I write to you on your 89th birthday. You have been gone since 1998. And your absence has left me irrevocably incomplete. At this point in my life, I feel I must do what’s right and apologize to you. You told me some things, and I didn’t listen. I mean I listened, but I didn’t listen listen.
I used to sit at the edge of your bed, or sit in grandpa’s old chair, or sit in your wheelchair rolling back and forth as you went about your day— making phone calls to friends, perfecting your eyebrows, braiding your hair. Every move you made captivated me.
We’d watch Carol Burnett together and I Love Lucy and Days of Our Lives, and I fell in love with Stefano Dimera. I’d tug at my ear like Carol used to, and I’d imagine working in that chocolate factory like Lucy and Ethel.
When we laughed at that one episode of Golden Girls—the one when Rose and Arnie are in that restaurant discussing the “inconveniences” of sex, and Rose yells “Check Please!”— I knew that we had a special connection that could not be duplicated.
I had no idea what the joke was. I was seven years old. But you let out a loud, unmistakably naughty laugh. And I laughed and felt like we shared this little secret joke (even though I didn’t quite understand what was so funny.)
I fell in love with Scarlett O’Hara because of you. Katie Scarlett gave the fiercest side eye before I realized what side eye was, and I was mesmerized. And then Clark Gable. Jimmy Stewart. The Gawd Barbara Stanwyck. Charlie Chaplin. Queens Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. You and I would sit in your room and watch these films, and I loved you for loving me enough to introduce me to such magic.
In the kitchen, you were a beast. I was amazed at how effortlessly you’d make your pie crust from scratch. You let me sit there and watch as you expertly rolled the repurposed green glass bottle back and forth across the dough. You hardly got any of the flour on you, and I’d always leave completely covered in it. How does that even happen?
When you’d talk, I’d listen. You’d tell me how you used to be a writer. You’d tell me how you used to keep such a clean house that a widely distributed magazine sent a journalist to the Pruitt Igoe housing projects (before it dissolved into an uninhabitable hell-hole) to do an article on you—“How did a woman with so many kids manage in the projects?” they wanted to know.
In my younger years, when no one else could be bothered with me or you, I’d cling to your Thelma Harperesque housecoat. I’d try to figure out if you were really partially blind or if you used that disability to your advantage—because in my young mind: How you can’t see but you stay so fly? How you pick the perfect beret to go with your weekly hospital visit outfit? I swear you were the dopest old lady on the dialysis machine every week. And when you’d come home from the hospital I’d ride the wheelchair lift because what else would I do on a Saturday morning after my favorite cartoons were over?
I listened for your directions when you’d make me hold you over the sink so you could get that signature red hair of yours. Again—you were so fly. I listened for your complaining when uncle Arnold and I would walk to Nationals grocery store and buy off-brand groceries; you were not an off-brand woman.
I listened for your voice when you would yell at anybody in earshot. Your health was failing, you’d lost your husband, and in a house where you raised your family, you could no longer climb the stairs by yourself. You were angry; your body had failed you. Your husband had betrayed you for an eternity with God. You went into that hospital together in the fall of 1991 and only one of you returned. How betrayed you must’ve felt.
When you yelled for me to come help you make your bed. Every.Single.Day. I’d be so mad because I couldn’t understand why you straightened it and tucked the sheets so tight because you weren’t going anywhere.
As I got older, I saw you less and less. Typical. I morphed into everyone else who’d seemingly forgot you. I had friends. I had a boyfriend. I didn’t have the time; I couldn’t be bothered. When you found out about my first boyfriend you told me: “Never let a man get in the way of your dreams or your career.” I didn’t get it. “Okay, grandma” is all I could think to say.
Less. And less. Until one day you called me and said: “Grandma sick, baby”. Grandma was always sick I knew. But something was different. This wasn’t the same. When I got to your house you were in bed, but part of you wasn’t there. You sounded the same, but I could tell something was amiss. I didn’t want to give in to that feeling. So I pretended like everything was fine. And I went to hang with friends.
I never saw you again. Except for when your lifeless body appeared before me in that wooden box, and you were wearing that silky floral dress with the black and white polka dots spread throughout. I chose it for you. I thought, “She has got to be classy yet still fly when she meets the Sun-Maker.” I ironed that dress for you. Carefully, methodically, I pushed the warm iron back and forth across the fabric. God would not catch you slipping.
When I peered into the casket I was pissed. It was then that I knew I loved you the most: they couldn’t be bothered to get the hair right. It wasn’t the right color red.
But here’s the apology: I’m sorry I didn’t listen listen. I shrugged it off when you told me you were sick that last time. I didn’t fully heed your words about not letting a man get in the way. Occasionally, I buy off-brand groceries. And I don’t make my bed every single time I get out of it. Forgive me.