I can’t believe they are all right. Every obscure, 19th century literary reference, every translated French pronoun, every acronym and abbreviation and antonym filled neatly into each respective box of the Sunday crossword puzzle. Not a single mark of scribbled hesitation.
I fold down my grandmother’s New York Times, glancing over at her nightstand. An old tissue falls to the carpet. I run my fingers over empty Diet Coke cans, a flimsy piece of fabric that was once a lady’s bra, and a photo of my brother Max, cousin Brian and me laughing in the grass in Marblehead, Massachusetts. I’m no more than four. Mama sits in her chair, letting her un-manicured hands fold neatly on top of her lap, and asks me again “so where are you now in your life my Amy?” I smile at my mom as she quietly, dutifully cleans up the discarded tissues and moves onto the unwashed sweatpants in a heap on the floor.
“I’m going to be a senior at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mama,” I repeat again.
Sydelle Ross was born to Russian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York in 1920. The stories from her life dazzle before me as I sit on her lap, tracing the outline of a shell. I am eight or nine, and we sit together on her terrace in Hollywood Beach, Florida.
“Once, as I was walking through Central Park on my way back to the Upper West Side, I felt the stares of several men. I was, of course, flattered. But then the stares became more persistent. I wondered, ‘is my skirt tucked into my underwear? Do I have something in my teeth?’ ” Mama pauses, drawing a sharp line down my back with her pointer finger. It sends a familiar tingle down my spine. Zeeeek! I imagine her walking through the park, all Manhattan glamour with her dark hair coiffed in the same short, flattering cut of the black and white self-portrait that hangs in her apartment.
“Turns out, Joe DiMaggio was also walking through the park that day, right in front of me. Ha!” We laugh together, Mama and I, and I wonder to myself who Joe DiMaggio is.
I used to sneak downstairs to the guest room early in the mornings when Mama stayed with us in New Jersey. I would tuck my pillow under my arm and slide under the covers, waiting for her to recognize my tiny body beside her. She would feign sleep, telling me several years later that she had always heard me, pitter-pattering down those stairs. Her radio would be playing the morning segments on NPR, and we would lay and listen together. I would ask her whatever ten year olds ask their grandmothers about: if her hair was ever longer, why she liked Spearmint Lifesavers so much, how my mom was as a kid. She would answer, peppering in her own selection of stories from a life strange and far from the bed we lay in together.
Mama grew up loving politics. “It’s your duty to know, Sydelle” her father would tell her before she walked to school in the mornings. I struggle, imagining Mama as a little girl in the 1930s. A sworn atheist, the Democratic Party became her religion – FDR her God. Mama made it her duty to know: reading the paper, listening to the news, and participating in political life during the 40s, 50s, 60s. She had opinions on tax reform, opinions on abortion, opinions on the wars she lived through. Throughout her life, she carried her father’s sentiment with her, and eventually warned a 16-year-old me the same thing. I began taking AP Government more seriously.
“Do you do crosswords, my Amy Amy?” Mama fidgets with her thumb, swollen with age, rough now, like a sausage left out to dry. “You know, on my business trips I used to sit on the plane doing crossword puzzles. The men next to me would weigh in, then the men across the aisle. It was a great way to meet people.”
So distant, her life then seems. I imagine. It’s World War II and her husband is off fighting somewhere in the South Pacific. She works as a secretary at McCall’s, then as a marketing specialist at TriChem. Her wages are half as much as men’s, yet her stakes twice as high. She has three children with the man she loves, only to have him die too young of Heart Disease when their youngest was only ten months old. Businessmen wine and dine her. She dates but never remarries, committing her life to her children and her work. She has affairs with married men. She chain-smokes cigarettes until she is 60. She finds solace in her glass of vodka, on the rocks, slice of orange, always served with a stirring straw.
Mama seems surprisingly un-phased when we decide to FaceTime with my brother from my iPhone. He is at work in Charlotte, wearing Carolina blue at his desk at Bank of America Stadium. Max is a sports writer for the Carolina Panthers football team, but Mama can’t stop telling him how handsome he looks.
“Oh Mr. Max you look wonderful. This is truly amazing. IDLY! You know what that means?”
“You know, Mama, I don’t. What does it mean?” Max smiles, Mom and I look at each other and mouth along:
“I-DO-LOVE-YOU!” Mama nearly shouts.
“IDLY to you too, Mama. I miss you.”
“Max, you know what I want to do? Next time you’re here. Let me take you out to a really nice dinner. We can eat and drink and talk about all the things happening in your life. I’m buying.”
“That sounds great Mama. I can’t wait. IDLY.”
Beep beep beep. The FaceTime ends and the screen goes black. Who knows how long it takes for the memory of the conversation to fade from her mind – maybe seconds. The thought of the dinner that can’t happen warms me: my 24-year-old brother, 58-year-old mother, 91-year-old grandmother, and 21-year-old self sitting at a table, drinking, eating and laughing together, spanning generations.
Mama was ready when she retired to Florida at the age of 70. Her apartment there was spacious and airy – a one-bedroom with just enough room for two rambunctious kids and a happy mother to visit in the summers. The kitchen had linoleum flooring that stuck to our bare feet when we came back from the beach for our toasted tuna fish sandwiches. The television blared Jeopardy in the evenings, Alex Trebek’s voice seeping into memories of evenings on Mama’s terrace, me in my Belle nightgown, Max with his mushroom haircut, all together watching boats float down the Inter-coastal. The coffee table, sleek and low to the ground, always had a bowl of shells from Mama’s many walks along the shoreline. I used to sneak them into my pockets, thinking no one knew, later claiming the huge snail shell as my own beach discovery. Mama probably knew my secret. She knew everything.
Until, we discovered, she didn’t. Brian was twenty, visiting Mama with a good friend from college. It was summer and the boys wanted nothing but sun, sleep, and the occasional margarita. I imagine Mama, happy to play host, setting out her famous cocktail hour hors d’oeuvres of liver pate, spinach dip with carrots, and Hershey’s Hugs (never Kisses). She sits down with Brian, asks about his life at the University of Pittsburgh, about his girlfriends and his food preferences, then the same for Brian’s friend. She swishes vodka through her teeth, takes one last bite of pate smeared on a plain bagel chip and heads off to bed. It will be a couple of hours until she wakes up and hears noises. She will be startled, step into the living room, and yell. She will screech. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE IN MY HOUSE? Brian will be afraid. Maybe he will cry, maybe he will stare blankly at the woman he thought he knew. He will head home to Massachusetts and Mama will eventually head there too, first to my aunt and uncle’s, then to Woodbridge Assisted Living in Peabody.
A poster hangs on the wall in Mama’s room at Woodbridge. It is small, with a clown-faced man holding onto hundreds of primary colored balloons. He’s floating away, up through the vast whiteness of the page. At the bottom, the bold red text declares: “I have been everywhere. I have seen everything. But I remember nothing!” Mama loves this poster, and I love her for that.
“So where are you now my darling?” Mama asks me. We are sitting together in the hall outside of her shared room. She has been moved into this double only recently, after VA benefits and Social Security alone couldn’t cover it. Her meager savings from years of unfair wages have finally run dry. Rosie, her roommate, strikes me as a cold and bitter woman, but mostly keeps to herself. Mama will say hello, then whisper to me that she has lived twice the amount of life as all of the people in this damn place.
The couch in the hall is tough, durable if not comfortable, meant to last for ages. Mama doesn’t seem to mind it. Mom and I have our established routine: I take Mama outside while she cleans out the apartment – opening up windows to let in fresh air, replacing soiled bed quilts, and tossing out old bottles of Popov.
“I’m at Michigan now Mama, studying English and Writing.”
“You know, I worked at a magazine in Manhattan once. McCall’s. And I lived there with Maury. We had fabulous friends. I love New York – it is the center of the world. Amy, where are we now?”
“Massachusetts, right near Aunt Phil’s house.”
“And what year is it?”
“2013. Gosh. Is Bush still president? You know I hate that man.”
“No Mama, he isn’t. Barack Obama has been president since 2009.”
“And what month is it?”
“It’s June, Mama. Look outside, it’s beautiful out.”
“Right. Right. So tell me, my Amy Amy, where are you now?”
Mama had been deceiving us all – she had sounded so cheerful on the phone. Sure, she was going to the beach less, but that was presumably due to her bad knee. Her appetite had decreased, but she always ate so little anyway. She was still driving. It wasn’t until Mom and Aunt Phil went down to her apartment after Brian’s visit and found the subtle disarray of the apartment – the unpaid bills, the spoiled cream on the counter – that they realized we had all been deceived by what we had hoped couldn’t be true. I was seventeen then, with other concerns about college applications and student government meetings. My grandma was still healthy, didn’t need a walker, knew Spanish drinking toasts and Japanese greetings. I couldn’t conceive of losing her or her mind, so I didn’t.
I take another look at the Times crossword puzzle on Mama’s bed. All correct.
“May you live every day of your life.” Mama wraps her frail arms around me. I feel the shape of her tiny chest press into my stomach, hers so shrunken, mine alive with youth. I marvel at my grandma, my Mama. Memories from a far away time dance through her head, filling up every corner of her mind – stories of independence and love and experience completely her own. And yet. Soon, she may not remember my name.
Pulling away from our embrace, I turn to leave her. Will she think about us later, sitting at her table in the dining hall? Will she dream about Mom and I tonight? Or will her mind slip into a reverie of her and Maury in their apartment in Manhattan? Does she even dream at all?
Today, I like to imagine that Mama’s story is one that has already been written. Her mind now, so strange and full of mystery, can only be classified as something else entirely. She is beyond that Sydelle, beyond my Mama. And it’s our visits with her that remind me of this shockingly painful reality, and of my duties as her only granddaughter. It will always be hard, but now I have my own apartments to live in, jobs to have, life to live. And I have the amazing voice of my grandmother’s stories ringing in my ears.
Soon we are driving away, Mom and I, to continue living our every day, while Mama lives somewhere inside the glorious memories of a life well lived.