Sunday, July 20, 2008

Missing Roses

So I've been on a bit of hiatus. Not from writing, but from writing here. I could offer up my excuses and say that I've been pursuing credits toward my B.A. in Dance for the last three weeks (which is true). Or I could note that I've been taking notes as a reporter and photographer for a couple of local bi-monthly papers (also true).

But to be honest, I just haven't written--haven't known what to write (perhaps untrue).

I still don't, but I do have something to share. It's a piece of writing I tinkered with over Spring semester of last year, a piece about my grandmother Rose who passed away this week. The piece remains unfinished, but since its beginning, it has functioned as a lens with which to view what was happening to my grandmother's deteriorating health. To consider how I might write the scene I was living was my way of getting beyond what was really happening.

And even in the quiet of Thursday's dawn, as she lay in lavender pajamas, breathing shallowly beneath a hand-stitched quilt, I was writing. Taking notes, remembering times, smells and the way the light shone on her quiet face. I was writing from a fragile necessity that morning.

But the piece. It was edited some for a space constraint and I haven't refilled in the spaces I cinched together for class. But I'll stop with the explanations and excuses.

From "The Destrcutors"

Last Christmas Eve, the house had been filled with family and friends who appeared annually for the holiday. From my seat at the bar I spotted my grandmother and my uncle’s mother in a corner where both women seemed younger versions of themselves.

Lois and Grandma were perched on the couch, their arms entwined. I watched as they laughed; their heads of grandmother curls doubled over and the women came up with wet cheeks. She looked different from the way I remember her as a kid; she looked different from the way I had thought of her lately. Her wrinkles and frailty had recently overwhelmed me. And she had finally succumbed to the idea of Chandler place.

Jan walked to the center of the room and tinkled the glass containing her own drink, “Rosie has a little something to say to everyone.”

The men in the room began to shout obnoxiously: “SPEECH! SPEECH!”

“OOkay, Shutchyour damn mouths.” Grandma spoke from the back of her throat and ambled to her feet before laughing and then letting tears fill her eyes as she looked around the room. Her lips pursed and her face smushed in creating the kind of silence that exists before a child cries after he falls.

She sniffed and her words came in spurts. “I just… want to… wish everyone a Merry Christmas… and… thank… you all for… coming.” She’d had a speech prepared, but faltered. “You all know what you mean and you all have the memories so I don’t need to bring them up.” Looking small and frail, she raised her drink in the middle of basement. Her clothing was rumpled as much as her face, and the tears trickled down before her last sentence came out in one breath. “You all have a good time,” she said and eased slowly toward the couch before collapsing onto its cushions. Lois patted her on the back. Her voice sounded naturally congested.

“You did great Rose.”

That was to be the last Christmas Eve at 3511 NE Main.

I sighed and rubbed a finger through the dust on the horn-rimmed glasses pinned to the bar by a thumbtack. They had brought on the memory and their joints had been crudely repaired with stiffened hot glue. The hardened material held them open as if Grandpa had removed them for a moment to chew on the edges while he mixed a drink. They remained the glasses Paul Auster’s father left behind: “scattered throughout the house: on kitchen counters, on tabletops, on the edge of the bathroom sink—always open, lying there like some strange, classified form of animal.”

“There is a poignancy to it, and also a kind of horror. In themselves, the things mean nothing, like the cooking utensils of some vanished civilization. And yet they say something to us, standing there not as objects but as remnants of thought, of consciousness of the solitude in which a man comes to make decisions about himself: whether to color his hair, whether to wear this or that shirt, whether to live, whether to die. And the futility of it all once there is death.”

I read these lines only a day after my aunt’s voice pulled me from the place where the glasses hung near the bar. I climbed the carpeted stairs to the kitchen.

“Grandma wants to know if you want her china,” she asked. The kitchen was filled with boxes and the cupboards were wide open, their gutted insides spread over the countertop. Newspaper and old towels were intermittent with vases and candy dishes.

“Sure, but you’ll have to send it with my parents. I have no room for it in my apartment.”

As Grandma pushed on the table’s surface to stand, her navy corduroys fell back around her ankles and re-covered her bony legs. She carefully started in the direction of the adjacent living room, clinging to the walls and its doorway for support.

I said, “Thanks Rosie,” and she turned to me.

“Oh you’re welcome.”

“How’re you doing?” I asked, rubbing her back.

She answered with a singsong, “Oh I’m fine.” But as she turned on the TV, I can only presume how she really felt. Perhaps that she missed my grandfather more than I’d ever understand. Perhaps that she was giving up, surrendering to the move. Feeling obligated after such a stroke.

She’d be giving up her car, no longer trusted to drive. Giving up her house, where she’d raised two children and buried and third, days after her birth. Where she’d washed dishes and forced my father to eat beets at the kitchen table after they’d gone cold. She was always cold now, wearing sweatshirts year round. There was a time when climbing the stairs was not an event and she made kool-aid in a crystal pitcher on summer afternoons for her kids.

As she looked up from the television, she might have remembered a time when she could see for miles from the front window, before someone from train yard across the street had built up the earth and created a man made hill to deafen the sounds of trains at night. But the freight cars on their tracks were still audible during the early hours of the morning, even though it was decades ago their whistles stopped registering in her ears.

• • •

The huge prints of Grandma and Grandpa on their birthdays’ were framed in the basement and hung above the end table holding an old rotary telephone. On her head of curls, my grandmother had a birthday crown made of tin foil. In his, Grandpa was wearing an enormous sombrero and grinning. Though the photograph is noisy and soft, the black frames of the glasses on his face seemed to jump out of the relatively gray scene.

I twisted the screwdriver to the left, loosening the lower corner of Grandpa’s frame on the wall. The rough wood poked a sliver into my palm and I held the frame steady. It left a growing red spot as I ignored it and continued to dismantle the frame, detaching it from the wood paneled wall.

Screw after screw, I loosened and removed, until I could no longer reach the tip of the Phillips flush into its screw.

I dismantled the frame in a methodic nature that reminded me of Graham Greene and Mr. Karn’s tenth grade AP lit class. We’d read ‘The Destructors” during the term, and I would recall it six years later when I was dismantling my grandmother’s house. Though my father and I had not been destroying the floorboards of an old man’s beautiful house, new paint covered cigarette-stained walls and the year-round tinsel and Christmas lights in the basement has been thrown in the trash.

“Dad, will you help me with these last screws? I’m not tall enough.”

• • •

“I went down to dinner today,” Grandma told me over the phone. “But it wasn’t so great.” She’d taken to eating dinner with a new group of women. They flock down to the ornate social room for happy hour, but Grandma turns her nose up at the fact she’s only allowed two vodka cokes.

“How are your new lady friends?”

She giggled, “Oh they’re fine. Just fine.” Even though she was in her apartment alone, her voice dropped, indicating gossip. “But there’s the one lady… oh she bugs me. She’s just a little bit… slow, you know. And I know I shouldn’t say that, but every time I see her I just get so upset. She’s completely senile…”

“I know what you mean,” I said. “Did you go down to happy hour today?”

“No, that’s only on Friday. So tomorrow the Helen and I will go. We like to get together and… toss the air. So what are you up to tonight, Kels?”

I briefly recount the relentless details of my semester’s end and three jobs.

“Goodness. Don’t get yourself all tired out now. You’re so busy, I just worry about you sometimes.”