November 12, 2006


By Mella © 2006

It seemed strange to me to have a party for him, seeing as he was dead. But Mom wanted to. I watched from beneath the banister on the stairs as she hummed between the kitchen and living room, carrying plastic-skinned platters of pickles and deviled eggs, wiping her hands on her apple-red apron as she assessed the arrangement of food. I watched from my perch on the steps as she spelled out his name in olives on the top of the potato salad, DODD – her brother, dead of a heart attack at thirty-three.

Grandma Lydia arrived first. She let herself in and stood at the foot of the steps tugging on the lip of her knee-highs. With her dress pulled up you could see the pink line where her lumpy, vein-streaked leg was being hemmed in beneath the nylon skin, like a sausage squeezed into its casing.

She wasn't really my grandmother, just an old neighbor that my mother invited to all of our family affairs. It started with the first Thanksgiving after her husband passed. She ate with us then sat quietly as we gathered in the living room and watched my uncles suck on thick brown cigars. Beside me on the sofa, she smelled of baby powder and lavender, much more pleasant than liquor and smoke, and so I leaned nearer to her. She took this as a sign of affection and said you're a nice girl while patting my thigh. She's insisted that I call her Grandma ever since.

Oh, she's just sad, Mom told me later, if calling her Grandma makes her happy, just do it.

I would've stayed hidden upstairs for the duration of the party had Grandma Lydia not noticed me when she reared upright from pulling on her pantyhose. Oh, Laura, will you be a doll and help Grandma Lydia with these pies? She looked down to the floor around her, and then shook her head. Do you mind going back next door and picking them up from my kitchen counter?

When I returned with the pies, the house was swarming with family, as though a bus had come and dumped them all in a heap at our doorstep. Dodd's widow, Ginny, sat in the corner. My aunts and uncles and cousins all wound around Mom's buffet, looking up indiscreetly from their paper plates to steal glances at Ginny, who's pale face was turned to the window and oblivious. She was the type of skinny that made you think of sickness - wispy and frail. And though her eyes had the alertness of a deer, behind their round panic they were hollow.

She and Dodd surprised everyone with their engagement two years earlier. He was not the marrying type. Yet, she clung to him, two bony hands clasped to his thick forearms as they maneuvered their way throughout their short marriage. He seemed to be the only thing keeping her standing, as though she were nothing more than a marionette, limp without his touch.

You going to eat those all yourself? Mom came from behind me and lifted the pies from my arms. She twirled on her heels back to the kitchen while I stayed still in the doorway, watching as the room watched Ginny and she the window. I thought if she had any fight in her at all, she should've run - a long time ago.

Mom came back and stood beside me. The party was her tribute to her brother and her gift to her family. Something to cheer them up, something where not everyone wears black and sniffles through boxes of Kleenex. It wasn't going as she'd planned; with Ginny staring out the window while the rest of her family gawked.

How about we have people share their memories of Dodd while we eat? A spark split across her face as the idea burst from her lips. She pushed past me, her hands up and waving, C'mon, c'mon, who's first. Something funny.

The trouble with her idea was that there wasn't much funny about Dodd. He was brutish and loud and, before he met Ginny, almost always stumbling drunk.

Mom wasn't deterred. She moved to stand beside Ginny, resting a manicured hand on her shoulder and squeezing. Startled, Ginny's puzzled face turned upward to see my mother's loud smile. Ok, I'll start...

I walked up the stairs as my mother's voice rose up and down, urging her company to be happy in the face of death - to tackle it with paprika-sprinkled appetizers and stories of childhood and familial hugs of assurance.

I sat in my room, thinking of Ginny and Dodd and death as the living room below me began to swell with laughter and voices growing louder, challenging one another, Remember when?

At the Thanksgiving when Lydia first patted my thigh and told me to call her Grandma, Uncle Dodd had made me invisible. I was seven and for however long he was there, I squeezed my eyes shut and I willed myself transparent. Not that it made any difference to him - his half-closed eyes rolled around in his head, too loose in their sockets to focus on me anyway. And so whenever the nausea swells and I find myself smelling the stink of his liquor-sweet breath on my skin, I remind myself that I wasn't really there. His rough palm wasn't sealing my lips; it wasn't me he his harsh whispers were warning not to cry. Not me. I was invisible, just the warm place in the corner he stumbled onto.

I awoke to the gentle weight of Mom's hand on my back. It was dark, the house silent. She smelled of coffee and sweat and smoke, like a woman pulled from the trenches of a crowded restaurant. Everyone missed you at the party, she said, while curling beside me on the bed. She leaned in to kiss my forehead, but, it was a hard day, I know that, she whispered. Death is hard.

I nodded, nuzzling my chin into her shoulder, thinking for a moment in the fog between sleep and wake that I could tell her - all of it. About how the hollow look in Ginny's eyes frightened me. Or how the sweet smell of liquor left me sick.

Sometimes it's just easier to be invisible, I said softly and into her collarbone. But she was already sleeping, her chest rising and falling peacefully, leaving me awake - listening to her contented breaths, wondering why we had to throw a party for him anyway.

Mella is a full-time grad student and over tired mama, staving off insanity by writing.

No comments: