Beanery Online Literary Magazine

December 30, 2013

Little Em

Filed under: WR/BEANERYWRITERS — beanerywriters @ 3:00 am
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Janet Mantia

     Scents of orange and pine filled the house, but the lights on the tree never seemed as bright after Christmas. Looking at the popcorn garland Grandma helped me string, I felt a hard lump in my throat. It wasn’t long ago that I walked along the secret path, carved through mulberry bushes that led to her house. Thinking back to last summer, her bent figure made an odd shadow against the sun as she scattered bread for the birds over the cement walk.

“Cassie, I didn’t know you were coming today,” she said, wrapping her arms across my shoulders.  “Grandpa’s in the shed, building who knows what.”

I remember standing next to Grandma in her sturdy, brown shoes, print house dress, and silver hair wound into a braid around her head.   She stared at me with steel, blue eyes, and a face, though not beautiful, had strong features with high cheekbones and a pert Irish nose.

“Cassie, you’re only sixteen, but taller than I am.  You’re growing into a fine, young lady. Your mother would be proud of you.”

Grandma opened the screen door to the house Dad grew up in.  When I walked inside, the house had a scent of cut timber covering the planked walls, mingled with a scent of fresh jasmine coming through the screened windows. Walking across polished, wood floors, I sank into the sofa with a tufted back that went half way up the wall.  Doilies circled oak tables, and a fireplace which looked like the room had been built around it, covered an entire wall.

Grandma picked up her knitting from the rocking chair.  With fingers that moved in exact precision, she wound blue strands of yarn around the knitting needles.

“Your sweater will be done soon, Cassie.  I just have to add the sleeves,”  she said, pulling more yarn from a skein lying on the floor.

When I left Grandma’s house she was still knitting.  I kissed her cheek and said goodbye, but I left with a feeling I couldn’t explain.

*                                                 *                                            *

The sweater laid on the rocking chair next to skeins of unopened yarn.  Picking up the sweater which had no sleeves, I held it against my chest.  It would be a perfect vest, and Grandma’s voice, soft as velvet, would never be heard again.

Grandma laid in a pillared bed beneath her oval framed portrait when brides wore white knee-length dresses, low-heeled shoes and thick stockings.  I remember kissing her cold cheeks with orange rouge lying atop the hollows of her face. Wearing a pink nightgown, she clutched a worn prayer book in hands which finally were at rest.  Her gray hair, always wound into a braid, now fell like silver threads against her shoulders.

Through my tears, I stared at Grandma and could hear her voice which was like the chirping of a solitary bird in the forest.   “Cassie, come into the kitchen and have a cup of tea.”   Taking the kettle, she poured water into blue, china cups and floated peppermint leaves from her garden on top of the tea.  I could still see the crinkles etched into the corner of her eyes as she sat smiling and sipping hot tea.  I wondered if Grandma could see me or hear me?   I wanted to talk to her once more and hear the voice which never scolded.

                         *                                                      *                                            *

        After Grandma died, Grandpa had a far off look in his eyes.  Growing up, he was the smallest of his four brothers.  Quick witted and quick with his fists, there was no other way to survive in a world dominated by large men.  While Grandma used words to make us mind her, Grandpa would threaten to box our ears when we misbehaved.  But he had a tender heart which few people saw.  If Grandma regretted marrying the Irishman with a gruff voice, no one ever knew, and Grandpa would get soft-eyed when he looked at his curly-haired wife with their brood of well scrubbed children.

A man with elfin cheeks, he would put on Grandma’s straw bonnet to make us laugh, or we would pull Grandpa’s worn, leather suspenders and he would pretend to cry out in pain.  From working in the fields, he had farm dirt under his nails and skin wrinkled like a raison.  When he kissed me, whiskered cheeks scratched my face, and I could feel the bones through his shirt when he gave me a hug.

A short man, only his head was visible in the bathroom mirror when he shaved.   Wearing a beard of shaving cream, he sang and clicked his heels, moving the sharp-edged razor to the rhythm of When Irish Eyes are Smiling.   After finishing his solo, he did a silly dance like an Irish jig, which always made Grandma blush.   Now when I spoke to Grandpa, I knew he heard me, but he never said a word.  Sullen and barely speaking, he sat staring at the television without the sound.

*                                              *                                          *

The day of Grandma’s funeral, a black hearse drove by fields where I walked with her and picked wild daisies.  A farmer on a hill stopped plowing in the hot sun.  Watching the funeral procession go by, he took off his straw hat and bowed his head, casting a shadow across the newly plowed field.

I wore my purple dress with the lavender jacket to Grandma’s funeral.  Grandpa wore a stiff suit and held a crumpled handkerchief in his hands as he stood in front of the casket.  Grandma looked small and fragile with a faint smile on her face.  Clutching rosary beads, she looked as she did many nights sitting in the rocking chair holding rosary beads with her eyes closed and her lips moving in prayer.       

Dad wrapped his arms around Grandpa and held him close to his chest.  Grandpa’s shoulders shook, sobbing for Little Em, the woman who shared his life.  I stared at the handkerchief Grandma gave me.   The linen handkerchief with pink yarn crocheted around the edges brought back memories of Grandma.  But today it caught my tears.

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