To say the least, my grandfather is old fashioned. Constant monologues about New York City in the forties, changes in technology, and how amazing the economy is has left me well versed in the mind of an eighty-five-year-old man. But the most striking of his stale views are those of women.
“Most women her age have hit the wall,” he was explaining one day. “Hit the wall” meant, in paraphrased words, that a woman had “peaked” and lost the sex appeal that gave her value. “But Audrey,” he continued, “is far from it.”
Audrey is his partner. Amicable, devout, at times frivolous. She kept my grandfather company after his wife passed. But in no way was this heavily lipsticked woman comparable to my grandmother.
The range of possibilities in my life have been created by my grandmother. Inspiration overflows from the white stock paper of her resumé. Successful business owner, seasoned globetrotter, cultured trendsetter, loving sister, mother, and grandmother. Rather than acquiescing in an early marriage, she secured a college degree. Once her business was thriving, she resolved to buy an exquisite New York apartment a block from Lincoln Center. With cash. Trips to the jewelry store grew in frequency until she became best friends with the owner. Precious metals and gemstones flooded her drawers. Ruth was utterly powerful.
She never followed the trail of tradition. In a jungle of misogyny, she slashed a path through thick, cunning vines. Ruth shared little with my mother’s mother: her style was extravagant rather than plain and she displayed only grace and class. And I’ve seen her cook only once.
I was small, probably four or five years old. Pigtails bounced next to my shoulders as I sat at the table. The tall, expansive surface enveloped my body and nearly covered my head. Gawking, as I did during every visit, I studied the stark whites of the kitchen, the simple oak cabinets, and the industrial refrigerator that I could have fit in six times over. A miniature Kermit the Frog found a seat upon the cubed steel clock that hung from the ceiling. Between pictures of my cousins and I stuck on by magnets, late afternoon light glinted off metallic gray.
The memory itself is faint but imprinted in my mind. Screeching, the microwave begged for my grandmother to collect her food, but she sauntered over with leisure. The usual smell of her house, a confusing mix of mothballs and incense, meshed with the odor of burnt plastic.
“I’m hungry!” I complained. It would only be a few minutes longer, she replied, proceeding to cook the dish despite the microwave’s plea.
After ten more minutes, a black heap steamed on my plate. Long, bony fingers delivered me a fork. My grandmother stood back and crossed her arms, proud, while I contemplated what I was supposed to do with that fork and a burnt brick of frozen food.
I thought of my other grandmother: full, soft around the edges. Her visits were always accompanied by cookies and presents and hugs.
“What should I make for dinner?” Beth would ask.
But my father’s mother was different, eclectic almost. The scorched meal had been microwaveable Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese. And Ruth had forgone the simple instructions, white type against red cardboard, attempting to unleash her own culinary approach.
When I hadn’t sampled the dish for two minutes, she shot me an insisting look. “Just try it.”
The dark crust resisted my fork at first, then slid right in. Beneath the charred layer was a golden cheesy river, steam rising from its stream. To my young eyes, it appeared edible.
I ate the mac and cheese. It was ambrosia.
I’ve never seen my grandmother cook besides that. And I’m not sure if you can call over-microwaving mac and cheese a method of cooking. But she wasn’t bad at it. She just chose to focus on other tasks.
— When I discovered she had cancer, I cried for two weeks.
Ten years old. Mostly innocent. I wasn’t completely sure what that word meant. Cancer sounded like a black mold, steadily creeping toward her soul. It sounded like a parasite, arresting, petrifying.
“Her doctors are great,” my dad repeated before each time we saw her. But I couldn’t connect how the doctors were helping, as she grew sicker. After awhile, those recurrent words rung empty.
We started visiting more often. The smell I remembered from an earlier childhood, incense and mothballs, warred with medicinal agony. Tragic orange prescription bottles littered cold granite countertops. Any natural light left—there often wasn’t any; the sky was always gray—filtered through, casting long, orange shadows.
Visits were sandwiched by hugs. “Hi Grandma,” I recited as I embraced her. She had always been tall, lean, thin, but, soon, her ribs jutted against translucent tissue-paper skin. “How are you feeling?” I would ask, but I could never remember her answers. Everything was rehearsed.
The woman I was seeing was no one I knew. She was a shadow of the pill bottles, weak and watery at times, but mostly absent.
There was a last good day. The whole family was there, crammed inside her expansive city apartment. Windows sheltered the party from unfriendly autumn air while welcoming sunlight that emerged for the first time in a week and a half. All the pill bottles were hidden in the cabinets.
We ordered food from the Chinese restaurant down the block. Ruth was an auctioneer, delegating chicken lo mein and crisped halves of egg rolls to distant cousins. A tub of duck sauce splashed on the counter as she unloaded flimsy plastic bags from the sturdier paper bags. She organized a conveyor belt of a meal, designating the beginning, middle, and end of the line, commanding which side of the family to go first, micromanaging which plates were used with which food, —and keeping the pork set aside to maintain something close to kosher for Uncle Earl.
The apartment swarmed with energy. Nostrils flaring, my brother challenged my cousin to see who could eat the most hot peppers without crying. Teenage cousins stood bored in the corner, texting on pearled slide phones as I begged them to braid my wild hair.
Ruth rescued me from wandering window to window, munching on a vegetable dumpling. “Come with me,” she urged. “I have something to show you.”
I followed her confident steps past the closed doors of her bedroom. A lamp blinked on and revealed costume jewelry carpeting a bureau, imposter gems flashing across the room. Something that looked like an emerald reflected in her eyes.
I wasn’t sure what to do. There was a fortune of jewelry mere inches from my fingers. Tense, uncertain, I watched idly as Ruth began to hold up technicolor necklaces, earrings, and brooches
against my eyes. She unfolded my hand, which had frozen into a nervous fist, and began laying pieces in my palm. Her touch was cold yet assertive.
“This one.” She seemed to be chatting to herself, murmuring aside although I was in the room as well. A lapis lazuli charm, encrusted with gold leaf and hanging from a shimmering chain, collapsed into a small mountain. I studied the wondrous pendant while Ruth continued perusing.
“Hmm, and this one.” On a cream-colored pin, black ink drew a scrimshaw ship traversing the ocean. From the water, a whale’s tail waved a solemn hello. The brooch rocked in my palm, ship on rough sea.
Ruth spoke again. “These are perfect.” She dropped a pair of glinting garnet earrings onto my new collection. My birthstone. Beautiful, encased in a gilded frame.
Then, she folded my hand back into a fist, her touch still cold yet assertive, and left the room.
Sophie Lipset is a high school senior with a passion for creative writing. She began writing seriously at sixteen and attended the New England Young Writers’ Conference at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English. She focuses on creative non-fiction.