I’m writing this down. I can’t find the picture—Grammy did something with it. Years ago, I was spending the afternoon at her house, leafing through the family albums, and I discovered it had been removed from the album.
It had been in the middle of the oldest one, with the blue padded cover, and a white plastic spiral holding in the pages. The photo of my baby brother Sal having his third birthday party was still there, little Sallie sitting on a red tricycle in the middle of the living room, his very own swing for the swing set coiled in its chain on the floor behind him. Another picture of Sal and Jimmy and me in front of the fake Christmas tree we used every year was still in there. I’m the oldest, much taller than the boys. Tall and skinny in my robe. No breasts yet.
(The following baseball season Jimmy fell out of his coach’s truck after a game, hit his head and became five years old for the rest of his life. I don’t visit him nearly as much as I should.)
The third photo was another of us three kids, professionally done, with us posed, our heads turned at uncomfortable angles, our smiles forced. I have on my blue cowl neck, with my half of the Mizpah necklace Cedric Cormany got me dangling over the heaping neck folds. That would have been seventh grade. Cowl necks are one thing I don’t care to ever see come back, but that picture was still there.
Then there was the place where the Polaroid of me was, empty, the yellowed glue lines as tight as corduroy, hard and crusting off, the plastic page cover bent at the corner and crisp as a candy wrapper. I think that if she had ever owned up to it, said she was sorry, I could have let it go and moved on. But she hadn’t—still hasn’t.
No. She’d taken the picture out, trusting that the incident would disappear with the picture. Which is and isn’t typical of her: denial is definitely her mode, but throwing something out? That goes totally against the essence of who she is. Grammy—my mother—is a hoarder. Thus my fruitless morning among her stacks before I came over here; I thought I might get lucky and find it, and somehow it’s still important to me, and there isn’t much time left. She’s on her way out. Looking at her now makes me think of plucked chickens and sometimes it’s even almost comical.
I make my way down the hallway through the gauntlet of crones. They line the walls in their wheelchairs. They wear sagging housedresses and sweaters. They are drying up, curling in on themselves like discarded orange peels on the sidewalk. The mud-green floor is waxed till it reflects their slippers and ankles perfectly, but the image quickly blurs from there to vague shapes and colors. The old women stare down hand to cheek, hand to ear, stare down as if trying to find their reflected faces in a pasture pond.
On the cleaning lady’s cluttered cart is an industrial white spray bottle of disinfectant. The label says virucidal, bactericidal, fungicidal, and if it can kill all that stuff, it’s homicidal too in a proper dose. The bottle says refreshing floral scent, which means it smells floral the way Kool-Aid tastes grape. Still, it wouldn’t smell so bad if it weren’t working so hard to cover up the smell of piss and shit and moldering death.
Grammy’s door is open. I walk in without a sound, and pull the visitor’s chair to the bedside. The dinner tray is already wheeled to her bed and hovers on the table above where she’s been propped for feeding. Dinner: One soggy broccoli floret still attached to a long pale stem that curls in the middle trapezoid-shaped tray compartment like a dog turd. It comes complete with a leaf that crinkles wet off to the side like a spent green condom. In the big rectangular compartment is a chopped steak under beige gravy that smells like the dumpster behind Piccadilly’s cafeteria. In the small square compartment is a glob of pear sauce and weak, tepid coffee, and a juice box with some generic cartoon animal on it. Can’t even tell what kind of animal it’s supposed to be, but it’s dressed in clothes like a preppy schoolboy. This spread waits there on the wheeled tray table over her lap—she waits there for me to feed it to her.
“Who,” she says. She’s not saying anything at all. This is how she sighs, and she does it all day long. It annoys the hell out of me. I can’t tell if it’s just a habit, or if she’s sighing and who-ing like a little owl because she can’t get a lung full of air anymore. “Who,” she says. “Who, who.”
I make small talk as I spoon the pear sauce. Her toothless mouth opens like a frog’s to reveal a tongue gone gray and fuzzy on top. The stench from her rotting insides is overpowering. She mashes at the sauce with her gums. I turn my head away to breathe.
She says through her sauce, “Where is Sal? Is Sal coming?” On her face the veiny rosacea is blazing, made redder by its contrast with her pure white hair.
Three times a week I come over to Wink and Pratt to feed her dinner and sit with her. Larry, my third husband—soon to be third ex-husband—used to spell me some. My boy Eric has offered to help, and he’s a good boy for it, but I tell him no. Sitting with the dying is not a job for the young; it’s appropriate in middle age, makes you cast your gaze out to the approaching horizon, have a good long look at what’s coming for you. So Eric stayed over at Tech for the summer, so he could keep his job managing the Subway in the mall. My brother Sal is the only help I have, such as it is. He comes rarely. Still, he’s the one she always wants.
“Where’s Sal?” she asks.
“He’s not here, Grammy.” I tell her, “He’s going to try and come next week. Remember?”
“Oh good,” she says. “He’s coming next week?”
“He’s going to try.”
It feels to me like we’re back to old times, we’re at the culmination of our life together, me and Grammy: we stand back to back, looking out for each other. We’ve always been a team when it is tough, and I will nurse her to her last breath. What else can I do?
You see, my Dad, her husband, was a drunk. I’m not telling you this so I can piss and moan about how fucked up my childhood was. It really was pretty normal, all things considered. He didn’t beat me or Grammy or Sal. He didn’t—as far as I know, and I think I would know—run around on Grammy with other women. He didn’t rage or throw things or do any of the horrible things you hear people sniveling about their drunk dad’s doing. He was actually a lot of fun, as I recall it.
Sometimes he fell, or hurt himself in other accidents. He always sprayed shit and fouled the toilets. That’s pretty much it.
Wow, the way Dad could foul a toilet. It was like he could defy the laws of physics with the watery shit he splattered everywhere. He could even get it up under the toilet seat, on the bottom of the seat which was resting on top of the porcelain rim of the bowl. How, I have no idea. Maybe it was a function of the shape of each glob and fleck, like I imagine it is with those sparks that fly in curlicues off some fireworks explosions. The arrangement was that I was in charge of keeping the hallway bathroom clean and Grammy cleaned the master bath.
When Dad came home loaded, I always tried to help him back to bed fast. That way if he had to shit, he’d go in there and it wouldn’t be my problem. I’m sure Grammy knew it wasn’t just because I wanted to nurse him. If she did know it was about the toilets, she never mentioned it. There was a lot that never got mentioned. There was a lot that was sent to the dreamlike area of memory where denial makes it like something you saw on a movie, not something that happened in the real world. From there it’s a short step to convincing yourself it never happened at all. That’s why I’ve wanted so desperately to find that picture, because, for me at least, it would prove what I’ve always felt but couldn’t ever pin Grammy down on.
Cirrhosis took Dad fifteen years ago. We all went and sat tearless in padded folding chairs at a little service for him—it had been almost fifteen years since any of us had seen him—and then went to Olive Garden for dinner. It was a sad occasion I guess, but only in a general the-man’s-life-was-tragic kind of way. For me anyway, it was solidly un-sad.
Grammy swallows the pear sauce and smacks her tongue around in her mouth, making a disgusting clicking sound like a dog licking its paw. She says, “Who.” She takes a deep breath and her bony chest rises under the thin blue gown. She exhales as if exasperated, and says it again, the hollow little owl’s cry, “Who.”
Three years ago it looked like Grammy might outlive me. I had breast cancer. I had a radical mastectomy though, and chemo. It’s still early, but two years out I’m still good. That’s encouraging. I’m going through the process of getting implants. They’ve started by implanting these things that they gradually pump up, to stretch me for the breast implants. It hurts like hell.
One thing about the way we were raised, Sal and me, it’s made us stone-faced stoics when we’re in pain. Sal has wrecked two motorcycles, broken himself to pieces. I once watched them stab a tube between his ribs to drain fluid from his lung, and he just gritted his teeth and grunted. And his one arm tensed up like he was having a seizure. When it was over he said, “Well, that was unpleasant.” He was shaking and drenched in sweat.
He’s also had some illness himself. He’s on his second transplanted kidney. After the first transplant, his legs and ball sack swelled till it was like watching a balloon someone was still blowing into though you know it has to be just a fraction of stretch away from exploding. I had nightmare visions of his legs erupting, skin ripping open and all the fluid gushing out like a woman’s water breaking.
Of that excruciating pain all he had to say was, “It’s not exactly comfortable.”
All three of my ex husbands were more typical men: they pissed and moaned and lay around feeling sorry for themselves every time they got some fucking bug or other. Big macho men until their noses started to run, then it was, oh poor me, put a washcloth on my head, feed me chicken soup, sit by my bedside and coo to me in your sweet woman’s voice while I lay here smelling of sour sweat and vomit. Fuck that. I couldn’t take it. When they started whining for me to nurse them, I couldn’t do it. I got disgusted with them; I shut down. The best I could muster was telling them to suck it up and stop acting like babies. I know they all think I’m a cold hard bitch, but I’m sorry, they were grown men, and it wasn’t like they were dying, or even really all that sick, in the grand scheme of things.
My strength in the face of adversity, Larry, the last husband, described to me as my, “Total lack of affect.” Speaking of my cancer, I said, “I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re running out when things get tough.” He and his first wife had divorced while she’d been struggling with some mental health issues. I brought that up, and he told me, “There’s something wrong with you.” I talked about being strong, mentioned how Sal was strong and didn’t buckle under any kind of pressure, and how, if he, Larry, ever grew up and grew a pair, he might be the same. I said he was like a child beside my brother Sal. I called him a dickless wonder. I called him a pussy. He said, “Go see someone. Get some help,” and he moved out.
I was still weak, but by that time I was pretty sure I was beating the cancer, could just feel it somehow. While I was going through it, Eric—such a good son—offered to drop out for the semester and come home to help out. I told him hell no, he wasn’t doing anything of the sort. I was fine. He said he was glad Larry was gone. “I never liked that asshole in the first place,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me what you thought of him?” I asked. “Um,” he said. “Since when have we done that?” I let it go. I said, “You need anything? Any money?”
I spoon more pear sauce into Grammy’s mouth. I say, “I looked at the old family album today when I was over at your place.”
Grammy tries to scootch herself more upright, onto her chicken-bone elbows. I stand up and help her. She settles back and says, “Who.” She says, “Have you talked to Sal? Is Sal coming to see me?”
I say, “He’s going to try and come next week.”
“Oh good,” she says. She says, “Who.”
Her memory is on ten- to twenty-minute loops now. We have the same conversations over and over again. I just roll with it. But she can remember a lot from long ago. A whole lot. And sometimes she describes events from forty years ago so clearly it’s like she’s looking through a window watching it happen before her right now.
So I try to draw her out. I say, “I was looking for the picture you took of me, the one where I had peas coming out of my nose.” I say, “Do you remember that, Grammy?”
She says, “Who.” She says, “Is Sal coming next week?”
Her house is right beside mine. I arranged it that way when she started having trouble taking care of herself. I watched out for her until she couldn’t be left even for the few hours while I was at work. I haven’t had time to clean out her house. It’s so packed, I’m considering hiring someone to just shovel the shit out, and I don’t care what they do with it. I’ll go get a few things first, but not much. Let Sal take what he wants, which I don’t imagine will be much either.
So today at lunch I went over there to get Grammy a couple more sweaters and a quilt and, like I told you already, to look for the picture again. The mother in those early photos—who was just Mom to me until Eric came along and forever changed her identity to Grammy—is much younger than I am now. She is round-faced and a little fat. Not even a hint of resemblance to the withered creature here in front of me. I have trouble seeing them as even the same person.
But they are the same person.
I feel kind of petty thinking about it so much, but here’s the story of that damn picture:
The girl I was back then, little Natalie, was a precocious child. She had to be, her father was just a big goofy child himself, and her mother had trouble keeping up with it all. Natalie must have been at least five at the time of the picture, maybe even six. If my memory is correct, she was in a high chair that night—she was in a high chair; I remember from the photo, at six Mom made her sit in a high chair when she did something childish—eating dinner beside Sal in his high chair. Mom’s belly was big and hard with Jimmy inside. Sal’s diaper always smelled like warm number two, and it mixed with dinner this night.
Natalie couldn’t eat any more. She said, “I am not going to eat my peas.”
It didn’t feel like an act of defiance when she made the announcement, but she quickly realized that defiance is precisely how Mom interpreted it. Mom was leaning back having her dinner at the kitchen sink, the way she always did. Above her shoulder Natalie could see the branches of the magnolia tree, with its leaves so shiny green Natalie thought they looked plastic. If Dad wasn’t home by this time, he would not be home until she was asleep in bed. How Natalie loved when he came home; how she would run to him and he’d hug her and love all over her and play silly games and things would be good till he left again.
Mom had on the shorts she wore every night, the white ones that drooped in folds around her legs like curtains. She said to Natalie, “You will too eat them, young lady.” She said, “And you will eat them this minute.”
So Natalie had finished her macaroni and cheese. She had eaten her fried bologna and the sickening sweet stewed tomatoes that ran their juice all over everything. Only the peas were left.
She surprised herself even when she said a firm and loud, “No.”
Mom’s head jerked around and she stared hard. Natalie knew a whipping was coming now, she suddenly needed to do number one. Bad. She tried to lessen her punishment by saying, “I don’t like peas. I ate everything else.”
The tray of the high chair she was in had a metal tray that was rough with rust around the rim, but reflected her face from below and made her nose holes look huge.
“Eat your peas.”
Mom walked from the sink, grabbed both of her hands and squeezed them together into her right hand. She said through closed teeth, “You will eat your peas this minute.”
Natalie said, “I don’t like peas.”
Sal said, “I like peas, Mom.”
Mother smashed her fingers together harder.
“Owe,” Natalie said. “You’re hurting me.”
With her other hand, Mother grabbed up Natalie’s spoon and scooped peas and held them to Natalie’s mouth. She said, “Open up.”
She did not open up. She clamped down shut.
Mom tried to force the spoon between her lips. It clicked on her teeth and slid up and hurt her gums. She turned her head away and the peas spilled off the spoon.
Mom let go of her hands and slapped her bare leg hard. She scooped up more peas and held it to Natalie’s mouth. “Eat,” she said.
Natalie said nothing. She kept her mouth clamped shut.
Mom slapped her leg harder. She said, “Eat.”
Sal said, “Peas are good, Sis.”
Natalie said, “I have to go number one.” Her eyes filled with tears and made everything blur in front of her.
“Not until you’ve eaten your peas.” Mom leaning down on her belly looked like somebody squatting on one knee with a kickball in her lap, waiting to get the okay to pitch. There was a bump on her shirt where her belly button had popped inside out.
Natalie said, “No.”
The spoon clattered to the tray as Mom grabbed her leg and pulled it straight. Mom slapped her leg over and over on the same spot, each whack stinging worse than the last. Natalie cried out loud now, and her mouth opened wide. Mom grabbed the spoon and hurried to feed her the peas, but she once again clamped her teeth shut and cried through them like a dog growling. Mom grabbed the same leg and whacked away at the red spot again.
“Okay,” Natalie cried. “I’ll eat them. Please stop spanking me.”
Mom took up the spoon and fed her. She said calmly, “You did not have to make this so difficult, young lady.”
Sal kicked his feet in his high chair. “See, Sis,” he said. “They’re yummy.”
Mom whacked her leg again. “Don’t say shut up to him,” she said. “He’s just trying to be nice to you.” Turning away, watching the photo develop with an eager smirk, Mom said, “You’re incorrigible, young lady,” and Natalie already knew what that word meant. It wasn’t the first time she’d heard it.
I spoon more pear sauce into Grammy’s mouth. She gums at it and smacks her lips. So that’s the missing photo. It’s a Polaroid of the girl I was, little Natalie, skinny but far too long for the high chair she was stuffed into. She was crying hard as she ate that she coughed and snorted peas of her nose. How the photo came to be: Mom thought it was funny that Natalie had cried peas out her nose, she cried, “Don’t move a muscle,” and ran through the house for the camera, calling back again, “Don’t move, Natalie. Don’t touch a thing.”
It was in the album for years: Natalie, face wet with snot and tears, glowing rat-red eyes, two green peas hanging inside the clear glob of snot at the edge of her left nostril. How the family—even Dad—had many a laugh about that picture. Once Grammy got up from the Thanksgiving table to show it to Eric when he was little and didn’t want to eat Brussels sprouts. “She hated peas so much,” she told him, “that she cried them out her nose when I made her eat them.” Eric laughed and laughed, and the album went around the table so everyone could have a look. I sat and smiled like the good sport and said nothing.
I stare at Grammy’s red face—bones under thin skin—working the pear sauce back far enough to swallow. It’s hard to see this deflated old hag as that fat and angry young woman. Was she? I wonder. Am I embellishing? Does it matter if this memory isn’t exactly true?
I don’t think so. First, the way I told it to you is exactly what I remember happening. What’s more, this one could stand in for countless similar stories of Natalie’s childhood, some even more egregious. You can’t make a thing that happened go away by removing it from the album. Well, she sort of did make it happen with Dad. She took him out of all the albums, even tore him out of some pictures and put them back in ripped in half. I don’t have many memories of him from my childhood, but still they are happy ones.
The hurt that poor little girl Natalie felt in her heart while she sat there with peas coming out of her nose and her mom laughing and pointing and running for the camera—the feeling small and stupid and worthless—characterizes what it felt like all the time growing up with Mom—shame and mockery and derision was the stale air we breathed in that house—and this much I do know.
So before I even realize what I am doing, just like that, I have angrily raked the spoon in a slice against Grammy’s gum. She opens her mouth in sudden jerk of silent pain and I see the thin bloom of blood sprout on her shiny purple gum.
She gives me a clear glare and says, “Why, you little—”
I reach out with my open palm and whack her hard on the cheek before she can finish the sentence. I say, “Fuck you.”
She puts her old gnarly claw up to her cheek and her glassy eyes stare in shock at me.
I immediately regret doing it—this poor old woman; but I’m also sorry that in ten minutes she won’t remember it even happened. I want her to remember. I want her to admit. Which she’ll never do.
The bleeding of her gums isn’t bad; it’s staying in her mouth, so she’ll swallow what little there is. I chop up the steak and mix it with the gravy so she can eat it without the ordeal of putting in her teeth. I spoon some into her mouth and her lips smack around it. I feed her some more. So she’ll never admit or apologize. So she did destroy that picture. I don’t care any more; I’m the one telling the story now. I’ve written it down here and now it’s in the world and she can’t do one god damn thing about it.
The gravy is thick and she’s having trouble swallowing. I give her a drink from the juice box’s little straw. Her lips wrinkle around it.
I say, “I talked to Sal this morning.” I say, “He’s coming to sit with you for a couple nights next week.”
“Oh good,” she says. She smiles her toothless smile. Already it looks like her gum isn’t bleeding anymore. Her skull wobbles on her chicken neck as she nods in approval. She takes as deep a breath as she can manage. She sighs out, “Who.”