Still Life, with Grandmother

Taking care of his grandmother provides Garland Grey with a new perspective on his distressed family history.


I don’t have too much time. The audiobook is droning in the background, and I am sitting in the back bedroom. My body hurts, I’m exhausted, and this country accent is starting to chafe. The day started at 6 a.m. I made a cup of coffee and cleaned the bathroom. I took my book — which I’ve read maybe three pages of today — and my coffee outside. I smoked a cigarette. I swept the porch. I didn’t think about anything in particular.

I went through stacks and stacks of records, some of them ruined and warped, some shiny like pressed onyx. I set aside a small 45 my great uncle recorded in Nashville. We sat down to breakfast and listened to it. He was her brother.

She gave me a signed check and her pocketbook. She closed her eyes and went through the grocery story, aisle by aisle. Each item was exact; I was to get bacon, but thick-sliced bacon. I was to get two half-gallon jugs of milk, fresh strawberries, frozen snap peas; when names eluded her, she substituted the color of the packaging.

She talks at you as you leave rooms, and after you’ve left them. Every time I entered the kitchen she’d add another item onto the list, in the form of a question. “Do you like watermelon?” She’d ask, “Do you like cottage cheese?” I stop to consider each question separately. Do I like watermelon? Do I eat it because it is there, or have I ever desired it?

As I close the door to take my shower, she is still talking.

“Is there shampoo in this bathroom?” I ask, cutting in at the joint of a story I’ve heard before. She tells me there is. Then she continues.

On the way out the door she explains that I should lock both locks. I should pull the shade down halfway. I should level off one teaspoon of instant powder for her coffee. The thermostat is too low. The light in the hallway needs to stay on at night. She won’t eat oatmeal. I put too much food on her plate.

I am being calibrated. For what, I don’t know.

Yesterday we went into town. She imagines that I am as excited to trawl thrift stores as I was when I was a child. As she walks into the store, the manager greets her warmly, fetches her wheelchair, inquires about her health. I can’t help but see the manager’s hospitality as pure self-interest: my grandmother spends a lot of money in thrift stores. As she wheels through the aisles, touching and examining clothes on the rack, I walk over to the book section.

There are a great deal of Christian devotionals, self-help books, and manuals for arcane computer systems. Reader’s Digest Condensed Books make a strong showing; the novels of Irwin Shaw are in abundance. Sifting through, I find evidence of a secret queer resistance teeming underneath. None of the covers betray queer themes, but the names of the authors jump out at me from the shelves.

After I’ve made a tidy stack, I wander through the store. Instead of a wonderland bursting with delight, I see piles of old junk. The one clear vision I remember from a childhood spent roaming this place is approaching my mother with a copy of Valley of the Dolls in my hands, and having her rebuke me. I was 12 years old.

I crack the spine on a collection of stories and begin to read. The author had not yet written the novel he is best known for and was just getting his legs under him. The first story is about a young man bringing his “lover” home to meet his mother for the first time. It is the type of story I’ve always resolved not to write. Perhaps this was a mistake.

“Grandson,” the manager’s voice arcs over the racks. “Your grandmother is ready to go!”

At that moment, I love the manager. Because even if she’s doing it out of self-interest, she is still nice to my grandmother, doting on her and throwing an arm around her.

We pay and amble out into the parking lot. My grandmother directs me to a buffet-style restaurant. She makes her way to her usual table in a glassed-in enclosure that at one time would have been the smoking section.

“How’s your grandmother doing?” asks the cashier. She knows my grandmother like everyone knows her, here.

“She’s doing better every day,” I say, handing her a twenty.

“I’ll get the silverware,” I say as I reach the table. It is hard for her to hold the silverware on her plate and walk with a cane. Part of my job is to shield her from embarrassment. And I try. I make my way to the various buffet hubs. I select a small portion of each food I’d like to eat, but get a little too much noodle salad. As I’m walking across the dining room, I spot an old man in a wheelchair. One of his legs is missing. My uncle.

I sit down at the table. I stare at her, eating. She’s almost totally blind, able to discriminate between light and dark and little else. I eat my food, and I think about motherhood. Because the story is that mothers just know, right? And you could make the case that she did know, that she did know that one of her children was sitting not 50 feet away. But that because of all that had come before, she chose not to know.

My grandmother had five children. Only four are living. One of my aunts is supported by the state, one works for a university. My father is a schoolteacher. One of my uncles is dead and the other lives on the family property. Diabetes took his leg. And before yesterday I hadn’t seen him in almost two decades.

He didn’t attend his father’s funeral. This is brought up whenever he is discussed amongst family. There was a falling out, and he refused to face the fact of my grandfather’s failing health. My grandfather didn’t want to face his firstborn’s death. My father didn’t want to face his own son’s sexuality. The men on this side of the family cannot face things. The women pick up the slack.

Over the years, he has threatened to kill my father. He says he is a changed man now, been washed in the blood and seen the light. But I can’t seem to see past all that. I don’t want to side with him against my father. Because my father won’t ever trust him, won’t ever believe he’s changed. And as much as I believe he’s a beat-up, broken-down man who’s grasping at some sort of redemption, I have to remain neutral.

Like most of us, he puts his head down when he eats. I use this to my advantage, slipping past him with a plate. I imagine I bear some striking family resemblance. Even though it has been years since he saw me, and I was a child besides, I imagine he’ll look at me and simply know. There is a moment of panic, as he looks back into the crowd and I position myself in front of a woman pushing a cart, moving with her to cover the line of his sight. Maybe he saw me. Maybe he realized I was avoiding him. Whatever the case, he wheeled himself out and I felt free.

On the way back, she dozed. These trips take something out of her.

Photo by Roadsidepictures