Asked to picture my grandmother in her vital days, before the stroke that laid her low, creating the shadow who hovers dimly in the background of my later childhood years, this image comes:
Dunia, in her kitchen; yellowed light from an ancient ceiling fixture suffusing everything with a sulfuric glow, wiping her hands on her ever-present stained apron, a cigarette stuck to her lower lip, as if by glue and not mere spittle, the red edge of a pack of Pall Malls peeking up out of the apron's torn pocket.
Moments before, her hands were furiously busy with wooden bowl and gleaming blade, chopping up the eggs, onions and chicken livers whose frying smell hangs close, blends with the cigarette smoke to create a thick haze in the kitchen: the smell of Grandma Dunia's house. (I have that chopper now, passed down the maternal line, its metal handle still retaining a hint of the red paint that once caught my eye, there in my grandmother's kitchen.)
Outdoors the air is fresher though also strange, dank, loamy; her yard deeply shadowed by old tress, old bushes grown tall and feral. The lilac that stands by our own garage door comes from these here, my flower-loving mother happy to have a piece of home with her. But somehow, here, even the lilacs seem dour, moody, menacing as they tower over me, the smallest, palest thing around for miles.
The old swing-set in the backyard is miraculously still standing, and I push the upstairs tenant's twin toddlers higher and higher to their squealing delight. At eight, I am the big girl, enjoy watching the little girls' flashing smiles, marvel at the many tiny pink-barretted braids it must have taken their mother hours to tame their hair into.
I do not know this will be my last visit, that my grandmother's days of independence are swiftly numbered. I will miss spending time with these little girls, the only young, new things in this creaking old house.
Finally the gloaming completely engulfs the yard, a perfect background for the fireflies dancing delight. But it is time to head inside, the night being no time for young girls to linger outdoors in this now rough neighborhood.
Smoke swirls through all the rooms of this house, as my grandmother lights one cigarette off the dying ember of the previous, a chain that will, by necessity, end the soon-coming day she keels over.
My mother, once a smoker too, now quit, waves her hand in front of her face to clear a small circle of air, hoping to breathe freely. She knows better then to ask her mother to stop smoking, in spite of the wheezing it now brings on. She knows better than to ask her mother for anything, empathy and generosity running decidedly short in this house.
We do not visit often, but when we do I marvel at how different it is here than in my home. Her ancient standard poodle skulks like a ghost from room to room, large and silent, its one eye turned milky strange, a frightening apparition to a child used to frisky cats.
The television is round at the edges, encased in a huge wooden cabinet, almost unrecognizable to me, but for the comfort it provides; the familiar images appearing therein reminding me that I still inhabit the same solid world, though the frame has shifted.
While I watch TV, the grown-ups talk and talk. I do not try to listen in. When my grandmother tells a joke, though the telling is in English, the punch line is always in Yiddish, a language I do not understand. Even the laughter here bears a sharper edge, a tang, is not easy and light.
When it comes time to leave, my mother comes to sit in the back seat with me, her lap my pillow, a sleepy girl's fondest wish. The car's windows are open, inviting night's fresh air to rush all around us, and we gratefully inhale.
She strokes my head, her hands ever gentle with me, as her mother's never were with her. And I drift off, knowing I will wake up in the arms of my strong father carrying me from the car, bringing me home.
Curious about my unusual Grandmother? I have written about her before: here, and here.
This post was inspired by a prompt at The Red Dress Club. This week's RemembeRED assignment was to write a post inspired by this photo:
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