Gray Passage

Copyright RTaylor/all rights reserved

My grandmother’s gracious living room is elegant. She holds court in this cozy room, drinking coffee from delicate china during the day and cocktails in crystal glasses at night.
“One must always keep an inviting home,” she says as she floats about the room, running her long fingers across the furniture checking for dust. I follow like a puppy, helping her fluff all the pillows, hoping to be of some help.
“And a proper lady should never be caught just hanging about in frumpy, casual attire. What if an unexpected caller should arrive? Why, you wouldn’t want to keep them waiting while you scurried around trying to fix yourself up. No, my darling, one should rise early and put on a proper dress and her pearls…that way you’re always prepared, should someone drop by.”
Now I begin to understand why every time I visit, the first thing we do is go shopping, and my grandmother buys me a lot of pretty dresses and matching shoes. Of course that’s not all she buys me. I always get to pick out a special gift, like my new pair of roller skates with pink laces.
My grandmother wakes at dawn and takes her coffee and toast on the porch, where she reads The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the local paper, every morning.
When I finally wake up and amble out to join her, the front pages from all three papers, as well as the local society page are folded neatly beside my napkin. I am to review each one thoroughly because there will be a quiz.
My grandmother peers at me over the rim of her dainty coffee cup, and says in a silky voice, “Some people think that women should fill their heads with nonsense and such, but I completely disagree. One must always stay informed, whether you are a he or a she.”
So, I study hard because I don’t want her to think my head’s full of mush, and after I’ve finished my Frosted Flakes, she questions me on what I’ve read.
Some days when it’s hard to concentrate and nothing I read sticks in my brain, I get a lot of the answers wrong. It hurts to see the disappointment in her eyes, but she never gets mad or impatient. She just sighs and says we’ll try again later and then we get on with our day.
But when I get all of her questions right, she claps her hands like a happy child and says she’s utterly delighted with me. Then she brags about how smart I am to the elevator man or anyone who’ll listen, and this always makes me blush.
My friends think I’m crazy because I want to be with her all the time.
“It sounds like pure torture,” they say. “Does she have that icky old lady smell, like mothballs and moldy wool? And do you ever get to have any fun?”
“Of course I do,” I reply. “You just don’t understand.” Then I try to describe all the fun things we do, how she tells me stories, teaches me important things, and how exciting it is when her visitors come by.
The problem is, that no matter how interesting I try to make it all seem, when I hear myself tell them what we do out loud, I have to admit, it does sound kind of boring.
“You just have to meet her,” I fume, “then you’d see, I swear!” But they just snicker and laugh at me, and my chest begins to hurt.
But then I remind myself, there’s something they don’t know, and never, ever will. Something I keep tucked away in a safe place deep in my heart.
One night, when I was ten, and we were having dinner at the club, my grandmother shared a special secret with me.
She blotted her lips with her linen napkin and took me by the hand.
“You are the only true friend I have left,” she whispered in a trembling voice, squeezing my hand ever so slightly.
At first I didn’t know what to say and I stared at her in disbelief. Then I said I was sorry that all of her friends were gone, and I didn’t know if it was right to say it or not, but I told her I was really happy to hear that she thought of me that way. She laughed and it sounded like little bells, then she smiled at me and gave me a kiss. “I’m so lucky to have someone to love like you,” she said, and I told her I felt the same way about her.
After that I didn’t worry so much about my friends and their stupid, immature teasing. My time with my grandmother is fun for me, whether they understand why or not. And once in awhile I giggle to myself, because I know they’d be so jealous if they knew that at my grandmother’s house, I get to visit with grown-ups, and they treat me like I’m one too. My friends can make fun of me all they want and play their silly games. They have no idea what they’re missing, and I feel sorry for them.
Because fascinating people are always dropping by, and of course my grandmother is always prepared.
On her coffee table are all the items one might need for casual entertaining at a moment’s notice: fresh flowers in a vase, a cut glass candy dish and serving spoon for its tiny pastel mints, a sleek monogrammed silver cigarette case and lighter, a porcelain ash tray with a picture of a collie in the center, a deck of cards, and monogrammed linen coasters.
After she’s served her guests teacakes or hors d’oeuvres from a silver tray, she settles into her usual spot in the center of her floral chintz sofa. Then she places a little round tufted pillow behind her back because she says it helps her posture. Why she does this is a mystery to me, because, even when we have no guests, her spine is always perfectly straight, and I’m most positive that it’s never touched the back of the sofa or anything else, including the seat of her car.
I always sit right by her side, or on the floor at her knee, where I listen politely as she charms in her lilting drawl, while her gentle, delicate fingers play with my straw-like hair. Sometimes my attention drifts and I find myself studying a large painting of a perfect rose and a glass of water sitting on a table. The painting, hanging in the center of the wall across the room, is done in grayish pastels, and the rose, with its prominent thorns and water droplets gracing its petals, lays on the table next to the glass…not in it, like you might expect. I could stare at that painting for hours.
Why isn’t the rose in the glass where it can get a drink? Has it been cast aside for a fresher or better rose? I’ve been disturbed by this idea since I was six.
My grandmother’s guests never seem to notice the painting. Their attention is fixed on her. They sit in the two pale blue velvet wing back chairs flanking the sofa or the pretty fainting couch nearby, leaning in towards her, sometimes so far forward, I’m afraid they’ll fall off their seats.
Her guests are young and old, come from all walks of life, and they all quietly vie for her favor. When she speaks, their eyes go soft, and whether she has two guests or ten, my grandmother somehow manages to make each one feel as though they are the most important person in the room. I have no idea how she does this, but I can tell by the looks on their faces, that like me, her attention makes them feel special and I want to learn how to make people feel that way too.
The visitors chat and laugh in low tones, sharing stories about this and that, and everyone, including me, sits a little taller, stands a little straighter, and speaks a little softer in my grandmother’s presence.
Every now and then the day guests linger and join the night guests as they arrive, and people who have never met wind up becoming friends or couples.
One time a very shy man met a very shy lady in my grandmother’s living room and it turned out that they attended the same college and their mothers played bridge together.
Pretty soon, instead of arriving separately, they began coming together for their visits, and even though my grandmother seemed astonished by their serendipitous pairing, I couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t secretly orchestrated the whole situation, which wouldn’t have surprised me at all.
Two years ago my daddy’s company moved us to New York. I didn’t see my grandmother for a while and it was very hard.
The kids at my new school made fun of my brothers and me. Just because we’re from the South, the said we were ignorant “rebels” and accused us of hating blacks.
Once when Mother brought snacks for my class, they made fun of her accent, said she was stupid, and called her a redneck hick.
When I called my grandmother, sobbing, and told her how bad those kids made me feel, even though she was appalled and quite shocked, she knew just what to say.
“Why, what kind of people are these? Certainly not our kind,” she said. “They sound rather small minded, if you ask me. Not worth a lick of your time. What do they know about you and your family? Did anyone tell them you won the spelling bee last year? And do they know your mother has a superior IQ, she’s written three books, and speaks French? She’s a member of Mensa, for heaven’s sake! And your father…well, even though he’s a bit of a cad, do they know he’s a very important businessman? Obviously not, my darling. Those children are just ill mannered and uninformed and they should be taught a lesson or two.
Put their nasty remarks right out of your head. You’ll make some nice friends up there, I promise, and they won’t talk about you and your family that way.”
Our conversation made me feel a lot better, but even though she was calm and nice on the phone, I knew she was probably fuming. My grandmother does not tolerate talk about the color of a person’s skin, or which side of the tracks they come from. And like my mother, she is particularly sensitive about name-calling.
One time, before we moved up north, Mother slapped my brother hard in the face for using the word nigger. She said it was hateful and mean. Then she explained why in great detail, and told us that we’re Southern, not racist, and we should know the difference. My brother never said that word again.
I’d never been ashamed to be Southern before, but all that changed after New York.
Eventually we moved back home, but Daddy didn’t come with us. Now I spend my summers with my grandmother and my brothers stay with my uncle to give my mother a break. I don’t understand why, but my parents are getting divorced, and my mother cries a lot.
“It’s scandalous, shameful, and just not done,” my grandmother whispers to my mother on the phone. This makes Mother very mad and she tells my grandmother she’s old fashioned, can’t understand, and she should worry about other things…like entertaining the odd cast of characters she likes to call her friends. Sometimes she yells and hangs up on my grandmother and when my mother does this, I am ashamed for her. She is the only person who treats my grandmother this way, and it makes my heart feel like it’s being squeezed.
Everyone else admires and respects her. They say she’s genteel and refined; a dying breed, a lovely Southern belle to be cherished from an era that’s vanishing too quickly. She’s promised to teach me how to be just like her. So I do whatever she says and watch everything she does. I want to always remember her ways, even when she’s not giving me my lessons.
When her guests arrive, I am continually surprised by how different they all are. Everyone gets along, and no matter their color, or diverse and strong points of views, when they’re with my grandmother and the conversation becomes fiery and tense, sometimes even strongly held beliefs start to begin to shift. It’s true. I’ve seen it happen.
At bedtime, she caresses my hair, and strokes my forehead while she tells me stories her daddy told her when she was little and couldn’t sleep. Stories, about his adventures as a boy, when things were much simpler than they are today. She says she loved her daddy more than anything and still misses him to this day. Then she tells me about the cotton her family grew, her pony, and her life as a girl when she was eleven like me.
These are my happiest times and I never want to forget them.
I’m told she adores me—that I am her favorite child, and I believe this deep in my soul. Her love anchors my life and keeps me from shattering into a million jagged pieces. And when I see myself through her eyes, it allows me to experience myself as loved and special, and like her guests, I never want to leave her side.
Often when we’re alone, she tells me that the china and crystal, her diamonds and pearls, and the silver, which is Francis the First, will all be mine some day. I should be happy, I know, but this news always makes me a tad nervous.
I don’t want those things. All I want is her.
When summer is over and Mother comes to bring me home, it’s hard for me to leave. I don’t want my mother to feel bad, but I’d rather stay with my grandmother, where my world is safe and easy, and life seems to always make sense. My grandmother says not to worry, that everything will be all right. She’s only a phone call away and since I need to practice my penmanship, we can write to each other every day.
But lately I worry about leaving her all alone. I’ve heard my mother and uncle talk. They argue about her health. She seems just fine to me, but what do I know about these things? They say she’s starting to slip away and this makes my heart want to burst. I cannot imagine my life without her. It’s too painful to consider, even a little.
So I write to her and she writes back to me, and I tell her I love her and miss her on the phone. Sometimes she calls me Kate and I get confused. Kate is my mother’s name, not mine.
After school one day, Mother tells me she has a surprise…one that will make me happy. “Your grandmother is coming to live with us. Isn’t that wonderful news?” This information is almost too much to take in and I can hardly contain my joy. She tells me my uncle will move her here and she’ll be here very soon. She says we need to fix up her new room and I insist that it has to be pretty. Mother begins to cry, and says yes, that’s right, it must be very pretty.
So I find a vase for fresh flowers, a deck of new cards, and a glass bowl for her tiny pastel mints. Then I embroider her initials in a heart in pale blue thread on a white linen coaster. I learned how to do this in Girl Scouts and I’m glad I practiced a lot. I put everything on the table by her bed, because I want her room to be special and nice. It’s important for her to feel right at home, so she’ll be glad she came and won’t ever want to leave.
I spend hours looking for happy pictures of us, that Mother frames and hangs on her walls. She’s painted them a powdery shade of pale blue, which will match my grandmother’s velvet chairs. I look around her room and wonder how they will fit. And where will we put her floral sofa and the fainting couch? A strange feeling creeps into my heart when I realize there’s no space for her things. I quickly take down half the pictures so there will be room on the wall for her painting of the glass and the lonely rose. Mother’s voice cracks when she says this is very thoughtful of me and she can’t believe how much I’ve grown.
The last time I saw my grandmother was when our summer ended. I realize it’s been ten months and decide that’s been way too long. I try not to act like she belongs to me, but I warn my brothers that when she comes, she’ll be spending most of her time with me. They frown and say that’s not very fair, she’s their grandmother too, and I have to share. And for some reason this reminds me of something I hadn’t thought of before.
As happy as I am that I’ll have her to myself, I worry. What will become of my grandmother’s friends? I think about how lonely they’ll be when they find out she’s gone, and never coming back. And then I feel so sad for them. Where will they go? Who will they visit? How will they spend their days and their nights?
I tell myself they’re grown-ups and each one will be just fine. They have lives of their own and maybe that nice couple will invite everyone to their house someday and they can still have their visits. But I know in my heart that even if they do, those visits won’t ever be the same… my grandmother won’t be there. She was the reason they always dropped by. She was the one they wanted to see.
The day my grandmother comes, I run outside and jump up and down as my uncle helps her out of the car. My heart races fast and I can hardly wait to hug her and bury my face in her powdery smelling neck. But when he takes her out, he lifts her up into his arms and cradles her like a baby. Then he brushes right past me like I’m not even there and carries her straight to her room. Did she even see me? I don’t know, and for a second I think my heart just might stop.
Mother looks concerned for me and reaches for my hand. Then she walks me back to the house. “Sweetheart,” she says, “Your grandmother is very tired and the trip has worn her out.” “Can’t I even say hello?” I plead, and she pats me on the head and says, later…maybe later. Then she orders my brothers to bring in my grandmother’s bags, and I stand in the foyer struggling to breathe.
Later that night, I sneak into my grandmother’s room to give her a kiss and see how she is. The little lamp beside her bed is on and she’s propped up on a mountain of lacy pillows. She looks so small and frail. I don’t remember her being this way.
When she sees me she smiles and waves for me to come over, and my heart begins to swell.
She pats the side of the bed and I climb up next to her and kiss her cheek. She asks me how I’ve been, caresses my forehead and strokes my hair just like she always does. I close my eyes and let that happy feeling that I’ve come to know whenever she touches me with her delicate hands, wash all over me in waves.
I nuzzle her neck and softly say how happy I am that she’s finally home. Then I tell her about the tea party I’ve planned, so I can show her off to my friends. And I make sure she knows I did just like she taught me, and instead of mailing my invitations, I hand delivered each one. That makes people feel important and special-she once told me-it’s so much more personal than the mail. I’m glad I went to the trouble…I want to make her proud.
She seems pleased to hear this news and says, “That’s wonderful, darling, but Katie, dear, before your guests arrive, be sure to polish the silver and don’t forget to check the crystal for spots.”
“Granny, it’s me,” I remind her. “I’m not Katie, that’s Mother.”
She looks back at me and pats my cheek. “Sweetie, stop playing games with your mama,” she says with a wink, and I don’t understand what she means. Then she tells me to give her a good night kiss and asks me to go get my daddy.
My daddy is in New York and she knows this. She’s held me when I’ve cried and told her how much I miss him, and don’t like it that he’s gone. “Daddy’s in New York,” I say. “Don’t you remember?” I ask. Her gray eyes take on a vacant look and she glances around the room like she’s lost. A little frown begins to form on her forehead and she says, “Kate, now you stop this at once. Go and get your father please. I have an awful headache and I need for him to bring me a powder. Run along now sugar, and hurry, my head is starting to pound.”
I wonder if this is some kind of game we’re playing and I just don’t know the rules. I ask her how to play and try to laugh, even though I feel a little scared. She gets angry and tells me to stop being so impudent and says with a huff, she can’t believe her little girl has such a sassy mouth. I should be more respectful, she says, and behave like the proper young lady I was raised to be.
My cheeks start to flame and I feel very small. My grandmother has never spoken to me this way. And I wish she’d stop calling me Kate.
It’s late and Mother has gone to bed. I don’t want to wake her or get in trouble for sneaking in her after she said I couldn’t. So, I say I’ll be right back, and I go to my grandmother’s bathroom, where I search the medicine cabinet—for what, I’m not really sure.
My grandmother’s name is printed on a bunch of pill bottles inside, but I don’t know which ones get rid of headaches, and I’m too afraid to ask. My hands start to shake. I close the door, stare at myself in the mirror and try to think really hard. I’ll get her some water, that’s what I’ll do, and I reach for the plastic cup by the sink. But then I remember my grandmother doesn’t use plastic cups like us. So I run out to the dining room, to the china cabinet, and get a crystal glass. Then I fill it with ice and water from the tap and wrap it in one of Mother’s fancy napkins, so the glass won’t sweat.
I take it back to her room saying I can’t find the headache powder, but Daddy will bring it soon. This seems to make her happy and she smiles at me like she always does. I sit on the edge of the bed and watch her take a few ladylike sips. Then she glances around the room again and asks me where she is.
“Our house, Granny,” I say, and remind her how much fun we’re going to have now that we’ll always be together. I also show her the space we left on the wall for her painting. What painting and who are you, she asks, shrinking down into the covers. I tell her it’s me, but she just shakes her head back and forth, tells me she’s scared, and asks me to please go away.
Her words sting and tears fill my eyes. I start to protest, and again she asks me who I am. But before I can answer, in a meek little voice, she pleads with me not to hurt her. Hurt you? Hurt you? I want to yell. How could you think I would ever hurt you?
“Granny, Granny, it’s me,” I say, knowing I sound desperate. As if to get away from me, she pulls the sheets up and clutches them so tightly to her neck I can see her veins through the skin on her hands.
The sight makes me feel like floating away.
“I want my daddy,” she whimpers pressing back into her pillows.
The sound of her voice makes my insides feel like jelly.
Her eyes are cloudy and she seems far away. I stare deep into them, deeper and deeper. As if shaking myself out of a dream, I come back to myself. I know these eyes I tell myself. They are still my granny’s eyes, the same eyes that have always made me see myself as loved and special. My head begins to clear. Memories return and slowly, an idea starts to form.
I take her tiny delicate hands in mine and put my cheek up against hers… relieved when she doesn’t pull away.
Then I whisper in her ear, “Don’t be afraid. You are my granny forever and I will always take care of you. I love you and I am your last true friend, remember?”
Her expression turns to curiosity and she tilts her head.
“My name is Anne,” she says, and I tell her mine is too. “What a coincidence,” she exclaims, and her face brightens. I want so much to tell her I was named for her, but worry it might confuse her. Then she asks me where I’m from again and what does my daddy do.
The story I make up puts her at ease and she asks me if I have a pony. I tell her no, but I know about hers, and she begins to beam. “He’s the best pony in the world,” she says and I tell her that’s what I’ve heard. “My daddy gave him to me, and I love my daddy very much.” “He sounds like a really nice daddy,” I say, and she asks me if I know him.
I snuggle next to her on the pillows and she allows me to caress her forehead and stroke her hair, just like she always does mine. Then, I tell her the stories she used to tell me…about her daddy when he was a boy, and how her family used to grow cotton. And then I tell her stories about her life when she was a girl my age. She listens intently and starts to relax. Then she smiles at me like she knows me.
“Thank you, Anne,” she says sweetly, giving my hand a little squeeze.
Am I Anne, her new friend, or Anne, her favorite grandchild? I search her face for the answer. She looks back at me with gentle eyes and just like always, I feel loved and special.
And whether she knows me or not, it is the happiest moment of my life.

~the end~

2 responses to “Gray Passage

  1. Pingback: “Gray Passage” from The Restless Raconteur | somedayi·

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