WORDS: KAI WILSON '16
Summertime was idyllic at the seashore.
I could tell she was my father’s mother when she lathered sunscreen into that open circle on my back. His calloused hands, too, felt like sandpaper against my ten-year-old skin. She roughly disregarded the edges of my suit and I felt the way she threw a spool back and forth across her loom. She had spent her whole life weaving, trying to make something out of frayed yarn. With sunscreen and sand on her hands, she plucked a donut hole out of the bag and handed it to me. She held my hands in hers and we walked along the teeth of the rocks. This is the terrain she is sure of, the ocean, the seashore. I could see her at eighteen; only the sunscreen that shawled her shoulders was olive oil, and the feathery silver that now wafted in the breeze was a golden brown that haloed her head in soft ringlets. I watched the bottoms of her feet dive from the highest rock and kick laps along the horizon.
That summer he taught me to play tennis on private courts and introduced me to alcohol. After a noon volley of tennis on a very hot day we went to his home and drank vodka and orange juice.
Peter Wagner was my grandmother’s longtime lover. I knew little about him when I was growing up. When he died in 2011, my grandmother wrote a eulogy for him, which she sent to his family and my father. The piece was honest and brave, and while it didn’t directly say so, it dealt with regret and those matters of the heart. I recall hearing from my father about the time, only a few years back, that Peter showed up at my grandmother’s house after a nasty divorce and told her he wanted to marry her, but if she didn’t say yes he would marry this other woman. Men seemed always to be wooing my grandmother. I remember sitting cross-legged on her counter, her kitchen smelling of freshly cooked lemon bread, as we listened to her voicemails. The first three were probably from Heather, my frantic but nonetheless “cool aunt”, but the last was another familiar voice. I think his name was Bill Bullis and he lived down the street. He was asking my grandmother on a date. Once or twice I had been over to Bill’s house when my grandmother needed him to fix her computer, or her telephone, or some other device that had wires and made beeping noises. While they worked, I would help myself to whopping servings of the chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream that he always had in his freezer. It was my grandmother’s favorite flavor, which made me know that they would be perfect for each other.
Each year, less and less men show up to those Harvard reunions. They are all dying off, like flies.
We are going to do this often, now that we have broken the ice.
I could tell she was lonely when she used to stay with me, while my parents were on climbing trips. In that Bay Area morning fog we would walk to the corner coffee shop. She would hold the leash of her golden dachshund in one hand, and clutch her fading black leather purse in the other. The three of us would trot briskly along and she would always insist on making the crosswalk after the red hand had started flashing. I would order us two large coffees as she perused the pastries. I never told her that I could barely stand the cheese danishes and apricot scones she always chose. We would sit at the corner table where we could look out the window, and she would be honest with me about her life. Before we left she would always make sure to grab a handful of whatever samples were out, which she would then give to her dachshund or me.
These were “our” mornings, this was “our” coffee shop, we still have “our” days, “our” trips to the beach--all “ours”. We have developed a tender language that makes a lot of sense to a grandmother and granddaughter. The possessive pronoun is our secret way of saying, You and I, we are alike.
You and I, we are alike; we know what it is like to be toughened by men.
A few months ago my twelve-year-old cousin came over for dinner. The invitation was not extended to his father, as my dad doesn’t much care for him, but my dad has taken a liking to his brother’s son. That night it was the whole crew. My dad, his mom, his dad, his step-mom, his nephew, his wife, his daughter. We were all there, in his house. My cousin was feeling a bit sick and spoke up on the matter, insisting that he needed to sit down for a moment, a bold move for a Wilson. Rest, sickness and tears are all unwelcome and disapproved of in the Wilson household. “There is no such thing as sickness. I haven’t been sick in my life. Rub some dirt on it,” my father used to say. I was used to laughing when he called himself “Shogun” or when he ripped off his shirt and bounced around his dog like he wanted to fight, flexing his muscles and saying, “Let’s go, steed! Let’s go!” But this time something was different; I could tell by the way he tossed the knife on the granite counter, the way he threw the frying pan into the sink, the way he called me by my name instead of Cricket. I have become good at predicting when he will blow up. My brother admires my mom for not walking on egg-shells when my father is in his moods, but I think she just hasn’t adapted. “I had the craziest dream last night,” she began. I wanted her to stop. My dad shifted in his seat a bit and my mom looked at him. “What?” she said. He threw his utensils on his plate, got up and walked into the kitchen--“You can’t do this, Stace. Your dreams aren’t real. Jesus, Stace.” “He’s ridiculous. Your son is ridiculous,” she sighed, looking around the room at his parents. “Continue, Stacia,” my step-grandma, Bev, urged. “Keep going, Mama,” I said sympathetically. “Let’s hear it.” My grandpa got up and joined his son in the kitchen. A year ago I would have too. But not anymore. Now it was just us women and my little cousin who I hope can escape the glamour of being a Wilson man. And so she continued. My dad interjected countless times from the kitchen: “You can’t do this, Stace,” or “No one really cares,” or “This dream business needs to stop,” or just “Jesus Christ.” My grandpa looked at the table of us as he walked by to get a wine glass: “Look at you people. All women and children.” “I’m not going to tell it while you two are here. Please leave,” my mother demanded. “Leave!” she shouted. My parents had turned into children, arms crossed, yelling into blank spaces. My dad threw his wineglass into the sink and a few splitters landed at my feet. “You can’t tell me to leave my own house!” My grandmother looked at me, silent, and rubbed my knee under the table. It was as though my dad had gone back to age sixteen and my grandmother had gone back to putting up with it. It was then that I realized that she was just as scared of my dad as I was. This may have been how she dealt with all men, but I decided this would not be how I would deal with them. “You are all children.” I squealed, lips quivering.
He spent a good deal of time helping me with my home after Les left.
Les was not the right one.
Whenever I came over to her house, channel 49 would be on. Channel 49 played all the old western movies. Movies in which men were brutish and women pretty. I always hated that she watched these films as she wove, alone, in her old age, for it was a cowboy that had dragged her out of her sunny alcove by the Atlantic. It was a cowboy that left her alone and disappeared into the mountains every weekend with the kids. It may have not been a cowboy that introduced her to alcohol but it was a cowboy that gave her a reason to drink it.
I want to show you the brooch.
She had the key in her hand when she opened the door. We walked up the stairs and she told me that her grandmother had given her a diamond ring when she was eighteen; that at eighteen a girl knows how to appreciate jewelry, and at her age now, a woman needs to learn when to pass it on. The chest was painted with blotchy red roses and sea-foam green vines. She used the two-toothed brass key to open it. From under the piles of her own grandmother’s quilts she pulled out the small white box. She dropped the chest lid with a bang and my lungs filled with mothballs and chips of red and green paint. She was preparing to pass on.
I once asked Grandmother Stark what it felt like to get old. She told me you just get tired. But you never saw her in a nightgown.
There is a blue velvet Victorian armchair that sits quietly below a small mirror in my grandmother’s house. The velvet is rough and scratchy and feels like someone spilled milk over it and never thought to clean it up. This is the chair that my great-grandmother Stark died in. When she was finally tired enough, she adorned herself in relics. She sat at her vanity table and pushed rings over her full knuckles, her papery skin moving like a sheath along the bones of her still nimble fingers. Looking into her tri-fold mirror, she decorated herself in necklaces, pulling each one over her head like medals awarded at a podium. She rolled bracelets onto her wrists, opening her fingers as though she were reaching her hands into gloves. She snapped heavy earrings onto her lobes so the grey skin drooped with weight. She was wearing a burgundy dress with butterfly sleeves that wafted in her own lonely draft. Maybe she also wore a cloche hat that let her brown curls peek out from under its brim like tiny cinnamon buns. She picked up the brooch and unfastened the pin. She thought of her husband who had passed. She pushed the pin into her dress and the cold tip touched her chest like his hands once did. In all her finery, she floated down the stairs to her favorite blue velvet chair and fell asleep.
He pointed out how we were ageing and did not have much time left.
I can tell she is my father’s mother the way she isn’t afraid of talking about death. I’ve always known that my dad wants his ashes to be scattered in Tuolumne Meadows. My dad, my brother, and I stopped in Toulumne on our drive back from hiking the John Muir Trail last summer. At age nineteen I finally felt like I knew every bend of that river. We walked along the bank and through the marshes, peering into water looking for trout. We found a monster that day. It was probably a 28 inches. Any local fisherman would have killed the thing, stuffed it, and decided they were about ready to pass on. We just wanted to touch it. My dad and brother stripped down and waded slowly into the cold water. I did the same. I hadn’t seen myself in a mirror for about 20 days, but looking down, my stomach looked like a soft turtle shell---lean, strong and ribbed. I waded in behind them. The fish was going nowhere quickly and we managed to corner it with our bodies. It levitated there, above our feet, opening its mouth every few moments and flipping its tail a bit. It was surprisingly dark, maybe a brown trout, but it was beautiful not for its color, rather for its size. “Try to pick it up, Cricket. Gently. Be nice to the dude, he’s a real steed.” I tickled the monster’s belly a bit and quickly realized I would have to fully immerse myself if I wanted to pull him up. “Just do it, Kaibob. You’ll remember this.” I dunked my head and opened my eyes. Through the tinted green of algae, I saw my brother’s foot and my dad’s hairy chest. And then I saw the monster. He was at peace, gulping up little bits of dirt and weeds that I had kicked up in my efforts. Will you carry my father’s ashes upstream? I reached my arm under the monster and tugged him up towards the surface. But he was too heavy so I just held him in the cup of my arms for a few moments. “There he goes,” my dad said as the fish let its body float away from us.
You must dip your wrists in first, then your body will get used to the cold.
I imagine the way she will twirl and jingle her wrists in the Atlantic before diving under.
I can tell with the boys you like that you won’t make the same mistakes as I did. I like your friend.
I was serenaded at my birthday party this year. All of the Wilsons were scattered around my living room like dirty laundry. My dad has his eyes closed and was spooning his dog on the floor. My grandpa was leaning against a wooden beam, nodding off to sleep. My step grandma was rubbing her hands and crying. My brother was standing in the doorframe, eyes wide, looking around the room. My mom was watching me. My grandmother was sitting alone on the couch. She had wrapped a blue blanket over her shoulders and she was turning the tassels around in her palm. Her other hand was covering her mouth, but from her eyes I could tell she was smiling. I was embarrassed at first; embarrassed that I had brought this into the house. Embarrassed that I was loved, or that I could love. But there we all were, alone in our corners, captivated by the sight of masculine sensitivity.
Do you remember Marion’s son, Alexander? He danced the night away and then went swimming somewhere in the Pacific.
My grandmother often remembers people like this. As we sit looking out the window, the characters in her life come to me as though they have been drenched in milky ribbons of moonlight, as though they all died in their sleep, as though they all shuffled around on wooden floors of a yacht club drinking vodka and orange juice and letting a humid breeze lift their skirts just a bit. She always appreciates the weather, but only ever remembers it as sunny. I know she wanted something for me, or maybe for her, when she said this. She wanted me to meet Alexander--dance the night away with him, jump into the ocean and feel the sun.
How could you remember, you were the flower girl.