My grandmother, Stella, lived in the screened porch off our living room. At ten I still thought of it as the screened porch, though it had been bricked up for almost two years, ever since she came to live with us in Maryland. She added a pink-tiled bathroom, with rug and towels and toilet cover to match. Her Mustang was pink, too. She’d driven it all the way from California after divorcing her third husband. Her first husband, our grandfather, died long before my brothers and I were born. The second, whom she divorced to marry the third, had kept their silver Karmann Ghia after a bitter property struggle. This time, whatever else she had lost, she got the car. It sat in our driveway, between the station wagon and the Ford van, exotic as an orchid. Stella washed it every Saturday, unhooking the hose from the sprinkler our father had set up. The five of us kneeled on the living room couch and watched her through the big picture window, fascinated by the way she sprayed and soaped and rubbed each speck of grime until it disappeared. We imagined we felt the cold splash of water on our shoulder blades, the dirty yellow chamois wiping us clean of all our sins: Our grandmother was a person who inspired awe and fear, the oldest and most unnerving phenomenon my brothers and I had yet encountered.
Before Stella’s arrival, we had pretty much been left to ourselves. Our parents worked long hours — our father as a reporter for the Washington Star, our mother as director of a ballet school — and we were used to roaming freely through the large, untidy house, fixing hot dogs and turkey pot pies when we were hungry, with every television (we had seven one year, though that included four broken ones in the attic) cranked up to maximum volume. Stella’s first edict upon settling in was the banning of all television between 6 and 7 p.m., when the ritual of sitting down all together for supper was to be observed.
“I can’t eat without TV,” said Caleb, the next-to-youngest.
“TV,” Willie repeated. It was the only word he could say so far, besides “Ma” and “Da.”
“I can,” Jeffrey said. “But I’ll throw up after,” he added, smiling so his dimple and chipped front tooth showed.
“I don’t care if you eat or not, a long as you sit,” Stella said. She had lined us up by height, from tallest to shortest, in the living room: Gray, Jeffrey, me, Caleb, and Willie. I was older than Jeffrey, but he was already two inches taller. I was going to be a shrimp all my life, I knew, and that knowledge, plus the embarrassing fact of being female, made me determined to be fiercer than any of my brothers.
“You can’t make us do anything,” I said crossing my arms. “We refuse.”
“Fine with me, Miss,” Stella said. “Since you don’t want any supper, you can go straight to your room.” With that, she hoisted me under one arm and carried me downstairs. I had a padlock on my door, to keep my brothers out when I wasn’t home. Stella dumped me on my bed, marched out, and clicked the padlock closed.
The next evening we all at down at the kitchen table promptly at 6. That night and the next we refused to eat, but on the third night Willie picked up a fistful of lasagna and stuffed it into his mouth, and we all gave in. Besides, Stella actually cooked. Our mother only dropped packages of mysterious frozen lumps into boiling water, then cut them open with scissors and unloaded them on plates of Minute Rice. Real home-cooked food was a revelation. We ate spaghetti carbonara, glazed baked ham with scalloped potatoes au gratin, ratatouille and paella, strudle and sachertorte — dishes whose names we would try to pronounce and promptly forget, dishes I would rediscover years later. Glutted with good food, we almost felt compensated for the sudden disappearance of Wonder Bread and Hostess Ho-Hos from the cupboards.
After supper, while my brothers watched the clock so they could turn on the television at the stroke of 7, I had to wash everyone’s dishes and clean up the mess Stella had made of the kitchen. Stella had definite ideas about my role in the family, ideas which quickly established her as a serious obstacle to my development as a tomboy. Shortly after arriving, she put every pair of my jeans in the Goodwill box in front of Safeway and replaced them with dresses from Penney’s, hideous lace and ribbon numbers that even Little Bo Peep, I thought, wouldn’t be caught dead in. On weekends she forced my short, flyaway hair into pink curlers that dug painfully into my scalp. Bent on civilizing me at all costs, she even tried to teach me to play the piano. She would lean over me to demonstrate a melody by Bach, red nails clicking against the keys of our old upright, and I would close my eyes and pray for God — whom I had lately decided to believe in, since my parents had apparently abandoned me — to strike her dead from whatever diseases people her age got. As for the dresses, I wore them out of the house, snuck back into the garage, and put on a T-shirt and a pair of Jeffrey’s old paint-stained Levi’s I’d hidden in the wood box. After supper, sponging spaghetti sauce off the stove or sweeping flour and bits of celery into the dustpan, I plotted ways to murder Stella — rat poison in the port she drank every evening, a blow to the head as she slept in her hospital bed, which vibrated and could be moved up and down by pressing a button. I grabbed a sharp, shiny steak knife, imagined running her through, submerged it in the hot soapy water, and scrubbed.
Our favorite game was called “Spy on Stella.” We loved to watch her when she thought she was alone and unobserved. It was our way of having power over her, for the few moments she dozed in the green chair in the living room or stood in the kitchen cooking, singing along with Jack Jones on the stereo. Her voice soared on “Lollipops and Roses.” It was a rich, thrilling voice, classically trained. She had actually sung recitals as a young woman, and later gave lessons. She had also, according to her bedtime stories (which no one but me believed), roped steers, given psychic readings, painted in Paris, won a Charleston contest, and inspired a poet to a failed suicide attempt. We all fought for position on the stairs, so we could peer around the corner at the level of her feet and look up the pale, blue-veined legs to the pink apron, the black wool dress, the heavily rouged cheeks and closed eyes, as she stood, ecstatic, spatula in one hand, swaying and singing. Eventually she would sense our presence and chase us back downstairs to our rooms. If it was early she would stop at the bottom of the stairs, but if we happened to spying on her after our bedtime she would run right in, first to my room, then to my brothers’ with the four built-in bunks.
Lying in bed, the covers pulled over my head, I would wait for her to say something, to threaten to punish us or tell my parents. But she only stood above me in the dark. She smelled of onions and Tabu, and faintly of port. I lay there hating her smells, thinking of her rules and demands, of how she had undermined my freedom, of all the ways she had used her formidable will to try to break mine. As I thought of more methods to get rid of her — setting fire to her rose curtains, smashing her car into the garage door — she leaned over and kissed the top of my head through the covers. “Goodnight, honey,” she said, and went out, closing the door softly behind her.
Stella and our father did not get along. Stella was our mother’s mother, and she thought a newspaperman was a poor husband for a dancer. Still, she tried to tolerate him for our mother’s sake, informing us that a former fiance had been worse: a diabetic and a Jew. A few days after this remark, she warmly hugged a student of our mother’s, a young black girl. We were nonplussed. If she didn’t like Jews, how could she like blacks? Gray finally got up the courage to ask her. Stella stared at him and said, “Black? Was she black? She was such a nice little girl, I didn’t even notice.” Our father called her a bigot, and she called him uncultured, and they avoided each other. It was easy to avoid people around our house. There were four split levels, plus the yard and roof. Our father often climbed out the window of the master bedroom with his typewriter, set a table and chair on the flat gravel roof of the garage, and worked there for hours while Stella scrubbed and vacuumed her way through the house. If I was at home, I had to follow her with Comet and rags and a pink duster. I was in training. I would do better than she had, better than my mother. I would be a good wife and keep a spotless house for my healthy Protestant husband. Ha, I thought, dragging my duster over the fourth television. Ha, hearing my brothers happily yelling as they played baseball in the yard, my father’s typewriter tapping monotonously from the garage roof.
When I was eleven, Stella’s ex-husband, the one she left to come live with us, died of pneumonia. She and I were alone together in the kitchen when she got the call. She collapsed into a chair, crying. I suddenly realized that she was really old — almost seventy. In spite of my wishful fantasies, I had never been able to imagine her as vulnerable to death. She had seemed as solid, as immovable and immortal as the bricks of our house. Crouching down beside her, I gave her an awkward hug. The rouge that was usually caked in her deep wrinkles ran down the folds of her cheeks. She stroked my hair. “You never really stop loving them,” she said softly, looking out of the window to the backyard as though all of her husbands, all of her loves, were floating somewhere above the piles of leaves she’d made my brothers rake that morning. After a moment she took her hand away and told me to finish the dishes, and I stood up and went to the sink, the old familiar antagonism re-established.
Shortly after her ex-husband’s death, Stella made plans to move back to California. She had another daughter in Garden Grove, who boasted only one child. Our cousin Rita Jean was a prim little girl who won ribbon after ribbon in horse shows. The one time she visited us, Caleb climbed the willow tree that hung over the driveway and peed on her.
Stella had a habit of hugging us too tightly, squashing us against her breasts, and none of us wanted to be caught in her goodbye clutch. When her boxes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, her recipe cards, photographs, cosmetics, and wigs were finally fitted into the Mustang, we all ran downstairs to hide from her. We crowded into a storage area off the laundry room in the basement, a dirt-and-cement enclosure with a small vent opening out to the front yard, and shoved each other aside for a last look at her. She called for us a few times, each of us by name. When she called mine I half-rose, despite myself, but Jeffrey grabbed my arm and I sank back down. Finally she turned to our mother and hugged her, and gave our father a stiff peck on the cheek. She climbed into the driver’s seat, threw the car into gear, and burned rubber leaving the driveway.
That night I went into my brother’s room and crawled into a bottom bunk with Willie. None of us could sleep.
“The first thing I’m going to do,” Jeffrey said, “is turn on the kitchen TV and watch it while I eat a big fat cheeseburger.”
“I want Sara Lee cheesecake,” Caleb said.
“Free at last,” Gray crowed, climbing down from his bunk and doing a little dance around the room. “Ow,” he said, stepping on a piece of train track.
“Is she in California yet?” Willie asked.
“California is a long way, stupid,” I told him. “She won’t be there for ages.”
“Oh,” Willie said, and put his thumb in his mouth.
“Let’s go upstairs,” Caleb said.
“What for?” Gray asked sitting down on the floor.
“I want to play Spy on Stella,” Willie said. “She’s not here, Will. Boy, are you dense,” Jeffrey said.
But we got out of bed anyway. In our pajamas, we crept across the cold floor and up the carpeted stairs. We entered the living room with exaggerated slowness, one by one, passing the green chair, the rocker, the sectioned couch and marble coffee table. In the middle of the room, Jeffrey, who was leading, suddenly stopped.
“Sshh,” he said.
“What?” Willie said.
“Sshh,” Jeffrey repeated.
The five of us stood there, looking at each other. Light came in the picture window, from the moon or street lamps. Nobody moved. Caleb strangled a cough. We were listening, all of us, as hard as we could. We may have even held our breath, straining to hear more clearly the terrible, final silence coming from our grandmother’s room.