My mother died and God only knows where my father is. The week after her death, I moved in with my great-grandparents. I was fifteen, Nana was seventy, and Papa was seventy-five or so.
They weren’t totally delusional. Nana had her moments, but most of the time she was all there. Papa was all there, he just didn’t seem like it. He was one of those old people who would tell you to put the fork down or to stop drinking so much soda because your face was breaking out rapidly and you were obviously gaining weight. He was also the first to inform you of the series of STDs and address them casually as if they were a new presidential candidate.
Papa would walk in the door as I helped Nana cook dinner or did the dishes and he’d say, “My lands alive! I just cain’t get ridda ya!” Then he would come over and hug me and say, “You know I’m just jokin’. You can come over anytime you want to!”
“That’s good since I live here,” I’d laugh. Then he’d slip me a five dollar bill.
He would sit down at the head of the kitchen table in their sweet, southern house as the breeze coming through the window would lightly tease the newspapers that sat on the counter in front of the sweets and small TV and the new cordless telephone. He would pull up his plain white shirt and wipe the sweat from his wrinkled face and expose his stiff balloon stomach covered in little black and gray hairs. He’d take his bright orange hat off and set it on the table, run his hairy hands through the small amount of hair that still sat on his head, and he’d put the hat right back on.
Nana would tell Papa if anyone had called to talk to him and they’d catch up on the latest gossip about the people in our town. They’d share news about who had died and who was having surgery and they were usually people from our church. It was a subject that seemed to be taken lightly not because they didn’t care, but because they were used to it and they knew the only thing they could do was pray at that point.
Even if I had never been a very Godly person, I appreciated that Nana and Papa were simple, Christian people who weren’t trying to change the world. They were leaving it up to God and going about their daily lives. They accepted things the way they were and didn’t throw fits and yell about politics. They never fussed about what a horrible job the president was doing or how horrible the economy was. They just prayed and told me that the Lord had it all under control and I believed it.
Papa would sit down at the dinner table and look me straight in the eye and would say, “Listen, Hun. You got a boyfriend?” I would tell him that I didn’t because I was too worried about my school work and I didn’t feel like getting into all of that. This, for the most part, was true. “Well, I’m just telling you right now, stay pure. Your husband will’preciate it. She,” he’d say as he pointed over at Nana as she either slipped something in the oven or made Papa a plate of food, “stayed pure for me and I sure’preciate it. It makes it better if you know what I mean.” And he’d wink.
My great-grandfather was the last person I wanted to be discussing sex with. I especially didn’t want to get into a conversation about his sex life.
Then, he said, “I remember back in Vietnam when the men had sex with those Asian ladies and soon enough they were swelling up and falling off of themselves!”
Nana’s thin, tan face would get a little pink on the cheeks and she’d say, “She don’t want to hear none of that! She’s already traumatized enough!”
And I wondered if I was.
Every Sunday morning, we entered the big white doors that led us into a place that smelled like peppermints and woodchips and the first thing you saw when you walked in was an oil painting of Jesus hanging above the choir section. As we walked to our pew, the same one we sat in every Sunday, an old lady stopped me. Her name was Gertrude Cramer. She was tall and shaky with a black perm and she usually wore dresses that I’m almost positive she had saved from the fifties. She grabbed my arm and said, “Hey, Honey.” I’m almost positive she called me Honey (and only Honey) because she couldn’t remember my real name. “How are you doing?”
And I lied as happily as I could, “Well. How are you?”
And she looked at me with her big, brown, truthful eyes and said, “Well, to be honest, Honey, things aren’t going too great for me.” Her eyes became red and swollen and she said as she kept her shaking hand on my arm, “My sister died.”
“Oh,” I said. I wondered what to say at that point. Most people apologize, but I never understood why. They hadn’t done anything. And I couldn’t possibly say, “I feel you, Gertie,” because not only would that be completely disrespectful, but she probably wouldn’t believe that I did “feel her”. She probably didn’t remember what happened to my mother. She didn’t even remember my name, much less my story.
So I said what anyone else with any kind of sense would say. “I’m sorry, Mrs Cramer.”
She pulled me closer to her and kissed the side of my face, “You’re getting to be such a pretty little girl.”
“Thank you.” I looked at her again and she no longer looked normal. She looked lost and like her mind had been contorted into some kind of impossible-to-untie knot. “Mrs Cramer, would you mind if I sat here today?”
She smiled and patted my arm that she refused to let go of and said, “I would love that.”
And there I was sitting with a woman who had changed my diapers and taken me to Hardees every Sunday after church when I was just a child, and now, at fifteen and eighty, she could no longer remember my name. But I knew she would if she could. I knew that if she were able, she would take me to Hardees every Sunday after church again.
“Me and my sister used to go out shopping every Saturday and then we’d go out to eat. That’s how she died, you know. She choked.”
She started crying again and I just held her hand.
The choir walked out and sat on the pews under Jesus and faced everyone and the preacher followed behind them. I silently thanked God that they came out when they did because I had no idea what to say to Gertrude.
Preacher George asked us to stand and join the choir in song, then everyone prayed, and then he began to preach.
As always, I got the first few lines of the sermon. It was always a story, then he’d move in and attach the Godly meaning to it. But the first time he said “God” or “Jesus”, my mind traveled elsewhere and I hated it.
I looked forward at Preacher George. I looked at him deeply as if I were taking in every word he said and carving it into my brain. He would look at me the most just because I seemed to be paying the most attention.
I was daydreaming about the world. I was thinking about getting out of Hardly and traveling. I was thinking about running away to California by myself after I graduated, but I quickly decided not to when I remembered how easily sunburned I got. Then I considered Maryland, but I didn’t know much about it. Maybe that’s why I wanted to go. I thought about New York more than anything. I thought it’d be good to go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me. I thought I could start a whole new life. I could do what I wanted and not worry about who was going to see or who was even going to care.
Suddenly, I snapped out of my daydream when I heard someone yell, “What’d he say?” I looked in the direction the voice had come from and saw two little old ladies. They looked identical with the only difference between them being the color of the knitted scarves they were wearing. I knew them as Janet Sue and Lola.
Janet Sue was leaning into Lola’s ear. She was the one who had just yelled. She was asking what the preacher had just said.
“He said the pigs had demon souls and they jumped off the cliff and drowned!”
Quickly, I looked back at Nana and Papa who were desperately trying to hold in their laughs, but that didn’t last too long. Papa closed his eyes as he looked down at the red carpet and shook his head. His shoulders were shaking rapidly.
I began to silently laugh as I looked at Preacher George who was looking down at his bible, his shoulders shaking.
When church was over, Gertrude stood up and looked at me, smiling. She hadn’t let go of my hand since I sat down.
She looked around and said, “Where’s your mother, Honey?”
I looked at her blankly. I felt like she had just scrubbed my stomach with a steel wool pad and shoved ten cotton balls in my mouth.
And I wondered once again what to say.
I couldn’t possibly remind her that my mother, a woman she had loved, was dead. I especially couldn’t do it after she had told me about her sister. So, what could I say?
Before I could answer, she looked at me with a look of horrible realization and said, “I’m losing everyone.”