Fiction

The Grandmother

By: Christopher Johnson

            Grandmother Newman and I were walking in the dense, mysterious, almost impenetrable woods that brooded across the street from our house, and my tiny hand was embedded in hers, and her skin felt like dry, smooth paper. I remember especially the smoothness of her skin—almost dead smooth, skin that had been so ironed out by 70 years of trials and tribulations, of ups and downs, of ins and outs. The woods felt daunting and mysterious to my eight-year-old eyes and soul, and the more deeply we penetrated the woods—one of the remaining remnants of the great forest that had once carpeted northern Ohio—the more tightly I grasped her ancient hand. We had to step over sharp fragments of a broken beer bottle that someone—probably some teenagers—had smashed right there in the middle of the wandering, zigzagging path, which stole us ever deeper into the fairy-tale woods.

            We stepped over the broken grass and proceeded further, and grasses leaned into the trail and tickled my pink tender thighs, which jutted out like cornstalks from my blue-jean shorts. Deeper, deeper we penetrated into the woods, so far into them that the sounds of surrounding suburbia were lost. The silence was occasionally punctuated by the cries of birds flinging themselves through the trees.

            We were moving steadily onwards, Grandmother and I, when suddenly, without any warning, a snake slithered out of the brush and across the path in front of us. I froze with terror and squeezed Grandmother’s hand and felt my sphincter muscles begin to tighten. I looked up and stared, horrified, at Grandmother. She peered down at me and squeezed my hand back. Her azure eyes lit up, and she raised the index of her other hand to her lips and whispered, “S-h-h-h.” We looked down at the snake, which Grandmother would later tell me was a black racer. It was an eternity long, its skin as black as coal. The snake stopped and raised its head and stared at us with great curiosity for what seemed like a very long time. The snake’s tongue slipped repeatedly in and out of its mouth like a dart that the creature was throwing at us. My heart tumbled in my chest, and I felt the chill of death spike up and down my spine as I grasped Grandmother’s hand.

            After studying us for several seconds, the snake continued on its way, disappearing into the grasses that lined the path. My fear gradually receded as I watched the tail of the snake disappear into the surrounding woods.

            We retreated from the woods, and slowly my heart stopped skedaddling in my chest like an insane squirrel. Neither of us said a word, but that brief, startling experience forged something between us. As we walked back to our home, I felt as if every cell of my body had been jerked awake by the terror I had felt. My senses screamed, they danced. I gazed up at Grandmother, and it was as if I were seeing her for the very first time. The skin of her face, like that of her hand, was drawn tight as a drum. Her eyes bent down in a perpetual frown. She wore an ancient, formless dress with black-and-white polka dots and sturdy black shoes with blunt toes. She marched ahead through the woods with sure, indomitable steps.

            I was going to stay overnight at Grandmother’s house that night, and Father was going to pick me up the next morning when he came over to her house to mow her lawn, as he did every Saturday. If there was a rip in a screen, he would fix it. If the cellar needed sweeping, he would sweep it. She was a widow, my father’s father having died in the early 1930s, when Father was young. I had asked Father one time what his own father had been like, and he had looked at me with his iron-gray eyes and had said, “I don’t remember.”

            I packed my suitcase with my Hopalong Cassidy pajamas and Roy Rogers toothbrush and trundled into Grandmother’s blue-green 1955 Chevrolet. I was alive with anticipation, for the fact was that I loved Grandmother’s house. It was a large Victorian with an enormous wrap-around porch. When I stepped into her house, I felt immediately as if I had disappeared down the rabbit-hole of the past. This feeling of entering the past excited me for reasons that I could not comprehend.

            We entered the back door and walked into Grandmother’s kitchen, took off our jackets, and continued into what Grandmother called the parlor. Intricate lace curtains hung over the windows of beveled glass, which divided the sunlight into the brilliant colors of the rainbow. A sofa dominated the parlor. It had ornate wooden armrests and was stuffed with horsehair that was exceedingly uncomfortable to sit on. At each end of the sofa stood a mahogany coffee table topped with dark leather. A sumptuous leather chair loitered in the corner; Grandmother told me that it had been Grandfather’s favorite chair. Next to the leather chair was an enormous radio with an intricate wooden casing. There was no evidence of a television. I knew that Grandmother had a small Zenith TV in her bedroom that she watched occasionally. The carpet had an intricate pattern of blood-red roses and intense green vines swirling across the floor.

            On one of the walls hung sepia photographs of severe-looking men and woman. These were ancestors on my father’s side of the family. At the center of this array of photographs was one of my grandfather–Randolph. He wore a long, narrow face and a neatly trimmed mustache. His lips were thin—even grave. I could see the cast of my father’s eyes as my grandfather stared at me through the dust of the past. I knew that Grandfather had only been in his forties when he had died. I was not quite sure how he had died, but I felt the sadness of a life cut short.

            Grandmother stood  immediately behind me as I gazed at Grandfather’s photograph. She, too, looked unblinkingly at the photograph, and her eyes were sailing far away on the sea of the past. I said, “Grandfather was handsome, wasn’t he?”

            She murmured, “Yes, he was. He was more handsome than this photograph shows.”

            “Grandmother,” I asked. “Do you miss him?”

            She looked at me and touched me gently on the shoulder. Very much,” she said, from a distance far away on the sea of the past. Her face tightened with melancholy. She patted me on the shoulder said, “Ulee, why don’t you go upstairs and explore the attic while I finish making dinner?”

            To explore Grandmother’s attic was to fall even farther into the clutches of the past. I climbed the stairs to the second floor and pulled gently on the rope that lowered the ladder leading to the attic. I climbed the ladder and with one final step, entered the past completely. A switch to the left turned on the single light—a naked bulb that hung in the middle of the attic and cast an uncertain light that illuminated the center of the attic but left the corners in shadows.

            A worn brown carpet covered the rough boards that formed the floor of the attic. At the center of the attic was a dollhouse, which I had noticed before in my ventures into the attic but had never really examined. For some reason, that dollhouse called to me. I knelt down on the bare carpet. The dollhouse was not like the metal one that my sister, Betsy, had. It was built solidly of wood, like a real house. I picked up the dollhouse, and it must have weighed a good ten pounds. It must, I assumed, have been Grandmother’s dollhouse when she had been a little girl growing up in Switzerland.

            A family of dolls inhabited the house—mother, father, two children, a dog. The figures felt solid and even a little heavy in my hands. I started to spin stories about the family and to move them around in the dollhouse. Even as I did so, I felt a little embarrassed because, after all, dollhouses were for little girls. But no one could see me playing with the dollhouse, so my embarrassment passed as I entered the world of the dollhouse.

            I traveled back to their time. I pretended that the family was getting ready for dinner, and the children were playing with the dog. Suddenly the dog stopped. The boy tripped on it—fell–banged his head. He started to bleed profusely. The dog started barking to wake the dead. The boy was screaming–howling. The mother and father raced into the living room to see what was going on. The mother ran up to the second floor and retrieved some bandages and wrapped them around her son’s head to stop the bleeding. The father started hollering at the children to be more careful, and the boy yelled back that it was all the dog’s fault. “No! No!” the father thundered. “Don’t blame the dog! You were the one who got the dog all riled up!”

            In the midst of all this invented excitement, I heard Grandmother’s voice. “Ulee! Ulee! Dinner’s read! Come down! But be sure to turn the light off!”          

            That was end of the story, the fantasy. But I was amazed that the attic had this power–a magic that had pulled the story out of me. Before I reached the ladder leading down from the attic, I noticed, in the far corner, a cradle—an ancient cradle. It had a picture of a lamb on the end-board. The lamb was wandering through a field and eating grass. In the cradle was a blanket, neatly folded as if it were awaiting a baby. I wondered if this had been my father’s cradle. Something . . . something drew me to the cradle. I crept over, touched it. It rocked slowly back and forth, measuring a sad beat with its motion. Slowly it stopped rocking. The cradle was still.

            I reached the first floor, and Grandmother and I seated ourselves in the dining room. Grandmother had made roast lamb, mashed potatoes, and peas. We sat at opposite ends of the dining room table and ate. A cabinet made of mahogany held Grandmother’s china, which her parents had brought with them from Switzerland. A large grandfather clock stood in the corner of the dining room. At seven o’clock, just as we were beginning to eat, it rang seven loud gongs, sounding like a church bell. The face of the grandfather clock displayed a smiling picture of the moon with a cow jumping over it.

As I ate my roast lamb, the image of the cradle in the attic lingered over me. The cradle was by itself. It felt almost like an animate object, as if it could feel. The gongs of the grandfather clock felt like a warning . . . but of what? Grandmother and I ate silently. Out of the silence, Grandmother asked me if the food was good. I said that it was. “Ulee, I like having you here,” she said. She smiled, but the smile could not disguise the sorrow that had invaded her features and turned them gray. Overhead, a chandelier cast a hoary light on us. I looked at Grandmother and noticed more than ever the lines and wrinkles that crisscrossed her face like tiny railroad tracks. Her eyes were light gray like my father’s. The wrinkles on Grandmother’s face told the story of her life.

“Ulee,” she said, “you shouldn’t slouch in your chair as you eat. Sit up straight. Good posture is very important.”
            “Yes, Grandmother,” I said.

“I used to have to say the same thing to your father when he was a lad.”

“What was he like when he was a boy?”

She thought for a moment. “Well, he was quiet and reserved. He was rather shy around people whom he didn’t know.”

“I’m kind of like that, Grandmother,” I said.

“I know, Ulee. I see a great deal of him in you.”

“What else?”

“He loved baseball, just as you do. And he loved movies. He loved horror movies—Frankenstein and Dracula. He would be very frightened and unable to sleep at night. But he kept going to see them. “

“Did he go by himself?”

“Oh, no. His father—your grandfather–took him. His father loved movies, too. They were alike in many ways.” I stared at Grandmother, and her eyes had traveled far down the tunnel to the past. She talked to me through this tunnel, her voice far away.

“Did you ever go to the movies, Grandmother?”

“Oh, dear, no. I was too busy, cooking and doing the laundry and all those things that keep a household going.”

I took a deep breath. There was something that I wanted to ask Grandmother, but part of me was afraid to ask her. Grandmother’s talking had stirred my curiosity. I was traveling through the tunnel into the past with her. I opened my mouth to ask the question. Then I shut my mouth. I thought some more. I opened my mouth again. “Grandmother, I hope you don’t get mad when I ask this. But I’m just real curious.” I paused.

Grandmother looked at me, and she was paying close attention to me now. She smiled. “Why, I won’t get mad at you, Ulee.”

“Well, I was just wondering how old Father was when his father passed away.”

Grandmother stared at me with her light gray eyes. “Why, he was thirteen years old, Ulee. Thirteen years old. On the verge of becoming a man.” Grandmother stared ahead of her, not seeing me, and she was farther down the tunnel that led to the past—the deep, dark, mysterious tunnel that somehow changed everything but at the same time kept it the same.

I stared at Grandmother. “That must have been a real sad time for you and Father.” I wanted to get up and walk over to her and take her hand. But I did not.

“Thirteen is real young,” I said.

“It is very young.”

“Father didn’t have anyone to go to the movies with after that.”

Grandmother continued staring at me, and I saw a glistening in her eyes. “No, he didn’t,” she said. The enormous grandfather clock struck again–eight gongs now, like the tolling of a church bell at a funeral. Silence hovered in the dining room like a phantom. Grandmother had stopped eating her dinner, and she stared at the food on her table. Then she snapped back to the present. She shook her head and smiled at me. “Ulee, how is your dinner? You’ve only half-eaten it. Do you want me to heat it for you in the oven? It’ll only take me a few minutes to heat it up for you.” She retrieved my dinner and took it out to the kitchen, and I could hear her rustling around. She returned to the dining room with my dinner and placed it in front of me. She smiled and tousled my hair. “You really do remind me of your father,” she said.

She seated herself at the other end of the dining room table, and she began once again to eat. “Don’t you want to heat up your own dinner, Grandmother?” I asked.

“No, honey, it’s just fine just as it is.”

I felt responsible for sending Grandmother down into the tunnel that led to the past. I was feeling that the past could be a dangerous place. But . . . but . . . curiosity . . . impelled me forward. Grandmother and I ate silently for a few minutes. I put my fork down. I looked at her. “Grandmother, I hope you won’t get mad, but can I ask you one more question?” I felt my heart begin to race, because this was a very important question to me.

“Certainly,” she said. “Ulee, you are a very curious person tonight. But go ahead and ask.” I had a sense that Grandmother knew what I was going to ask.

“Grandmother,” I started. I took a deep breath. “I . . . I’ve never heard this, but I’m real curious about it. Could you . . . could you tell me . . . how Grandfather Newman died? I hope you’re not mad that I asked that.”

I looked at Grandmother’s face, and she was still. I knew she’d known what I was going to ask. “Well, Ulee, you have every right to ask that question. It’s certainly nothing for me to be mad about. It was very, very sad.” She stared at me straightforwardly. “The tragic fact is that . . . that Grandfather Newman had an accident. With a gun. A gun that went off accidentally.” Grandmother looked away from me ever so briefly. She looked to her side, into the shadows of the far corners of the dining room, at the grandfather clock, at the cabinet with the china that had come all the way from Switzerland. She stared and stared at the cabinet as if it contained some secret. She turned back to me. “Well,” she said, “you are certainly one curious young man. But I suggest that we let the past rest and think about dessert.” She was trying to brighten the room, but the sadness of her words hung over both of us like the phantom that I had felt earlier.

After dessert, we retreated to the parlor and stationed ourselves in front of Grandmother’s radio. It was made of finely polished oak, and material covered the speaker to soften and modulate the sound. She sat in Grandfather’s leather easy chair, and I sat on the floor in front of the radio. She turned on the radio and tuned it to a station that played classical music. A symphony was playing. I had no idea what it was, but she told me that it was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. “One of Beethoven’s most famous,” she said.

The music unfolded like a parade—stately, measured, grand–restrained yet passionate. The music gathered me up and carried me along as if I were on a train conveying me to an unknown yet thrilling destination. Grandmother closed her eyes and settled back into the easy chair. She, too, was transported by this earthy, stately, majestic music. With her finger, she tapped the armchair in time with the music. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to be carried away on the magic carpet ride of the music. Her face was white and immaculate. She kept her eyes closed and gave herself up to the beautiful flow of Beethoven’s magnificent creation. As I listened, I felt as if a better angel were tugging at my sleeve. Grandmother kept her eyes closed and was enraptured by the past—the past of Beethoven.

Grandmother’s body swayed with the music. She was totally, completely immersed in the music. She was floating in time with the rhythm of an imaginary river that gleamed in the sun like diamonds. As she listened, her eyes were shut fast like a baby’s. I could see a glistening in Grandmother’s eyes. I looked at her, and something unexplainable welled up in me. I could see Grandmother’s spirit at she sat there in the big, overstuffed leather easy chair. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen someone’s spirit.

As Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony steadily climbed a stately mountain, I pictured the cradle that I had seen in the attic. Had it been my father’s? I wanted to ask Grandmother, but I didn’t know whether I should. I tried to build up my courage.  I didn’t want to upset Grandmother, but I wanted to know. I took a deep breath and plunged in. “Grandmother,” I said, “when I was playing in the attic, I saw a cradle.” I tried to sound as innocent and naïve as I could. “Was it my father’s?”

Grandmother thought for a moment. There was such a distance between her on the chair and me on the floor. I suddenly felt lonely in her presence. She looked at me with eyes that were the universe. She murmured, “Yes, it was.” She paused. “But there was another child. A daughter who used that cradle.” She paused once more. “Your father’s sister.” The glistening returned to the edge of Grandmother’s eyes. “She was fragile,” Grandmother said. “Very fragile.” She leaned back into the easy chair and sank herself into the river of Beethoven’s symphony.

I stared at Grandmother as she closed her eyes and gave herself up once more to the music. I closed my eyes and pictured a tiny baby girl lying in the cradle many, many years ago. A chill wrapped me in its fingers, and the fingers scraped themselves over my body. I opened my eyes and looked at Grandmother, and still I could see her spirit. But now her spirit was restless, troubled. The icy fingers tightened their grip on me. I couldn’t help picturing the tiny girl—my father’s sister—in the cradle, sleeping soundly, and then no longer there. Beethoven’s music continued to climb a mountain. It built to a crescendo and then a climax. Grandmother surrendered herself to the music once again. The troubles of the past—the memories—slowly relaxed their grip on Grandmother.

It was time for bed. I would sleep in Father’s old bedroom. Grandmother said, “Honey, go put on your pajamas, and I’ll be up to tuck you in.”

“Oh, I can tuck myself in,” I said. “I’m eight years old!”

“Oh, I know you’re eight years old.” She put her hand on my shoulder, and it felt like a warm piece of bread. “I want to tuck you in!”

 I climbed the stairs and entered the room. It was exactly as it had been when Father had been a boy. Pennants for the Cleveland Indians and the Ohio State Buckeyes hung on the walls. At the center of Father’s dresser was a baseball autographed by Bob Feller, the famous Indians’ pitcher. Grandmother had kept the room just the way it had been when my father had been a boy. I drew nearer to the dresser. On it stood a photograph of Grandfather Newman. He looked stern and unsmiling. But I saw something—a sadness in his eye. Grandfather seemed alive, as if he were in that room.

Grandmother came upstairs. She looked around the room. “This was your father’s room,” she said. “I’ve kept it just the way it was when he was a lad.”

She bent down and kissed me on the forehead. I looked at her. Like a movie, I could see the melancholy in her, in her spirit. The corners of her eyes glistened once more. The lines creased her face like roads—a map to her feelings—worn into her face through years and years. I could read the map of her face and see who she really was. She bent down and hugged me, and I could feel her life. I could feel her heart beating quietly, incessantly. She rose and switched off the overhead light. But she had not pulled down the shade. Through the window, the full moon cast a ghostly light—a light, I knew, that was reflected from the sun. The moonlight floated into the bedroom and reminded me of a fragile piece of china.

I was deep into the bed, the covers pulled up to my neck. I looked to the right, and there was Grandmother again, standing next to my bed like a phantom, looking down at me, her face blank as if she had been hypnotized. She slowly bent down and silently sat on the edge of the bed next to me. I stared at her, but she seemed to be looking at something else as she sat on the border of the bed. Automatically, I scrunched over to make room for her. My heart galloped. I could feel the contours of Grandmother’s frail body. I looked at Grandmother again, and in the moonlight, I could see tears streaming down her cheeks. The tears flowed like a lonely river from her eyes, rolling down her cheeks and past her lips, and she made no attempt to wipe the tears away.

Instinctively, I sat up and reached out to Grandmother. I wrapped my arms around her, even as she continued to weep without an ounce of shame. I felt her thin, frail body in my arms. Gradually, her weeping subsided. After several minutes, she wordlessly arose from the bed. Still without a word, she slipped out of the bedroom, floating to the door like an apparition. My heart gradually returned to its normal rhythm. With my hand, I felt where Grandmother’s tears had moistened the sheet near the edge of the bed. I felt the wetness and felt myself on the verge of my own tears. Through the window, the moon cast its steady, reflected light.

Categories: Fiction

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