Author's Note: This composition was part of an assignment for imagery in a recent creative writing class. I have since tuned it as much as I'm willing, and now I present to you a bit of my time with my grandmother, Mary F. Walker - Church Deacon, Farmer's Wife, Restaurateur, Writer, English Teacher, World Traveler, and - as I found out later in life - Alcoholic. All of these things came together into the beautiful person that my grandmother was, the person I longed to be. Enjoy!
My bent key finally wiggled into the rusted-out lock on the freshly-painted garage door. With a scrape-click and hard shove, the door snapped to the top. It had been years since the automatic opener quit lifting the door; perpetual disuse and permanently locked doors allowed for dust and cobweb growth that rendered the mechanism useless. After a little bit of struggle, I was finally inside.
My grandparents’ garage was always a mystery to me, and I had been in it only a handful of times. It was located, as garages were in the 1950s, at the far end of the house from where the formal guests entered in the Front Room, at the side of the house as I knew it. The front room stored furniture that was one spill away from plastic protection. There was a light-brick, gas fireplace; white armchairs and carpet; and a couch that managed to skirt sun damage for thirty years in a window-filled room, remaining that magnificent rust color that only a nineteen-seventies farmhouse could love.
The Front Room bled into the Dining Room, taking the white-shag carpeting with it. We knew better than to wear street shoes in here without using the doormat. If there was muck, the shoes stayed on the doormat. There was always muck, never on grandmother’s shoes.
The dining table sat eight or ten, depending on the presence of the leaf that was shaped not at all like a leaf. It was backed by a white dividing wall where she projected her 8mm films of tribes that refused pictures for fear of soul stealing. Behind the white wall, which doubled as a linen closet on the back side, were the Pink Guest Room, Blue Double-Twin Room, and the Master – serviced by one carpeted, blue-tubbed, Mary Kay-Stocked bathroom.
At a 90-degree turn from the dining room came the fabulously carpeted kitchen, complete with my favorite sink/window combination that only happens in Hollywood for good lighting. The window was a wrap-around corner glass over a giant goldenrod porcelain sink that overlooked the rose bushes in the yard, the worn gray street, and tree-stained neighborhood beyond.
Extending past the kitchen was the combination guest bath/laundry/coat closet/pantry, and the back-entry way. Passing between the entry’s Dutch Door/Child Gate was the Living Room. Or was it the Den? I can’t remember if it was here or there. If it was here, The Den held her Writing Nook, and there was for The Guests and The Christmas Tree. Here was blue-shag carpeting, and the inside entry to the garage I had been standing in, silently waiting.
As I squinted into the dark, I thought about how my grandmother was everything I had ever wanted to be: a petite blond English teacher, who traveled the globe and documented it on her cameras and in journals. Her book collection seemed like it would rival the Library of Congress, even as it existed their tiny, white L-shaped house. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to see her off, because she was on so many tubes to make her comfortable, and I was definitely un.
As much as I loved that kitchen, and maybe because we couldn’t play jacks anywhere but the pantry, the best part of the house was grandmother’s writing nook. In the corner of the blue-shag room, she sat stashed in the darkened corner, behind a closet that jutted awkwardly into the center of the room. The drapes were pulled tight, and the mahogany roll top desk came complete with a brass ashtray and whisky stash. The much-too-dim desk lamp barely illuminated the gently swirling smoke from her Virginia Slims. There was no mistaking the smell of aging books, cheap whisky, worn leather, and menthols – even at the Country Club.
At the back wall of the blue shag maybe den / writing nook were shelves filled books; treasured tomes on the top shelves, far out of reach of sticky crayon-holding fingers. I would sit on that sky-blue shag carpet, and just watch her work. She didn’t want much to do with her grandkids, and unless it was a church day, we mostly-never saw her. I was the oldest, so on days when the library bored me, I would bike by myself, the few blocks to their house. She wasn’t ever particularly unkind to us, she simply wasn’t interested. We were the side-effect of her having had her own children. I wanted to be her so badly.
When she wasn’t cooking, Deaconing, or at a ladies’ luncheon, she would be here, at her leather desk chair, writing…something. Occasionally, especially as she turned to heave her Electrolux Typewriter onto the desk, a breath of whisky stained leather would waft through the room. She’d type for an hour, then file and repaint her nails. Her pinkish-red nail polish flaked around the keys.
All of that came flooding back as the garage door snapped to the top. The single window at the back of the garage – flanked by more shelves full of books, boxes of books, gifts received and marked for giving, and that old Electrolux that had been put away for something newer – a computerized version – illuminated the musty, frigid garage like a modern-day Smaug’s lair.
It was organized chaos out there in the chilly shade, and the piles didn’t really make sense. I wondered for a while, as I ran my fingers over the spines, if these books had done something to fall out of favor, the way the typewriter had. I grabbed my sweater and wrapped my scarf around my neck. The cold breeze knocked me a little off balance, as I stood on the tips of my toes to reach the swinging light chain. Once my eyes adjusted to the dim garage, I sat down and began to sift through my grandmother’s heart.