The hospital bed, one of two in the middle of the dining room, creaked and shook, just a little, as I climbed up to sit next to my grandmother. Grammie, I called her, and she was every bit of her name. Always in a blouse and ironed slacks, she wore thick brown stockings and a curly gray wig to cover the white wisps of hair she had left. My father, who thought himself quite funny, would tell me, when his mother wasn’t present, that the gene pool for hair loss was determined by the father’s mother and I too would be a baldino. Later, I’d secretly try on Grammie’s wigs. Other than my friend Cheryl, who died when I was nine, Grammie was the only person I knew who wore a wig. Itchy and odd, I’d hope he wasn’t right. Without her wigs though, my grandmother looked nothing like herself, and I never wished them away. Grammie’s hair was just a fraction of what I remember making her special. Little aprons always tied around her waist, tight hugs, “Good Morning Sunshine” and other songs constantly sung perfectly off key, quotes from Shirley Temple and old movies I’d never see, made her, bald or not, one of my most favorite people.
Once or twice a year we’d visit the white house on Jensen Road where my father was born. We’d enter through the side door that led right into the kitchen. Grammie, no matter how late we arrived, held the screen door open, dimpled smile ear to ear. I knew there would be a moment when I walked into the house, where embraced in hug, I couldn’t breathe. Despite the long drive from Virginia to Connecticut and the fact that my sister and I mostly watched MTV, I loved our visits. I loved the way Grammie double fried hot dogs in real butter and always had Florida Orange Juice, something Mom would never buy. I loved how she’d cover my face in kisses for no reason other than to just love on me, and how she’d spend hours, year after year, sitting with me on the hospital bed, reliving old Christmas cards and letters. She’d saved every one she’d ever received. The ones with pictures inserted were always my favorite, and later we’d go through the dozen or so albums she had in Grandpa’s study. The cards, though, they felt secretive. I was a part of a story written for her.
Somewhere in her storytelling, Grandpa would ring his bell and she’d smile and go off to help him eat or go to the bathroom. My grandfather was paralyzed from the neck down, and after more than a decade of being so, my grandparents were in a rhythm that could not be disturbed. I would sit, sometimes for many minutes if the room divider, telling us Grandpa needed privacy, was put up. I’d look through the cards, but it wasn’t the same without her narration.
I don’t remember the specific stories, and while a part of me wishes I did or had the cards and pictures, I’d need her and the hospital bed and the hope that the bell wouldn’t interrupt our time.
What I do have are my stories, about a woman who used to tell me often while patting down her apron that when she was young she had a sixteen-inch waist, who’d introduce me to singing loudly off key and always ended every letter to me, and there were many, with a different scripture about love. I can tell about a woman who for seventeen years took care of her paralyzed husband and sang every day, even when she was cranking his six foot frame up in a wheel chair contraption to bathe him or being ordered, sometimes harshly, to find this or get that. Who when she was finished, always returned to a little girl, patiently waiting on the white hospital bed, to tell her more about the life she used to live and the relatives she could no longer travel to see. I wonder now if I asked too much of her all those times or if somehow we were giving each other the gift of story.