[Written for catapult magazine’s Sensory Experience issue https://www.catapultmagazine.com/sensory-experience/article/she-heightened-my-awareness-of-the-world]
From across the uncleared dinner table, my grandmother feeds me stories—how she ran opossum traps in the morning before school, how she gathered herbs on the Round Bluff, how she watched her little brother die of pneumonia. I listen to the same ones over and over, because I beg her to tell them. She only stops to exclaim “The Jell-O!”, the traditional end to nearly every Sunday meal, because some important dish has been left in the refrigerator or in the oven, so that even if I were deserted on an island for years and had lost all sense of time, I would know “The Jell-O!” or “The biscuits!” would mean the same as “It’s Sunday!”
My brother and I climb into the green LTD for our ride to school. My grandmother is stout and utilitarian behind the steering wheel and exudes her own atmosphere of sticky-sweet Avon cologne, the raw onions she munches like apples, and the Wrigley spearmint gum given the imposing mission of masking the uncommon breakfast choice. She hands each of us a silver stick of it. We chew purposefully during the short ride to town and the inevitability of spitting the gum into the palm of her hand because gum is against the rules. There is nowhere else to put it, because we have wrapped the foil rectangles around our pinky fingers, twisting the ends to make tiny silver cups.
I squat in the freshly turned dirt of my family’s garden plot. The broken stick in my hand has one end of a long string tied to it. I sink the jagged part into the ground just in front of my bare toes, using all of my unnecessary strength to keep it fixed, as if the very world spins beneath its point. There is a small tug as the string is pulled taut across the plot. My grandmother kneels on the opposite side, gauges the straightness of the line in relation to the west border of the garden, and shoves her stick into the earth. She shows me how to use the string as a guideline for hoeing a straight furrow for the green beans. When we one day pluck them from their vines, tangled around posts of scrap metal and wood, we will snap off the ends and boil them with bacon.
The stroke has left her angry. She is old now but hates old people because she says all they talk about is their incontinence. She is out of the nursing home following another hospital visit and living at my parents’. She sits in her favorite recliner, and I sit at her feet, which barely touch the floor. I take one foot onto my lap and rub Jergens lotion into the cracked skin. I smell almond, and I can feel her aversion to my service running all the way to her toes. She is the caregiver, not the cared-for. The one who raised her siblings after her mother died, the one who scraped apple flesh to feed us when we were too sick to chew. But her loathing for her dependent state melts away for a moment as my hands knead gently, and I recall one of her stories…how as a child she would carry a block of ice from the ice house to home, thankful for the dripping water to cool her feet along the hot, dusty road.
Beeping. A pulse, a sign of false hope. Silence. We stand around my grandmother’s hospital bed, staring, stricken. My father mother husband brother his wife stand back against the walls of the room in the ICU as if to make way for my turn. The space around my family, my grandmother, and me is not filled with grief but only with the everyday—the ordinary bodily function of a reluctant cough, the room that will be stripped and sanitized before the next person occupies it. It is the same space we will live in when we get home, where we will be silent again except for our crying, which will attack like a surprise, followed by the clanking of dishes and hesitant laughter and TV voices. I lie across her dying body and make a crossroads, each with no choice as to which way to turn but instead committed to opposite directions. At this intersection, there are no stop signs to obey or disobey; there is only the sound of weeping and goodbye and I love you.