A couple of years ago, my Grandma Lila was shopping for some childrens’ toys. She went into a toy store near her house and looked around for a while, but everything they had there was weird. She couldn’t imagine any of her great-grandkids wanting to play with any of this stuff. The lone sales clerk in the small store, a woman, approached her and asked, “Can I help you find something, ma’am?”
Grandma told her matter-of-factly, “I’m looking for some baby toys. Do you have any of those?”
The woman seemed confused. “I’m sorry. We don’t really have anything for babies. Um… Uh… What do you mean?”
The store, which had the words “Toy Box” on their sign outside, was an “adult” novelties shop. Somehow Grandma managed to escape without them alerting the authorities.
Momma Ethel, Grandma Lila’s mom, used to make the world’s best chicken and dumplings. Although this was undocumented in any literature that I am aware of, nevertheless I’m quite certain that it was true. Certainly I’ve sampled enough variations on chicken and dumplings in my lifetime that I know for sure. When I was little, Grandma Lila made two things that everyone in our family loved: chicken and noodles, and banana pudding. The pudding she used to make was that kind with actual, real banana slices cut up in it, Nilla wafers stood up all around the edges like a crust, with Nilla wafers both whole and crushed on top. Several years ago, she was making a batch of it because family was coming over, but it just kept getting thicker and thicker until finally she couldn’t even move the spoon anymore. She set it in the fridge for a while to do some other things, thinking she’d come back to it later and figure out what was wrong with it. When she got back to it, it was literally a solid chunk. She decided the pudding mix must have gone bad, so she took it out of the cabinet to throw it away. When she turned it over to check if it had an expiration date, she realized that it was actually powder for wallpaper paste.
Many years earlier, Grandma decided she was tired of the colors in her kitchen, so she resolved to repaint the cabinets herself. After the first coat, the color she picked didn’t seem to have covered thoroughly enough. So she painted over them again, hinges and all. By the time she was finished, the cabinet doors were so thick with paint that they literally wouldn’t close all the way. Undeterred, over the years, she would repaint her kitchen cabinets several more times. They positively were growing as they aged. She never once felt the need to strip them first. In my memory, you could press your fingernail against those cabinet doors, and they had a soft, putty-like texture, almost what I imagine the cool flesh of an alien might feel like.
She had a giant wooden spoon and fork that hung on the wall in her kitchen that fascinated me as a child. In the handles of each were carved elaborate, kind of scary, tribal-looking faces. I remember being frightened of them when I was small, but I simply couldn’t peel my eyes away either. Their horror was such a curiosity that they called to me, compelling me to sit and stare. I always thought that Uncle Roger had brought them back to her once when he came home from a trip in the Navy, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. I don’t care, though, really. That’s what they were to me.
Also on the wall in her kitchen, she prominently displayed a plate I had made in kindergarten. “BRAhhOh,” it said, with a house that looked more like a lighthouse or a rocket because of its height and thinness. I think she had plates from my older sisters, as well, but theirs were ugly and mine was magnificent.
Grandma had this series of weird, staggered cabinets that sort of divided one end of the kitchen from the living room. They just kind of hung there, almost magically suspended in the air on spindly little poles. Because they were open to both sides, that corner of the living room was the worst possible place for a chair. But that was where my Grandpa’s chair was, because it let him sit and watch the TV and still keep up with what was going on in the kitchen. Also, the shelf was a convenient place for him to put his ashtray—and his teeth when he took them out. When I was really little, Grandma had a bunch of plastic and glass figurines all over those shelves that you weren’t allowed to touch. But of course I did, and I broke (at least) my fair share of them. Okay—more than my share. But it was not on purpose. And on that you have my word.
Grandma has been staying at Mom’s for several weeks now because she had been sick and needed some help. Last night, Grandma went to sleep in my mom’s house. This morning when she woke up, she was not in her room. Grandpa and Uncle Roger and Aunt Nona and Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Ardith and Uncle Herbert and Aunt Maudie and Momma Ethel…and I’m sure a lot more people, some I’ve forgotten, and far more that I never knew, probably several from Dillard’s department store, certainly many more than just the handful she left behind here…were all really glad to see her today. In my mind’s eye, I picture them all sitting around a big table and smoking cigarettes and telling stories and laughing together, looking forward to when we will join them. And I find that somehow comforting today.
Grief is such a personal emotion. This is just a tiny glimpse into the life of a woman we will miss this Christmas Eve. We will memorialize her. And then we will go back to my mom’s and eat and open presents together and play games and laugh and enjoy our children and each other. No questions today. Share if you like. Merry Christmas, everybody. Love your people. :)