I want to tell you about my Grandma Hall. She lived in Salt Lake City in a house that smelled like cigarettes even after she traded smoking for an oxygen machine named R2D2. She had swinging saloon doors to her kitchen and amber glass ashtrays, and her back porch was roofed with yellow corrugated plastic that sent yellow light into the summer of her kitchen. It was always summer there — did I always visit in summer? Maybe it just never rained. My grandma got her cereal boxes down from a high cupboard with a barbecue skewer. Each box was poked with small holes. She froze peaches and strawberries from the summer and served them with breakfast. When she was older, I felt I always ate too much; her meals were so tiny. I kept a stash of cookies in my car and snuck out for them in between.
She drank Bud Light in a coozie with a straw.
Her hallway, dark wood and wallpaper, was all photos of grandchildren in the 1980’s — my boy cousins in striped shirts holding soccer balls, me in smocked dresses, a foreign little child to the self that stood in my grandma’s hallway looking as if to know.
Once, my Grandma Hall sent my sister and me a tape of her reading stories — Chicken Little, The Little Red Hen. She liked her stories with morals, or maybe she just had 1950’s Golden Books to choose from. She was baking cookies, she said on the tape. She kept interrupting herself to take them out of the oven. For some reason, Dolly Parton’s voice reminds me of my grandma’s.
These are the kinds of things my grandma told me, calcified now into story:
(While my sister — who is six inches taller than Grandma — tried to squeeze into her old skirts.) Back in my day, you were nothing if you didn’t have a waist.
(While I sat on the steps of my college co-op house that was named after a Grateful Dead song.) Just don’t marry a deadhead. Whatever you do, just don’t fall for a chauvinist deadhead.
(When, after she had complimented my friend Caroline on her baking job, I mentioned I had also wanted that job.) You wouldn’t have lasted two weeks in that job; you’d’ve been bored stiff. It’s Chinese Coolie labor.
It was hard at times to tell compliment from jab. Yet she would stand on her porch and wave and wave when I drove away.
By then, leaving the house was hard for her. I could find her, that last decade, by following her oxygen tube from R2D2 down the hallway to her nose, being mindful not to stand on the tube and suffocate my grandmother remotely. She was, before and still, a beautiful woman. She was the Peach Queen of Box Elder County and was runner-up Miss Utah the year Miss Utah was Miss America. She had, the story went, a less sexy talent. Hers was a theatrical monologue. No shortage of brains or vinegar.
My grandma divorced my grandpa some time in the ’70’s, but she stayed in their house and she stayed in her anger. My uncle made a rule she couldn’t complain about anything that had happened more than forty years ago, but her stories were still bitter and her present stayed inside the walls of the past. Her life, when I think of it, was made of rusts and browns and grays.
Once, I had a kind of vision of her as a girl and everything was yellow. She was in a field full of sunflowers and she was happy. In real life, my grandma seemed happiest in August. She was happy then because of William Shakespeare and the Shakespeare festival she went to every year. I called her right afterwards last year, called her from the sidewalk at Sewanee, in the only spot besides the cemetery on that Tennessee mountain where my phone found its satellite. She hardly said thing about the past, and the conversation hung on a thin thread of optimism. I’ve bought my ticket for next year, she told me.
She made it to the festival one last time this summer, though in between she broke her hip and began needing round the clock care. I called her again this September, this time from Paris. We talked for half an hour, and it was like talking to a different woman. I don’t know if there was medicine involved or if was a brief mood, but I don’t care — she was happy. Not escaping or placated, but happy. She was, she said, living in the moment and it felt like a fairy tale. I was tearing up, I was so glad.
“You tell your mom and dad that Grandma’s on a wingding, and lovin’ every minute of it!”
After I hung up, I leaned out the window into the Paris night — the neighbors moving in their windows, someone’s conversation in a language I did not know — and I was filled up. Thankful. Alive. A couple of weeks later, they moved my grandma to hospice. When I called her again, I couldn’t really hear her, and a couple of days later, she stopped being able to talk on the phone. She died last Sunday.
Grandma, I hope for you that death is a permanent wingding.