My grandmother’s voice sounded like static, the scratchy noise you hear as you are tuning into an AM radio station. Her awkwardly unique way of communicating was virtually unintelligible to most anyone outside our family circle.

When I was around four years old, I started asking questions. “Nanny, why do you talk funny?”

The word cancer was never mentioned. Instead, I got answers like, “I swallowed a ball of hair.” “I fell down the stairs with a stick in my mouth.” “I burned my throat eating too many hot peppers.” These responses terrified me. I believed them.

Later, when I was a teenager, I learned that my grandmother’s Italian father sent her to work at a cigar factory when she was ten years old. As legend has it, she worked on an assembly line where she bit off tobacco leaves which most likely contributed to the cancer necessitating the removal of her “voice box.”  She never smoked, so this seemed like a plausible explanation.

Although she spoke English, she might as well have been speaking Chinese. Few understood her. Of course, I understood everything she said, and so did my older sister. Children have a way of deciphering language that eludes adults. My father was clueless. We translated for him, but most of the time he ignored her, which was wise because she disliked him and never missed an opportunity to say disparaging things about him, behind his back and to his face. They never once had a conversation.

When my grandfather died, she came to live with us when I was six. I was forced to give up my room and bunk with my sister, but the pros of her living with us far outweighed the cons. Her disability didn’t prevent her from being a productive member of our household.  She was our housekeeper, babysitter, and cook all wrapped up in one feisty, and at times, ornery lady. She was no taller than 4 feet 11 inches, which included her bouffant  hairdo. She did much of the grocery shopping, hung the laundry, ironed, dusted, vacuumed, made the beds, fed the dog, and prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner. She never complained.  Her favorite room was the kitchen where she spent hours hovering over the stove, preparing chicken cacciatore, lasagna, veal scallopini and the like. She was a workhorse. She didn’t start to slow down until she was in her nineties. At the end of the day, she retired to her Lazy Boy chair in her quilted robe and fuzzy slippers to watch the Weather Channel while munching on Fritos. She often lamented about her aching legs. We pretended not to hear.

A devout Catholic, my grandmother took the bus to church every Sunday alone and stopped at the Italian bakery afterwards. She came home bearing boxes tied with string containing “torpedo” rolls and cannolis. Her bedroom was a shrine to the Immaculate Conception. Statues of Mary and Joseph were displayed with reverence on her dresser and a bible sat on her nightstand next to her rosary beads. A faded print of Jesus with wavy red hair and blue eyes in an ornate gold frame hung above her bed. I would often crawl under the covers with her and watch her saying her prayers, moving her lips, but not vocalizing the words.

In truth, my grandmother raised me, but I often resented her. She was the fifth wheel in our family. She never quite fit in, but we couldn’t live without her either. I seldom invited friends to my home. I was embarrassed by her abnormal voice and loathed the grotesque, opal-shaped hole the surgeon had carved in her neck, the place she breathed in air that sustained her life. I never wanted to defend her, but often found myself in that position. She called me “la principessa,” which was Italian for brat.

When I graduated from college, I left home and left my grandmother behind. But decades later, when I reflect on my childhood, it’s my grandmother who comes to the forefront. I’d like to apologize for never acknowledging her and thank her for all the things she selflessly did for me. But, mostly, I’d love to hear her voice one last time.

C. Mariel calls Santa Fe, New Mexico home, but will always consider herself a “Jersey girl” at heart. She is currently a teacher of gifted education, art (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain), French and oboe.

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Every Day Fiction