If I was fourteen this morning when Zelda brought Jack and me to the airport, I’m about six back home in Houston. I’d forgotten how much of a drill sergeant Grandma Ruth could be. Instead of hugging us like normal grandparents, Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Frank patted the top of our heads and grunted in lieu of smiles. “Well, you’re here,” Grandma said, hugging the straps of her black purse, instead of us. Jack and I knew better than to embrace either one of them. “If we did, they might break into a million shards of ice,” Jack joked on the plane ride over. Only it was probably true.
It is a given that Jack and I carry our own luggage—spear included. “What is this?” Grandpa asked on our way to their Buick.
When Jack told them it belonged to their son, Frank looked at Ruth who made a sound like a mouse caught in a trap, and stared straight ahead.
The ride to their house was filled with an awkwardness that reminded me of our trip to the airport with Zelda only a few hours before. But Zelda was quiet because she knew we weren’t on her side these days. Ruth and Frank were always tense and silent, an encyclopedia’s worth more since dad’s death.
When Grandma Ruth speaks to us it is either a command or a criticism. Sometimes I think my mother got it all wrong, that Grandma Ruth ran the Concentration Camps and was never a prisoner. Only there are those blue-black numbers tattooed to the inner flesh of her arm, the soft, vulnerable skin that kisses the wrist bone. Grandpa Frank has it too. If they never opened their mouths and covered their wrists, a person would think they’re the Jewish Waltons. Ruth wears housedresses that remind me of Aunty Em in The Wizard of Oz, all paisley with calico Peter-pan collars up to her thick neck. And Frank wears suspenders over button-down shirts with pleated pants every day, even during those dog days of summer, his starched shirt sticking to his back like human paper-Mache.
Unfortunately, they do open their mouths. I think of my father and Uncle David waking up to that German accent barking at them each day and wonder how they both grew up to be sweet after being raised in bitterness. Maybe Ruth and Frank showed them what not to do. Zelda wants mom to marry rich so she chooses men who are closer to poor. Mom tells me to lighten up but I need her to grow up. Maybe the Man Upstairs gives us family to teach us all what not to do.
I lay my head on the bed with the blue quilt stitched with colorful automobiles. It is my father’s bed from childhood. Jack and I flipped a coin to see who got dibs on his bedroom. I won. But it doesn’t feel like it, fingering the sewn cars on the bed, considering all the ignorant nights our boy of a father slept here, unaware of the end waiting for him in a vehicle not much different from the ones decorating the worn blanket.
When Ruth barks that this isn’t a hotel and that there is work to do, I am relieved. It is much better to keep busy than to sit in dad’s powder-blue room steeped to choking with memories.