Dickie’s teeth click when he eats. I have known for years they are false, but I can remember when I was a little girl and thought they’d come loose with age. Only his chewing interrupts the questions. What are you going to do now? Why don’t you finish university? His eyes are earnest. They bulge from his head, his head bobs up and down. It is hard to pay attention to the words, so I shrug at what I think are appropriate intervals.
“I guess you just have itchy feet.” He sighs, shakes his head, scoops up another spoonful of ice cream.
The conversation takes on a more general tone. The kids he teaches at school. Other grandchildren. Unemployment is terrible. Why don’t the kids take trades? I listen, but not closely. I let my eyes wander to familiar objects in the room I know so well. I remember Christmas dinners, when the Virgin Mary smiling down from above the cutlery box seemed less peculiar, when the table, filled with family, seemed less long. My eyes come back to Dickie; he is still talking. He is greyer now, his hearing even worse than I recall. He is retired, and teaches a class in Introductory Engineering at the community college. He is concerned for his students who are reluctant to settle down and work for a union. Instead they collect unemployment. He calls it “the dole.”
GrandEm fidgets at the other end of the table. We call her GrandEm because her name is Emma, and she says she was too young for Grandma when we were born. Her breathing is audible.
“You were far too young, Anne,” she interrupts suddenly.
I turn to her, add lightly, “Nobody could have told me then.”
“Well, I tried.” She says it too quickly. I can sense Dickie slump in closer to his ice cream.
“You remember. When you were here before the wedding. You just weren’t ready for such a serious commitment. I don’t think David was either.”
“Joseph,” I correct.
“Whatever his name was…”
“Still is,” I slip in, glancing down the long dining room table, hoping to have appealed to my grandfather’s sense of humour. Too late. He has turned down his hearing aid and is now carefully stirring his tea. GrandEm is still watching me. Even her silence is critical. I do remember the advice she gave me before the wedding. You have to stand behind a man, she said. Put all your energy into his success. And, oh yes, sex is not important. I’d made a joke about that too, but she hadn’t laughed then either.
She does have a sense of humour. She brings it out like the old, tarnished jewelry she keeps deep in her dresser. On summer visits when we were kids, my sister Laurie and I would watch as she’d carefully choose the right brooch to clasp at her neck, or maybe a string of pearls to accent a round neckline. “Isn’t this a scream,” she would exclaim, “an old lady like me getting all gussied up?” Then, with a flourish, she would produce something for us to add to our outfits. Often, the piece of jewelry was so old-fashioned that we would never wear it again. Once, though, I wore a sapphire that glistened from a delicate silver chain for months.
Back then, Laurie and I faced her together from the moment we stepped off the train. When her good mood faded we’d disappear to our room in the basement, the only place she did not invade because her wheelchair could not come down the stairs. We’d giggle into the night, hearing sometimes a faint sound, the smooth rubber of her wheels as they rolled along the linoleum at the top of the stairs. Secrecy was our only privacy. In the morning she would insist we have a bowel movement before breakfast. We were not to flush until she had inspected.
I try to remember when I first began to flush before she got there. I can’t. Did I flush today? A smile comes to my mouth.
“Well, I don’t think this is very funny,” she snaps. “Young people just don’t take marriage as seriously as they should.”
Before the wedding, I’d argued, I’d said there was a place for a wife’s ambition, for sex. She hadn’t listened to me then, and I decide she’s probably not going to hear me now, so I nod as she speaks. No, I don’t take things seriously.
It is summer. Back in January, I broke my leg. I thought of her a lot during the spring, as I learned to walk again, when I couldn’t stand long enough to cook a meal, when energy leaked away at the sight of every staircase. She has been in a wheelchair as long as I can remember, but I’ve seen photos of her with the canes, then crutches, as she refused to believe she could not walk. She’d been a Phys Ed teacher, and before that a dancer. When I was little, my father used to describe how tall and straight she’d been before the arthritis. Paintings line the walls of her bedroom. Ballerinas bent to tie the ribbons of their toe shoes, their tall, slender bodies graceful and poised.
“Are you sure you want seconds?” she frowns. I gained weight while the cast was on.
Three years go by, and I finally do finish school. I haven’t seen GrandEm and Dickie since I started taking classes, so I drive to town to visit with them. I can only stay three days so I call as soon as I arrive.
“We were very surprised to hear that after so long away you didn’t plan for more visiting time,” she says when she sees me.
“I don’t have much money,” I say. I bend down to kiss her cheek.
“You don’t need money with family around. Did you get the application form I sent?”
“Did you send it in? They need teachers right here.”
I hug Dickie. I want to whisper a joke to him, but he is beyond hearing whispers. She always hears them anyways.
“It was for the Catholic School Board,” I say flatly.
“The children are the same,” she says, her lips forming a pursed, thin line.
I groan. “It’s the teachers they want to be Catholic!”
Dickie laughs. He winks. He beams with the knowledge I am a teacher, a “something.” He does not seem to mind that I do not have a job.
Instead of in the dining room, lunch will be served in the living room, tiny sandwiches on cut glass plates. GrandEm goes to supervise the housekeeper, who is new. Most help doesn’t stay long.
“Mary’s been with us for awhile,” says Dickie. “She was awfully good to have around while I was in hospital.”
“How are you?”
“I’m okay now.” He smiles. “They gave me a clean bill of health. No more cancer.”
“How do you feel?” I insist, holding his hand.
“Much better.” He smiles broadly and his teeth click. He appears to have less trouble hearing me than usual. Instead of the puzzled look he used to wear, his faded blue eyes appear calm and it changes his expression.
He wants to know what I think of today’s students.
“Do they seem lost to you?”
“When it comes to looking for jobs, maybe. But that’s because they don’t want to work just to work.”
He nods. “I guess you’re right. Jobs were so important to us in the Depression. We didn’t think about other things.”
GrandEm sits quietly on the other side of the room. She has dropped the subject of my teaching at the local high school. I almost want her to say something so we can include her in the conversation. The afternoon has passed quickly though, and it is time for me to go.
“I’ll drive you to your next stop,” Dickie says, rising. By this time, GrandEm is visibly sulking.
In the car, Dickie tells me his knee is reacting badly to the radiation that conquered the cancer. He is having trouble with GrandEm’s wheelchair.
“I guess I’m just plain getting old,” he laughs. His car has been stopped for some time outside the house I will be visiting. A friend waits for me inside.
“Go on now,” he says, “have fun!”
“I love you,” I tell him before kissing his cheek and getting out of the car.
The next night we all go to a restaurant to celebrate the ritual family gathering that takes place whenever one of the flock flies in from out of town. Aunts and uncles and cousins sit at a line of tiny pub tables pushed together tightly. Chair arms touching each other form a bond. When GrandEm arrives, someone removes a chair from the chain so she can position her wheelchair strategically beside mine.
“Hello, dear.” Ice hangs from her words. “I was wondering this morning how you got home from that boy’s house so late last night.”
I think of saying I took a taxi, but it’s a small town, maybe taxis stop running at night. I think also of making grand gestures about how I stayed on his couch. Instead, I say, “I didn’t.”
The reply surprises her and she doesn’t pursue what was going to be a lecture about reputation. My name, my father’s name, her husband’s name – never people, only names.
We sit in silence at our end of the table. I look down the row of faces. Dickie winks at me. He is across from us. His hearing aid has trouble with all of the voices. He points to everybody’s drinks and shrugs his shoulders, as if to ask why. I lean closer to him.
“Why does everyone have two drinks?” he asks. “Are they afraid there won’t be any left by the time they’re finished the first?”
I laugh. It does look strange.
“Maybe your uncle offered to buy the first round,” he suggests with a chuckle.
“No, it’s Happy Hour – two for one!” We are both shouting over the noise.
“Oh,” he nods, smiles understanding. GrandEm frowns.
After we’ve eaten and the table breaks into small groups, Dickie slides into an empty chair beside me. I watch everyone, catch bits of news, marvel inside how much everyone has changed and stayed the same. Dickie takes my hand and watches with me. His big grin takes on a pride I’ve never noticed before. He looks pleased with what he sees. I remain silent, not wanting him to have to concentrate to hear. I squeeze his hand the way he taught me when I was a child. Four squeezes – do you love me? He squeezes back, yes. Two squeezes, how much? He holds my hand firmly and leans towards my ear.
“I don’t want to hurt your hand.”
We both notice GrandEm at the same time. She’s been wheeled to the other end of the table and is looking around at the teenagers who have had too much to drink. She licks her lips precisely, indicating in a single motion her displeasure. She catches my eye for a moment and quickly looks away. Dickie feels me stiffen.
“You know, Annie,” he says in a voice that is barely audible, “pain is a funny thing.” He pauses, looks down the table at her, as if he’s forgotten I am beside him.
“For a long time, I just didn’t understand what she was going through. Now I think I finally know, but I can’t even begin to make it up to her. It makes me shudder when I think of how close I came to never realizing. Waking up in the hospital with all that machinery attached to me and doctors and nurses everywhere – it really opened my eyes.” He hesitates, and looks back at me eagerly. “This spring, I’m going to rip down the back bathroom and make a whirlpool. Make it all accessible to the chair so she can get in and out on her own.”
The words tumble out. His eyes sparkle as he describes the new bathroom. He’s planned it down to the hand railings above and below the surface of the water. It is the first time I’ve heard him talk about something so excitedly.
“She’s always liked water,” he told me, “because it lets her move the way she used to.”
“I’m sure she knows how much you care,” I offer, stroking the back of his hand.
“No,” he sighs, “I don’t think she does.”
It is late December when I am called to come to the funeral. On the train I tell myself he lived a good life, accomplished a lot. When I get into town though, and I don’t see his big grin, I know it doesn’t matter how long he lived. At the church, GrandEm has them play his favourite hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers. She holds my father’s and my aunt’s hands, and tilts her head to look proudly towards the altar. What makes me cry is feeling Dickie’s smile on us. Maybe now he understands what is going on in all our heads. I look beside me at Laurie, wonder if she is remembering him from the old days when he would turn down his hearing aid and disappear into his den for hours.
It is Christmas, but there will be no big dinner back at the house. Instead, GrandEm holds a small gathering using the same cut glass plates we ate sandwiches from such a short time before. Everyone admires her strength from a distance. Wonders how she’ll get by.
“I don’t know what to say,” I tell her as we’re saying goodbye.
“I’ll write you a letter.”
She looks up wryly, as if to say I could’ve thought of something better. I bend to hug her. She kisses the air beside my cheek.
Back home, I try for weeks to write that letter. I want to tell her about Dickie’s plans to build a whirlpool, but on paper the words seem like another blueprint lost in the many he worked on. How can I describe for her his eagerness when he said he was going to build it deep enough so that her whole body could be underwater, how the hot water might help her not hurt so much.
My attempts never get mailed.
One day I receive a package of Dickie’s shirts. He took them all to the cleaners before he died, GrandEm explains in her letter, so she sent each of the grandchildren three. “I found the shirts in neat piles in his closet.” She goes on to say that the shirts are old, she is not sure I’ll find a use for them. I skim the familiar handwriting quickly. My eyes stop when the smooth flow of the fountain pen breaks.
“They say with time I’ll feel much better,” she finishes. “Please write soon.”
photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2010