Watching my grandparents grow older, grow sicker, and eventually die is that hardest thing I’ve ever done. The memory of their loss haunts me to this day. One night, I was lucky enough to have them visit my dreams. Well, I thought I was lucky.
The dream became a nightmare in which I had to watch them die all over again, trapped inside “the old homestead” where I spent every childhood Christmas and which now belongs to a whole other family. (I can’t even drive by the house in my hometown without crying.)
Anyway, since I had to live this nightmare, I thought I might as well write about it so the creepiness and despair could exist forever in the published medium. Wow, that sounded sadistic!
Sadism aside, I’m honored to be the For Books’ Sake Weekend Read: “The Weekend Read publishes outstanding fiction by women every Friday. We feature prize-winning stories, stories from published collections, and brand new work by established authors as well as showcasing new, emerging voices from across the globe.”
I expected nothing but silence and the stale smell of age when I walked through the breezeway and turned the familiar key in the familiar side door lock. Imagine my surprise when I smelled cigarettes and heard the rickety echo of Glenn Miller’s orchestra on a turntable.
The side door led into the kitchen, which was filled with blue smoke, illuminated by early evening light through windows that led to the backyard.
Then, a voice:
“Home at last,” she said. Mom.
The kitchen was as I remembered it: filled with blooming cacti and framed cross-stitch phrases in Italian. Beneath the cigarette smoke, I smelled tomato sauce. My mother stood at the counter, salting pasta, dousing it in olive oil, and stirring, stirring with a wooden spoon.
She must have been in her thirties: carefully curled black hair, red lipstick, a tiny waist, and a simple stained apron that belonged to my father but that she claimed was her favourite.
Mom turned to face me and smiled. She wiped her hands on her apron and opened her arms. “Give me a hug, Sandi. And why are you so late from school?”
We’d burned her decrepit, sick body three days before. She was ashes in the ground at St. Rose Cemetery, where all the Catholics ended up.
One of my knees gave out, so I reached for the edge of the stove for balance. I shouted and pulled my hand back from the heat, which made my mother run to me and yell, “Albert!”
I felt her hands on me—not the paper-thin flesh of a dying old woman but the strong, supple hands of a lifetime cook who kept our Cherry Street house clean and made my bed every morning. Her hands wrapped around my thin wrists and led me to the kitchen table that wasn’t supposed to be there. No, we’d sold the family table at the estate sale.
She pushed me into a chair and rushed to the sink to wet a washcloth. She pressed the cloth to my hand, and I smelled her perfume: Chanel No. 5.
“What’s all the ruckus, Ella?”
Dad stood in the doorway that led from kitchen to living room—the place where we’d spent over forty Christmas morns. His head was already bald, but his hair was still brown around the sides of his head. He looked strong, the Naval officer he once was, not the wasted sack of bones who died in their bedroom ten years before.
I ignored the cold cloth on my scalded hand and ran to him. He almost dropped his newspaper at my exuberance. He smelled like smoke and Old Spice. He felt warm and soft, full around the middle from all the new-fangled light beer. He stuck his face in my hair and whispered, “Sandi, baby, are you all right?”
I cried, and Mom tutted. “She just burned her hand, silly thing.” She grabbed at me and wrapped the cloth firmly against my palm. “Now, sit down, you two. Time to eat.”