I am ten years old, visiting grandma and grandpa for the first time on my own. I take the train to Sacremento, they great me at the station standing side by side. Grandpa Owen with his hat and cane. Grandma Maura with her tent-like lavender blouse. I ride in the back seat of his big blue cadillac, sinking into the velveteen apolstry. The air thin and hot. Always too hot. He drives as if the thing is made of glass, not detroit steel. He sings to me in his thick brogue, In Dublin’s fair city…where the girls are so pretty… I first set me eyes on sweet Molly Malone… he smiles at me through the mile-wide rearview and tells me he’s going to ship me to Ireland to be Rose of Tralee. I think he tells all the grand daughters that, but it feels like he is telling just me.
The house is like a balm. I can almost see through the slats of the tall wood fence. We fumble with the latch on the dutch-door. The side yard is shaded by a two-story maple, the interlocking bricks have the tiniest hint of moss. The ash-tray on the patio table is half filled, and the ceramic garden goose in a light blue bonnet, sunk deep in the muddy planter, gazes across the wild lawn at the junipers, where the leprechauns live. Grandpa brought them over from Ireland in a trunk, But they don’t like it here, grandma says, it’s too hot, they’d rather live by the sea. She uncrosses her legs, looking at me through her lashes she flashes a wink, so quick, you’d think you imagined it.
The noon- sun beams just-so through the paint-by-number glass decoration, suctioned to a small square pane of the side door. The carpet, long and green gets between my toes, and hides chocolate crumbs. Its worn flat and bald where everyone shuffles in, dumping their purses and back packs on the flowered couch. It’s quiet without my thirteen cousins and 8 or so Aunts and Uncles, except for the steady clock, but the air buzzes like after a shout.
I stay in “the mices” room (the nickname for my mom and my aunt Sheila, always rolling around in a trouble-some pair). Always choosing the bed by the window. My mom’s old bed. She slept here when she was my age. The closet is full of sweaters in all colors and sizes, toys that fall apart, it smells like old things. The hall closet is the most interesting, full of thin creamy linens, and pinging china. I know the priest is coming for dinner because the good plates are out and the whiskey. The kitchen is hot with steam from the potatoes. She is making turnips for me, my favorite, after reading a book about a girl named Molly who had a Victory garden and hated turnips. I had to ask my mom what turnips were, I don’t think she knew much more than I did about them. But grandma knew all about victory gardens, and turnips. It turns out, I liked turnips: boiled, salted, and mashed with parsnips, onions and carrots.
All the pictures on the walls and on the shelves are peeling away, or wrinkling. The people’s faces are just a collection of black and white specks. Thats Aunt Nan, and Pat, there is your mother and your Aunt sheila. Thats Aunt Deb at her wedding, thats my brother Billy, he died in the war, thats me on the Queen Elizabeth…thats a boat, we called it the QE2, a very fancy boat.
I like the way she takes a breath in when she says “yes” while she is remembering something…Yes…(breath-in) yes, yes. Her eyes will flick around and she will nod and lick her lips, thats when I met your grandpa. I went to Ireland, and met him at confession, now THERE’S a place to meet a nice boy. She points at me with her wooden spoon, hot water and potato bits flinging onto the gold-flecked linoleum. It bubbles in places, making nice long creaks when your trying to get to the candy cabinet. If we all lined up, all the cousins and held out our hands and closed our eyes and said “please” she would go down the line and pour from a 1 pound bag of M&Ms into our outstretched hands. It was like getting communion but better, and you had to cup your hands real tight so they would slip through your fingers. By the time you were done, you had sweaty multi-colored palms, your mouth raw with sugary milk chocolate.
She showed me how to knead the dough for the irish soda bread, her fingers, pale and already warping under the knotted pressure of arthritis. Push it back with the heal of your palms, then fold it over, getting flour in all the air pockets. then you make a cross on each loaf, father, son, and the holy ghost. We’d eat the dough off our fingers, salty and sweet.
In the morning I would climb into her bed after grandpa went for his walk, with our books and tea and toast, dipping the corner of the toast triangle in the molten belly of the egg: sitting up-right and decapitated in one of her many egg-cups. In the afternoons we would hang up her “un mentionables” on the clothes line, large flesh-colored silks that I could use as a hammock if I dared. I would poke around in the yard, sticking my face unside the large hollow globes of hydrangea. They came out different colors every season. Sometimes punches of blue and lavender, sometimes pale pink and red. If it was a good season, yellow and white daffodils would spring up from bulbs, the fairies plant them and use them for tea-cups, she told me, and she would find me hiding in the spidery caves of the junipers, waiting for fairies with a handful of daffodils. They won’t come out when you’re here sweetie, lets go get a treat and let them have tea. We would go out to the market and stop at the bakery for an eclair or a raspberry swirl, watching the wild chickens strut around old town. They belong to everybody and nobody, they are wild chickens, they tried to kick them out, but they didn’t want to leave… no we can’t eat them. Then we would wrap the roast in twine and watch Murder She Wrote while it cooked. Angela Landsbury was her hero, I think.
In much later years, we would break her out the back door of the nursing home on Foothill at and 35th at dinner time (3 pm) in a wheel chair with her big sunglasses on to go get a handmade pork tamale at the taco-truck across the street. Braving the deadliest cross walk in the world, for what is sure to be the fluffiest tamale north of Lompoc. She loved the melon agua fresca.
One of the last things she ever asked me for was a hot dog. I’m not hungry but I could always go for a hot dog. It’s such a simple American thing. A tube of beef parts (if you’re lucky) wrapped in a white flour bun, doused in relish, mustard and ketchup. But for her it symbolized an elementary part of life, living in the burroughs of New York City, nestled in between jews, italians, and puerto ricans, the lowest common denominator is a hot-dog.
I wish I could have gotten her a good old-fashioned dog. I hope that when I’m taking my last breaths at a catholic nursing home that someone I love will bring me a “mission dog”. Something so foundational to my young-adult personality. An item that that you can only get between the hours of 11pm and 4am roughly between 16th street and Ceasar Chavez, the smell of grilling meat and onions will guide you to a small man, next to a rolling grill, wrapping bacon around a meat tube, grilling onions and jalepenos, You wan onions? Si. Peppers? Si. You wan mustard? Si. Ketchup? Si. Mayo? No, no mayo pro favor, I have a thing with mayonnaise. .. and he shrugs, hands me the foil wrapped savior, and asks for 4 dollars.
How well can you know a person? I know her, my grandmother, like I know the sea-glass bottles she kept on the kitchen window sill, and the soft way she smelled, and the way her breath would whistle through her teeth, or how she would slap your leg if you told her something biting and funny. I told her once that she was like a compfy couch, a compliment not appreciated by any woman, and for good reason. It was possibly my first metaphor, misguided and naive. What I was trying to say was that you could curl up in her and feel safe, steady. But how well do I know her sadness and her anger? How well do I know what she thought about her life, the choices she made, mistakes, guilt, loss. She looked up at me, on my last day with her, shortly before her hot-dog craving, It was never all that great, she said. This is something you never want to hear from an old person. We want to know that it’s great to get old, to live a long life with intermittent pain and joy. We want to know even on our heaviest days, thats it’s worth it. All I could offer her was some juice and a scone. Even if it wasn’t ever all that great for her, it was great for us, maybe she just couldn’t see it and it still is great for us, and it will always be great. Dancing an amateur version of the irish jig after we’ve all had seconds on dessert, irish coffees, and gone through the 7th bottle of wine, and the last slice of yorkshire pudding (which is neither a pudding, nor from Yorkshire), laughing like idiots… thats great. It’s moments like that, making it all worth it, getting us out of bed in the morning. We wouldn’t have any of it, if it wasn’t for her, picking up a cute guy after confession one sodden afternoon in Tralee, Ireland.