grapeleaves

“The Professor continued to storm while I stood on the landing gazing at a grandmother for whom there was not the slightest hope. Each of us is indeed alone. We started for home.”  —Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way


Stepping into my grandmother’s house
— where she lived
since I was five —
you are in the pale blue kitchen. If
you are lucky you
will find her at the stove
her glasses steamed from leaning
over the boiling potatoes
and she will hand you a grapeleaf
folded in a torn corner of pita
and declare you her tastetester.

At the end of a long dim hallway
wallpapered with ivy climbing white brick
my uncle’s old bedroom had become
her TV room. The Magnavox
only showed black and white movies
and Coronation Street.
When my dad was sick
we moved in with my grandparents
and the TV room became mine.
She moved to the family room
and flipped through the channels
until my grandfather fell asleep on the floor
and, eventually, she on the couch, on her stomach,
one leg propped up straight from the knee,
the cigarette slipping from her fingers,
slowly burning another hole in the crushed velvet upholstery
and then, slowly, burning out.

As a child I had a dream.
My grandparents
and I
and my uncle
and youngest aunt
— both less than ten years
older than I am —
were shopping at Eastland Mall.
New cars were parked
outside the department stores.
My grandma fell in love
with a white Volkswagen beetle.
Running her hand along the open ragtop she told me
“I’d love to drive with the wind in my hair.”
Suddenly she is riding in the back seat
down a white cloud highway in that white car
my mother at the wheel.
They are singing at the top of their lungs
but I’m not sure what;
all my dreams are soundless now.

Every holiday my grandfather
fussed over the turkey
and my grandmother the grapeleaves.
I wouldn’t eat them
until I was in college
and was guilted into trying them again.
I was fated to love them.
They taste best when you’ve just sat down
on my grandparents’ cobalt blue couch
and she brings you two of them
wrapped in bread and steaming,
and she says
“Maybe too much lemon.”
Placing my dish on the counter after dinner I would find
a dozen wrung lemon skins lining the sink.
I drop them one by one
down the disposal and feel them centrifuge,
the scent scrubbing the kitchen.

After my grandmother’s heart attack
I tried to visit her
every day after work.
I hate the hospital.
Our son had spent his first week
— which aged us fifteen years —
a few floors up. Or perhaps down.
I would stand at her bed
with my hand on her forehead
and whisper Hail Marys.
She was very distant
and only awake a day or two
in a week. One evening
she told me wordlessly
to pull the IV and ventilator tube out.
She mouthed “Something’s wrong.”
The fetched nurse demonstrated
her professional imperturbability
and without meeting my eyes
implied there had been too many visitors.
It was April 12th.
On the way home lightning
fumed across the black sky.
On Radio Two, Jurgen Gothe
played Corigliano’s Fancy on a Bach Air.
As I listened to the cello’s low lament
I understood for the first time
she would not go home.

One summer I worked with her
at my aunt and uncle’s.
For a break she would sit in a lawn chair
in the breeze near the open door.
With her hair held up from her forehead
by her pushed-back glasses
her legs crossed at the ankles
and her head tipped back
so she could exhale
a long breath of smoke
she was a vision of glamour
out of place
in the frame of the doorway.

She once asked me to take her to Mt. Olivet.
We stopped at a flower stand on the way
and I lifted two graveblankets
into the trunk of the blue Cadillac.
As we drove she said Detroit was unrecognizable
but the cemetery hadn’t changed.
We parked. I carried the blankets behind her
one in each arm
and nearly slipped.
She knelt and began
clearing the stones.
I pushed the stakes
over the pine branches and into the snow.
Standing over the greatgrandparents
I had never seen
she seemed tiny
in her long black coat.
While the wind tore at us
I glanced past her and into the treeline.
“Goodbye, Ma,” she said. “Goodbye, Pa.”
We headed back to the car
reversing our footprints through the snow.

If I wore my bored face
she would improvise a game
or pull the worn Yahtzee dice from the cupboard
near the white kitchen table.
Or she would dance a funny swaying dance
toward me from across the room
while singing my name
or make me tell her a story
— a habit inherited by my father —
that was wandering and boring
until she took it over herself.

She illuminated me.

The Saturday after her attack
we all visited my grandfather
and cleaned the house
in preparation for her return.
We scrubbed the windows and dusted.
We vacuumed and,
gently,
rearranged.
Our anxiety was transformed into action
by a law of nature
not yet formulated.

They decided
after a few weeks
that my grandmother
had had enough
and was not meant
to roll grapeleaves
again. It was
Sunday. My dad
told me that we
were meeting the
next night in her
hospital room
to let her go.
I drove to work
that Monday in
a daze. The best
place for crying
is the faceless
taillight freeway
in the cool dark
before sunrise
and black coffee
have made you you.

The seven mile drive
that afternoon was endless.
I wished I had eaten.
Parking in the hospital garage I noticed
that my grandfather had been just behind me.
He parked at the other end of the deck
and didn’t see me as we converged
on opposite entrances.
His tall figure — elongated
by a black jacket and hat —
strode to the front
while I entered from the side.
He looked straight ahead.
I don’t know how he walked
step by step
without falling over;
inside I stumbled the hallway.
When I met him at the elevator
I hugged him so I could
press my face
into his shoulder.

A pomegranate wrapped
with a paring knife
in a kitchen towel.
A wordless game of Yahtzee
so fast you barely wrote your score
before the dice were yours again.
A tall glass of water from the dispenser
wedged in the corner of the refrigerator door.
Watery spaghetti and torn Wonder Bread
heavy with margarine.
James Michener novels that her bookmark moved through
an inch at a time.
A mop of a dog, Cega, waiting near the door.
A television blaring all night to a sleeping room.
Halfed peaches with a spoonful of cottage cheese
topped with a maraschino cherry.
A cup of instant coffee
with two Sweet and Lows and milk.
An endless heavy cigarette chain.
Weeds pulled out in handfuls like hair
sometimes the flowers with them.
A day at the track
picking horses by name
— Hockey Puck, Gandy Dancer,
Three Times a Lady —
from the creased program.
A walk to Dairy Queen.
A marathon game of Trivial Pursuit
trying to get the last pie piece.
A dusty Father’s Day softball game.
An ashtray heaped full of pistachio shells.

It has been a year now.
I am hungry for grapeleaves.

a tie for mass >

One response to “grapeleaves

  1. i can see it and taste its vibrance
    it is touching and pulls me into his world!
    it’s lovely beyond words

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