I guess mom learned a lot at the grade school PTO drug information evening. Things sure did change after that. For grandma.
When mom mentioned that she had a meeting at the small parochial school where I was finishing up the 8th grade, I snorted at my older sister. We shared a room together. There were not many secrets. The phone cord just barely stretched into the bathroom where she would squeeze shut the heavy walnut door and sit on the floor with her back to it. Carefully avoiding each creak in the hardwood floors, I would sit with my back against the opposite side, hearing everything. I knew when she cut school, smoked weed, snorted things, stole things, and snuck out for concerts. She showed me how mom marked the liquor bottles to keep track of how much was swiped, and how to add marks to the entire label, foiling the sneaky set-up. She got me drunk when I was 11 and she was 17. Our parents left us home for the weekend after much begging for independence. I had a gymnastics meet at the local park. She just wanted to talk on the phone and hang out with boys. Grandma lived in the downstairs apartment of the Chicago two-flat.
Once our parents left, she mixed us a couple screwdrivers and got on the phone. We were never allowed to talk on the phone more than 5 minutes when mom was home. She would set the cooking timer and when it buzzed, she would end our conversations abruptly. To this day I hate talking on the phone and get nervous when the conversation strays from the intention of the call. You either need something, or need to do something. That’s it.
The drink made me tipsy and giggly, but I couldn’t get her to pay attention to me, and I really needed a witness to my comedy. I left her in the kitchen and closed myself in the bathroom. Closing the bathroom door was also a luxury. Mom didn’t want us falling down, hitting our heads and dying behind a locked bathroom door, so it had to be left open. I washed my face from the porcelain pedestal sink and stared at myself in the mirror trying to come up with something hilarious. I continued lathering up my arms, grabbed papa’s razor, and headed back to the kitchen.
I embellished my buzz with boisterous attitude and slurred, “Look! I shavvved the drt offamyarms!” She barked a laugh and hung up with her friend to see what I had done. I laughed. She shoved me into the bathroom and locked herself into the bedroom, also a no-no.
Mainly I kept to myself. My sister didn’t want me around. Grandma was my go-to gal. I would use her living room as a gymnasium, doing back walkovers or I would give her a stop watch as I did as many sit-ups possible to ensure I could beat everyone in the Presidential Fitness program. I would incorporate her walker as part of my routines, as she clapped her hands and called me her monkey. I realize now that it was my first foray into pole dancing.
Grandma and I were tight. We always sat together on road trips in the back of the lime green VW bus. I rifled through her leather purse with the snapping clasp, looking for candy. In my boredom she would pay me a penny for every semi I counted. Leaving South Chicago on a weekday morning made me at least two bucks richer. We shared a bedroom together at the cottage in the Indiana Dunes, our single beds across the room from one another. We had an enamel chamber pot because grandma was too wobbly to make it to the outhouse in the dark. We sat on our beds facing each other, batting a balloon back and forth until somebody either fell off the bed or a lamp was knocked over. Mom took her to doctor appointments, grocery shopping, to the park with us. Wherever we were going, grandma came along. She hobbled a bit from an old broken hip and her osteoporosis had us careful how hard we hugged her. That’s how my sister broke grandma’s ribs one time. She wasn’t a very affectionate child, but I guess when she would finally decide to hug somebody, she meant it.
I was in charge of getting gramma to and fro. She would clutch onto my bent arm with her skinny, gnarled fingers donned with beautiful rings, including the wedding ring she wore since her husband died. If we were on a smooth surface, she would cruise along without inhibition. She said that she missed running. If my sister was on her other side, we would jog a bit so that she could hang on to both of us and run. She had incredible upper body strength so if she tripped, she was fine. I was a strong kid, but I had a hard time arm wrestling her. She wasn’t easy to take down. I was not beneath beating her ass. Who wants to admit their grandma beat them arm wrestling?
We never locked our doors between the upstairs and downstairs apartments. She didn’t like climbing the stairs, and I really enjoyed hanging out in the stairwell, so I was the one usually visiting her. The cold hallway was lined with deep red paisley carpet, the walls decorated with oil paintings, pencil drawings, and European landscapes. There was a thick, walnut banister on one side with a long scar from my belt buckle, and a wooden rail screwed into the opposite side. I would reach across holding each and do back walkovers down the stairs. I imagined the crowds cheering. Again, the pole dancer.
Then I would sneak into grandma’s apartment. I would slowly turn the knob until it quietly disengaged from the door jam, opening it just a half-inch. At the top of the door frame was a small, hinged metal clacker that loudly rattled when the door opened past it. My parents lived as though someone were lying in wait to rob us. I reached the clacker for a silent opening of the door. The old woman couldn’t hear a damn thing you said while you were standing in front of her with her hearing aid screeching, but you had to work hard sneaking up on her. It took skill, and I enjoyed the training. I whipped behind the door and dropped to the floor before peeking around the corner. She would be looking for a face. She had terrible peripheral vision due to her glaucoma and thick, horn-rimmed glasses. I lied on the floor until she sat back in her chair, certain she had imagined someone coming. That’s when I would quickly sneak into the dark dining room. She would eventually go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea or get the dog a treat. I had time. I sat in the dark, staring at her dead husband’s urn full of ashes, his name typed on a black plastic label. I never met the guy, but apparently he had full-on Alzheimer’s at 67 and stroked out during a hernia repair. He was her one and only. They had one daughter. Papa asked her why she didn’t have more children and she told him, “The only reason I have the one is because I couldn’t ALWAYS say no.”
Finally I heard the clack of her walker as she heaved herself from her favorite leather chair, making her way to the kitchen through the dark, shoebox apartment.
As soon as she stepped into the darkness, her old pupils not yet dilated, I jumped out with a roar. She reared hollering, gripping the walker, clutching her heart with one hand, and as suddenly as she heard my laughter, her fist made contact with my head. This made me laugh even harder. Why was this so funny to me? My parents warned me that I would give her a heart attack. I told them that I was conditioning her heart. She lived to be 98, dying years after I left home and she had softened.
She was mad as hell and took a few minutes to calm herself, so I had her sit while I made her tea. We nibbled on her freshly baked candied ginger butter cookies, offering crumbs to Trixie, the Toy Schnauzer who came to us as a stray and became her best friend.
Back in the living room, gramma poured 47-11 cologne into a hanky for each of us. We sat quietly with our hankies pressed to our noses. I wasn’t sure why she liked the smell of that cologne so much, but I was sure to buy her a bottle every birthday.
It was this lifelong habit that came to an end for the both of us when mom came home from that school drug meeting. She burst through the door just dying to get her newfound knowledge off her chest, shouting at papa, “My mother is HUFFING!! My mother is a HUFFER!”
The cologne bottle was replaced with a prescription bottle of valium, and those, grandma would not share.