By JoAnna Novak
My grandma and I are meeting at a nudist colony in the afterlife. The sun is scorching, the beaches are sandy, the waves are plashing, we’re naked.
Not a stitch—that’s something other grandmas might say: not mine.
“Look for the lady with one boob,” says my grandma. This is our plan: her mastectomy scars will help me find her once we’re both dead and reborn.
Before this conversation, I didn’t know she believed in reincarnation. Or rather, I hadn’t known what she believed for herself. Though she still spoke to my deceased grandfather (he’d encouraged her to renew her driver’s license), I didn’t know my grandma considered where she would go—let alone where she wanted to go—once she was gone.
“One boob,” I say. There’s nothing to do but to laugh. To lop off the conversation. Before I was born, lopping was what doctors had prescribed for my grandma’s cancer. Mother, are you decent? my mom would shout when we visited my grandma, who wore yellowed undershirts that my grandfather had fatigued. It wasn’t until I was an anorexic teenager, committed to bandeau bras for flattening my own meager bust, that I noticed the sagging emptiness on my grandmother’s chest.
“Well, I’ll be the girl looking at people’s breasts.”
“No left, Joey,” says my grandma. “I got rid of the left.”
I don’t mean to eulogize my grandma. She’s alive; we talk weekly. But I’m afraid. In April, she became my last grandparent, and her survival stands as undeniable proof that one day she won’t be a telephone call away—that I, too, am getting old.
Her phone number is the last I know by heart: I learned it twenty-five years ago. Unlike my height, weight, or favorite food, it’s never changed. I can still remember being four and chanting that number to the tune of “The Mickey Mouse Club” theme. I can remember learning that the same number could be reached by dialing Memory One.
Memory: a button on a cornflower blue phone, mounted on a wall papered with bonneted geese, near a shadowy watercolor of chickens pecking for feed. I’m five in this kitchen: on nights the power went out, my parents lit a kerosene lamp with a droopy cartoon hound on the hurricane, and I sat at the table, eating ice cream.
Now I press the Home Button on my iPhone, and speak: “Call Grandma.”
I’m on Interstate 91 in Massachusetts, 908.09 miles away from her kitchen. I can hear it, Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, and I can smell it, crisp bacon and the acridity of a sponge-bathed body, and I can see it, my grandma’s table: yellow butter softening on a chipped china saucer; dinner rolls, smothered in plastic, leftover from Bingo; brown calico placemats, grainy with salt and pepper; phone numbers and bank accounts Sharpied on envelopes; back issues of Women’s Day, recipes snipped and paperclipped for me; a 4″ x 6″ of my grandpa, smiling, IV pole in the background.
I can picture the entire room. What will happen when, one day, she doesn’t pick up? What will I forget first—her house or her voice?
The sun sets, exploding over the Holyoke Range, as I drive. I hold my breath as the phone rings and rings, knocking my heart around my throat. And then, my grandma answers.
Before she speaks, I know how her hello will sound. The inflection is as familiar as pulling socks onto my feet. Where will those sounds go? Where will our memories reside when we die?
“What are you up to?” I say.
“Close your eyes and tell me what you see,” my grandma says.
I picture my grandma’s wink, and I know my lines—haha, nothing—but they take a moment. I am grateful to hear her, to know her words transport me back to her, to her house—Pat Sajak gabbing on Wheel of Fortune; alley traffic; on the carport, wind chimes ringing above a yellow banana chair cracked with dust.
Here is the cuckoo clock, brown gabled and white trimmed, watching the years count down by meals I’ve eaten in my grandma’s kitchen: Orange pekoe tea and white sugar cubes. Saltines and that soft yellow butter. Fried chicken and hush puppies dusted with powdered sugar, vinegar coleslaw and stewed apples. Potato kluski fried in bacon. A jar of Peter Pan peanut butter. A tarnished spoon. A leftover piece of Greek toast. Crumbs of crumbs.
Today, almond croissants and salted caramel cupcakes I bring from patisseries.
A small McDonald’s coffee—from the one on Harlem, not Ogden.
Hulking in the past, a hearty Bohemian meal: pork, dumplings, and sauerkraut—ordered and consumed in one muttery breath. Muttery, mothery: my grandparents were my godparents; my grandma, always mothering me.
She told me toast crusts would curl my hair—and then told me that was an old wives tale; what I needed to know was one hundred times—that’s how many strokes she brushed, every night, with a soft bristles, like Jackie Kennedy. She told me my husband needn’t know everything about me—and she told me that was something she couldn’t tell my mother.
There was a lot she couldn’t tell my mother.
My grandma, unlike my mother, demurs in person and slanders in private.
What does my grandma say about me?
Joey, her food thing, according to my mother.
“What are you having for dinner, Joey?” my grandma asks. “Kale?”
Between the two of us, my grandma says. She likes conspiracies. She likes aligning us, the way when I visit her and we go out for breakfast, she says: “Joey, we’re not big eaters.” She likes that we’re bonded together, that I’m the oldest grandchild, the one who sat beside her in my grandfather’s truck, sharing roasted peanuts, fidgeting with the beaded mahogany-and-mustard seat covers, mornings when my grandparents drove me to school in second grade when I was afraid to ride the bus. I was fat. Mean to other children, who didn’t like me to begin with. And why would they? I was a know-it-all—who professed to prefer adult company. I was a tattletale, a reader, and a weirdly reverential eater: my second-grade diary is devoted solely to English toffee cookies.
Now I realize I learned some of this particular criticalness from my grandma: she would drive two hours to buy eggs from a particular woman’s—Peggy’s—farm; she would slander the kolacky of every Bohemian restaurant in town.
Still I am ashamed of the ways I am not my grandma. I do not keep secrets and, though I am not a big eater, I am not frugal with food. For decades, I have made anorexia, purging anorexia, an epic show of denial: how much could I withhold from my body? How showily could I starve? I could reject my grandma’s kluski at dwindling family dinners or purge caviar; I could run twelve miles on a fasting stomach or eat only the “white chocolate” coating on Peppermint Stick Luna Bars. I could dispose of candy corn by garbage disposal or by wrenching it from my gut with two fingers.
My grandma remembers when movies cost five cents—and how, when she was twelve, she skipped the flick and used the nickel to weigh herself at a pharmacy. My grandma remembers wrapping meat in newspaper and throwing the parcel into the basement for the family cur. My grandma remembers the first outfit she bought from a store—a maroon skirt, a pink blouse—in sixth grade.
What my grandma tells me, I try to record. I want to keep her, her past, her nude beach dreams. There is this benefit of purging less: my brain has energy. Now I am the one who remembers: Until sixth grade, my grandma’s mother sewed her wardrobe; after high school, my grandma modeled for a photographer boyfriend. I have pictures: Harriett “Pin-Up Kid” Hanek, long legs tucked underneath her as she sits mermaid style on a rock, in a high-waist bikini.
Today my grandma is tired of clothes. She’s 95; can I blame her? Arthritis erodes her right shoulder. She hobbles, she stoops. With Chicago’s heat and her cranky carriage, she fantasizes about the nudist colony, where she wouldn’t have to argue her arms into a flowery blouse.
“What’m I getting dressed for?” my grandma says. “Lunch? At Bingo?”
(She never takes the meat.)
“Be comfortable. You’re just eating.”
“See so. That’s what I say. Let them talk. What do I have to show off for?”
“Nothing. I mean, no one. I wear shorts in summer.”
I am like my grandma: I could never tell her that her shabby closet and corroded body have driven me to spend, sweat, starve, to stave away what’s coming. And I could never tell her that my mother attributes that shabby closet to the radical mastectomy. For what? I can’t tell her that I’m terrified of winding up like her—in gray rubber shoes and poly slacks and a fleecy Chicago Bears sweatshirt, approaching death, or at least obliged to feed a body I no longer know.
Maybe age will reason me. My grandma, despite her wardrobe, is beautiful. Her hair is downy and argent, like ice cresting on a lake. Her ears are delicate, her nose triumphant, her mouth full. Her hands are big, knuckly, and knit with veins.
Once, before my wedding, she handed me a pair of tweezers and asked me to pluck the hairs from her chin.
Once, she led me to the bathroom, where I ignored the stacks of newspapers in the tub. The room smelled like urine and Yardley lavender. She asked me to help her put her earrings in.
They were hoops, the size of quarters, the gold filigreed. Her skin was tender and soft as I struggled with the clasp.
At a nudist colony, my grandma wouldn’t have to think about what sweater would go on easiest and best combat the air conditioning at Bingo.
It was so cold in Chicago last night that my grandma moved two potted plants—tomato starts—from the kitchen window sill to the warmer bathroom, where the steam heater sings. In the morning, the tomatoes were perked up, and my grandmother waited for the municipal bus. She stood under the carport, at her walker, more than an hour, waiting for that goddamn bus.
“Next time, I’m driving,” my grandma says. I wish I could be there with her, that I could take the wheel. I would leave Bingo for another day. I would get us McDonald’s coffees, pastries we could testily taste, and zoom us onto the interstate. I would roll down the windows and let the air, thick with Argo cornstarch from the Summit plant, muss our hair. We both still have nice hair, somehow. I would drive my grandma downtown, past her old house and the old streetcar stables and the old Campbell Soup factory that once sold her father stumpy tomato plants, to Oak Street Beach, where we could spread out a towel and strip and blouselessly arrive at the nudist colony, the place where our spirits will convene, denuded, stitchless, on an endless tract of sand, surrounded by scarred, naked women.
JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her debut novel, I MUST HAVE YOU, will be published in 2017.