By Nancy Kay Brown
An animated handful of freshly prepared organic oats, flew across the room splattering every gleaming surface of our newly remodeled kitchen. “No-o-o-o-o-o,” Liza, our twenty-month old granddaughter growled, flinging another scoop of the cinnamon scented stuff that used to be food across the room where it landed on the glass door of my commercial grade stove. A gob of gelled goo whizzed past sliding down the stainless refrigerator. She cocked her arm and slung another that momentarily clung to my eyebrow, slid down my cheek and dropped to my shirtfront. As if summoning a wild rumpus to action, she shrieked a penetrating call. I’d simply asked if she was ready for a bath. Apparently, she wasn’t.
Liza had worked to break me from the day I had taken her and her older brother from my son and his pill popping, toenail painting, Jerry Springer watching wife. I’d removed them from the rain-sodden tent where Liza had learned to walk on mushrooms sprouting from the soggy carpet, where a family of wood rats had built their nest in her diaper bag, where I’d discovered her four-year old brother poking cigarettes and tampon tubes into the woodstove—because someone had to stoke the fire.
Now here I was at 5:30 a.m., a gob of cereal in my eye. After awakening a half hour earlier, changing Liza’s diaper, I’d pushed her up to a small-scaled table in her little red chair. Each day began that way–before the sun rose, before the birdies awakened, while Grandpa and brother slept soundly in the other room–I stirred yogurt into her bowl, the tart sweet scent of granny smith apples and cinnamon steaming my face, she’d sprinkle the wooden table with juice, dragging a finger through it, as if waiting for a pattern to emerge.
Liza growled, “Not mommy.” I slammed my half empty cup on the counter. Right. I wasn’t Mommy. I was a bad grandma, who’d gotten stuck raising a sloppy little girl whose mommy couldn’t stand her, whose mommy could barely stand up most days. None of us wanted it to happen.
“You can’t do this to me,” I may have called out as I cupped a glob of the lumpy gel and flung it at her head. Her face emptied, she reached for the mass plastered on her neck, eyelids retracted, lips peeled back and screeched like a wildcat. Arching her back, she fell backwards with a crash, red chair on its side, pedaling her feet, circling arms as if drowning on my locally milled, wide-planked floor. She knocked her head and thwacked her bony elbows, knees rubbing and sliding. Her eyes grew bigger than the sockets that held them. I didn’t stop. Scooping up a second handful of oatmeal I hurled it at her. Oatmeal dangled in her snarled hair.
Her shrieks grew louder then enormous. She gnashed her terrible teeth, roared her terrible roars. Emptying my tea, I filled my cup with chilly water from the tap and tipped it over her head. Streaming down her face, it slid into puddles around her.
She studied me. I studied me, too, twisting my hands to see each side. Who the hell had I become? Assaulting a baby? The baby I’d intended to save. Even Liza’s incapable mother would not have done such a thing. Oh, the racket, the mess. I longed to be down on the floor, my cheek pressed flat, the water pouring over me, dripping down on the floor, my cheek pressed flat, the water pouring over me, dripping down my shoulders and off my chin; melting away the heat. I whispered to her, “Stop,” and bent low up against her face, “Just stop. ” Then a lot louder, nose-to-nose, “STOP.”
At that, she roiled her forked tail, flipped over, slithered in a slurry of water and oats then stilled. I splashed a shot of whiskey into my cup and gulped it down. If someone they’d spied a crying wet baby on my nasty floor, me sipping something like tea, two of us embattled—toddler-to- toddler–they’d be wrong. Wrong about the tea.
I’d planned to be the kind of grandma that asked the children which exhibit they wanted to see at the local museum. We’d have made a habit of stopping for tea smelling of vanilla, flowers and mint, go by the bookstore and each choose a new book and read them to one another on the way home. I would be the sleep over grandma, extending my invitation to one friend each, teaching them all to cook, to use real tools, to build and supervise their own campfires. Rolling up in our sleeping bags, we’d talk into the night under the stars. After our visits I’d need a well-deserved rest, sending them back home to families that fed them, drew their baths and listened to their stories; families that treasured them and treasured me, the favorite grandma.
Instead at age sixty, I’d fought for custody of two little hellions, then being awarded them, as if that’s what it was, I’d sprouted horns, scaly skin and claws. Along with 2.5 million other grandparents, my husband and I found ourselves raising our children’s children. At first I’d clung to the idea that one day their parents would show up and take care of her after all. It didn’t happen. I was stuck. So was she. Who was I kidding? I’d brought it on myself. They were my son’s children and who was his mother? Me. When he got hard to deal with, (When wasn’t he?) I’d taken on more work. It took courage to face a child everyday. So I didn’t. I was spineless. Now it was his turn to snub his children. The cycle had to stop.
I peeled off Liza’s pajamas and released her into the tub. A simmer of thick clear water, the sticky residue of oats and milk fat floated to the surface. Her scream diminished, like the tottering spin of a top. My wobbly reflection glared at me in the window. The warmth of cinnamon-spiced steam made it almost seem pleasant, a grandmother and a small child captured in a moment. Had I no compassion for a little girl who’d lost her mother? A toddler who’d lost both parents and found herself with someone who would never be her mommy. Slipping underwater, her rubbery knees squealed against the sides of the tub. When a gulp of water slapped to the floor, I drew up her arm to make room and slipped in next to her, fully clothed, pulling her fishy body against mine. Shivering against me, she squirmed. I leaned forward and turned on a warm stream of water. We’d be there awhile.
As she squirmed above me flailing and kicking, Liza hit the soap dish and an instant welt appeared on her cheek, another on her head. Scrambling to manage her thrashing limbs, my knee rammed the faucet and drew blood. Battle scars. She twisted around pinching the fleshy meat of my arm like a snapping crab. I put her in a safety hold. How would I ever tame this child? Teach her to brush her teeth? Use the toilet on her own? Tie her shoes? My nose settled into her tangled hot hair. Dragging her finger along the ring of scum that gathered at the water’s edge, Liza put it to her lips and tasted it. I inhaled the fragrant steam of her scalp, smelled our shampoo, herbal and girlie.
Could I, the old sodden goat lying in that chilly tub of water, dare to think I could save Liza and her brother? What made me think I could change the course of two lives? Of six lives counting us all?
Liza twisted away. My lips skimmed her forehead. I was “not Mommy,” not the one that had birthed her, enfolded her for days at a time in a shared room in her other grandma’s doublewide on the snowy plains of Montana. Nor was I the mommy in the tent, inches away, gazing, nursing then awakening as if nothing else in the world existed. Back when there was no me. Then I was all there was. The one who’d only moments before wanted to send her slippery pink body, off with the gray-water, oatmeal-free and dried, down the drain where it emptied into the forest with the wild animals, where she’d have tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.
“Me do it,” she whispered, pointing at the knob. I exhaled as if my breath was a word in the only language we had left, studied the pipes under the sink wrapped with thermal insulation and the wall below painted the same blue green as my mother’s laundry porch–the undersides of leaves, mint, light wind. My waterlogged clothes fastened me to the tub with the weight of her, still and quiet, dropping as I exhaled then lifting again. Both of us knew that I was all she had.
She pulled from my lap to her knees, tight buttocks, muscled arms, grasping two-handed, knuckles white with the effort, one shoulder to her ear. I sat forward, wrapped my hands over hers and with a slurp and sniff of the flow, it stopped. “Off,” she whispered in a ripple of sound as she lay back and floated free. The black of her eyes spilled into the blue like her mother’s, the jaw line framing her dimpled cheeks, was my son’s. Liza, not yet two, still so small, couldn’t be blamed for any of it. There was no one else, only me, her small shoulders in my hands and hot tears streaming.
Liza lifted a palm of water that trickled through her fingers as delicate as breeze. Patting the water flat handed, slapping lightly she bent to break the surface with her lips, to hum a vibrating underwater melody. So effortlessly she’d returned to play.
Stepping out of the tub, I knotted a towel around myself and gazed at her delicate pink feet paddling. We would be here for a while.
Nancy Kay Brown is a retired Child Development Instructor. Oatmeal Tantrum is a selection from her memoir Grand Mommy. Her short story Burn Pile was published in Fishing for Chickens. Nancy blogs at Letters To Montana.