The first Christmas Grandma spent with us she haunted our house like a pink ghost, creeping around the borders of rooms, unexpectedly opening bathroom doors, rifling through cabinets for peanuts or aspirin, finally settling into the center of the couch to watch whatever game show we had turned on so she would watch too. Her smell trailed after her – slightly bitter and liniminty — trapped beneath the same rose-colored sweat suit worn day after day and washed with too much fabric softener. When she broke her usual self-imposed silence it was a surprise, especially when she would interrupt our conversation and warble how beautiful the service was, as if her husband’s funeral, which had taken place only days before, were a regular Sunday morning ritual. Now that she was alone, with no Grandpa to distract us from her growing dementia, it was harder to not to see it.
The next Christmas was worse — we knew what was coming. By then nearly every week my father received a large manila envelope from Florida with his full name scrawled across its front — Grandma’s mail. She sent him everything she didn’t know what to do with, not only bank statements and phone bills but also postcards of missing children, glossy packets of coupons, catalogs for lingerie, for bird feeders. When we called, she confused us with relatives from the other side of the family. Sometimes we came home to arguments she had with the answering machine, hearing Dad’s voice and not understanding why he didn’t talk back to her. He would call and explain, trying to force his words through her haze, but the clouds never lifted, and in a month there would be another blurry message full of hurt and confusion: Why won’t you talk to me?
So the third Christmas I hid. When my exams were over and my papers turned in I ran away from New York and took a train to Rutgers. There was a boy there, a warm shape to lean against and hide behind for a few days. When I arrived, however, there was no hiding — he was in the middle of both a party and a head cold, which meant that I spent the first part of the night letting a plastic cup of beer grow warm in my hand and the second lying awake on the floor of his room while he sprawled selfishly across the twin bed above me, unconscious from cold medicine.
In the morning I asked him to drive me home, the trees lining the highway dark gray yet iridescent like bird feathers, and by the time we pulled into the driveway I had almost forgotten what I had been hiding from. I just knew that I was going home, home to Mom and Dad and tea in the morning and TV in the evenings and car rides to the grocery store and all the offhand talks we’d have over the kitchen counter or down the stairs that somehow said everything in their thoughtless, careless way. But as I opened the door and let loose my usual ‘Hi, I’m home!’ I knew she was there, could feel the change in the house, the guilt closing in because I wanted to keep what we had, just the three of us, ours.
And then one Christmas she didn’t come. She stayed in her Florida nursing home, too frail to travel. And then, early one December, she died.
I was older then, and had lost some of my heartless innocence. When I saw my grandmother in her casket, wearing deep pink lipstick and a jewel-toned jacket, I smiled. She looked like herself – her old self – the lady who had played Scrabble and drizzled icing over pound cakes and took me swimming in a high-tide ocean at the Jersey shore. I held her hand, now cool and hard, and tried to tell her how sorry I was about the way I resented her for the last few years of her life, for an illness she could not fight, even if she had been aware enough to want to.
Then it was Christmas again. Now her absence was more simple: it was complete. She was not alone in Florida. She was not with us but without us, living on a separate plane of fallacy and confusion. She was in a cemetery twenty miles away, untroubled by the way a faucet worked, or a calendar, or a sitcom’s plotline.
On New Year’s Day I woke up back in my apartment in the city, the windows looking east down Twenty-Third Street, away from my parents’ house and the now-empty guest room, towards the bright windows across Seventh Avenue, where the heavy gray clouds moved westward across the sky.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; Propeller Quarterly; HER KIND, a blog powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts; Brain, Child online and elsewhere. Winner of a Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan and the Linda Julian Non-Fiction Award from Emrys Journal, she has been a fully-funded fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and will be a resident at the Millay Colony in the fall of 2013. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.
Read a conversation with Randon here.