It was Justin Torres who was speaking, I think, or maybe Debra Landau. These readings, I knew were important, that, never in my life would I see these authors, these artists in their fame and brilliance. This I knew on this particular day when a woman chooses the seat two rows in front of me, two seats to the left of mine, throwing a kerchief around her neck, the triangle end of it hanging down her shoulders. It is patterned with goldenrod ellipses and a burgundy striped frame. Her hair, braided like some strong cable, pinned up and off the nape of her neck pulling the skin on her face taught. As I sit there, spine aganst the metal frame of the chair I am aware of the words being spoken, over the microphone but my attention is on the woman. I am struck by how still she sits, unmoving. Then, a string of words is spoken through the microphone and she turns her head in a little, soft gesture of understanding or needing to hone in on the speaker in front of us. When she does this, I can see where the line of her hair is starting to go grey and white, not so much a lack of color but a suggestion of beautiful age. Amidst the polite, quiet, clapping between readings I think about how my grandmother wore scarves like this when I was younger, long since left in the bottom bureau drawer she stores them in. Scarves, multicolored, patterned, and solid swatches of fabric. Some silk, as filmy as the skin on the backs of her hands, some cotton, thick and durable, that she would wear during yard or house work. Besides the brief tilts of her head, the woman in front of me sits very still again, as if not wanting to disturb anything on her body. When she does shift, slightly again, adjusting herself in the hard metal folding chair, the scarf slips slightly to the right of her shoulder.
The bureau has three drawers, each lined with wrapping paper, why, to this day, I will never know. One drawer is for old L.L. Bean t-shirts that my grandmother only wore to clean the house, pastel with a pocket on the right breast. If I stay overnight, she will give me one to sleep in. Another drawer has a few Keds shoe boxes, rubber bands wrapped around them, holding together the flimsy cardboard. If I remove the rubber band and the lid, I will find single braid of hair, tied with ribbon, placed between the folds of a white handkerchief, from my mother’s first haircut. I will find my grandfather’s dog tags and ID bracelet that he gave to my grandmother sometime after high school. I will find a few yellowed news clippings and a paper-clipped stack of photos. I am not afraid that she will find me looking through these things because she always seems like she wants me to find them. Once, I found her lipstick in the bathroom and put it on the way she did, and when she found me, my mother was more upset than she was. After that she gave me one of her lipsticks and years after that she would give me the makeup she didn’t want any more, my grandmother who hardly wore makeup, only lipstick if we went to dinner.
She has become defined by these little flashes of detail, dozens of silver bracelets, dish soap, bottles of lotion, lavender, L.L Bean, medicine bottles kept in the same cupboard as the dishes, sheets on the clothing line hung from clothespins, a spider plant and succudlents in the window, a line of ceramic elephants following each other on a high shelf, bird seed, fresh bread, oatmeal and brown sugar, bran muffins and margarin, candy hidden in a cupboard behind or inside of coffee mugs, a rollaway bed where I will sleep, slippers she knitted herself, the house lined with bookshelves, a secret hide away under the counter in the kitchen where we would eat soft pretzles from Giant Eagle.
Grandma, remember when I said I would move to New York? Remember when I said I was going to write? I’m going to do most everything for you as I grow older. When I walk as much as I do here I will think of you and I walking to Giant Eagle or Helpburgs Deli or the playground. I will walk fast with purpose. I will take items out of the grocery bags I carry and eat them with my bare hands on my way home. I will find myself saying things that you once said, maybe not right away, but to the kids I am responsible for those four summers in a row at summer camp, and later, my own children. The barebones structure of who I am will be because of you. Later, when I learn confidence, I will take shit from no one because neither do you. One of my favorite moments is when you would swear and not apologize, either because you cut yourself in the kitchen or banged into something in your house, more frustrated than out of pain, those words coming from such a tiny fierce woman.
If I open that bottom drawer, the squares of fabric will lay folded, begging me to rub the material between my fingers while my grandmother finishes the up the dishes in the kitchen. The china will tink and clatter a bit in the background, and there is the smell of lavender on the windowsill. Unable to resist, I pinch the fabric between my little fingers, just as she plods down the hall and into the guest room to lotion her hands. She finds me there, plucks up two kerchiefs and ties one around my neck before we head out to feed the geese on the playground. The scent of lotion like baby powder wafted somewhere from around my neck.
I’m afraid of the day she will be gone and this is all I will have left.
All I will have is are black leather notebooks, half full, and grey ink and scratch marks, and chipped, painted nails like the shells of beetles. I will remember the collection of silver on her wrists like gilded rubber bands. Wisps of silver draped over her skin. And I will remember I never called her enough.