I cannot understand her from
where I sit, no matter how close I sit. My knees are up to my chin, I watch her
strength and conviction as one would watch the grace of snow.
Insouciantly her hands mix into a cake, she says when
I met your grandfather he told me "I am going to make you my wife,"
ha! Well you know I didn't believe it at the time but he did, he really did!
The first time that she had started a story like this to
me was five years after he passed away. I remember the choice I had no courage to make. He was breathing harder than ever and the priest and doctor came and
my aunt came and my two uncles were burning toward him, and my mother was
getting in the car and my father turned to me: do you want to go?
He was in that big war! she explains, and he wrote to me, and told me he loved me.
And before he went he took me on all these dates, and my mother said don't you go
out with that Keegan boy, his family is all trouble, but I didn't listen to her
Ryan because we were all poor back then and nobody was different from nobody.
Briefly, during my high school years, I had
lived with her for a few months before she moved with me into my parents' house.
She kept her simple apartment, removed from the home where she raised her
family, in the best shape she could. There were porcelain cats and Marys, an old
television and piles of television guides. My grandfather, Bud, had left her
here and she was happy to have me with her.
And he comes
back from the war and I remember when I was there, do you know that famous
kiss? That was all staged. It had to be. I was so scared when the ship pulled
in and there's so many people on it I didn't know he was there. And then I see
him! Oh he was so handsome! And it wasn't a day later, it really wasn't, that
he gave me this ring, and I told him my mother is going to kill you! But she
loved him too, it was funny, it's funny how things work out.
At four years old I wait for the turns of the washer
machine as she loads it every day with whites and pinks and sweaters towels and
shorts into it, and you know how basements can be dark with loud washers and
dryers, but I am there with her. And now the washer is filled with hot water and it smells good, and now it is going hard, and now she gives me a piece of
And they called him Popeye you know, when he was young he was built so strange, he was almost
all skin and bones but he had these big Irish muscles. And when he became a sailor
it really stuck that name, and he did construction work and he was. so handsome.
At three years old I lie on her bed as her hands lie across
my back. I remain still while fighting sleep. Her hands are moving over little
muscles, her hands of aged warmth. It is two in the afternoon and my thoughts go:
candy, sweet potatoes, my two best friends, grandmom.
Her husband was downstairs, struggling as he turned, trying
to find comfort. He would get up, move to the bathroom, lay back down. She went down to him, crossed her hands again.
My grandmother would say it is an irony, to have given your
life to four children, your wife, to be a sailor in World War II, to walk on steel
beams to build Philadelphia, to be her Popeye, and then to develop multiple
sclerosis. It is a stupid irony.
Early into the disease his discomfort was apparent. He
was like a giant. He moved slowly, lingering in doorways. Later it was
the lack of struggle that worried into my grandmother. He would not take, she
would say, even a cold mashed potato.
At eleven years I am just a pall-bearer. I am
walking toward the hearse, I feel only my fingers, cold, slightly painful, the
weight of him. I watch my grandmother as her sons weep. I watch as she bores into
the coffin, her face bare, clean, patient.
At twenty years I
take coffee after dinner with her. Marlon Brando is on the television. Then she
does what I do when the commercials come on, which is to mute. Ryan, do you think you are going to get married one
day? (I don't know, I say.) Well you should, you're a very handsome man (I say,
I have good genes in me, because of grandpop). Oh he was so handsome! He was
such a good husband, you make a good man like him. He was so hard headed! He
wouldn't listen to anybody, he got in me some of that. Before he went, Ryan,
one of the nurses said you shouldn't give Bud cigarettes anymore, and I says to
her well what else is he going to do these days! She was so pushy about it that
I said, you know what! I am going to take care of my husband now, I don't
expect you back. And that was a year before he passed.
When she was speaking of even the simplest items, there
was always an intangible fire. It had never occurred to me to consider a reason
for this other than what she simply was. Yet here she is and she seems to be
channeling it. She leans in and she's got it in her, she has it at the edges of
And you know, when Bud was getting near the end, he never
spoke for weeks. And it was two days, just two before he went, and I was near
him with coffee and he pulls, he pulls with
his hand. And I can tell he just wants to talk so, I get real close. And I
say what is it Bud. He says, I love you. I always always loved you.