With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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When I help my grandmother into a bath, she holds my arm with both hands and I can feel the fluttering of her body like the wings of a grounded bird. She shakes from disease, from memory, from her head down to her swollen and painted toes, toes I have painted. She has lived at our house every summer of my life and I hold on to her as much as she holds on to me. I have seen her hand wag away sentiment as easily as she shoos the flies that sneak through the screen door which refuses to close, warped and obstinate after too many seasons. The names Grandma or Nanny, even Grandmother, don’t seem adequate for this woman who raised three boys with a drunken husband and a voice too high and shallow to carry much more than a wish. The name I have always called her is her own, Emily.
“Emily,” I would say, four or maybe five years old, hair pulled back in pigtails, “let’s play Old Maid now.”
“Emily,” I would ask, “where does your breath go when you die?”
“Please, Emily,” I would whine, “just push me higher, please.”
“You’re swinging plenty high enough,” she’d say, crossing her arms to make her point.
I have come inside this bathroom year after year, reporting to the noiseless clock of love and obligation. The sound of water gushing is my cue to come help my grandmother undress. To utter the words, I need you, can you help, my pantyhose are too stubborn, is impossible for my father’s mother, a woman who completes The New York Times crossword puzzle every morning after breakfast. Who needs to speak when there is hot and cold running water?
Emily’s bathroom is white with lavender tiles and a large rectangular window overlooking a flock of willows, branches nimble and budded with pearls of green, swaying in the easy breeze of springtime and late afternoon sun. It is a bright room which gives the impression of having just been cleaned. Crisply ironed white linen hand towels hang in perfect order beside the sink. Beside the medicine cabinet is a glass shelf filled with the makings of simple beauty which to me will always be my grandmother: a tortoise-shell comb, Pond’s cold cream, a silver-plated hand mirror, bobby pins, and lipsticks standing like fingers in colors called Misty Rose and Wineberry and, my favorite, Glazed Morning. With one trembling hand steadying the other, chin tilted up, lips puckered with pride, Emily paints her lines without the help of reflection.
That I am the daughter my grandmother never had is an idea which has never felt more true.
I lean over to help take off the watch we have forgotten to remove and am amused even before I ask, “So, what do you think of this Bork nomination, Emily?”
“He’s a no-good. He’s going to rot in Chicago where he belongs,” she says, a fourth-generation Yankee, a lover of fights and politics and martinis. “Besides,” she continues, almost hissing, “have you ever seen an uglier face in all your life.” It is not a question. Her lips, loose and larger without dentures, move up and down in a pace that suggests more words are coming, but then, they stop. She has, I think, forgotten what she wanted to say. I don’t know what to do in these silent spaces between now and never again. I grab a washcloth.
She is an old woman of eighty-seven with a thick middle, tiny legs, breasts heavy and formless as water, and fingernails shaped like opals, buffed and filed, strong and ageless. Emily will linger for a while recalling a forgotten name — the trust officer at Empire Savings, the Haitian woman who cared for her young children, my own sister Katrina, but then she’ll say in a falsely casual way, “You know the one I mean.” And I will respond yes. Yes, because she will not abide the word “yeah,” and because she cannot tolerate the misplaced facts of her own life; filling in her blanks quickly becomes a game of mutual humiliation. But when something not yet spoken disappears beneath those lips, I stand impotent, holding a washcloth.
I kneel on the bathmat. I ask with a false casualness of my own, “What will it be today, lady, the legs and underarms, or just the legs?”
My grandmother lifts her right leg just above the water, pointing her toes. “Try not to nick it this time, dear, I’ve got my reputation to uphold. Band-aids simply will not do when I meet your future in-laws.”
Tonight is my rehearsal dinner. Tomorrow I will marry my law-school classmate, Forest Daniels, the man my grandmother does not completely approve of. She has stopped asking me what kind of a name Forest is. It seems she has even accepted the fact that I am moving to a house thirty minutes up the Hutchinson Parkway in Bedford. But when I told her we weren’t sure about children, she grabbed both my wrists and said, “Well what’s the point then?” I hate saying “I don’t know” to Emily; I sense not knowing may be the greatest sorrow. I told her she was too young to be a great-grandmother, a line we both recognized as lame. She stared into my eyes and then tossed my wrists from her like they were rotten and walked into her bedroom to watch more news.
We don’t talk about children. However, sometimes, after the evening martini, she’ll just look at me across the table and say, “A three-bedroom house is it?”
“Yes, Emily, a three-bedroom ranch.”
The lavender soap smells fresh as I lather the washcloth and begin spreading the white cream along her calf. Lavender — the color, the scent, the plant upon her night table — is a part of Emily’s world I have never fully understood. It is soft and delicate, and yet this woman demanding that I be careful with her calves has never seemed in any way lavender. Perhaps this color breathes serenity into a life that took her faith, then her youngest son, and now, now her body. Perhaps lavender is something she hopes to become, though I wonder whether she still can hope for such things. Can she imagine improvement, invest in the chance of speaking with a civil tongue to her son Warren who sent no invitation to his second wedding? Can Emily see the upward line of possibility in a new haircut, the pink of a setting sky, the smell of cleaned sheets?
These are questions I’d like to ask her, especially tonight as my body is weightless with expectation, but I won’t. I know my grandmother. I have given her a bath every other night for almost four years now. An old and naked body in water, one hand holding the bar above the soap dish, the other squeezing a balled-up washcloth to keep from shaking, pubic hairs floating like ferns — this is more than enough intimacy. It is the reason I, and not my mother, her oldest son’s wife, am in charge of baths.
“You will like Forest’s father,” I say. “He’s a very nice man.”
“Nice can mean anything,” she says and pauses. We look at each other and she winks. Then, in a softer tone, she says, “I’d imagine he’s a good-looking fellow, considering the looks on your guy.”
“You think Forest is good-looking, Em? You never said so before.”
“He has a good chin and hair most women would die for.”
I hesitate before asking, “What else, Emily, what else do you like about him?”
“He’s not going to be my husband, now is he?” She smiles a smile I cannot interpret. It is a toothless grin that curls her lips only slightly. “Would you be so kind as to add more hot, and this time please spread it around. My feet aren’t the only thing I like kept warm.”
“Yes, Madame,” I say and start pushing my hands through the water, sending the hot water up toward her back.
“What I love about his looks,” I say, “is that his face, especially those blue, blue eyes, shows you something real. When he’s happy or sad or wanting, I can see that. Most men reveal nothing but presence.” I say this and realize we have almost never talked of men, excepting politicians, of course. All I can recall is the day she turned to me as we sat on beach chairs, barefoot in the hot sand, and declared, “You realize, all men are boys.” I was about seventeen. My world, in fact, was one of boys.
“A man with presence,” she says, “believe me, is worth a lot.”
“I’m not sure, not at all,” I say. “You know, in court last year I saw a man who had killed his seven-year-old son with a hammer. He was sitting on his chair, cooler than the court reporter. And in school, good God, I’m not kidding, Em, guys flunking out smiled with the rest of them.”
“Might as well smile,” she says, lifting her other leg.
“You remember my old boyfriend, Jimmy Speldini, the one you thought was surly?”
“I was with him two hours, at home, before he told me his father had had a stroke that day. His dad was living in Houston then. But two hours. That’s one-hundred-and-twenty minutes.”
“I know what it is,” Emily says, tilting her head to inspect the job I’m doing. “That boy was always a strange bird. But there’s just no point in hanging out your dirty laundry and don’t you and Forest go talking everywhere about everything. People don’t need to know.”
“Don’t you think,” I say, feeling more like thirteen than thirty, “that it’s important for a man to be open with his emotions?”
“People don’t want to know anyway. They don’t care to know your problems.” Emily stares into the clear water, thinking. “Hollywood people, they’re the only ones with problems anyone bothers about.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, but my grandmother says nothing. I put down the razor. “Hot enough for you?”
“It’s fine. Thanks, dear.” She sounds sad and distant.
I turn off the water and try to think of the next line. What she is talking about is my grandfather, Roland, though the household rules forbid even the mention of his name. Roland was the only Hardley boy to reach six feet, and yet, with his narrow shoulders pinched in toward his chest, his gray flannels just barely hanging on above his thin rear end, and that round, red, stupidly happy face, he seemed a little man, chronically young in some painful and hideous way. The way my father tells it, he was an excellent bridge player who couldn’t get home on time.
When I picture my grandfather, I see the man who after one Christmas dinner changed into his bathing suit and walked downstairs, unaware of his own mumbling and the fact it was winter in New York. I do not know what Emily’s picture looks like. I would imagine it does not include much of that valuable commodity called presence. But then maybe when she looks back to find him, he is sleeping on their four-poster bed, resting in that place where all of us look innocent and ageless, needing only air and quiet, and enough blankets to keep warm. Maybe where she looks, Roland is dressed in his tuxedo with the silk lapels.
Finally, after long minutes spent with the sounds of birds and my mother’s hair dryer and the phone ringing, I agree with my grandmother. Keeping things to yourself can help, I say, not convinced at all. But what more can I do? She is the woman who drove me clear across the country and back when I was twelve, letting me steer her maroon Delta along all those barren highways. She is the one who stayed up late into the evenings holding my index cards, grilling me for any exam I’ve ever taken, occasionally challenging the facts I was recording to memory. And it is Emily who has told me since I could walk to stand up straighter because I have “handsome” good looks that apparently command posture and some sense of Protestant duty.
I tell her that a basic rule of advocacy is to instruct your client never to give more than the bare answer. “If you need to elaborate,” I say, wrapping a towel around her, “do it in the bathroom, with the door locked.”
“In that case, I’m bound to keep it all in,” she laughs. “Locks haven’t moved from the north-south position since those Fuerbach boys painted in ’85.”
I grab Emily’s paisley silk bathrobe from the door hook, and she stares at me with those watery green eyes in a way that makes me the villain for offering to assist.
“What?” I say.
She shoos me with her hand. I put the bathrobe back on the hook. Emily sighs loudly, indignant that the person who soaps her body, unties her shoes, and plucks her eyebrows once a month, should slide her arms through a bathrobe.
“You’re a tough cookie,” I say, “but I know I’m going to miss this more than my own room.”
“Oh, go on,” she says, “you will not either.”
There is no sense in arguing this point, and anyway, sweet contention is not what I feel as I stand before the steamed mirror in Emily’s bathroom. What I feel is the warmth and swell of tears in my eyes.
“Oh Emily,” I say and hug her warm and fluttering body.
“I know, sweetheart,” she says. “I know.”
We stand like this for a while until my grandmother pulls away and reaches for something in her bathrobe pocket. It is a hard task for her, but this time I offer no assistance, I do not avert my eyes, I simply watch both hands working their terrible wonder. Finally she retrieves a strand of amethysts that I know were her mother’s and passes them to me.
“I know you will be simply beautiful tomorrow,” she says.
I take her hands in mine, the necklace woven in between, and I feel her small shaking and find myself already trying to remember what that feels like. I do not want to forget that I have stood still while holding someone’s shaking and wished for it never to go away.
Diana Stuart Greene