[ToC]

 

STILL LIFE

Laura Steadham Smith

 

 

Variation 1:

My grandmother Nee wears the blue dress she wore to church this morning. She sits in her easy chair, the gray one with its back to the picture windows. Through the glass, I can see reflections smeared across the pond water: spindly pine trees rimming the bank, soft clouds sweeping the sky. Nee's rooster weathervane turns in her flowerbed, now grown thick with weeds. Sunlight warms the rag rug at her feet, and Bubber the mutt comes and lays his head on her knee. She strokes his head. Her hands are wrinkled, her knuckles swollen, but her fingers are still long and delicate and beautiful.
     We hear a bowl clatter in the kitchen.
     "Harry, stop that," she yells. "You just sit down, and I'll get everybody something to eat in a second."
     "Now that'd be something," my dad calls from the kitchen. "You haven't cooked in six years."
     "Really?" she looks at me and laughs. Behind her glasses, her eyes are blue and soft. "Well, I'll be."
     "Nee," I say. "Tell me about the collie dogs your father had."
     "Oh," she says. She leans back a little. She visited the beauty parlor in Bay Minette on Thursday, but even so, the white curls on the back of her head are crushed from the gray chair. Her face is plump, her nose small. "My daddy kept collie dogs. Beautiful dogs, you know. But wait just a second." She leans forward. "Harry, you stop messing around in there. Just take a seat, and I'll get you something to eat."
     "Laura," my dad calls.
     "Hey Nee," I say. "That's a pretty dress you got there."
     "Oh, do I," she says and looks down at the satin. "Can't remember where it came from, right now."
     "I know," I say.
     Bubber moves away and patters to the fireplace in the center of the room. The stones are huge. My grandfather placed each one in the fifties, thirty years before I was born, when the family still lived in Mobile. Bubber circles and lies down on the faded rag rug before the hearth.
     "Listen," Nee says. She leans over the arm of her chair and peers at me. She smiles a little. "Now, you tell me something."
     "Yes ma'am?"
     She whispers. "You got a boyfriend?"
     "Yes ma'am," I nod.
     She squeals.

 

Variation 2:

A thunderstorm sweeps the pinewoods. We hear the rain on the roof, an avalanche of water. Through the picture window, lightning cracks onto the pond. The house shakes. A lizard darts through a hole in the chink and disappears under Nee's easy chair. It is only 5 o'clock, but the room is dark. Bubber whimpers. He scrambles over the wood floor and under the bed in the corner. The mattress is old, and even with the quilt in place, I can see where my grandfather lies at night.
     I walk across the room and turn to sit on the brown leather couch with a view of the fireplace, the front door, Nee in her chair. She leans confidentially to the side to look me in the eye.
     "What's his name?" she asks.
     "Gustavo," I say.
     "Ah," she says, and smiles. She leans back in her chair. Somewhere, lightning strikes a pine, and we hear the explosion, the wood splintering. "That's a nice biblical name."

 

Variation 3:

She wears a purple sweatshirt. We sit in the dining room. Her chair creaks when she leans back. The tablecloth is red-checkered and so faded in places that it's almost pink. Behind her, the sideboard is cluttered with old china plates she tilted on display years ago and packs of paper napkins my parents keep on hand.
     "Who wants some ice cream?" she says, emphasis on the cream.
     "Don't want to spoil your dinner, do you?" I ask. "You got oysters coming first."
     "Really?" she says. We hear a pot bang in the kitchen, and she turns her head. "Who's that in there?"
     "My parents," I say. "They're frying us some oysters."
     "I wish they'd come sit down," she says. "Let me take care of that."
     "Nee, tell me about Hawaii," I say.
     "Oh," she says. "Don't know there's much to tell." She plays with a paper napkin.
     "You drove cross-country to get there," I say. "Must have been an adventure."
     "Yeah," she says. "Yeah, I guess it was."
     "Saw the Grand Canyon," I say.
     She nods. "Stopped in Vegas. Got Harry a little treasure chest with some silver dollars."
     I laugh. "You still have them?"
     She shakes her head. "I don't know. Don't rightly know."
     "You were afraid coconuts would fall on his head," I say.
     "Yes." She stares at the tablecloth. We can hear the clock from the living room ticking, the cicadas whirring outside, oil crackling from the kitchen. "We lived in a Quonset hut. You know what I mean? Had a palm tree by the back door. And Harry was small, you know."
     "Yes ma'am," I say.
     "Who's that in the kitchen?" she asks.
     "My parents," I say. "We got oysters coming."
     She looks to the side, and I am not sure that she hears me. We can hear the TV switch on in the living room. My grandfather wants to catch the news.
     "Now, tell me something," she says. She leans both arms onto the table and looks me in the eye. "You got a boyfriend?"
     I nod, and she squeals.
     "What's his name?"
     "Gustavo," I say.
     She leans back and tilts her head to one side. "He's not from around here."
      

Variation 4:

My great-grandmother's cabin is too small for all the descendants at Thanksgiving, so we spill over into the yard. Forty, maybe fifty cousins chasing dogs and flopped into lawn chairs. My cousin drives my grandfather's car and helps Nee get out of the passenger seat. He leads her to the porch, where she can sit on the steps and watch children totter by.
     Gustavo has a mustache this month. I introduce him to my aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins and third cousins once removed. He shakes hands and smiles and doesn't even complain about the outhouse. I show him the hundred-year old kitchen, full of food cooked in homes from Florida to Texas and driven in for the occasion. I walk him across the dogtrot and into the rest of the house, where my cousins stay when they go hunting. Nee's childhood bed is still in the back room, across from her brothers' bed. I show Gustavo my great-grandmother's bookshelf, the pages gone brown and curled over time. I tell him that my dad whitewashed the inside of the house when Nee's mother began to go blind. Gustavo nods and looks at the wall as though this is interesting. He comes from a large family too, stretched from Venezuela to Panama to Oregon, and he understands.
     I bring him out to the porch, where Nee sits and smiles. "Nee," I say. "I'd like for you to meet my boyfriend."
     "Oh yes?" she says. She turns and grins.
     "Nee, this is Gustavo," I say. "Gustavo, this is my grandmother Nee."
     "Wonderful to meet you," Gustavo says, and kneels to shake her hand.
     But the smile is frozen on her face. She looks past him, maybe at the window or a spot on the wall. "Oh," she says. "Gestapo."
     I laugh too hard to correct her. It feels like the wrong response, but I can't help it, and I laugh until I can't breathe. She looks terrified, but I quit laughing and her look shifts to confusion. She tilts her head at Gustavo.
     "Have we met?" she says.

 

Variation 5:

The pipes are clogged. Every time my grandfather turns on a faucet, water backs up in the bathtub. He takes his walker outside when he has to use the bathroom. My grandmother can't go outside on her own, so my dad has agreed to take the system apart. Nee and I sit at the tiny kitchen table against the window. My grandfather sits on his walker, legs crossed, instructing my dad.
     My dad sits in front of the kitchen sink, pieces of pipe scattered across the floor. He holds a rusted plumbing snake in his hands. He threads the snake into the system, but he can't get it around a curve. He jabs the snake into the pipe, spearing the PVC until the snake gives and slips under the house.
     "Pop," he says. "The whole thing's falling apart. I need another washer." He wipes his forehead. "We oughta call a plumber."
     My grandfather tilts his head to one side. He installed the plumbing himself, the electrical wiring too. He has never hired a repairman in his life. "You and I think differently on that point," he says.
     "Emily?" Nee asks.
     "I'm Laura," I say.
     "Oh, Laura," she says. She leans forward and whispers, as if the men might not hear. "You got a boyfriend?"
     "Yes ma'am," I nod, and she squeals.
     "None of it's up to code," my dad says. He throws the end of the snake on the floor, and water splatters onto my leg. "None of it. We go after one clog and find five other places where it's leaking. The whole house is going to rot, and you'd never know."
     "Why don't you just try again," my grandfather says. "See if we can't locate the clog."
     "What's his name?" Nee asks.
     "Gustavo," I say.
     Nee nods, and my dad curses from the floor. When she speaks again, her eyes are unfocused. "Emily?"
     Later that night, Nee sits in her gray chair and asks me again and again. I ask about the collie dogs her father had, what she liked in school, what her mother was like. My father and grandfather argue about the plumbing. Nee sits and picks at her hands, panicking endlessly and in moments. In the back room, my mom finds a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner, so strong it is almost pure sulfuric acid, and she pours it down the drain.


    
Variation 6:

Nee waits in a hospital bed. The nursing home smells like shit and disinfectant. My dad has told me that most days she is frantic. She shakes and repeats Bible verses and snippets from hymns, over and over and over. But today she is calm. They've upped her medication, probably. Her face is thinner now. She looks younger and more beautiful, like a different version of the grandmother I have known. Her eyes are soft and blue, her wrinkles less pronounced, her chin graceful. She looks weak and lovely at the same time. I thought death would be uglier.
     It is hard for me to talk, but Gustavo steps forward. "Hi Nee," he says. "I'm Gustavo. It's good to see you again."
     She turns her head, but her eyes look past him, unfocused.
     "I'm your granddaughter's boyfriend," he says. "Your granddaughter Laura."
     "Ah-ha," she says softly. Then, under her breath, "that's nice."
     We don't stay long. There is nothing to say, and she doesn't hear when we try. It is enough to see that she is calm, that the nurses are attentive. Gustavo drives the hour back to my parents' house, and I watch raindrops stream across the window and magnify the green world outside. The same countryside where Nee learned to walk, where she took me catfishing, where thunderstorms sweep every summer. The pines are spindly and tall, and they stretch away over hills that roll on and on. We pass a bog, and a sunbeam makes a spotlight on the black water. A beaver dam terraces the marsh, and lily pads float cool and green. A beautiful weed. I turn from the window, and I file this memory away with all the others, to be touched again and again, or to disappear quietly away in the mass of neurons firing and misfiring on the long road home.

 

 

 

 

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I tried to mimic the snapshot moments my grandmother experienced as her dementia worsened through the structure of this piece. That's how the idea formed for me; I actually first told this story as a coping mechanism and funny anecdote—"hey! Here are all the ways my grandmother has reacted to meeting Gustavo!"—but ultimately thought that the way she experienced time was poignant. I wanted to communicate that simultaneous immediacy and isolation and the ways in which it broke our hearts.