That’s for Remembrance
Grandma Rosemary’s hands shake and her lips quiver all the time now, so that if it weren’t for the light in her white eyes I’d think she was wracked with grief. And she is, I suppose, when she remembers to be.
Her lips, hanging flaccid from the folds in her face, are so soft I almost can’t feel them against my palm as they gather the pile of pills I hold up for her. We both hate this part, but if she tries to do it herself, she drops them all into the deep, awful carpet and we never see them again. Best for us both just to take a momentary leave from pride.
I hand her one of the cups of cold tea collected on the table and hope it’s one from today.
“Thank you, sweet Susie,” she says, and takes her minute to raise her eyes again—to remind herself that what she can’t do now has no reflection on all the things that she has done. Her face smoothes when that firmness returns—when she remembers who she is.
And I flip open my sketchbook and settle in, hunker down so I’m not swept away in her tide of memories. And I don’t mind, really. Sure, it’s two hours—at least—of my day tossed under the relentless roll of her stories. But I get my homework done, and Gramma Rosemary’s happy, and Mom is relieved and grateful, and never complains about the out-of-state art school tuition. It’s cheaper than in-state plus a home nursing service. A good deal for both of us, and best of all for Gramma Rosemary.
Her conversations always begin the same way. “Do you remember?” she’ll ask. And, queen of nostalgia as she is, you would think that what would follow is an account of a thing that really happened. But that’s not the case anymore.
Ever since the cataracts turned her eyes as white as Grampa Thomas’s barn cat’s, she tells tales of times that never were, says “I remember. I remember,” smiles, and pours another cup of tea and sets it right next to the others—tepid and undrunk.
I’m halfway through my sketch when I see her cat eyes are locked on me, and not on the middle-distance of memory.
“Do you still wear your purple wings?” she asks, flapping her twisted hands in the air.
“No, Gramma,” I say. I remember how the wings smelled when they burned, the plastic mesh melting into a shell of ashy enamel.
“That’s a shame. You were so good in them. I remember when you’d never take them off.”
I try not to remember it. A Halloween costume at age four that I didn’t take off till I was nine—when it stopped working.
“Do you remember the time you wore them into the barn and found Grampa Thomas there? Hanging from a beam. You flew right up and tried to lift him, but you were too small. And it was too late.”
“Gramma, Grampa Thomas died before I was born. He was your grandfather. James was my grandfather. Don’t you remember James?”
“Oh yes, Thomas was mine. I remember, now. Such a sad man. He never should have hid near those civilians. He drew the fire straight to that poor girl. His guilt was never quiet after that.”
“Gramma, that was the documentary we watched. Gettysburg.”
“Yes, I remember. You were so pretty there, in your purple wings, over the battlefield like an angel.”
It’s times like this when I want to run. I wish I could run into her memories—be back in the times when things were better. I set down my sketchbook and give her a big hug. Her smell is different now, but there’s a whisper of her better scent, there on her neck. It’s the smell of those good times, when the hugs were just for hugs and not for comfort. I remember it. It’s the fabric softener in her blouses, her lipstick and hairspray—how her lips smelled like her neck, her cheek, because her perfume was kept with her makeup and it all came together to be the smell of her. All that is still there, under the sweet-sour smell of dementia.
“You ought to put your wings on, sweet Susan,” she says. “Just because you couldn’t pull him out of the sky, or out of the fire of the crash, and you can’t pull him out of the ground, now—that doesn’t mean they don’t work. Thomas would want you to wear your wings.”
“James, Gramma. James, not Thomas.”
• • •
I stand outside her door the next day, hesitating. I miss her so badly I want to run to her, but the her that I miss isn’t in there anymore. But it isn’t much better out here. The weeds are tall, choking out the perennial lilies she used to pamper. The lawn is shaggy. I could fix this, I think. I should fix this Bring back the world I remember. Make it like new again. But the knot in my stomach makes my hands heavy and it’s all I can do just to lift one to the doorknob.
The parlor is covered in china teacups cradled in small saucers. Framed pictures are slid back on their doilies to make room for more small place settings.
She’s there, on the sofa—almost invisible in a floral suit that blends with the upholstery, the wallpaper, the lampshade. The suit hangs from her diminishing frame like a curtain. She hasn’t worn it since James was alive to driver her to midnight mass.
My chest feels tight as my eyes trace the lines where she’s tried to put on makeup. Her cloudy eyes and shaking hands have painted a wide grimace across her face. A teacup rattles in her fingers.
“Don’t gape, dear. Have a seat.”
Sit? Or call Mom, call the doctor? But my knees are bending as if they belong to nine-year-old me, incapable of ignoring Gramma’s directive. I reach for a cup of tea.
“Not that one—that’s Joe’s. It’s not tea in there, of course.” She sighs and adds sugar to her own cup. I see a cloud of granules swirling in the cold liquid. My blood’s as cold as the tea.
Joe’s. It’s whisky, then. I drink it anyway. Gramma clucks her tongue, but we both know Joe owes me a whisky.
“Are you feeling okay, Gramma?” I can’t keep the shake out of my voice, but she’s staring at the chair next to me and doesn’t seem to notice. I lose count of the teacups. She’s been in the storage shed, clearly. I see her mother’s apple pattern, and her grandmother’s gold-rim china, more that I don’t recognize. Two hundred years of teacups, at least, and I wonder how many dead relatives she’s remembered into the room.
“I’m fine. But I’ve been talking with Joe, James, and Thomas. And we’re concerned about you.” She nods at the empty seats.
“Oh, Gramma Ros.” This is the beginning of the end, then. My face is too heavy, and it drops into my hands. I’m rupturing from that tight knot in my gut—the fracture is stealing up my neck like a split seam. When it reaches my mouth, it breaks out of me, splitting the air with a wail. My palms are already soaked with tears.
“Oh, honey!” I can’t hear her get closer, but I can smell her. That smell of better times off-gassing from her old suit, overwhelming the smell of sweat and diapers.
I’m expecting her arm around me, but instead she’s pushing something onto my lap—a box wrapped in ragged paper bags.
I wipe my eyes clear, and she’s beaming at me—her red, smeared smile so broad that I can see how her back teeth have gone slate grey. She’s taking my hands and guiding them to the package. My fingers smudge the paper, all tears and graphite. I imagine my face doesn’t look much better.
The paper rips like old cloth, sending up clouds of attic-scented dust. Under the paper is a warped Macy’s box, the Christmas-red foil letters peeling away from the white cardboard. I slide my fingers under the lid. The yellowed scotch tape cracks like an eggshell. Underneath is a mound of blue tulle mesh, pressed into the shape of the box.
Gramma’s lipstick mouth is hanging, now, shaking, as she looks from the box to me. I’m afraid to touch the fabric. My fingers are frozen, pinching the cardboard. Gramma Ros reaches in and pulls out the pair of wings and shakes them, unfolding the yards of lace.
“These were meant to be your mother’s,” she says. She untangles the two elastic arm loops and holds them out. “Do you remember that Halloween?”
I’m trying not to. Fighting it. Squeezing my eyes shut and holding onto that dust smell—the smell of things getting old, being forgotten.
“She wanted to go with you around the neighborhood. I know she did. She’s the one who suggested the matching costumes.”
The old box slides off my lap. It’s how I know I’m standing.
“Gramma, I don’t want to.” My voice is nine again.
Her cloudy eyes flash, and for a moment, the hazel shows through. “You were five minutes too late to save Thomas. Five seconds too late for James. And you’re ten years too late for Joe. You’ve pulled your head out of the clouds and buried your feet so deep into the ground that if you don’t fly straight up this very moment, it’ll be too late for you, too.”
The heat in my face breaks my reverie, and my hands are shaking worse than hers. “I couldn’t have saved any of them! Not if I had a thousand wings. Whether it’s five minutes on the end of a rope, five seconds in a tailspin, or ten years on the neck of a bottle—none of that is enough time. Putting on a costume won’t help!”
Her eyelids are the color of the sky the day his plane fell. Her mouth, held tight, the color of the blood smeared across the car window. She rubs her thumb over the elastic. The straps are frayed with age. They look as though they’d snap if I stretched them.
“I’m not talking about them, anymore, sweet Susan. I already said—it’s too late. Always late. I’m talking about you.”
This isn’t what I came here to do. I came to study art. To build a future and leave the past behind me. I squeeze my eyes shut, but when I do, I remember—the feel of the air dragging at my wings, the texture of the fabric pinched between my fingers, the squeeze of the elastic straps as I chased his car. I thought they would make me faster. I thought I could catch him and somehow keep the car on the road. I thought maybe the rapid blowing of his toxic whisky breath would catch in my wings, an updraft I could use to lift us from the twisted metal. But it blew clear through them. As if they weren’t even there.
Gramma Rosemary’s skeletal hand cups my chin. “I remember. I remember. Your memories are your wings, sweet Susan. They’ll lift you, if you let them. Or they’ll drag behind you like a net, getting heavier the more you carry. The worst thing you can do is forget.”
The worst thing. It hits me then, how hard she fights against the ever-growing emptiness in her mind. The holes in her net, memories running out like an hourglass. I watch them swirl in the clouds of her eyes, and I feel the scrape of old elastic along my arms.
The wings are heavy at first. So many burdens, so many memories. I remember. I remember the way Thomas danced—not in the air on the end of a rope, but across the floor, a smile creeping out from under his mustache. I remember the childlike glee on James’s face every time he prepped his plane for flight. And I remember the apology in Joe’s eyes as I tried to pull him through the broken car window. I remember, and my heart rises.
I’m holding Gramma Ros, cradled in my arms like she used to hold me. I can smell her hair, the way it smells just like her blush, like her clothes, like better times. I remember those times, and I lift us both.