On summer mornings when she was a child she stood on the cinder blocks outside the small bedroom window of the addition built onto the trailer which sat next to the old frame house, out there in the foothills.
She shaded her eyes – the sun rose to the right, over the pines across the field – and peered in to see the grandmother sleeping quietly in the bed, in the room with the knotty pine walls.
The grandmother was sleeping still. The child went away and came back again later. Climbed the cinder blocks. Shaded her eyes. Peered in.
The grandmother was waking up. She had a headache when she woke up, a bad one, one that went away only after her coffee was drunk, her cigarette was smoked, an hour had passed by.
If the grandmother was groaning, then she would be up soon. The child went inside and lit the tall, skinny oil furnace with a long fireplace match. She put water on to boil. She got down two teacups, two saucers, two spoons and a single plate.
The grandmother was getting dressed now, washing, brushing her hair.
When the water boiled, the child stirred Nescafe into one of the teacups and added Cremora. She tore open a hot chocolate packet and emptied it into the other teacup and stirred hot water into it. She added Cremora to the hot chocolate.
The grandmother came into the tiny rounded-end kitchen of the trailer and sat in her chair at the formica table. The child set the coffee before her.
“Thank you, dear child,” said the grandmother.
The grandmother tapped her pack of Lark cigarettes against her palm and shook one out and lit it. She leaned forward, supporting her aching head with one hand and smoking with the other.
The child put two slices of Roman Meal bread into the toaster and got the plastic tub of whipped margarine out of the tiny trailer refrigerator. She waited for the toast and she watched the Lark cigarette.
When half an inch of ash hung off the end of the cigarette the child said, “Flick,” and the grandmother tapped her cigarette on the ashtray.
The toast popped up and the child put it on the plate and turned her back to the grandmother, hiding the plate from her so that she could spread an inordinate amount of whipped margarine on it. This was her secret vice. When she ate the toast she would hold the slice, heavy with its over-buttered-ness, under the table so that the grandmother wouldn’t know how much butter she had spread on it.
Now she wonders if the grandmother knew anyway, and thought, let her eat as much butter as she wants to.
They sat together in mostly silence, the grandmother and the child. The grandmother often closed her eyes and groaned, waiting for the headache to dissipate. She let her coffee grow cold before she drank it. This was a peculiarity of the grandmother – she wanted her coffee boiling hot, but she never drank it while it was hot.
When the grandmother had smoked her first two cigarettes, she would tell the child stories of her own childhood in the big city, the biggest city in the world, six hours downstate from the hundreds of acres of woods and fields that the child was growing up in.
The butcher down the block, who wrapped three slices of bologna in white butcher paper for a penny, can you imagine? The grandmother’s father, who stowed away on the ship from France, bound for the harbor where the Statue of Liberty raised her giant torch, and he dove into the water in the middle of the night, and he swam to shore, and he spoke to a man on the street in French, and the man answered in French. The child’s mother, whose hair had curled in long silky ringlets until that time she had the long fever, and it never curled again.
The child spoke, but not much. She listened to the stories she had heard so many times. She knew the inflection of each sentence, and she waited for the dip of the head and the brief smile that meant the story was finished.
The grandmother had been a model in her youth. She had married late after several engagements. She had borne her only child when she was nearly forty years old, almost unheard of back then. She had worn high heels and suits every day to her job as legal secretary. She was a sophisticated woman who could not have imagined she would ever leave the bustling streets of the biggest city in the world, a woman who carried the knowledge of that city and its life with her always, as she sat at that formica table in that tiny trailer kitchen, looking out at the woods and fields that were not the city, nothing like the city.
One day the grandmother looked straight at the child and leaned toward her.
“You don’t talk much,” she said. “But I want you to know that you can tell me anything. There is nothing I have not seen. There is nothing about you that would shock me, and I am here to listen to you.”
“I know,” the child said in a voice that she made bright and childlike.
I won’t, though, the child thought, in a thought that was not childlike. I won’t tell you anything, anything that’s real.
She thinks about that now, how the grandmother leaned toward her, the intent look in her eyes. There was so much that the child didn’t know then, and there was so much she had to protect and keep safe and contained and hidden.
And now? She thinks about the grandmother every day, usually at dawn. Sometimes she thinks about how unspeakably hard the grandmother’s life was, at times, but more often than not she simply sits and lets the grandmother come to her.
Which she always does, leaning toward her with outstretched hands and a genuine smile.
Wherever she is now, she is happy. That is the sense that the now-grown child, a woman now, has of her – happiness and light.
The woman talks to her now the way she never did as a child, about things that are real. See the two of them, leaning forward in their chairs, hands moving, smiling and laughing, the toast and the cooling coffee and the silent cinder blocks forgotten.