Nasty Old Bird
It was my aunt's truncated e-speak -- in which she disregards all conventions of grammar -- that informed me my maternal grandmother was dying, and I suppose that made it...blander, less impacting. There was something offhanded about it, impersonal: "...this is from your cousin ceecee, she says henrietta isnt doing so well, as she said she doesnt think shes going to make it... we'll be up there soon...things are going good here...kids are fine." It flew past me in a whirlwind of dizzying punctuation -- or lack thereof -- and, I suppose, I missed it. Not that Henrietta and I are close, mind you. Nobody is close to Henrietta, except perhaps the fellow society-climbing snakes she has managed to charm along her way, and they are few and far between. Though it has been said by many a family member that she was sweet when her husband -- my late grandfather -- was alive, I witnessed a different woman. For about as long as I've known her, Henrietta has been a nasty old bird. As a kid, I thought she was eccentric, glamorous. She wasn't a cookie-baking Little Red Riding Hood granny; no, that was left to Meme, my good-natured and melodic-voiced paternal grandmother, who baked Latvian sweets and sang "Que Sera, Sera" to me. Henrietta was having none of that. Bake? Why should she bake when someone could do it for her seemed to be her prevailing attitude, and it was this that was part of the draw. Going to "Nanny's" was, for me, an adventure, one that meant sleeping in the guest room and watching fireworks out the window with my ears covered up tight. It meant the exciting neighbor girls and the dinging chimes of the doorbell and the fake fireplace in the basement bar. It meant afternoon television I didn't understand and squishy cheese that came wrapped in its own foil.
Henrietta was, in my eyes, the perfect hostess and, to her credit, she could throw an excellent party. I remember being excited to see her, jumping up and down on her flagstone step, flanked by the twin sculpted trees standing attention at the door. And then there she would be, in her lush fur coat, all four feet eleven of her, standing before us. She would smile from behind eyes that I suspect were the result of early plastic surgery and offer me candy out of tiny silver dishes. "Isn't that NICE?" she'd say. "Isn't that NICE?" At age four, I didn't know any better.
It was the year my mother died that I began to see the forest for the trees. That Thanksgiving my father, Meme, and I made the trek up to Pennsylvania and, somehow, everything had changed. The house, once so exciting and beautiful, looked twisted and dark, things lurking in hidden corners and alcoves. I remember climbing the stairs past her room, on which hung a sign that read "The madame is sleeping," fuzz from the lime green shag carpeting catching between my bare toes. I was horrified. The light in the guest room -- my room -- cast an eerie circular shadow on the wall, an ominous crater of collected junk in the hall. The basement bar glowed menacingly, falling off into blackness, the whole place covered in dust. The candy in the creepy silver dishes was stale.
And Henrietta had morphed. Her lips curled in smug contempt. Her voice was a croak, a growl, a bleat, and she'd become scolding and bossy, uncompromising. She never lifted a finger, instead screeching at us and her nameless, faceless cook to fetch and carry for her. Even Meme, some ten years her senior, was expected to be at her beck and call. And she'd turned on me, obviously displeased with what I was becoming. At eight, fast abandoning my cute little girl stage and edging up on my tomboy-hood, I knew from her criticisms that she would not rest until she set me right. I would not and had no desire to become what she wanted me to be; dainty, subservient, refined, perfect, boring . I was angry and, moreover, disappointed. My Nanny wasn't the cool good ol' gal who let me hold her fancy handbag. She was the judgmental, berating witch who'd put my mother constantly at odds with her all the years she was alive. It was the last time I ever willingly let Henrietta near me and, not hours later, I announced to my father my desire to escape. And escape we did.
But not forever.
Thirteen years later I am in her house once more, having been ushered in by one of my cousins. "Ceecee," she reminds me at the door, seeing my confusion. She grins wryly at me. "This is such a trip," she says, "you look just like your mother." We stand on the landing, all the cousins and I, after excited greetings -- it has been years since the lot of us have been together -- before sobering. The reunion comes with a price. I climb the stairs, unruly carpet under my shoes, and hover in the threshold, waiting. Ruby, the pint-sized, elderly nurse, motions me to come in.
And it is bad -- not as bad as Ceecee described, but bad enough. There is barely enough of Henrietta left to constitute a whole person; she cannot weigh more than 50 pounds. Her skull seems to be rising to the surface of her face, pushing against the skin there, teeth jutting out from a mouth that cannot close. She is fetal, Gollum-like, and I can't help thinking that she might disappear into nothing. The monster she once was is, at least outwardly, quiet.
She reaches her hand to me, and I draw a breath. The divisions of her arm bones, the radius and the ulna, make a deep channel, the fingers at the end like claws. Her mouth trembles, eyes fluttering.
"Do you know who this is?" Ceecee asks, in a voice that is loud.
The skeleton that is Henrietta nods yes, ever so slightly.
"It's Rosa," Ceecee says anyway.
The skeleton grips my hand. I want to be mad at her, but it is something else that crosses my mind, a lot of something elses: pity, fear, guilt. I clear my throat and say something I haven't said in years.
"Hi, Nanny," I say, "Hi, Nanny."