A Conversation With Grandma
by Karen Talley
I stood behind her, plaiting her head like she liked. I loved the feel of her gray, naturally curly hair. It was soft in my hands like cotton. As I parted her hair and greased her scalp, I noticed the trembling of her right hand, actually just the thumb and forefinger. I had seen it a few months before, but I’d denied it. I didn’t want to believe it had happened to her.
“The flowers so pretty coming up,” she said in that sweet buttery voice.
“Yes, ma’am, they are,” I said.
The house was so quiet, except for the humming of the freezer beside us. Grandma didn’t like television and the AM radio station she listened to emitted nothing but buzzing and static, so we’d turned it off. The silence was deafening between the two of us. I wondered how she could stand being alone all day.
My grandfather had passed four years before at the age of ninety. My aunt had moved in with my grandmother, but she worked during the day. So, for approximately nine hours every day, my grandmother sat alone in the house listening to the hum of the freezer and the buzz of that radio.
It just so happened I was laid off of work and in between interviews and house cleaning, I made it a point to spend time with my grandmother during the day as much as possible. Being alone all day until my son came home from school showed me just how long and lonely nine hours of the day must have been to her. Well, I assumed. So, I asked.
“Grandma, what do you do all day?” I scooped a small amount of hair grease from the back of my hand and gently rubbed it into her scalp.
“Oh, baby, I don’t do too much. I get up and eat breakfast and listen to the radio a little bit. I go outside and feed my cats if I feel I can make it up and down those back stairs. Sometimes I just go to the door and rake the food over the side of the steps and they have to come get it. I go out on the porch and water my flowers. Eat lunch. Take a nap. The phone rings all day. Seems like as soon as I sit down, it starts ringing.”
“Well, you’ve got that cordless phone now, so just keep that with you.”
“Well,” I saw her fingers tremble again, “I guess I could, but it’s so easy to misplace. I like my other phone better.”
“Hmm. It must be hard for you staying here all day by yourself with not much to do.” I started my second row of plaits. I’d wanted to cornrow her hair, but I just never could get the hang of it. I could plait until planting season, but I could never cornrow.
“It’s not like I have a choice. You won’t let me hop in your Cadillac and drive around everyday.”
I threw my head back as a burst of laughter jumped from my throat. My grandmother had never driven a day in her life, and I definitely couldn’t confuse my Toyota Corolla with a Cadillac.
“Grandma, you are so crazy.” I parted and greased and started on the next plait. I worked slowly, purposely. I wanted to savor every minute I could with her. I regretted the fact that I hadn’t done that with my grandfather. He’d been sick for months before he died. While I did visit him, I never really got to talk to him and spend time with him like I should have. I didn’t want to make that mistake with my grandma.
Out of the silence escaped a question that had been on my mind, but one I’d been afraid to ask. “Grandma, do you miss Grandpa?”
“Yeah, I do.” Her fingers twitched.
Knowing how spiritual both my grandparents were, and knowing how they definitely believed in the afterlife I asked, “Does Grandpa ever come see you?”
“Do you ever talk to him?” I asked as I started on the next plait.
“No. I just look at him.” Twitch, twitch-her fingers.
“Does he ever say anything to you?”
“He didn’t talk to me while he was here and he don’t talk to me now.” She and I both laughed, but we knew it was kind of true. I’d actually witnessed the two of them sitting in the same room for two hours without speaking directly to each other. I guess that’s what seventy-one years of marriage can do for you. Eventually, you have to run out of things to say.
I continued the conversation as she began stretching her legs. She’d once told me that her bones and joints got stiff if she stayed in one place to long. I felt so ashamed. I’d kept her in the chair longer than I should have for my own selfish reasons. I began to pick up the pace. “Do you ever just feel so tired here, Grandma? Like some days you just want to…go?”
To my surprise, she didn’t hesitate in answering. “Sometimes the days seem so long, it seems the sun is never going to set. And sometimes the nights seem so long, it seems the sun is never going to rise. But, I just thank the good Lord for every day He gives me and when it’s my time, He’ll call me home.”
I could feel my eyeballs swimming inside their sockets as tears welled up from inside me. The thought of her being “called home” was a little hard to stomach. I couldn’t fathom this world without her physical presence. There was never a doubt in my mind that spiritually, she’d always be there to guide me, but the thought of not being able to touch or see her reeked havoc on my emotions.
“Well, you know if you ever get too tired and you just want to call on Him to take you, none of us will be mad at you. We’ll miss you, but we sure won’t be mad.” Before I began the next plait, I wiped the tears that had slowly fallen upon my face.
She didn’t respond, at least not to me. Instead she said, “Ah, Lawd. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for another day.” Twitch. Twitch. Twitch. She continued stretching her legs.
I braided faster, though it was hard to braid her short curly hair. She’d once had long hair, as long as mine, which fell just below her shoulders. When she was pregnant with my uncle, however, who was her tenth child, she developed the measles and much of her hair came out. That’s why, as my mother once told me, my grandma gets so upset whenever I cut my hair. It reminds her of her crowning glory which she lost.
She continued to sniffle and stretch as I finished her hair. We made small talk about the weather, her flowers, who’d died in the neighborhood, and what she was going to eat for supper that night. I tied her hair up in a scarf and then went to the bathroom to wash my hands. I noticed there were still a few tearstains left on my face and I hurriedly washed them. I definitely didn’t want her to see them.
I returned to the kitchen to find her now sitting on the sofa, the same one my grandpa used to sit on every day. He’d sit there with his legs crossed, slinging his right leg, quoting scriptures and singing old hymns. He memorized lots of scriptures and hymns when he realized his eyesight was failing. His ability to repeat some passages of scripture verbatim always amazed me.
Now she was seated there, in his spot. I wondered if she sat there because she wanted to feel close to him or because she just wanted a comfortable place to sit. I knew if I asked her, her comedic personality would declare the latter.
I poured the two of us glasses of ice water. It was so hot in the house and my grandma didn’t believe in air conditioning. She’d lived most of her ninety-one years without it and never cared for it. On top of that, she rarely ever turned on her ceiling fans, saying the air was too much for her old bones and that when on, they’d cause her knees to stiffen up. So, whenever we visited, we just prepared ourselves for the heat. Somehow I can’t help but believe the temperature of the house was a reflection of the warmth of her heart.
Her fingers continued to twitch as she drank her water. I watched her, probably with a worried look on my face, and she asked me what was wrong. I shook my head and said, “I’m just looking at a very, very pretty lady.”
“Look like you,” she said.
It was a good afternoon.