Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In my Grandmother's House

Memory is tricky.  There is the memory of childhood events and the telling of these events.

The older the memory and the more frequently retold, the less distinction exists between these two, the fuzzier the line between actual, visceral memory and mere story, until I can only guess what was my direct experience and what has been told to and by me and now feels remembered.

But tonight I shall attempt to trick the trickster, to carve back the lacquered layers of an oft-told tale to find the little girl hidden within…


It is dark.  And I hate the dark.  I find it very frightening, the quiet and the shadows.

I see things in the shadows, always.  The swirling shapes that menace, the snakes under my bed, the things I cannot name, that I know intend me harm.  Light vanquishes them all, and I long for light.

Yet here I am in the dark, forgotten in this forgotten room in my grandmother’s house.  In here, there is darkness, but not quiet, for the sounds from the living room, from the commotion without, still flood in.

When I was hustled into this room and bade to stay still and quiet, the door was pulled closed, but not completely, so there is a slim rectangle of yellowed light brightly rimming the doorway through which the world continues to exist.

As my eyes adjust to the darkness I see that the shape in front of me is an ancient cot, folded up like an inchworm humped in mid crawl.  I crouch down behind it, lean my face in, seeking comfort.  But its sprung wire cage presses harshly into my soft six year-old cheeks, so I retreat, sit on the wooden floor and warily wait.
The musty smell of things long unused overlays the cigarette smoke drifting in from the living room, which has itself mixed with the usual scent of the house, a heady blend of fried onion and old dog.  But then a new tang wafts in, tinged with something odd, metallic.

Watching occasional shadows flicker through the yellow rectangle, I listen for clues, cues as to what is going on and why I am here.

First there was a guttural male voice and high pitched female screaming, then police sirens wailing closer and closer, doors banging, more voices, male and female, talking, shouting, talking again.  And through it all, the soft sounds of a woman sobbing.

I almost drift off, but for the churning in my gut, the fear I have been forgotten, will remain here, always. 

Then, eventually, someone remembers - the child! - and comes to get me.

It has been a long time.

It is over.  This is the aftermath.

There is still a policeman, a doctor.  In the alcove, between the doorways of the unused bedrooms I see a young woman in a short dress with bandages covering her legs, arms, face.  She is talking to the police, shaking her head.

The doctor is putting on more bandages.  There are many of them.  They look pale against her warm brown skin, and some are starting to turn crimson as the blood leaks through.

I fall asleep on the sofa, and wake in my mother’s cradling arms, being carried out to our waiting car, their evening out cut short; my father, somber, at the wheel.

I never sleep over my Grandmother’s house again.


This is what I believe I have actually clearly remembered from that evening. The rest of the tale, cobbled together from memory bits and what was subsequently told to me over the years to become part of my memory, is in my repertoire of colorful childhood stories, and goes like this:

When I was six years old, my parents were going out and asked my grandmother, my mother’s mother, to watch me.  As it was Saturday night, the night of a regularly scheduled poker game, she didn’t want to, but reluctantly allowed my parents to drop me off to stay with her for the night. Naturally the game went on as scheduled and I was left to entertain myself, as I saw fit.

When you think of the term “Grandmotherly,” the soft, warm, nurturing indulgent presence that implies?  An image of my grandmother will not come to mind.  She was anything but.  She did not like children.  My mother’s childhood?  Not particularly happy.

On this particular evening the poker crowd was large, so card tables had been erected in the living room, with maybe a dozen players gathered round.  There was much smoking, probably a fair amount of drinking, though that really didn’t register to my six year-old self.

They were having a jolly time.  I was sitting in the pushed to the wall sofa, playing with my etch-a-sketch, oblivious, when the trouble started.

One of the card players was a young woman who had recently broken up with her man, and he had not taken it well.  His mind had turned to a decidedly “if I can’t have you then no one will” bent, and he walked through the front door that evening with a knife, intent on ruining her beauty.

I did not see this.  I heard a door bang open, a male shout, a female scream.  And then I was swiftly picked up and deposited in that dark, musty, unused bedroom turned storeroom.  As it was just off the living room, I heard everything, but made little sense of it, having no context.

They really did forget about me in there for the longest time.  When I came out there were police taking statements and a doctor bandaging up the girl.

I was told what had happened was this: The ex-boyfriend had come in with a switchblade held high.  The crowd had attempted to keep him from the woman, but he got to her and began slashing away.

Someone had procured a baseball bat at about the same time the police arrived.  So whether it was because he heard the sirens or wanted to avoid the bat, he bolted out the back door, vowing to return with a gun, finish the job.

My grandmother got a hold of my parents and told them to come get me, which they did rapidly and with great alarm.

We were told that this man did indeed come back later with a gun, but the police were laying in wait, and apprehended him at the door.

My grandmother continued to live in that house and play poker nightly with that same crowd until she was felled by a stroke some four years later, to live out her remaining years in a nursing home (where she stripped all the other old ladies of their nickels daily in gin rummy).

The stroke came upon her during a poker game, and the rumor was that she finished the round before she keeled over because she had held the winning hand.

Somehow, I believe this to be true. 

This post is linked up with the memoir prompt over at The Red Dress Club.  To see the prompt, click here.  To go to the link-up and read other posts, click on the button below: 

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