Gam never cuddled or cooed. She didn’t linger or inquire or speak of love. She had suffered the loss of her husband over two decades ago and, though they hadn’t laughed often, when they did, it was deep and hearty. Gam smothered bread with butter and piled ham high between the white, buttery slices, serving it to anyone who paid her a visit. “Grandpa’s favorite,” she’d tell us grandkids. With ham sandwiches, she thanked you, preparing another after you’d finished your first. She missed the chance to meet you at the door, bracing herself with the table to stand, taking too long to maneuver herself, swiveling each leg around the wooden bench with caution. But there she was, once you’d entered, with a sandwich wrapped in a pink napkin.
She didn’t leave the doorstep after you said goodbye or after you filed into your place in the car. Instead, she watched, her broad smile growing, growing with her tall yellow teeth fixed in an overbite. She waved with enthusiasm until your taillights disappeared not down her long driveway but into the horizon.
My sisters and I spent ample time at Gam’s after our grandpa passed. Her house smelled like stale cigarette smoke and fresh-ground pepper. At home, our parlor and dining room always had blooming flowers, and bowls of potpourri sat on shelves in our bathrooms. Mom once brought a candle, vanilla-cake scented, and lit it in Gam’s kitchen.
Gam looked at the flame, lit a cigarette, and moved to the living room. “Get that thing out of here.”
“It’s vanilla,” my mom said. “It will bring a little life in here.”
“I don’t want it,” Gam said. “If I wanted my house to smell like a damn cake, I’d bake but I don’t bake, do I? Do I?” We knew better than to answer. “Those things cause cancer. Don’t you read? Take it home with you.”
No one in my family accepted gifts particularly well, but Gam was the worst. At gift-giving too. On Christmas, my mom and three aunts barely sat on their seats, watching Gam work a letter opener around the wrapping paper to save the paper for next year. She opened box after box in silence, glaring at teacups and sweaters.
“This texture,” she’d say, rubbing the threads together. The cheap wool blend scratched. “Where do you even find this?” Then she would keep a pile for what she wanted, the wrapping paper and boxes, and a pile for us to take back, the gifts.
For my tenth birthday, she gave me a stuffed blowfish. Horrified, I stared at its puffed cheeks, the fins out.
“It’s a blowfish,” she said. When I didn’t speak or move to touch the gift, she repeated it louder and slower, “Blooow-fish.”
Amanda, the youngest of us, tiptoed around Gam. One night, during one of our many sleepovers, Amanda whined in wet sheets.
“What’s happened? A bad dream? What’s wrong with you?” Gam said.
Michelle and I stood in the doorway of the room the three of us shared. We had stayed up with Gam in the living room while she completed crossword puzzles and talked to the blaring television set.
“Egypt!” she said to the Jeopardy panel. “No one reads anymore.”
Now Gam fumbled under the lampshade until the room was swathed in light. “Jesus!”
Amanda hugged her satin pillow to her chest, petting a corner and crying quietly.
Gam tugged the comforter off the bed. “The bathroom’s across the hall. Right there! How could you be so stupid?” She slapped at Amanda’s legs, pulling up the sheets.
I willed Amanda to move, to get up and join us, to go to the bathroom. But Amanda just inched away from our grandmother, coiling into a small shaky ball, lifting her body where Gam pulled. I don’t think she even bothered to change her underpants after Gam switched off the lamp and left the room.
“Help me with the couch,” she said to us. “You two can sleep out here tonight.”
We too left Amanda and went to help with the couch.
As I grew, I admired Gam’s blunt tone, her opinionated views, even her strong judgments — though most should have remained unspoken in public. Born in 1922, she survived two depressions, won awards for her ballroom dancing, supervised at the leading telephone company in Chicago, and raised four daughters while her husband fought in World War II. I found their love letters this past summer, cleaning out her house. Even with an ocean between them, they were crazy for each other. My grandfather’s words surprised me most. “Dance, it’s good for you to keep dancing. I want you to be happy,” he wrote. “But stay away from that Johnny Salamone. Remember you’re mine. I long for you in my arms.” In life, he was remote, quiet, and spoke only when Gam asked him a direct question.
“Are you hungry, Rick?”
“Yes,” he said, watching the black-and-white forms on TV.
“What do you want?”
“Meat and potatoes.” He looked at her once. “Or casserole.”
She would make both, and he would eat both. His appetite was never satisfied after the war.
I’d heard about Johnny from my grandma when I was fourteen.
“You want a smoke?” she said, pointing the open pack of Parliaments my way.
I shook my head no, but I was curious.
“Try it,” she said. “You’ll like it.”
The last time she said that was when she covered my scrambled eggs in pepper. “Try it, you’ll like it.” I didn’t like it. I was four, and I hated it.
But now, I reached for one of the unfiltered sticks, examined the ends, the blue brand’s stamp. She held the lighter for me. I coughed, clutched my throat.
“Good, huh?” She nodded.
I smoked the rest without inhaling.
“There will be many boys in your life,” she said. She blew out the smoke in slow, short breaths and watched the ghostly lines sway, connect, break. “Johnny was all right, nothing special. He was handsome. Not like your grandfather. But by God, he could wear a suit.” She looked past me with glassy, happy eyes. “This girl Linda, I taught her the fox trot–we still write occasionally–she thought Johnny was something. He took her to dinner, kissed her on the cheek, and wouldn’t you know it, the very next week, sly ole Johnny was dancing with Cheryl.” She sipped her vodka gimlet. “In the bathroom, she cried to me and the other girls. I powdered my face. What did she expect? He was twenty-two and handsome. ‘He’ll never settle down,’ she said. ‘Mark my words. He won’t ever ask a woman to marry ‘im and Johnny’ll die alone.’” She lit another cigarette and smiled at me. “I asked Johnny to dance that night.”
I leaned forward. “Which dance?”
“A slow one,” she said. “I saw how he looked at me. He brushed my hair away from my face and moved his hands lower on my waist.”
I imagined Linda watching them.
“I never liked things being impossible. Johnny broke down, the way they all do. He was handsome, sure, but it’s important to always know that you are more beautiful than them. They want you more than you want them.”
I brought my feet to the chair and played with my shoelaces.
“After our dinner, Johnny didn’t dare kiss my cheek. He asked to kiss my hand, kneeled, and pecked my glove. He called in the morning, asked to take me to lunch, and I agreed. Two dates and five days later, and there was Johnny on his knee again, in the dance hall this time, kissing my gloved hand, and asking me to marry him.” Her tone was whimsical. “Linda, Cheryl, all the girls watched with mock horror, but I know they were secretly jealous. That was in January. I married your grandfather in May and was pregnant with your mom in July.”
When I stood to leave, she flicked a hand in my direction. She stared at what seemed to me thin air. Still, when I looked out the small back window of the car, she was at the door, waving goodbye.
We didn’t talk for three months, not until Christmas. By then, I had turned into something like a black sheep, thrown out of two private high schools, chain-smoking in the house, locked in my bedroom with a boy and loud new music from ’99. During dinner, I exchanged few words with my family. Gam watched me eat, curious, amused, even approving.
Gam hated the idea of family straying from Chicago or its suburbs. When my mother had visited Indiana in her early twenties for a college tour, my grandmother told her not to bother returning. Called her a traitor. “What will I do without you?” Mom calls her the master of guilt. When I announced that I would be leaving for Florida, I expected her violent outrage. Instead, she sat, calm. “Florida?” she said. Key West, I told her. “Are you a homosexual or something? What’s in Key West?” I left without saying goodbye and she didn’t budge from her seat.
The heat in Florida exhausted me, stuck to my lashes. Sweat pooled at my neckline in the early mornings. I painted landscapes at the beach and took an evening photography class right off Duval. At night, there were dances at the pier, which made me think of my grandma, though these free-spirited moves with bare midriffs were nothing like her controlled, practiced performances.
I wrote to her, the first family member I contacted since I moved. Told her about the dances, the seascapes I painted, the thunderstorms every other day, how I ate seafood now. Everyone was very friendly, I said. “There’s a Midwesterner here,” I told her. “An older man who taught at Northwestern University.” I didn’t tell her that he came down here in the midst of a bad divorce, or that he had a daughter a couple years younger than me. “He took me to the orange grove,” I wrote instead.
“Orange grove?” she wrote back. “Were we so bad you had to run so far? You should be watching your acid intake now that you’re getting older. Tell me more about this man. Northwestern’s a good school.”
After the first month, I finally called my mom and sisters too. Every Sunday, I called my family after that.
On the seventeenth of August, I received a letter and I knew it was bad news, for all it read was, “Call me when you can, if you can. Love, Gam.”
I had been painting the sunset from the Coast Guard port then I had my night class so I received the letter late. Too late to call. I paced under the moon, not wanting to sleep. Gam wouldn’t admit when she needed help. Carrying five full grocery bags, the plastic digging into her arms, Grandpa would rise to help, but she’d rush past him. “I got it. I’m fine.”
I called early the next morning. “Gam, it’s me. What’s wrong?”
“Yes, child, of course. How’s Florida?”
“What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“It’s been a quiet summer without you,” she said.
“I miss you too.”
“I’m glad you called. It’s good to hear your voice.” She coughed her wheezed, strained cough. It was normal. She sounded normal. “How’s your friend?”
We were dating now, but it had only been a few weeks. “Good. He’s good.”
“Good,” she said. I could hear her smiling on the other line. “Glad to hear that.”
“How are you?”
“Your mom came by last night with chicken casserole. Used my recipe. Sweet woman. She misses you terribly, you know. We all do. You’re so far.”
The master of guilt indeed.
“Susie’s got to go out.” Susie was her yappy, twelve-year-old Chihuahua. “I should go.”
“So everything’s all right?”
“Keep writing, dear. It keeps me alive. It makes me happy.”
That night, the darkness enveloped everything. A chill rippled over the water and, although it was still summer, the mosquitos didn’t find our skin and the heat had left us. She had sounded fine, normal, but I knew better.
Gam died that night. It was a Friday so, as usual, she’d met my mom and aunts for Friday Fish Fry at the musty diner downtown. Mom said she was her regular self, barking at the waitress, complaining about the coffee, telling my aunt to forget about the anti-depressants and try being happy for Christ’s sake. When they dropped her off at home, she wrapped two vanilla wafers in pink napkins for each of them and kissed them goodbye. She stood on her doorstep in her dirty-white slippers and waved and waved until their cars disappeared.
I imagine her standing there, waving for minutes, waving after they passed the downtown diner and drove out of town. I imagine her rereading my grandpa’s letters, smelling the yellowed paper, tracing his words with her fingertips. I dial her number, the only one I know by heart, and I let the phone ring and ring and ring.
Born in Chicago, Kacy Cunningham grew up in the Midwest. She received her BA from the University of South Florida. She has also studied at Cambridge University in England and at the University of Florence in Italy. She is a first-year MFA student at San Francisco State University.