When I visit Grandma at the hospital, I trace a cool finger over the thin vein in her hand. Her eyes flutter open at my touch and I can’t help but ask her, “Do you want a slice of apple pie?”
“Lydia Marie,” my name floats on her breath, a wispy cloud from her lips before she drifts back towards sleep.
Grandma’s hands always remind me of her sweet cinnamon apple pie on account of all the times I stood next to her at the kitchen sink handing her apples while she peeled the skins off. I watched her fingers work the paring knife, always hoping she’d skin it all off in one perfect spiral.
“My hands used to be smooth like yours,” she’d say, running a thumb over the back of my hand. “Years of lugging pails of water and wringing out diapers ruined ‘em,” she said shaking her head at the bulging web of blue veins on her own hand. “With seven kids there was plenty of diaper washing to do over the years. Neighbors used to say I had the whitest diapers they’d ever seen hanging on the line. When the Eversons moved away, Charlotte told me,‘I’m going to miss your beautiful laundry, Margaret.’”
When Grandma talked about her life I wrote down the details like they were the ingredients for the perfect pie.
Grandma called mine pianist hands. Even though the only playing I’d ever done was plinking on the old upright in her back hall, starting with the cool tinkle of the keys and working my way down to the deep, mournful tones that were as creepy as the creaking floorboards and squeaky hinges throughout the house.
“Your mother…” Grandma would reminisce as she peeled, “used to fly through the air, soaring over the garden while your grandpa planted and I baked my applesauce cake.”
“On the rings?”
“That’s right. Your grandpa hung a set of flying rings from that cedar and that’s where your mama loved to be most. She’d head out there after school and not come in till dark. That’s where she got her first kiss and where her first beau told her that the rings were giving her the hard, calloused hands of a man.”
When I close my eyes, I can see Mamma now, grinning with her hair blown back and sun in her eyes, the way Grandma remembers her to me, before the days of sadness took hold of her, stole her smile, and made a prisoner of her heart.
While Grandma’s in the hospital, the aunts and uncles make lists: the best nursing homes, the cheapest junk haulers to take away her stuff, the most reputable realtors to list the sale of her lifelong home. I leave school one weekend and move in without any discussion. I drive to her house and use the key that I’ve never had to use before. I turn the key, push open the door and feel the cold echo of silence where her voice should be. I tuck my clothes into the drawers of the heavy oak bureau, pull stale linens from the hall closet and wrestle them onto the decrepit mattress in the bedroom that used to be my mamma’s. I try to fluff the old down pillows that grow lumpier the more I handle them, and place them against the cast iron headboard.
The first night I turn under the covers, the wobble of worn cast iron translates in my dreams to the grating memories of mamma’s days in the hospital: locked wards, supervised visits, helplessness and despair. I wake with a jolt and head into the field out back, searching for hope. I pick daisies and black-eyed susans and place single stems into antique green glass bottles on window ledges and tabletops, to add life to every corner of the house before Grandma’s return.
Periodically, the aunts and uncles will ask me why I don’t put her in a home, go back to school and get on with my life. How can I stand to do it after all these years, they ask.
So I tell them, when I hear her frail voice cry out “Lydia Marie” in the night I pretend she’s calling me to the kitchen to make pies.
I grow accustomed to the way the oak drawers swell in the heat of summer, and the radiator’s click, click, click in the night becomes a familiar comfort of winter. One restless night as I toss and turn, the wobble of cast iron becomes the rhythm of the rings and I dream that I’m flying, breathing in cool blue-green air. Pushing through the sky high over Grandma’s backyard, watching the apple tree pass below me with the steady back and forth motion of the rings. But finally, as I swing I see my hands on the rings and they’re not mine. They’re the rippled, aged hands I’ve watched peel apple spirals for years. Below, my mother holds out her calloused hands, smiles, and says, “Let go, I’ll catch you.” I look down on the lush greens of Grandpa’s garden. My fingers loosen their grip and I wake losing my breath, expecting the cool blue-green air but taking in the stale darkness of my bedroom. I lay still for a moment trying to hold onto the feeling of soaring, of seeing Mamma’s face, and having Grandma’s hands. Then I go to the next room to check on her. I know before I enter that she’s already gone to join Mamma. I place my hand on hers, cold and still, lift it to my lips and plant a soft kiss on the blue web of veins. “I love you, Grandma,” I say, and gently I lay the blanket over her with the same care I’ve seen her use so many times as she draped a crust over cinnamon-seasoned apples.
Ruth Schiffmann puts pen to paper always hoping for that magical moment when the words take on a life of their own. Over two hundred of her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in publications both in print and online. Her work can be viewed at www.RuthSchiffmann.com. She blogs at outonalimbshywritergoessocial.blogspot.com.