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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Gum and Madge

I pulled the car up to the same house I'd pulled up to countless times before. My eyes scanned the yard where Easter egg hunts had taken place, where tag-you're-its had gone down with hurried breathing and where hide-and-go-seek boundary rules had been defined. My sister Huta got out of the car seemingly free from this assault of memories. Her surroundings don't change as much as mine do. She's in the thick of her memories more often than I am. Intensity and attachment to memories must be a function of absence from their triggers. I felt like taking her ass down her on the lawn and tickling her so she'd remember too. Please remember like I do. But I gathered that would irritate her somewhat, and since I'm no longer inclined to fuck with the Huta, I restrained myself.

"Grab the food", I hollered back as I walked up towards the gate. I pulled it open in what seemed like slow motion and recalled the time my tiny body clung to it while someone pushed me back and forth on it. The bougainvillea next to the gate that was usually in full bloom and full of bees on the white adobe wall was all shriveled up, a barren skeleton of a plant, dying of thirst in the Arizona sun. What the fuck? That's not how I had remembered it. I was inside a traitorous memory; instead of the clear colors and hugeness of it all, it had all been violently downscaled, shrunken by my adulthood, and weeds had germinated through the cracks in the patio and the paint on the door frames was now chipping away. Things are always much better kept in memories.

As I turned the doorknob to my grandparents' house and let myself in as I always had before, I half expected to find my Grandpa Gum clad in his favorite checkered button down shirt and his jean-like slacks, standing on a ladder fixing the ceiling fan or sitting in his chair poring over his history books with his glasses at the edge of his nose, his long slender legs crossed like a woman, just as my dad's legs do when he sits. I expected my grandmother to be in the other room re-wallpapering the dining room or baking 20 dozen peanut butter cookies for the church bake sale.

The scary grandfather clock that used to haunt me as a child stood tall in the foyer, but not quite as tall as it should have stood. I knew just where the key to it was hidden -- on top of it on the back right corner. I could easily reach that key now. I wouldn't need to stand tip toed on a chair if I wanted to open up the grandfather clock and peer into it with my heart pounding. But I ignored the urge to do that. My Great Grandmother´s Lladro statues sat unshined and dusty, but right where I remembered them. The pink silk couches, the same couches that have been reupholstered half a dozen times were exactly where they ought to be. The place, as always, had the feel of a cold museum, filled with untouchable icy artifacts with museum-keepers that were not much warmer.

Instead of standing on a ladder, Grandpa Gum was struggling at a snail's pace with a walker to make it to his chair so he could rest. I kissed him despite how uncomfortable I knew it probably made him and said hello. I tried not to let on that I was surprised at his frailness, his strong frame withered into a stoop, his once clear and sharp eyes sunken into his skull with the glossy fluid look of an aged gaze. He barely moved or said a word, a smile being more than he could muster these days, incapable of giving a warm hug. It didn't matter. He had never been capable of giving a warm hug before, even when he could.

"Why hello", my grandmother said, putting her arms around me with a smile. This's new. Added to the chipped paint and the short grandfather clock was this strange affection I hadn't seen before in her. It betrayed my memories of her.

"Where should I put this Grandma?" my sister asked referring to the take out food she was still holding.

"Oh, just put it anywhere." My grandmother waved a careless hand.

"How are you Grandpa?" I asked him as I took a seat next to him near the giant fireplace that for some reason was as scary as the Grandfather clock.

"I'm great. I'm just waiting to die," he stated, matter-of-factly.

I stared into Gum's emotionless eyes and in a moment, no longer than a couple of seconds, I saw a man that had fought in World War II, a man that had made it through law school with fucking narcolepsy, a man that had married the woman of his life and had had eight children with her. I saw him receiving the news about the death of his son in Vietnam. I saw him anxiously waiting in hospital rooms for news good and bad. I saw him starring at the Great Wall of China and Stonehenge and the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest and the Egyptian pyramids. I saw a man that was appointed to serve as a federal district court judge by Jimmy Carter. I saw him, dressed in legal garb, starring into the eyes of the worst of humanity, along with the wrongly accused, the framed, the exploited. I saw his blunders in Tibet and his winters in fucking Siberia. I saw him dancing and speaking in other languages and kicking any one's ass at a crossword puzzle or backgammon. Old Gum had out read us, had out bred us, had out travelled us, had out earned us, had outwitted us, had out fucked us. He had stood firmly inside the panopticon of human experience and had seen the best and the worst that life had to offer and check mate, he was fucking done. In his flat reply to my question regarding his current state of being, in so many words he told me that he'd be damned if he was going to will himself into another five years of this diaper bullshit he was currently putting up with.

Unsure how to reply to his death wish, I said nothing to him at all and I turned to my grandmother who was in a much more pleasant state of denial regarding her own deterioration.

"So, how're the kids?" she asked me, politely inquiring about the offspring I wasn't aware I had. It dawned on me for a moment that maybe the reason why she was being so unusually warm was because she was confusing me with someone from her church. I brushed it off.

"You mean my nephews, Grandma? They're good."

She looked at me, and confusion momentarily crossed her beautiful blue eyes, through her rhinestone-rimmed glasses that sat on a perfect nose, above gorgeous cheekbones covered in gentle lovely wrinkles. She smiled, showing the teeth that had made it all these years, but furrowed her brow trying to sort it all out and I noticed how her snow white hair shifted forward.

Huta, uncomfortable, and possibly wanting to speed up this grandparent visit stated, "Well, our food it getting cold, so why don't we have dinner now".

"Oh we can't have dinner now, I'm afraid." Grandma replied.

"Why not?"

"Well, because my granddaughters will be here shortly and they're bringing us dinner".

Ah, Fuuuuck.

"Grandma," my sister said in a gentle whisper, "That's us. We're your granddaughters."

This time the perplexity lingered longer and was a bit more disheartening.

I glanced over at Gum, who I believed was contemplating finding some hidden strength within to take us all down with his walker. He glared at whoever looked his way.

The doorbell sounded and Aunt Eunice made her skinny appearance with her tattooed eyebrows and a tub of ice cream under her arm. Thankfully, she was quickly recognized by both her parents, taking a bit of the burden off of us for feeling like intruders in a home we had spent so many Christmas Eves, so many birthday parties, so many Thanksgivings.

After awkward two-pats-on-the-back hugs only serving to remind us how thin the threads to the fabric of our family are, we sat down around the table with paper plates and plastic forks and passed around the Olive Garden take out.

"Why, this meal is delicious. I don't remember the last time I had pasta," Grandma graciously exclaimed.

Gum's shaky hand wasn't allowing the noodles to stay on his fork long enough to reach his dentured mouth. I stole a glance at Huta and knew we were both regretting the Olive Garden decision. I began to worry about his hungry looking limbs and digits that weren't cooperating to help nourish themselves.

"Gum. Put your fork on your plate like so and turn. See? Like so," Grandma instructed. He pretended not to hear her and went on trying to shovel a shaky fork full of unstable noodles into his mouth. "Gum. Down and turn. Like so," she repeated in an increasingly irritated tone.

"Leave me alone," he eventually growled at her with his mouth full of what small morsels had made their way there by chance.

She gave up and turned to me, "So, how is Spain?"

Internally, I breathed a sigh of relief that she still knew who I was as I answered, "It's great, Grandma, we're doing really good. Just working. You know."

She stared at me, questioningly. "So, are you from Spain?", she asked me with that worried crinkled brow.

"No, Grandma. Remember? I was born here." Her confusion didn't have time to linger, because my Grandfather interrupted her.

"Madge? What happened to Bob's ashes?"

Aunt Eunice audibly choked on her Fettuccine. "Bob's ashes?" she blurted out incomprehensibly with her mouth full of food. "What are you talking about? Uncle Bob died?"

"Yes, Uncle Bob died," Gum calmly replied to the inquiry of his dead brother. "Bob's wife is bedridden and she had his ashes sent to Madge and me to handle them."

"My god", Aunt Eunice replied in disbelief, "When did all of this happen?"

Grandpa turned to Grandma, "Madge? Do you recall when all of this took place, because I don't."

"Oh Gum, I don't have the foggiest idea."

My Grandfather with a steady voice and no movements stated flatly, "I suppose it was a couple of months ago now. Madge? What did you do with my brother's ashes?" He asked her again as if he were inquiring about the location of his favorite pen or the crossword puzzle he was working on.

But Aunt Eunice was already in a fury, frantically calling her siblings and informing them that "we have situation here and I think you had better come over to Mom and Dad's. Were you aware that Uncle Bob died? Well he did. Two months ago. They have his ashes but they don't know what they've done with them. They were supposed to have arranged a service and apparently forgot to."

Huta and I gave each other knowing let's-get-the-fuck-outta-here looks and began to clear up the dinner mess. There were upset tones and minds that were in disarray and we no longer felt we should be there.

So goodbyes were said with bewilderment and frustration so palpable I could feel it and suddenly I realized that this might be the only time I had ever been able to pick up on any emotion whatsoever from my grandparents. But there was something else there besides the confusion and fear when my Grandmother grabbed my hand and gazed into my eyes and pleaded slowly, "Do come again," maybe with waves of knowing who she was even talking to but with certainty that there was love between us somehow.

On our way out I closed the door behind me. I walked through the carport I'd walked through so many times before. My grandmother's car used to sit right there, the one she used to pick me up in to take me to the ballet or to a play when I was a child because she was concerned about my status as the child of divorce and didn't want me to feel neglected. In her frosty, restrained way, she had loved me. And today, even with her not knowing precisely who I was, had marked the first time I had ever really felt it as an adult.

I noticed that the laundry room door was ajar and the light was on. I peaked my head in and remembered a favorite hide-and-go-seek hiding place. I smiled, turned the light off, and shut the door. Weeks later my grandmother would be found by my aunt in that hot laundry room in the middle of the scorching summer heat, with nothing on but her underwear, completely dehydrated, mixed up and distraught, unsure of how she got there or how long she'd been in there. When things calmed down and my grandparents had been fed, hydrated, and bathed, their pride had effectively withered to the point that they were finally willing to have a look at those pamphlets of Aunt Eunice's on assisted living.


Fuck was that ever long. If you've made it this far, you deserve some kind of reward for reading that. This story is not entirely true. It's based on several true stories, not all of which happened directly to me, but my point was to recreate them and experiment a bit with description and dialogue. Thanks for making it to the end. Critical feedback welcome.

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Yo Momma October 4, 2009 at 7:21 PM  

I read all of it because your writing is awesome. Each sentence makes me want to read more. I don't know squat about writing, but I do know what I like to read, and I like to read what you write because whatever it is you want your reader to feel or see, you accomplish with your words in a very easy and unforced way. (Does that make sense?)

Regardless, bravo. :)

kate October 5, 2009 at 12:26 AM  

I love the dialogue-- perfect! And the characters were intriguing as well. It's been a long time since I've done any critical feedback on anything, but I really liked this. The only criticism that I can think of off the bat is that there are a couple of places where you sort of give an commentary on something that is already clear-- like when you say "Things are always much better kept in memories" and also the part about "There were upset tones..." The description and choice of detail is so apt that you really don't need to explain as much.

And man, I wish I could write like this! Maybe I will get out a notebook and do some playing around...

Pueblo girl October 5, 2009 at 3:37 AM  

Phew! I was just so glad to see the disclaimer at the end, so glad that this didn't actually happen to you exactly like that on your last trip back.
Which I guess is a way of saying that it worked, completely.

Noble Savage October 5, 2009 at 7:08 AM  

It was very engaging and I wanted to read more when it ended. I liked your descriptive sentences, though I think 'fuck' could be used slightly more sparingly (there were four in one paragraph) to give it real emphasis when used. Unless using 'fuck' a lot is just a character trait of the narrator, in which case have at it. I'm a big fan of the word myself but am aware of its overuse diluting its effectiveness.

Rassles October 5, 2009 at 11:19 AM  

Grandparents are a bitch. The whole lot of them are a collective bitch.

I wish I could appreciate the lives they led before they deteriorated. I do, a little, but I just have far too much anger towards my own, and their apathy.

Rassles October 5, 2009 at 11:19 AM  

Oh yeah. You are so good at this it hurts.

formerly fun October 5, 2009 at 2:06 PM  

At this moment, I wish I lived in Spain. I have this urge to gather up my loose sheets of paper and meet for coffee or tea or tapas, whatever the fuck people in Spain meet for. I have the urge to pore over your writing while you pore over mine and trade notes because I love your writing and I love your perspective. And telling someone about the way certain passages made them feel or where something felt forced or dialogue was perfect is so much easier in person.

This brought up a lot of the same feelings I had going home to WI for my Grandpa's funeral. I hadn't seen my grandparents house in a long time b/c when I come to visit, they'd always come out and stay at my mom's house while I was there. You captured how everything looks smaller, and different, and dingy, dusty or less frightening than you remembered it. My grandparents even had the grandfather clock and dusty shelves of the pale, blue-toned Lladros.

This was great, very evocative and wherever you melded, invented or took some artistic license I can't tell b/c it felt seemless.

I love the description of your grandfather and what he has seen and done, the out this and out that all had a lyrical quality to it, a cadence of sorts. Loved it.

A Free Man October 6, 2009 at 5:27 PM  

To be honest it scared me. Scared me because it reminded me of my experience as my Grandfathers were drifting away. Scared me because I see my Grandmother starting to slip and she's the kind of woman that would bake 20 dozen peanut butter cookies. And scared me a little bit because I'm scared of dementia.

Lil October 7, 2009 at 1:47 PM  

Well shit. Now I want to know what happened to your grandparents, if they're actually ok or are they still living alone, etc. This story made them so real and now I care about how they are. I worked in a nursing home for many, many years and your depiction of dementia is so spot on. Great job.

The Unbearable Banishment October 7, 2009 at 7:36 PM  

You make it sound as if reading this was a chore. I was kind of sorry to see it end.

jen October 8, 2009 at 8:05 AM  

fiction or real, this hits a little too close to home.

Blues October 8, 2009 at 9:30 AM  

@Yo Mamma - thanks, girl. I appreciate your words.

@kate - I like this advice and will think about it in the future. Sometimes I feel the need to wrap things up when maybe it isn't necessary. I hope you do play around in a notebook...and let me see of course.

@Pueblogirl - like I said, everything is true, it just didn't happen all at once. When I was home my Grandma really did ask me if I was from Spain. And about ten years ago I rode my bike by her house and she asked me how my kids were. The thing about bringing food over and my Grandma saying she was waiting for her granddaughters happened when I wasn't there. Unfortunately the bit about the ashes and the laundry room thing really did happen, but not while I was there.

@Noble Savage- you're so fuckin' right! Actually, I sometimes tend to write how I think, which I guess doesn't speak much for my foul thinking. Thanks, though, and I agree.

@Rassles - the whole time I wrote this I worried that I wasn't doing them justice. They've always been such generous people. But they disappeared when I was 12 to travel all over the damn place with the Latter Day Saint's and when they returned just seemed so cold. I remember going to see them once and I hadn't seen them in two years and my Grandma opened the door, didn't even give me a hug, and told me they were finishing watching a show and would be right with me. I've just always got the feeling that their way of loving was distant and bizarre. I always thought it had something to do with us not being Mormon. But yeah, Grandparents are a bitch.

@ FF - I wish we could have tapas too!! Or tacos in Cali. Someday we will, I know it. Thank you so much for what you said. I'm so glad you could connect with what I was trying to portray.

@ Chris - it is scary. With my Grandmother this happened ages ago. About 12 years ago was the first time I spoke directly to her and realized that she thought I was someone else. It was a horrible feeling. But at first it was kind of funny and we would laugh about her forgetfulness and stuff. And now you can see her confusion and it's painful to watch.

@Lil - I'm glad I was able to suck you into the story! My grandparents are currently looking at assisted living stuff. My grandpa has invited hospice to come in and help him die. My aunt lives right across the street from them and is there regularly. They finally had a funeral service for good old Great Uncle Bob. My grandfather managed to take a trip down to the town they were born in and actually perform the funeral service in his weak condition. I can't believe what a trooper he is.

@Unbearable - thanks for saying that. I kept rereading and thinking it was gonna be exhausting to read.

@jen - i'm sorry.

Anonymous October 11, 2009 at 1:08 PM  

Blues...these descriptions are so evocative. Have you ever read The Corrections by Jonathan Frazen? I think he was channeling your Gum and Madge. I love this post. Thank you.

Ellie October 24, 2009 at 12:42 PM  

You're gifted.

You are.

You even make me a bit jealous except that you are likeable, and because I like you the nascent envy withers.

You engage and are honest.

You rock!


neil wykes October 27, 2009 at 2:34 AM  

top banana.

Adored it.

Gwen October 29, 2009 at 6:45 PM  

That was brilliant! I was riveted from beginning to end. I hope you're writing a novel. You really should.

Not Afraid to Use It November 6, 2009 at 6:49 PM  

I enjoyed it. It was awful because it was real. It is real, for so many people. Very nicely done.

karey m. November 8, 2009 at 5:01 PM  

god damn, kid. your writing's all growns up!

catching up and loving your words. really. well done.

off to read more. xoxo.

Frank Lee MeiDere November 17, 2009 at 1:59 PM  

May not be directly true, but it has truth in it, and is much like the sad/crazy/funny material Anne Tyler works with. Good piece.

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