My great-grandmother used to wash her hands up to her elbows. Which I guess was more like washing her arms. She was obsessive-compulsive, something that wasn’t diagnosed until much later in life when she was also diagnosed as manic-depressive and schizophrenic. I remember the smell of soap and old skin, washing away something I just couldn’t see.
When my mother and I would take her to the grocery store, I’d always sit under the basket, being chauffeured by my mother who navigated the abuse of someone who wasn’t technically in her right mind. I know now this was the love that Jesus talked about, an unconditional concern for those who can’t fend for themselves. My mother would pick the wrong can of peas, and there’d be a tug of war, a show for all the world to see (at least the world inside of Kroger’s), and I was more than happy to be teetering far below it on four rusty wheels.
At the end of these trips, my great-grandmother would purchase a box of Virginia Slims, and I was eerily attracted to how long and thin they were. I imagined it was something Lucille Ball might have smoked—the heroine of my five-year-old heart—and it’s a miracle I’m not a smoker now. But maybe it has something to do with my great-grandmother deciding to quit in her early eighties like she was as tired of smoking as she was of the world’s inability to choose the right can of peas.
In her home office, it smelled like the dust of faraway years, the same ones I saw Lucy live on my TV. There was her marble pen and clock set she still used and her drawers with her checkbook and stamps. I can see her sitting there, almost unconcerned about how old she was and how almost everyone had died, allowing the strength of her will to keep her upright.
In the hallway, outside of her office was the project my great-uncle—one of her sons—had done as a kid. It was a plaque that on one side listed facts about Lincoln, and on the other, facts about Kennedy. And from the tender age of five, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lincoln having a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy having a secretary named Lincoln, and how all the world seems like a mess of coincidences unless you know the truth.
I’d sit at the upright piano where the picture of my grandmother, my great-grandmother’s daughter, was framed in black and white. It was beautiful and haunting because she seemed closer to my age even though it was taken on a day God didn’t need me to exist.
I’d play from the yellowed piano books in the front room—the same ones my grandmother and great-uncles played from—and make music about little boys and their dogs and clocks that wouldn’t stop ticking.
When I was done, I’d creak the pedals of her ancient exercise machine and pretend to watch the broken TV that hadn’t worked since the fifties.
The dead fish on the wall my great-grandfather had caught and mounted would watch me as my great-grandmother poured another mug of whole milk into her Campbell’s soup mug. She’d drink it down, and I thought maybe it was the secret elixir behind everything—like why her air conditioner had been stolen twice while she was sleeping but nobody had laid a hand on her. Or like how her elderly neighbor had been kidnapped in broad daylight and beaten and killed in an alley for a gang initiation, but she had remained unscathed.
She wasn’t the type to open the door for anyone.
I’d sit on the couch, the hurt in my heart knowing what this house, this home used to be and what it was now. There goes the neighborhood was such a heavy rift in the air, you could play it on the piano.
I’m frightened of my great-grandmother even at fifteen when I haven’t seen her in years. She’s sitting in a wheelchair at her nursing home with the other older people waiting for something, anything, to come through that door. When she sees me, she says, “Ericka, get me a cup of coffee,” as a way of a hello, and I try not to be spooked by the fact that she still knows who I am all these years later.
We sit in the dining hall as she doesn’t eat and talk with her, or at least my mother does. All the things I know about her like hopping on the back of my cousin’s husband’s motorcycle that one time or chasing the ones she loved with a hammer are piled high in the back of my mind, and I take a slow climb as I recognize she’s scared, too.
“Can I have that?” she asks my mother and reaches for the medal chained around her neck. It’s of the Virgin Mary, and at the time, I think it was a weird request, but you get used to weird when a person fills a sink full of soap and water just to wash their hands.
Later on, she dies and joins all the ones who already have. Older now, and betrothed to Christ, I know what that fear was. Your whole life you spend washing the past off you and chasing it away with tools in your garage or closing your eyes to missing air conditioners or looking at that funny bass hanging high above your head, and you can smoke all the cigarettes in the world, and take their diagnoses, the ones that pretend to define you.
You’ll never truly defy the weight of all that weighs you down. Not unless you find the One whose yoke is easy, whose burden is light.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”Matthew 11:29-30