Over by the rocking chair where Grandma is sitting is a large cloth bag filled with the most extensive assortment of colored yarn balls. There is no thought to color theme, just colors. Some are garish. Others are mellow and so soft that they may be lost to the eye if you are in a hurry. I pick them up rearranging them to mingle in a way that is more aesthetically pleasing to my five-year old mind.
“Careful now don’t let the needles slip or I will lose my place,” Grandma gently reminds me.
“I won’t,” I respectfully reply. I know that I hold a special place in this room and in my Grandma’s heart. I am Grandma’s favorite and am allowed to explore freely with little interference. It has never occurred to me that it is anything more than I am special in all the ways one person can be special to another.
There is also a small black leather photo album.
This night I ask if I may look at the photo album. My grandmother nods her head saying “ Be very careful Mary. It is very old and very special, but I know you will be careful so you may.”
Turning the cover, I gaze upon a group photo. They are all men. The clothes they wear are not clothes seen on men today and I have come to understand that this photo is from a time before I was born. Grandma always says wistfully, “It was a long time ago, so long ago your Daddy wasn’t even born in some of these pictures.” I continue to turn the page in search of a particular photo. My hand stops and I stare silently at the picture of the little girl. Her hands are folded on the top of the school desk; her smock is from another time -old fashioned. She is looking directly into the camera and there is no smile on her face. Her hair is cut straight with bangs and sides and back that are cropped in a straight line.
“Who is this Grandma?” I ask.
“You know who that is.” she answers wistfully.
“Tell me again, “I forgot.”
I hadn’t forgotten. There is a hunger for the story to be told over and over again. Each time in the telling of the story, there is another tidbit that is revealed. It isn’t that anything is being withheld. It is in the retelling that my Grandma allows herself to recall more and more the events from another time. Even at this young age I sense the pleasure and the pain of the retelling.
“My Mary was a wonderful little girl, just like you,” she says. “Her hair was cut two weeks before this photo was taken.”
“What grade was she in?”
“Second I think? Is that the grade when you are seven?”
“I don’t know.”
“She didn’t like her hair cut,” my grandmother says in a soft voice, her thoughts far away.
I sit with my legs crossed on the braided rug in Grandma’s room confident the story will be forthcoming. (I am not sure how I learned to listen and not interrupt, but even at four I do.) So, I wait for Grandma’s words to flow easily and when she stops, I know better than to ask more than once for her to continue. Children are sensitive to an adult’s pain.
“She had hair like yours,” Grandma begins
“Yes, only a bit longer and we did hair differently then. She had long curls we called them sausage curls or finger curls.”
“Did they look like fingers?”
“Yes, I guess they did,” she smiled, “But I think it was because we used our fingers to make them. We didn’t have bobby pins in those days instead we used cloth strips that were kept only to make curls after you washed your hair. You wrapped the hair around your finger, slid the fabric through the center hole and tied it. Mary would go to sleep with so many bows in her hair it seemed she had a hundred.”
“Why did you cut her hair? “
“I don’t remember, I think she wanted it cut or it was the fashion and I thought she would like it. But, she didn’t. After it was cut she was determined to let it grow.”
“Did she have long hair again?”
“No.” Grandma looks somewhere outside the room far from this house, she turns her head aside, “she died before it was able to grow that long again.”
I wait and wait. No one ever told me that death was not to be talked about, but somehow I knew. There shouldn’t be too many questions. I wait in silence until Grandma is ready to go on or to call an end to the telling. On this night she goes on.
“How did she die?” I ask although Grandma and I both know that I already hold the answer to this question. It is the story of why there are no pot handles extending past the perimeter of the stove in the kitchen.
There is no hesitancy from my Grandma about repeating the tragic story. She begins in the same way she always has before, but in each telling more of her Grandma’s truth is revealed.
“ I was in bed. I had just had a child. Your Great Aunt Verna was watching the children. She had been cooking. Mary and your father were playing.”
“How old was Daddy?”
“Let me see, Mary was seven so your Daddy was five maybe five and a half. I don’t know. He was younger.”
“What were they playing?”
“What kind of game?”
“A running game.” In staccato sentences she continues. “They were running through the house. They were running and Aunt Verna told them to stop running. But, they didn’t listen. They came running through the kitchen. Mary came too close to the stove. She bumped the handle of the pot. It tipped, and Mary was burned. Your grandfather picked her up and ran all the way to the hospital with her in his arms. She died.”
I could tell by the change in Grandma’s voice and the moisture in her eyes that no more would be shared this night. But I also knew this would not be the last time I would hear this story.
My little girl’s head spun with questions:
What was in the pot? How big was the pot? How did she ‘bump” the pot handle?
I imagined the pot that fell on my aunt to be one of the institutional soup pots from the Scranton Chamber of Commerce where Grandma worked as a cook. But they had big hand sized handles that didn’t stick out. Surely it would have taken a pot that huge to hold enough hot water to kill someone. These were the questions that would never be directly answered. Intuitively, I don’t push Grandma for more answers. Over the years while still so young I would ask for the story to be told over and over until little by little most of the questions were answered in the retelling. Eventually I grew too old to continue asking to hear the story. There is a line in childhood where adults are willing to answer anything you ask. Then one day you ask and are told ,“you are too old and you know better than to ask.” Our childhood questions fade; we stop asking.
I softly leave my Grandma’s room and slowly walk down the stairs to the living room and my parents. I crawl up into my mother’s lap. My mother wraps her arms around me squeezing gently.
“Where were you?”
“Up in Grandma’s room.”
“What did you do?”
“She told me a story.”