summer 2012

on rivers— 
          men collected embers of floods
          and women told dirty jokes

at the ocean—
          we paddled to laughter
          and breathed out the breezes

but along these paths,
          we felt more of land
          than waters

Jenny Morse

“Excuse me,” I said, and the saleswoman smiled and placed her hand over the receiver. “I really appreciate what you’re trying to do, but we don’t have time to have it sent from another store. She needs to wear this coat tomorrow.” I explained the urgency.

My grandmother was standing in front of a long mirror, slowly turning side to side to see the coat from all angles. It had been 30 years since she’d needed a winter coat. If this were any other January, she would be sitting at her kitchen table in Boca Raton, reading the paper while my grandfather cut a grapefruit in half for his breakfast. The air conditioning would have been on.

“I’m so sorry,” the saleswoman said, and motioned for another woman to join her. “They need a coat for a funeral.”

*

I parked the car in front of Belmont Medical Supply, re-reading the list:

Foam wedge
Swabs
Rubberized bed pads
Male bed urinal
Diapers?

I rehearsed my script again, loud enough to monitor the shakiness of my voice. “Hi, my grandfather is dying–“

No, that was too difficult to say.

“Hi, my grandfather just came home for hospice care, and I need everything on this list.” I would then hand the list over so the person who worked there could deal with the reality of my grandfather dying in his bed. I had volunteered for this errand, desperate to help, and yet I sat there, strapped in the driver’s seat, looking through the big glass windows at shelves of pink plastic and white boxes, rows of canes and walkers lined up against one of the walls. I read the list again, mumbling the script to myself as I finally unbuckled my seatbelt and opened the car door.

*

Almost every Saturday morning of my childhood I woke to the sound of the deep bass intro of “Heard it Through the Grapevine.” My mother, a child of the 50s, loved Motown music and having an impeccably clean house. Having four daughters helped her achieve this dream. When my sleepy brain registered the music, I groaned. If Mom was playing the soundtrack to The Big Chill on the big speakers, it meant we were cleaning the house. Since Angie had a severe dust allergy, she was only responsible for folding clothes and emptying the trash. Julie could vacuum, Christine could wash windows and strip sheets from the beds. And I always had the job of dusting.

I dusted the big glass table in the fancy un-liveable living room, the heavy oak chest in the family room with its intricate brass handles, the curved top of the baby grand piano. After a couple hours of dusting, my pajamas would be sweaty, my arms sore from stretching across the big furniture, reaching to get every last speck of dust so that I wouldn’t have to hear my mother say, “If you do it right the first time, you won’t have to do it again.” After each big swipe with my rags (cup up pieces of my father’s old undershirts), I would crouch, kneel, or go up on tip-toes so I would be at eye level with the dust line. If the thin layer of gray still showed, I gave it another swipe.

Finally, I dusted the shelves of the wall unit. There were close to fifty small cubed shelves in the unit, each with its own vase, decorative plate, picture frame or porcelain figurine. The shelves on the bottom were stacked with books, which also needed to be dusted. To get to the top shelves, I had to crawl up and stand on the bottom shelf, balancing myself with one hand on the top of the TV. I would take down each vase or picture frame, carefully wipe away the dust with my rags, and then wipe the interior of the cubed shelf before replacing the object. This task demanded balance, patience, and an appreciation for the delicate collection of glass, porcelain and ceramic. Most 9, 10, 11, or 12 year olds wouldn’t fit the bill. Somehow, my mother knew I did.

*

The coat wasn’t cheap. Thick rabbit fur trimmed the collar, the sleeves, and the interior of the coat. A flattering bell shape, the coat draped my grandmother’s small frame like a queen’s coronation robe. For the first time since we’d arrived at Nordstrom, she smiled at her reflection.

“Grampy would have loved this coat,” she said, looking at me over her shoulder.

*

He approached me before I had a chance to say my lines. “Can I help you find anything?”

“Yes,” I said, handing him the list. “I need these things for my grandfather. He’s coming home for hospice care.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, and it sounded genuine. “We can take care of all of this.”

I followed him around the store like I was eight years old, trailing my mother in the pantyhose aisle of Dillard’s.

As he pulled the items off the shelves, he made jokes. “I mean, this bedside urinal is $5.00 more, but honestly, it’s a urinal. It doesn’t need to be fancy.” We grabbed hospital sheets, padded to absorb liquid, swabs to dip in water for easing dry lips, body wash and shampoo specifically for cleansing someone lying down, and foam wedges for under his back and under his legs.

“And I need the diapers,” I said, forcing myself to say the words. “What size?” “I don’t…I guess Large?” “Well, they’re by waist size,” he explained, listing out the numbers and what they meant. My mind wandered to the weekend of my college graduation, when my grandparents had flown in early and I took them to the mall for lunch. After, my grandmother wanted to go into Sears, “because we forgot to pack shorts for Grampy!” I stood next to her, silent, as she compared the sizes of white men’s underwear and finally settled on XXL.

“I don’t know his waist size. But he’s 6’2” tall and I think he’s down to almost 200 pounds. He used to weigh 240.” These numbers had only mattered to me recently, as I heard hospital staff reporting his weight loss. He couldn’t gain weight if he couldn’t eat, and he couldn’t eat because he could no longer swallow.

“Ok, then these should be fine,” he said, taking one package of Large. He handed them to me, smiled a comforting smile, and said, “You can bring any of this stuff back if you don’t need it. But it’s good to have it just in case.”

*

My mother and aunts were in the bedroom, smoothing the sheets on the bed, waiting for my grandfather to arrive. My grandmother was rearranging the pillows when I walked in with the foam wedges.

“I know you only said to get one for under his head, but the man at the store recommended this one for the feet as well,” I said, handing the black wedge to my grandmother.

“Fine, fine,” she said, then looked at the one in my hands and furrowed her brow. “Did this not come in white?”

“Um, I don’t know…? I didn’t really ask.”

My mother and aunts looked up, and we waited until my grandmother had left the room to lose ourselves in laughter.

*

Halfway through the wall unit, The Big Chill would reach the fourth song. Like the children dropping their duties to follow the Pied Piper, my sisters would run to the family room while I gingerly stepped down from the shelves. “Tracks of My Tears” was my mother’s favorite song, and the only three minutes when we could stop cleaning to dance, sway, and sing along. We laughed as my mother closed her eyes and grabbed one of us to slow dance with her, singing along with every word.

Those of us not dancing sang into pretend microphones with pretend heartache. After the song I climbed back up the shelves to finish my work.

*

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m tired. Maybe we should just come back tomorrow.”

“We can do whatever you want, but I really think this coat is beautiful and will be perfect for the occasion and to get you through the winter.”

“You do?”

I’d been shopping with her countless times. Very few items were given a lot of thought. If she loved it, or I loved it, she bought it. Shopping was fun for her, and she enjoyed it alone as much as with other people. Imagining how a vase would look in the kitchen or how a necklace would hang on a certain blouse was part of the charm. The anticipation of wearing or seeing the new thing was as exciting as the purchase. But she didn’t want to see herself in this coat, with the rich fur and the stylish swing of the hem. No more than she wanted to see Grampy in the suit she’d picked out for him to wear, the one draped over the back of a chair in the living room. Blue shirt, black pants and jacket, yellow tie, black socks. The funeral home director had told her that was all they needed. No underwear. No shoes.

*

“I thought I might see you back here,” he said gently as I walked in with two full bags.

“Yeah,” was all I could think to say. “How’s the family?” “Ok,” I said. “We were all there with him.” He rang up the unopened diapers, shampoo, body lotion, extra swabs, and bed urinal. I looked around the store but turned my head when I made eye contact with another salesperson.

“I’m sorry, the hospital had sent over a lot of this stuff before he came home. And he went much faster than we thought he would.”

“That’s ok,” he said, printing my return receipt. “Do you want me to put all this back on the card?”

I nodded. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I bought the things we thought we needed. But he died anyway. And I was back at the store.

*

In a few hours the family will be here, and I will need to meet them at the airport to help with the kids and the baggage and the rental cars. I can’t sit still, so I clean my apartment while listening to The Big Chill. I take out the trash, strip the sheets off the bed, and vacuum the rugs. I dust the bookshelf with our small collection of breakable things, a few vases, a glass pomegranate from Italy and two beer steins from Germany. I dust the framed photograph of my grandfather and me with my first car, and the framed picture of my two grandmothers smiling at my bridal shower. I stop when I hear “Tracks of My Tears,” but I don’t feel like dancing.

*

“It was a beautiful ceremony, don’t you think?” she said, bringing me a cup of coffee. She sat in my grandfather’s chair.

I nodded, remembering the black dress I’d bought, the speech I’d written, the sight of my grandmother sobbing at the gravesite as the January wind blew around us.

“And that coat was perfect. I can’t thank you enough for what you did.”

“I didn’t really do anything,” I said, thinking of how we’d driven home from Nordstrom in silence. I’d kept one hand on the wheel, and one hand covering hers.

“You encouraged me to buy it. And Grampy would have loved it. It was perfect.”

Though it was dark outside by the time I left her house, she had pulled out her Swiffer broom and a dustpan. I knew she’d be up for hours, sweeping, dusting and tidying a house that was already swept, dusted, and tidy.

Like me, she’d done everything she was supposed to. And tomorrow, life would have a new list of chores.

Dianna Calareso

I grew up Catholic,
an arctic poppy in an outcrop of stone;
stunted willow, river beauty,
my home a crevice, a cranny.

Parabolic
seeking pearls and banquets
dreading outer darkness
the calling, the choosing
the panicked heartbeats in a brood of six.

Channelling shaman and priest,
turning to warmth, living on wind
blown soil and snow,
somewhat toxic.

My brothers wrestled Jesuits and lost
in the logic; having seen too much
I crossed to the dreaming.

Waking from the animal sob
of myself afraid in the wild in a tent
electric to the sounds
of footsteps, breathing, furtive voices,
a feral couple planning attack,
a toddler they had to kill by raking out its eyes.

But last night as I was running
alone along an ancient path,
a hunter lithe and strong,
I bounded from the earth,
leaned to the wind to fly.

My brothers in the distance
at a makeshift altar,
tobacco, like incense, calling me in.

Ken Massicotte