By Kristi DeMeester
I gave up sleeping in the same bed as my grandmother after the first night she moved into my bedroom. That first night, I stretched my body along the corner of the sagging mattress, my calf muscles cramping; the thin quilt tucked tightly beneath me so that her sagging, yellowed skin would not touch mine. Her chest rose and fell, and I timed my inhalations against her tobacco stained exhalations.
“It’s just until she gets back on her feet. It’s not easy being evicted,” my mother said.
For the next four years, my mother recited her truth. “It’s only for a little while, Kristi.”
Like anything worth hating, it took time to learn how to do it just right.
But before I hated my grandmother, I loved her. Every Thursday I waited for what she called our “nature walks.” From the porch swing, I searched for her faded blue station wagon and rubbed my feet together with impatience.
She’d sweep in smelling of sweat and tobacco; her dark hair teased and sprayed into an immovable coiffure. She wore her makeup like a shield, layering on foundation, blush, and mascara, but no lipstick. “Chapstick is all I need,” she said.
If a handsome man passed us, she smiled and winked. “When you get a little older, I’ll teach you how to flirt,” she said.
“I’ve always loved tulips,” she said as we stopped to admire the yellow petals. I sniffed them while she lit a cigarette. “Prettiest things I ever saw.” As the scent of tulips and cigarette smoke washed over me, she led me home.
Every year on my birthday she drove me to Shoney’s for breakfast. “It’s my oldest grandbaby’s birthday,” she told the waitress when she raised her eyebrows at my bacon filled plate, “If it’s bacon she wants, she can have it.” In kindergarten, I wrote my first sentences about her. I called her my best friend.
Then, in 1991 her younger sister was diagnosed with lung cancer and was dead four months later.
The next week, I waited on the porch for my grandmother, but she didn’t come. My mother told me, “Grandma is sad right now. Give her some time, okay?” Pretty soon, I stopped waiting.
I imagine she’d hoped she could drown her sadness in a man, and a few months after her sister’s death, she started dating. Three months after meeting Jimmy Head, my grandmother made him her third husband. He laughed easily and loudly, played with me and my brother like he was a child, too. I loved him as a grandfather.
When her marriage didn’t alleviate the sadness of her sister’s death, she began drinking. She hid plastic bottles of vodka under the kitchen sink and drank until she couldn’t stand. “Don’t you touch me,” she hissed when Jimmy tried to lift her.
He hovered, waited for her depression to lift, for the hurt of losing her younger sister to dissipate. When she left him, I cried. Something inside my grandmother had broken in the face of losing a sister with whom she shared so many secrets.
To survive, she waitressed at the Waffle House and weaned herself off of the vodka, only taking a nip every now and again. “To take the edge off,” she said.
On a day my mother couldn’t find a babysitter, my grandmother took me to the Waffle House and sat me at the counter with a dish rag and ketchup bottles that needed wiping. I watched as she delivered coffee and winks to her male regulars.
When her shift ended, she collapsed beside me and pulled her tip money from her apron.
“Count that out for me, hon” she said as she ordered lunch: a double cheeseburger with hashbrowns followed by a honey bun, which she slathered in butter.
“Don’t you ever eat like this,” she warned.
“Why do you?”
“I have a high metabolism, but you’re like your momma and will get bigger than a house,” she pinched my thigh, “and you can’t afford to get much chunkier.”
After that, I jogged in place for twenty minutes before bed each night for the next three years.
In late 1994 my parents divorced, and my grandmother offered us temporary shelter in her three-bedroom home.
No longer married, my grandmother gave up the façade of the tidy housewife and lived in squalor. The kitchen sink crusted under her unwashed dishes; flies ventured into the cool depths of the refrigerator to die in piles around rotting meatloaf. Dirty clothes covered the floor.
Watching her sit in her own filth disgusted me. Often I stared at her and imagined what it would feel like to kick her, or pinch her, or place the dead cockroach I’d found in the kitchen inside her snoring mouth. Even better would be to throw away all of her lottery tickets, but I knew better. Nothing came between my grandmother and her love of gambling.
When she wasn’t sleeping or working, we could find her at Grand’s gas station feeding her tip money to a slot machine. With her mouth open and eyes glazed, she drank Diet Pepsi and chain smoked as she tapped her darkened fingernails against the buttons.
My mother met a nice man and married him in February, 1996. After three years of saving, my stepfather closed on a house he’d had built for us. For the first time, I had my own bedroom and bathroom.
Then on Christmas Eve of 1999, my grandmother came home from work to find her things scattered on the icy front lawn and an eviction notice taped to the door.
“She’ll only be here for a little while,” my mother said as I shouted, cried, and threw small items. My grandmother moved into my bedroom that weekend. What remained of her life was stuffed into plastic grocery sacks.
“Which side is mine?”
“Next to the window,” I said, pushing the grocery sacks she’d placed on my bed onto the floor.
On the hand-me-down pine dresser, she’d laid out her essentials: her makeup bag, Rave Ultra hairspray, half a bottle of Benadryl. My grandmother had quit drinking, but she took long pulls from that bottle before bed.
I spent the next four years sleeping on the floor and growing to hate her. I had dreams of being a writer. The chirping of the television or her wheezing in the background didn’t allow that.
Sometimes, she caught me on a Sunday morning, a cup of coffee in her hand.
“So who is this Chris boy you’ve been talking about?”
“Just a boy I know at school.”
She sipped her coffee, tilted her head, “So when did he kiss you?”
“Last night.” I clapped a hand over my mouth, “How did you know?”
“I figured somebody had kissed you. You came in this house last night glowing like a lightning bug.”
She told me she loved me every day, and I couldn’t stand her for that.
For my sixteenth birthday my mother and grandmother promised me a sleepover. I’d never hosted a slumber party and was embarrassed at sharing a room with my grandmother.
“You’re sure you won’t be here, Grandma?”
“I’m sure, hon.”
When the day finally came, I raced home and flung open the door only to find her sitting on the bed.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m at overtime, and Craig says I can’t work any more hours this week.”
“Can’t you stay somewhere else?”
“I’ll sleep on the couch tonight. It’ll be like I’m not even here.”
She hovered on the outskirts of the party, entering the bedroom because she had forgotten something. “Don’t ya’ll mind me! Oh aren’t you just the prettiest thing? If you were any skinnier, you’d just blow away.”
At one point, she stumbled into our bathroom. Her Benadryl had worked its magic because she proceeded to urinate with the force of a Thoroughbred.
At school the next day, word spread about my crazy grandmother. When I sat down at lunch, my friends picked up their trays and moved to a new table.
At home, as I stared at my grandmother’s mess, rage boiled in my belly.
Walking into the bathroom, I grabbed my grandmother’s toothbrush. Our toilet hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, and a blackish green mold sprouted across the white porcelain.
Taking care to push the bristles deep into the mold, I scrubbed every inch of that toilet with my grandmother’s toothbrush. For the next two weeks, I secretly laughed every time she brushed her teeth.
My grandmother bought a trailer and moved out shortly before I turned eighteen. I celebrated by sleeping naked in a new set of bed sheets, but soon I found I was behaving like her. Coming home after my undergraduate classes and job as a waitress, I’d fall into bed still wearing my smelly uniform. Doing laundry meant dousing a t-shirt in perfume and popping it in the dryer. If I ran out of underwear, I’d turn them inside out and wear them anyway.
“Why am I like this?” I asked my mother. “If Justin’s out of town, I won’t change out of my pajamas for days. I leave food containers just lying out. Oh God, I’m just like grandma.”
To offset the periods of sloth, I cleaned every surface until I bled and felt at peace.
At night, I tried to write, but I’d sit instead in front of the television. Paper threatened to consume my desk, reminding me of the pages I hadn’t written. “You’ll never actually peel yourself off of this couch and finish your novel,” I thought, “because you are just like her.”
Meanwhile, my grandmother was leaving us. When the doctor diagnosed her with emphysema, she joked, “At least it’s not cancer, right?”
She swore to get more exercise, to eat better, to stop smoking. The oxygen tank hissed as she drew breath from the cord looped over her ears. Each of us scolded her like a child when we’d catch her smoking.
“Are you trying to kill yourself? You shouldn’t be smoking any way, much less next to the oxygen tank!”
Every week, she called me. “I miss you, baby girl,” she said. Too often, I ignored the call.
The last time we spoke was on my twenty-sixth birthday. “Remember when I used to take you to Shoney’s on your birthday?”
“I remember. Listen, I’m really busy.” I never spoke with her again.
Three months later, my grandmother was found dead in her mobile home. While we waited for the attendants to take her body, my brother sat on the ground picking at his cuticles, his hat pulled low. My mother walked in slow circles. I bowed my head so my hair covered my eyes.
“I need to see her,” my mother said, pausing at the rickety front steps. She placed her hand on the door knob then took it off before turning back to me. I couldn’t look at her.
“Oh, Mom,” she said as the door clicked behind her.
Moments later, she called for me. “Kristi, can you please help me? I need to send clothes.”
I turned from the body when I entered.
“Is this nice enough?” my mother held up a cream colored pantsuit. “Can you look in her dresser for socks? She hates to be cold.”
I touched everything with my fingertips, ashamed that even now I was squeamish around her things.
Inside the trailer I held my mother as we cried.
This spring a tulip in my garden flamed out in vibrant pink among the white blooms I’d planted in the fall. I hadn’t planted it. But its petals remained long after the others faded and dropped.
Kristi DeMeester lives, teaches, and writes fiction in the Southern Gothic vein in Atlanta, Georgia. Her article “Why I am Not a Luddite” was published in Free Inquiry magazine, and she is currently working on a novel. She blogs about everything she sees at www.oneperfectword.blogspot.com.
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