In dreamlight my grandmother walks the tide-line. Auburn hair loosely tied back. A bathing suit that would once have been considered revealing. Perhaps she is nearing thirty. A gentle wave laps at her ankles. One foot slowly sinks in the sand. With a violent kick she scatters a rainbow-shower of droplets. She faces the sea. She speaks without turning. You see, child? This is how I really am.
She stands in sepia-tone. Two enormous bloodhounds sprawl at her bare feet. She is Shirley Temple curls and overalls. She is defiance and serious brown eyes. She cradles an Iver Johnson 12-gauge almost too large for her four year-old arms. The gun is real. The barrel locked. The photograph does not seem posed.
A hot white flash. The acrid tang of magnesium and sulfur. Eddie Cantor crackles from a burl-wood Philco. Her neck and shoulders sweep gracefully beneath a low-backed dress. Her hair sweeps up in premature elegance. Her teeth just visible behind a Gibson girl smile. Her skin is smooth and white. Her serious brown eyes sparkle. Depression be damned. I will be beautiful.
I pause. Something is not right. An almost imperceptible pencil mark reveals itself. She has given her nose a more fashionable slant. I hesitate, then extract an art-gum from my desk and gently remove it. Better. I love her more the way she is.
Valedictorian. Class of 1932. She stares me down from the yellowing high school yearbook. Her smile is tight. Her eyes are fixed. She is defiance and intelligent purpose. I am not like these others. I will be somebody. I am somebody. Depression be damned.
St. Edward's Parish, 1938. The pancake supper is underway. The church hall is bustle and clatter. The air heavy with butter and maple. The Aunt Jemima man is cornered. She is hands-on-hips. He will not escape.
Why don't my pancakes come out like this?Excuse me, ma'am?These pancakes are better than mine. I want to know why. And don't call me ma'am.Oh. Yes, miss. Well, when we put on these here suppers we don't use the milk and eggs, see? We just use water and oil. That's the thing. Water and oil. Comes out just as good.No, it comes out better. Cheaper, too. I knew they were different.
She turns away satisfied, murmuring thanks, setting her quarry free.
No, no, not like that, Christopher. Fold the egg whites in gently, like this.
She makes a quick stroke with the whisk. To my grandmother I am always Christopher, even if I am not in trouble.
That's it. Gently, or you'll let the air out. And always room-temperature eggs. Remember that. Room-temperature eggs with a pinch of salt. Always just a pinch of salt. All right? Good boy. That's enough now. Pour the batter in this pan for me, will you? Then go check the oven. 350. No more, no less. Don't ever trust the oven, now. Always use a thermometer. Remember that. Always a thermometer and a level measure when you're baking. All right? Good boy. Who loves you, baby? Your Nana, that's who.
Somewhere around here the story begins for me. My grandmother loved me and I loved her. In a different life, we could have been friends. Never lovers; we were both far too volatile for that, but the kind of friends who hold hands and give the world a good Bronx cheer. My grandmother was difficult. Often prickly. Frankly, she was moody as hell. Just like me. We were kindred souls.
My grandfather had an infinite patience with which I was not blessed. He balanced my grandmother in ways I never could. He loved her in ways I cannot imagine. He was Augustus to her Livia. I was merely Archy to her Mehitabel.
My grandfather taught me many things, but one stands above the others. He taught me how to love my grandmother. To appreciate her spirit and to forgive her faults. When to give a soft answer and when to stand firm. He taught me how to accept her for who she was. When he died, he left me no money or property, but he left me what mattered most to him.
He left me her.