BY NANCY M. WILLIAMS
Compared to Pittsburgh, which Mom called “back home,” the Sonoran Desert’s green-limbed Palo Verde trees looked crooked, the graceful Ocotillos spindly, and the sprawling prickly pears squat.”
As soon as Grandma emerged through the gate from her flight from Pittsburgh, I spied the purse, a boxy, black vinyl number slung protectively in the crook of her arm. Inside, in addition to a comb, religious cards of Jesus, a deck of TWA cards, school photos of her nine grandchildren, and a travel pack of Kleenex, were candy mints. Pastel candy mints in light green, pale yellow, and pink. Mints that would melt as soon as they came into contact with my saliva. Mints that, at the slightest crunch, would crumble into powder.
My sisters and I jumped up and down, legs and arms flailing in the air, as Grandma approached us. She hugged us each in turn, the doughy underside of her arms rubbing against my cheek, her smooth hands, as though dusted with flour, caressing my arms. “Nancy-Bella,” Grandma murmured.
“Grandma,” I said. I turned out my legs and toes, lengthened the back of my neck, and extended my arms. “I’m still taking ballet.”
“Ooo. Are you going to show me some steps?”
“Mum,” my Mom interrupted. “Not now. We have to get your luggage.”
Grandma raked her hands through her thick, gray hair “All right.” She smiled at my sisters and me. “I’ve got some surprises.”
“Yay!” A few passengers smiled at the chorus from my sisters. I cheered along with them, although I suspected the suitcase contained butterscotch hard candy and Tootsie Rolls, bulky candy with harsh flavors acceptable in a pinch but far inferior to the delicate mints.
En route to the baggage claim, I demonstrated for Grandma a few grand jetés. Mom charged ahead, wanting to collect all of Grandma’s luggage. Grandma would be staying with us in Tucson for a month. She was still in mourning for my Grandpa Fortune, who’d died the year before, before I had turned eight.
In the parking lot, the hot Arizona air seemed to hit Grandma like a blast from a heating vent. As we drove out of the airport, a hazy film of heat hovering over the black road, I remembered when we had visited Grandma in Pittsburgh, how startled I had been at the emerald green hills, the mist in the air from a recent rain. Compared to Pittsburgh, which Mom called “back home,” the Sonoran Desert’s green-limbed Palo Verde trees looked crooked, the graceful Ocotillos spindly, and the sprawling prickly pears squat.
Grandma stared out the car window. She shook her head at the landscape, as though it were spiteful. “Why’d he have to move you all the way out here for? Oooo, that dirty dog.” She meant my father.
My mother’s hand tightened around the steering wheel. “Mum,” she said. I scooted forward and hung my arms over the front seat. “It was the only place he could find a job. Tenure,” I added, repeating the magic word.
Grandma plucked a tissue from her travel pack and dabbed her eyes. “It’s so far,” she said.
My mother’s concerned eyes scanned the rear view mirror. “Girls, Grandma’s upset about Grandpa.”
“Oh. Fortune.” Grandma said.
Grandma bowed her head for a moment. A single sob escaped her. I waited, my hands dangling, to see how long she would cry. I couldn’t imagine either of my parents weeping with such sadness over one another. Mom chasing Dad down the hallway when he arrived home from work, her voice angry and complaining; and Dad’s response, weary and yet disgusted, caused me secretly to worry. What, I wondered, had made my grandparents’ marriage so special? I didn’t remember much of Grandpa, just the time when I was very young when he had tapped me on the shoulder and had pretended it had been my two-year-old sister, Jean.
Mom tunrned into a strip mall and parked in front of the Sir George Royal Buffet. My father, working late at the university, would not be joining us for dinner. At the table, Mom cast an approving glance at me when I remembered to put my napkin on my lap. When the meal was over, my mother excused herself to use the bathroom. I slumped in my chair, indolent from several courses and a large piece of chocolate cake, of which I’d eaten all but one bite to save room for the mints, which I was certain would be making their appearance at any time now.
Grandma smoothed her napkin on the table, her fingers precise as though about to pin and cut a pattern from cloth. I knew that she had sewn my Aunt’s wedding dress by hand. Grandma shook the juice from a half-eaten chicken breast and then a thigh, placed both pieces of meat onto the napkin, and folded over the edges. I watched, wide-eyed.
When Mom sat down at the table, I blurted, “Grandma put some chicken in her purse.”
My mother leaned forward, forgetting to place her napkin on her lap. “Mum,” she said, “you can’t do that.”
“You don’t take out from a buffet restaurant.”
“I paid for it, didn’t I?”
“Mum, take that chicken out of your purse.”
Grandma thumbed her nose at Mom. “Porcaria,” she said.
I spoke up. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” my mother said. She stared at her napkin, seemingly stunned as to why it was on the table rather than her lap. She picked it up. “For the last time, please take that chicken out of your purse.”
Grandma didn’t reply. She simply sat there, her chubby hands locked around her purse’s handles. I fervently hoped the chicken was not proximate to the side-zippered pockets where she kept the mints, lest some the brown juices seep from the napkin and stain the candy.
After we arrived home, the chicken safely spirited into our refrigerator, Grandma and I sat on my bed, my head resting against her soft arm. On my dresser was last year’s Christmas gift from Grandma, a wind-up music doll, a shepardess with light yellow hair sitting on a field of pastel green grass, in a frothed pink dress, in the same delicious colors as the mints. She rotated serenely to “Somewhere My Love,” one of Grandma’s favorite songs. I wound up the base, and the doll plucked out the notes, wistful and haunting. Grandma hummed along in a lower octave in her alto voice.
For a fleeting moment, I considered asking for the mints. But first, not quite understanding what propelled me, I said, “Grandma, do you miss Grandpa?”
Grandma sobbed. “Oh, Fortune,” she said.
My mother, who was passing by in the hall, drew in her breath with concern. “Mum, you’re not crying again?”
“She misses Grandpa,” I said. I patted Grandma’s shoulder.
I had known she would cry. I had wanted to see her do it once more. Watching Grandma weep for Grandpa cemented in me the hope that a woman could love a man keenly, deeply, and would be haunted by his memory.
After my mother left the room, Grandma rummaged through her purse. At first, when she held out her hand, I thought she was offering me a tissue. Instead, nestled in the white tissue like the crown jewels of London displayed on cream satin were the mints, and she said, with a grin on her face and her deep voice full of conspiracy, “Nancy-Bella, would you like a piece of candy?”
Nancy M. Williams is an award-winning writer and founding editor of Grand Piano Passion™, an online magazine for studying the piano at any age and for making music despite hearing loss.
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