When I called the house on my way home, nobody answered. I walked, counting methodically in my head with each step forward, one, two, three. Over and over again in my head, under my breath in the same fashion as a couple waltzing across a dance floor, only I'm not in a ballroom, rather I'm watching my shoddy sneakers pass litter in the gutter beside me. The phone rings and rings, and then finally I hear the message machine recording: You've reached the Pollard's residence. We're not available at the moment. Please leave a message and we will be sure to contact you later.
My father made the recording after several years when we didn't bother to have a message on our home message machine. His voice is gruff, not very welcome, but I call again nonetheless. I feel as though I'm losing my mind on my walk home, and this is my weak excuse for a cry for help.
As I redial my home number on my cell phone, I recall times before when I was lucky enough to get a ride from my grandma. My memory of her is fond, like a black and white portrait shot of a movie star from the 1950s with all the soft edges. Just like the models and actresses in the pictures, my grandma always wore her red lipstick, as bright and flamboyant as her personality, and she curled her hair in a fashion alluding to the past.
I remember her wrinkled, aged face, appearing so drastically different from the smooth and young faces in the portraits with their coy smiles and arched eyebrows, and I think that she's all the more beautiful for it. With age comes a different beauty, something like the entertaining tales my grandma used to spin for me as a curious child and the nostalgia that graced her face upon occasion.
I don't know specifically what triggered the memory of my grandmother as I walked home. Perhaps it was the middle-aged man who passed me in the opposite direction, smoking a cigarette that reminded me of her in the familiar smell of the smoke. Or perhaps it was the old Corolla that stopped at a red light beside me on the corner, just like the one she used to drive me home in. Either way, I feel her haunting my thoughts despite the fact she passed away more than a year before.
Still, I think just like the smell of smoke from her cigarette, she lingers. She's not that easy to forget.
When I hang up the phone, I'm not disappointed to find that nobody answered at home. I already knew when I began calling nobody would answer. Somehow, the familiar ring of the phone helps steady me when I begin to feel lost and alone. I'm still alone, but the ringing fills the silence well enough.
In some ways, I think the death of my grandma is akin to the death of a star, so sudden and yet, perhaps gradual in a way as well. At the same time, my grandma used to be the center of my family, just the like the Sun. She was a brilliant and stubborn woman, strong and warm, like no other person I've ever met. When she left us, I think the family collapsed more than we would've ever thought before she died.
My Aunts stopped attempting to maintain a functioning relationship, and my mother got caught in the middle, trying to mediate the conflicts between the two. Their brother, my Uncle John, left us for his home downtown, almost as though he was retreating from the mess of things. All of us it seemed in the aftermath, were left feeling that much colder, a tad lonelier than before.
I sighed and pulled my hair into a ponytail as the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun prompted the formation of sweat upon my brow and neck. It seemed the weather did not care that it was supposed to be autumn already, as October loomed not too far in the future. The temperature remained a steady and burning eighty-five degrees. I remember that's how my grandma liked it though- hot and dry.
My grandma grew up in Buffalo, New York, oddly enough. She'd told me stories of her mother, an immigrant from the Northern provinces of Italy who came to America to marry a man she didn't know in hopes of achieving a better life.
"My mother was a strict woman, a very serious woman," my grandma would tell me, the cigarette in her mouth bouncing with each word as she spoke to me. She grasped a coffee mug loosely in her hand, and I could see the print of her lips in red upon the ceramic finish. She paused and inhaled a breathe of smoke, before breathing it back out.
"She used to tell me that my skin was too dark, when I was growing up. She hated my dark skin. She used to tell me to stay out of the sun when I was growing up, but it didn't help. I don't think she thought I was pale enough to be an American," my grandma told me, and I looked at her skin color critically. She appeared pale enough to me, I thought looking at her olive skin tone that was only slightly darker than my own skin. I'd grown up learning that skin color determines nothing more about a person than the amount of melanin in their skin, and the idea of my grandmother's skin being too dark confused me.
"Hmm," my grandma paused again, humming a bit as she remembered her childhood, a placid look of nostalgia on her face. I waited patiently for her to continue, watching as cars passed us where we sat, on the patio outside of a Mexican restaurant.
"My mother never learned English like we did," my grandma told me, speaking of herself and her siblings, "When we were growing up, we tried so hard to be American. We didn't want to be Italian, we didn't to eat the pasta or speak the language. We wanted to speak perfect English and drink Coca Cola like the rest of our schoolmates. My mother though, she never learned English, and we taunted her sometimes with that fact. We wouldn't buy the groceries she needed us to buy unless she asked for them in English."
My grandma looks so serene staring off into the distance as though she see's her mother there. I wonder at how she can be so peaceful when memories of her mother that seem so tragic and cold seem to haunt her. And yet she smiles, and turns to me with a mischievous expression, and I see the little girl she was in her eyes. I see that perhaps there was more to her relationship with her mother, a memory she hasn't told me that is too personal, too complicated for my young mind to understand.
Ironically enough, I pass the Mexican restaurant we were at that day on my way home. When I glance over at the patio, the seats are unfilled, and the lone, glass ashtray sitting out on the table is empty. I look away, and keep walking, past the restaurant, to the corner of a busy street, and I feel stranded as the fast cars pass me.
I'm not sure how my grandma met my grandpa. All I'm sure is that when they fell in love, they eloped from Buffalo in the true Hollywood manner, and left behind the cold snow of New York for the warmth of California. My grandma always told the story with a quirked smile on her face.
"We boarded the bus, and I was so terrified of leaving. I'd never been outside of New York before, and suddenly, here I am with your grandfather, crossing the country. You can imagine how I felt," she told, quirking her lips just a bit.
"I packed all of my things, all of my clothes in one suitcase and few things in my purse, but not much. Your grandfather had his suitcase as well, and we crossed the country on that bus. I'm not sure what we were thinking, but I was so scared," she tells me, but this time I'm sitting with my mother in our backyard. I've taken a seat on the open door of my dad's truck bed, and I swing my feet back and forth idly as my grandma talks. There's a cigarette on her lips, but it's not lit, and she's nursing a glass of iced coffee with Baileys.
At this point, my mom interrupts the story, having heard the story many times before, and reminds my grandma of a quirky little detail she seemed to have left out.
"Don't forget about your little dog mom," she encourages with a knowing smile. I know about the dog, but I like the story, so I wait for grandma to quickly amend her story with an even bigger smile.
"Oh yes, I can't forget my little dog. The bus driver told us before we boarded we weren't allowed to talk pets with us on the trip, but I managed to sneak my little black puppy Missy with us. She stayed in my purse the whole time, that good little girl. It's a miracle she never revealed herself you know. I had to walk her and feed her early in the morning, before we left, and late at night, after we stopped to rest."
I laugh appreciatively, and she continues.
"I was so happy when we finally made it to California. It was so warm and sunny, nothing like Buffalo. Your grandfather took me to a Mexican restaurant to celebrate you know. I think, at the time, it was the only thing I didn't like about California, but your grandfather, he loved the food. We got drunk on margaritas," she tells me, her smile soft and sweet now, fading slowly. I can see it in her expression, I know that must have been the happiest day of her life.
Now, as I approach my house on my way home, I peer through the bars of our gate into the back yard where she was when she told us the story. I sigh and open the front door with my key as our dogs begin to bark and yip excitedly, there tails wagging happily.
Once I get inside, I head for my bedroom and take a seat at my desk, pulling my cell phone from my pocket after I drop my keys on the wooden tabletop. The phone rings and I find the picture of my grandma on my desk. It's a close shot, black and white like the old 1950s portraits of models and actresses, only my grandma is much older, and the lines are so much more defined. Her face is wrinkled, there are bags under her eyes, her hair looks white, but her lips are quirked into a secret smile, and her eyebrows are raised as though in a dare.
On a piece of a paper by the photo, a quote from Marilyn Monroe written in my writing, and I think it may as well have come from my grandmothers lips.
"I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when their right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together."
When my mom answers the phone, I tell her I made it home, and we exchange the normal niceties, but before I hang up the phone, I make sure to say I love you because that's the memory I want to keep when I'm older and I have a granddaughter looking to me like I did my grandmother, asking about my mother. That will be my hidden memory.