favorite— ended. “It’s way past dark now.” She opened the curtains a crack so I could see.
Grudgingly, I put on my pajamas, but only after getting her promise to scratch my back until I fell sleep beside her in the ornate white iron bed.
The next morning, I opened one eye a narrow slit and watched my grandmother at her dressing table. I was supposed to stay asleep, but I liked watching her get ready for the day. Sitting at her dressing table, she parted her long, gray hair in two halves, twisted each length, and knotted the two parts together at the back of her head. She dusted powder on her face and twisted blue crystal bobs onto her ears to match her blue jersey dress.
“Hey, Grandmama,” I said when she was tiptoeing out of the room.
“Emma, you go back to sleep, please. Take one more little nap.” It was one of her favorite things to say if I woke up early when she did.
“Okay,” I said, but I wasn’t going back to sleep.
When she felt me creeping behind her at the coffee pot, Grandmama called for Bead to please get up and make my breakfast. I ate Bead’s cooking quickly—a sausage patty with several bites of grits—so I could help with the flowers. A funeral was a big event.
Grandmama looked over sideways at me when I bounded into the sun parlor. She glanced at her watch. “I want to help,” I said. She poked the flowers she held into a bucket of water. She reached down for a watering can and offered it, but watering dish gardens on the shelves was not what I had in mind. I pushed the watering can away.
She ignored my petulance. She turned back to her table underneath the longest row of windows where the sun was beginning to peek through. This was the table as rounded as her back, so I knew she was making the crucial casket spray to cover the dead person.
She worked quickly. Going back and forth to the big glass-front refrigerators for gladiola, mums, and something purple I didn’t know. Sticking in flowers, standing back, taking some out, starting again. “Let me help arrange the flowers,” I said.
“I have a lot of arrangements and not much time,” she said glancing back at me. I looked down at the stone floor, sulking. “I’ll tell you what. If you’ll let me work by myself for awhile and go check on Bead, we’ll go shopping soon.” The approaching shopping trip was surely the only thing that could have gotten me out of her way because I liked helping my grandmother work. My ultimate desire was to tie a floral bow as fast as her one day. But the thought of buying Barbie swayed me.
“Bead,” my grandmother called coming into the hall. There was no answer. “Bead,” Grandmama called up the stairs. “Bead, are you dead?”
“Run up there, Emma, and see,” she said.
“Will Bead let me ride in the box?” I asked.
“I should never have let you get in that box last time.” She paused. Then added, hoping to dissuade me, “And what would your mama say?”
“I want to help you or ride in the box,” I said, standing my ground.
Grandmama squeezed her hands together and hummed her nervous sound. “You tell Bead I said to hold on to that box and stay in the hallway.”
I pranced up the stairs and found Bead sifting through papers in her room. Probably getting ready to send off a poem to the Greyhound Bus Company about her ride on a Greyhound bus from South Carolina to Virginia. She did things like that. But I didn’t ask.
“Can you find the cardboard box from last time I was here?” I asked.
“Your grandmother thinks that’s dangerous,” she said.
“She says I can ride in it.”
“Margaret?” she called.
“What do you need?” Grandmama hollered back.
“Emma wants to ride in that box that all those wreath forms came in last time she was here.”
“I know. Do what you have to do. I’ve got a deadline down here.”
I followed Bead to the windowless junk room where they kept every manner of thing. “Got to find the light,” she said, rummaging her hand around on the wall.
“I see it,” I said when the room lit up. “It’s in that corner.” In her clunky oxford heels exactly like Grandmama’s, Bead scrambled over a bunch of her students’ old geometry projects.
“Okay, here we go,” she said climbing out and dragging the long, narrow box.
I had no intention of asking Bead to hold onto the box and pull me along the flat floor. I ran with it flapping against my hip to the top of the stairs. The box was my sled, and the stairs were my hill. I jumped in, the bones of my skinny bottom hitting hard, and shoved off. My thumps down the steps made the whole foundation tremble.
It didn’t take long before Grandmama came into view. I knew I had frightened her by the way she said, “That’s enough of the box,” and grabbed it up. “You’re going to break something.” She didn’t mean something in the house because she didn’t care much about the appearance of the house. She would have ignored a broken spindle on the staircase. She meant me.
Her reaction pleased me. I was at the age of taking risks to prove myself, of stretching my boundaries, especially with my protective grandmother, and though I shouldn’t have, I felt a thrill.
“Lunch would be a good thing,” Bead said, wiping her brow and turning me toward the kitchen, even though it wasn’t really lunchtime. She reminded my grandmother she wouldn’t be available after lunch as she had an appointment to coach a student who had nearly failed Bead’s geometry class and needed to catch up.
~ ~ ~
After my great aunt’s departure, Grandmama called me to come and “check the gold box” for our shopping trip.
I took the cigar box that stood in for a cash register from its hiding place in the dining room buffet and counted. “There’s 314 dollars,” I said after awhile. I was not yet fast at counting, a fact I didn’t consider bought her a little more time to work.
“Get a ten. And a five for good measure,” she called. “And let’s be quick.”
She pulled up to Pope’s Jewelry and Gifts and honked so John Pope would come running from the back where he repaired jewelry. But once inside, I couldn’t make myself rush. I needed to inspect each Barbie carefully. And the outfits packaged in cellophane with striped paper borders—separate from the dolls themselves— mesmerized me. All the tiny pearl buttons down the front of one dress and the miniature rick-rack trim around the hem of another. I saw Grandmama from the corner of my eye, twisting and untwisting her pocketbook clasp, but I didn’t speed up.
Then Mr. Pope walked over and towering over me, said, “I believe your grandmother’s in a hurry.”
His big voice scared me. I stopped studying and narrowed my choices quickly, grabbing up a doll and ensemble in each hand: the Bubble-cut Barbie with the airline stewardess wardrobe—flight bag included—and the Pony-tail Barbie with Hawaiian attire—adorned with a lei of multi-colored flowers.
“I like the doll with short hair and the career outfit,” my grandmother said and nodded at Mr. Pope who grabbed the doll and clothes from my hand and rang them up.
Grandmama was running behind when we got back and surely must have been grateful to see me settle in to play with my new Barbie while she worked. Engrossed, I made a doll house by draping cloth napkins over a stool and cutting out cardboard furniture. I had so much fun, in fact, that I began to think of staying put when she went to the funeral parlor. I thought first of telling her I was afraid of being in the room with the dead person, but I’d seen bodies plenty before, so she’d know that wasn’t true. I thought some more until I thought how Grandmama was overprotective, how she was suffocating me, when I was capable of staying on my own.
“Let’s go,” she called when all her slamming in and out of the screen door and thudding up and down the stone steps to load the car had stopped.
When I didn’t come, she poked her head in the doorway of the dining room. I looked up from the floor and said calmly, “I’m going to stay here and play with Barbie.”
“It wouldn’t be safe, Emma. Come on. We have to go. Bring your Barbie with you.” She dangled her pocketbook by the strap in one hand and jiggled her keys in the other.
“I don’t want to,” I said. The later she was the better, I thought. She would get antsy and leave.
“We’re leaving this minute,” my grandmother said shrilly. I had never heard her use that tone, but still, I didn’t move.
Then she stepped toward me and slung her pocketbook to the crook of her arm so that one hand was free. She reached above my elbow and grabbed the soft skin on my upper arm between her thumb and forefinger. She squeezed the flesh and twisted her fingers firmly. I cried out. I stood up on tiptoe trying to escape the pain. “Let’s go,” she said.
Incredulous, I followed. I was too stunned to cry. My grandmother had never denied, much less hurt me. All the way in the car, I shrank as far to my side as I could get. I stayed silent and rubbed the puffy red place on my arm. When we arrived, Grandmama motioned for me to exit the car. I trailed her into the funeral home, but didn’t follow into the visitation room where she would place her arrangements. I hid. I was smoldering with shame and didn’t want to stand alongside her.
I concealed myself, I thought, behind the door that swung into the hall and watched through the crack as she walked heavily back and forth, towing flowers in her arms. On the third trip to the car, she stopped at the door and pulled it from in front of me. She had known very well where I was. I didn’t want to look at her because surely, she hated me. But she bent to my level and rested her arms on my shoulders. Maybe it was because I was still distraught, but in her face, everything seemed magnified. Her eyes behind the blue-rimmed glasses were huge pale circles filled with veins of red. Her skin shone wet and wrinkled deeply on her cheeks, pleated together, like the petals of her carnations. My grandmother was not super human at all; she was tired, and I was frightened in a different way.
I reached out instinctively for her. “I can help you carry your flowers, Grandmama,” I whispered and burrowed my head in her waist, reaching my arms around her.
“That would be lovely,” she said. Surrounded in the folds of her dress, I breathed in the pungent smell of plumosa fern, the smell that defined my grandmother. Dimly, a vision came to me of a future without this fragrance. When the sun parlor would be without flowers and ribbon. When there would be only the stone floors and wooden tables and remnants of what had been. I shuddered suddenly and clutched her tighter.
In that moment, she shifted and put her hand under my chin. I looked up. The drawn lines of her face had lifted and her smile was bright—mercifully obscuring my vision that I prayed was still far, far away.