“Oh Addy, come on. You can’t wear that.”
Her mother’s voice is wounded, as if Addy chose her clothes intentionally to disappoint. Addy looks down at herself, her cargo shorts, velcro sandals, and second-favorite t-shirt, the one with the frog on it.
“Wear the dress you wore to Teddy’s baptism,” her mother continues. “With the roses.”
“Why can’t I wear this?” Addy asks. “We’re not going to church.”
“It will make Grandma happy to see you look nice,” her mother explains. “Don’t you want to make her happy? Come on, honey.”
Addy retreats back up the stairs to change, though inwardly she has some doubts; she has yet to see her grandmother appear to be happy about anything. She finds the dress her mother wants, crumpled under the foot of her bed. It’s probably been lying there since the last time she wore it. She exchanges it for the frog t-shirt. Don’t worry, she thinks to the frog, I’ll wear you later. She leaves the shorts on under the dress. She is not going to wear tights.
“The shoes, Addy,” her mother says exasperatedly when she reemerges downstairs. “The white ones that go with it.”
“I could only find one,” Addy protests, beginning to feel stressed. She hopes the subject of her messy room doesn’t get raised. Her mother looks at her appraisingly.
“So wrinkled,” she murmurs.
“That’s why I wanted to wear the frog shirt,” Addy explains patiently.
“It’s fine,” her mother says with finality. “Let’s go.”
In the car, Addy lies down on the back seat and watches the telephone poles go by overhead against their backdrop of clouds. It’s more fun this way. She can put her feet up and pretend the sky is the ceiling and she’s walking around up there. If she was walking on the sky, she would take really big steps from cloud to cloud. Walking that way, it would only take a few steps to get to Erin’s college, and then she could drop down onto the windowsill of Erin’s room. Erin would stop studying and take her downstairs to the vending machine for ice cream and they would watch the boys play ping pong. Then they could get chicken fingers from the dining hall for dinner and stay up late watching tv. How many steps would it take? Addy wonders. Maybe more than she thought. Twelve, she decides, and they would have to be really gigantic.
“Addy, do not get dirty footprints all over the ceiling of my car,” her mother says sharply, blue eyes flashing in the rearview mirror.
“I’m not,” Addy says, wiggling a bare foot up between the front seats. “I took my shoes off.”
“Well your feet aren’t much cleaner,” her mother points out. Addy plants her feet on the back seat and looks at the side of her mother’s face. She’s frowning a little. Is it because of my feet? Addy thinks, but then she realizes it’s because her mother doesn’t like visiting Grandma either. So why do we do it all the time? Addy wonders.
“When is Erin coming home?” she asks.
Her mother sighs heavily. “I don’t know, honey. Your sister’s pretty busy with school. She can’t just come home whenever.”
Addy thinks about this. “Will she be home for Halloween?” she asks. Last year they did matching costumes; Erin was Dorothy and Addy was Toto. Erin took her to a different neighborhood for trick-or-treating because she said that’s where all the best candy was. And it was really good. One house gave out full-size chocolate bars.
“I don’t know Addy,” her mother says with a bit of an edge to her voice. “Probably not. How about you ask her next time you write her a letter, ok? Ask her to come home for a visit. I’m sure she’d love to hear that from you.”
Addy likes watching her mother when she’s busy doing something else. Driving is good, but not the best because from the back seat she can only see the edge of her face. Reading is better. Sometimes when she’s supposed to be in bed Addy will sneak to the top of the stairs and watch her mother reading in the living room through the rungs in the banister. Sometimes she’ll smile at her book, or laugh, and one time she closed it and started to cry. That was weird.
“Put your shoes on, honey. We’ll be there in a sec.”
That’s annoying, because Addy was already planning on not putting her shoes back on until they got there, so she could delay getting out of the car a little longer. She starts putting them on as slowly as she can, holding one up in front of her eyes and seeing if she can undo the velcro one little hook at a time. It’s really difficult to do. No matter how carefully she tugs at the strap it seems to want to rip off all in a rush. So she has to keep sticking it back on to try again. By the time she gets the sandal open to her satisfaction, they still haven’t arrived. So when she puts it on her foot she keeps noticing the strap seems just a little crooked. Riiiip. And now it’s a little too tight. Riiiip. Ooh, too loose that time. Riiiip. Addy loses herself in the process of absolute perfection. Suddenly she hears the car door open and realizes they’ve stopped.
“Addyyy,” her mother pleads. “Why don’t you have your shoes on?” She’s standing outside Addy’s door looking down at her daughter’s feet with a furrowed brow and one hand on her hip.
“It wouldn’t go on right.” Addy finds herself unable to properly express the state of her troublesome shoes. Her mother leans her upper body into the car, wrests the second sandal out of Addy’s grip and applies it hurriedly to her foot. Addy resists by letting her ankle and foot go completely limp. “It’s crooked,” she pouts when the strap is securely fastened. “Just get out,” her mother orders. Now they are both standing on the pavement in the big parking lot outside the ugly brick building, looking at each other in mutual frustration.
“Look, you’re not going in there pouting,” her mother says. “Let’s be nice for Grandma. She doesn’t get a lot of visitors. The least we can do is be happy. Ok?”
But I’m not happy, Addy thinks to herself. I don’t want to do this.
“Come on, Addy, for me,” her mother insists. “Give me a smile.”
Addy arranges her face into a toothy grimace, which makes her mother laugh, and that makes Addy smile for real, and they both feel a little relieved. At least they get to be on the same side. “Ok,” her mother says, turning to look at the building and squaring her shoulders. She lifts her chin a little. She looks like the illustration of Joan of Arc in Addy’s book of saints. “Let’s get in there.”
The smell starts as soon as you get through the second set of double doors. It is not a good smell. It’s kind of like the hospital, how Addy remembers the chemical smell of the hospital, but it has its own weird fragrance too. Something damp, old. It must be coming from the old people. They’re all in wheelchairs, and they are terrifying, with shaking, knobby fingers all twisted up, drooping mouths, bleary eyes. Even the ones that seem alive are frightening. Sometimes they’re the worst. One time a group of them was so excited to see Addy passing that her mother made them stop to say hello, and then Addy had to tell them how old she was, and sing a song for them. She sang White Coral Bells. It was nice and short. She’s a little shy, her mother had said as Addy stood staring in horror afterward at a particularly withered old man who was drooling freely down his chin. It was the worst. She hopes fiercely that it doesn’t happen this time.
Miraculously, they make it to her grandmother’s room without interference. Her mother knocks lightly but doesn’t wait for a reply before opening the door. She does the same thing with Addy’s room, but Addy is not allowed to do that with her mother’s room.
Inside, the single window floods the modest chamber with an impossible amount of light. At the far side sits Addy’s grandmother, in bed as usual and propped up against a bizarre number of pillows. A crocheted blanket is spread neatly over the thick duvet, adding a clamor of cheerful colors to the otherwise leeched scene. Although the bedding turns them to soft lumps, Addy knows her grandmother’s legs are just bones covered in skin that melts down like candle wax. She saw them once. It was awful. Folded on top of the blankets are the claw-like hands, with the weird discolored patches of skin, skin so thin it’s almost translucent. A blue and pink flowered nightgown conceals the chest and arms, and then her grandmother’s tiny face rises out of the ruffled lace collar, cheeks sunken and mouth pursed, perpetually dissatisfied. It seems impossible that this shrunken old lady could be her mother’s mother, but the eyes give it away; blue and piercing, staring out at Addy with a sharpness quite out of place in the frailty of this body. Filled with dread, Addy approaches the bed.
“Well, well,” the cracked old voice quavers. “Look who’s here.”
“Hi Mom,” Addy’s mother says with her brightest and warmest smile. “How are you today?”
“Took pity on me, did you,” the old woman snaps. “Thought you’d come visit the prisoner did you?”
“Mom, you’re not a prisoner,” Addy’s mother says with her customary gentle reproach. “Addy, say hi to your grandma.”
“Hi Grandma,” Addy says dutifully, hating the old lady. Her grandmother pats the bed next to her with a bony hand. “Come here and hug your grandma, girl,” she commands. Addy stays rooted to the spot until her mother gives her a slight push. “Give Grandma a hug, honey,” she whispers. Miserably, Addy advances toward the bed and holds her breath as she climbs onto the side of it. The old woman seems to vanish in her arms as she performs the requisite hug. Even with her breath held, she imagines she can smell the dusty, mothball smell. She moves to jump off the bed immediately, but the gaunt hand clamps down on her wrist with surprising strength and she finds herself staring into those frightening, familiar blue eyes. “Are you being a good girl?” her grandmother asks sternly.
“Yes Grandma,” Addy mutters, unable to prevent a small scowl from crossing her face. The old lady cackles suddenly. “Like hell you are,” she retorts. “Trouble, that’s what you are. Too much like your mother. I told her not to marry him, you know. But would she listen to me?”
“Mom please,” Addy’s mother interjects. “That’s not appropriate.”
“And you,” her grandmother continues, turning her attention to Addy’s mother, mercifully releasing her grip on Addy’s arm and letting her escape. “What do you want?”
“Just to see how you’re doing Mom.”
“Well how do you think I’m doing? Locked up in here, no family to take care of me. As if you care. Where’s John? Why isn’t John with you?”
“Mom,” Addy’s mother says softly. “John passed away. Eight years ago.”
“My Johnny,” the old woman goes on, as if she hasn’t heard. Addy stares at her, transfixed and horrified. “Now there’s a good kid. Why are you keeping him away from me? If he knew you stuck me in here, he’d give you a piece of his mind. When’s John coming to get me?” Her thin voice is rising with each word, and spit flies in tiny flecks from her lips. Addy takes a step back and looks at her mother. Her face is drawn tight, her mouth set as if there is something in it, like a pebble. “I can see you’re not feeling well today,” she says in a hard voice. “I’ll get the nurse.”
“You do that,” the old woman spits back. “Get the nurse. And get John. He’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Addy feels her hand taken firmly into her mother’s grasp and then they’re out the door. Sometimes it goes quickly like that. She likes when it’s time to go, but she doesn’t like the drive home from these kinds of visits, the way her mother is silent and still, sitting up so rigid in the driver’s seat, both hands gripping the wheel so hard her knuckles turn white, as if she wants to break it in half.
Even though she tells herself she’s not going to, Addy falls asleep on the drive home. When she wakes up her mother is pushing her limp feet back into her velcro sandals. They’re at the grocery store. She’s too tired to complain, and her mother lets her stand on the end of the cart facing backward, so the aisles go by in reverse and she can watch her mother scan the shelves for the stuff she needs. There are a few other kids with their mothers, women with short haircuts and baggy sweatpants. Addy studies her mother with her gold dangly earrings and navy blue dress, her makeup done like a woman in a fashion magazine, her dark hair swept up with a gold barrette, and wonders why she is so much prettier than everyone else.
I know that feeling of visiting grandparents in a home,band laying down in the back seat watching Mom. After my Grandfather passed long ago, us kids decided non of the parents would go to a home. A blended family from a time there were few, we all cared for a parent. My oldest two brothers and myself all cared for our Dad’s at home. My youngest brother cared for Mom. All have passed. My little sister cares for the one just younger than me. MS has racked her for forty years. I can feel the pain in your prose. May you find happiness always.
thank you for the well wishes. I wish you the same! I glad you found some parts of this story relatable.
I liked this short story.
It reminded me of visiting my Grandmother in the hospital after she had a stroke. I like the way it was written looking through a child’s eyes.
Thanks Neil! I’m glad the perspective worked for you. I found it to be a little challenging to make the narrative voice child-like but not overly simplistic. I’m happy with how it turned out.
Its 3:42 am in the morning, and I kinda stumbled onto this blog. This story is giving me an uneasy feeling. Its super depressing and hits on a lot of notes about the numb reality of life. The mother in the story sounds deeply unhappy, the grandmother sounds like she had a large part to play in her child’s unhappiness. Possibly repressed trauma being passed on from one generation to the other. And, lil Addy is slowly being led down the same path of mundane-monotony. All the characters are alive, but hardly have any life in them. The grandma’s plight scares me and I hope this does not come true for anyone. And, Addy’s future seems like the one that’s most at peril, its heartbreaking to see her innocent dreams and beautiful observations slowly being conditioned to fall back in line with the family’s ways. Its almost like Addy will always be torn between exploring her own happiness and wrestling with the conditioning of her psyche – the mundane ways of the world that is deeply rooted in her upbringing.
Kudos to the author for sharing a simple but powerful story. It could be the 3am adrenaline that’s making this story more impactful than it really is, but the smells described, the textures of the skin etc, all elicit a very unpleasant reality. It takes effort to compose something that has such a profound effect on its readers.
Thank you so much for your comment. This story definitely made me feel a bit uneasy as I wrote it, but it was also cathartic to explore some of the themes you mentioned: generational trauma, wounds being passed down, a child starting to piece together the underlying drama of her family. One of the most incredible things about the human experience (in my mind at least) is the complexity and drama of individual stories. Mundane, as you said, yet fraught. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!