Upon returning from Grandma and Grandpa’s I marvel at the five-pound block of frozen Pennsylvania-Dutch bacon, and half a carrot-cake-log in my freezer. Sit on the couch and recollect, look at all Grandma sent me home with. A red-flannel zip-up nightie taken from her closet, so she’ll always be near me, bundled in a plastic bag by my empty carry-on. Six antique books now on my coffee table pulled from the shadows of my grandparents’ attic, including two nineteenth-century dime novels with browned pages, curled edges. An early reading book circa late 1800s—with a hard chocolate cover—two girls smiling in front of a fireplace. And an archaic cookbook, green with gold leaf cursive lettering. I had been excited to take them, take as many as you like, Grandma said, in the dim-lit attic, the two windows, black bookends. I was excited to bring home these heirlooms, books that had been in my family for generations. But now they tower, stacked and worn on the table next to the bookshelf—even next to the six-volume antique poetry collection Alan bought me, and my 19th century dictionary—Grandma’s books dominate, pull me back to the corner of the room.
I am here.
I burn sage and light a candle. Let the stray black cat in through the back window. On the floor next to the coffee table, the bag of antique glasses, these were given to my parents by their parents on their wedding day, Grandma says, pulling eight aperitif glasses, crystalized in variable designs, from the dark chest in the far corner of the stone basement. I know you value history, honey, she says, her arm tight around my waist. Grandma Toomey is eighty-years old and still has a supernaturally strong grip. Lines etch every surface of her face. Her eyes are lizard green and lit-up, take what you want, she says, I’m happy you want something to remember us by—two old people, in this big old house. The stone basement is damp, a single bulb swings at the foot of the wooden steps. Thanks so much for coming to visit, she says. Then she tells me about the house; how five generations of my family were born and died here. I already know this, was told by my father and aunt on separate occasions about funeral services held in the piano room. See this, she says. 1900 inscribed and circled in the concrete wall facing the stairs. Your grandfather’s grandfather did this when he finished building this basement. She points to a large wooden box draped with a white tablecloth, pulls me near to it. This used to be the potato barrel where we’d store potatoes during winter. She removes the white drape, reveals a mass of baskets, and picks one. Fills it with the crystal aperitif glasses. It’s such a shame your father and aunt have no time for us or this house. You’re so special, honey. Later that day, in the car driving back from the Amish market, driving across an enclosed Amish bridge, she says, I know your aunt is waiting for me to die.
I am here.
This is our apartment, in Miami Beach. Alan is working out of town this week; he left this morning.
The sun fingers through the blinds onto the black cat. The property management threatens to evict us for violating the No Pets policy. I attest I’ve stopped feeding them. Smuggle them in—black cat and white cat, feline felons—through the back door, the back window. Black cat is struck with rulers of light, streaks of auburn fur. I am here but the books recall the long attic. The fragrance of aged pages, loose sheet music—a mortuary of books. Downstairs, two antique Steinways, and an oiled portrait of a woman fallen in tawny grass, hair wild, face turned away, towards a house beyond the hill. Thinking of Grandma, travelling to the house in my mind, pricks my skin, alerts memories—creaking stairs ascend to the attic, descend to the basement; the stairs are transitionary. I have dreams about this house, it changes each dream, but it is always this house. In the dream, the house is inescapable, mercurial, and I’m stuck in the undercurrents. The smell of mothballs clings to the clothes in the dirty laundry basket. The crystal-glasses stay newspaper-wrapped and bagged—by the door as I’d left them, bathed in window light. The Miami sun strengthens its hold on the day.
I am here.
I agreed to visit my grandparents in Mount Wolf, P.A after listening to my grandmother—Mary Agnes—or as my father and aunt call her,Mary Agony—wail down the phone. I put her on speakerphone. I want Alan to hear how unnatural she is but wonder if he thinks me cold-hearted for avoiding her calls for months at a time. We’ll die before anyone comes to see us. Why does nobody love us? We’re still here. We are here. She cries and rants for forty-five minutes. Finally, Alan concedes, mouths—let’s go visit her. I’ll go with you. It can’t be that bad. I’ve been with my lover for five years and have avoided introducing him to my grandmother. I hadn’t been up to visit for five years.
We are there for two nights—one full day.
Grandma is delighted Alan and I are here for her 80th musical tea-party. She snips three pale pink peonies and tells me the bush was planted in 1850 by her great grandmother. She places the peonies on a carrot-cake-log with an infantile joy—the peonies match the peony-patterned frosting. Soon, her friends from the Unitarian church will arrive—tens of older women, and we will gather in the back room to sing around the grand pianos, read poems, share stories, in her honor. But now Alan and I follow her down the dark narrow stairway to the basement, to grab crockery and plates for the party.
“Whoa. What’s that?” asks Alan. Alan is an archeologist. I warned him my grandparents are kooky, the house is creepy, but he was excited to see it. Intrigued. This is what he came for—to investigate the house, to see if the stories he heard from my dad and aunt are true. Above the stairs that lead to the basement, at eye level, is a small and paneled square door set into the thick white wall.
“Oh, that’s where my parents used to—Grandma cuts off her sentence, spins around and starts again, climbing the stairs towards us. “That’s where my parents put me during storms.” She cracks the door open and Alan leans forward, glimpsing darkness.
“Does it lead anywhere? Or is it just a cubby hole?” he asks.
“Just a cubby hole,” she replies, grabs his bicep and pulls him away, drawing his attention to the vast stone basement.
I am here. I am alone. But I do not feel alone. I feel the history of the house.
I go to the freezer and unwrap a portion of the peony-log and carve a small section for myself. Black cat follows. I return to the coffee table and stare at the books. White cat follows. The icing is thick as gravel; granules of sugar crunch and roll in my teeth. I pick up the bag with the aperitif glasses in it and one-by-one begin to unwrap them from the newspaper.
How could I have known, five years ago, that I would be too scared to ever return alone?
Grandma likes to stay up late so we can have our “special chats.” Despite her age, she’ll host democratic-fundraiser-parties and is devoted to grassroots activism. She is tireless and tells me all about Tom Wolf, who is running for senator, how she’s known him since he was child. We’re sitting in the library extension, the windows black mirrors tossing back our reflection. Outside lies her herb garden, an eroded limestone cherub spits water into a small lily-pond, grandpa’s garden, and the corn fields beyond. She’s telling me about the vegetables Grandpa is growing, how she will cook, can, and freeze their harvest of tomatoes, kale, beets, and radishes, store everything in the basement. Fresh veggies all winter she boasts, as her mother and father’s mother did in this very house. Her hands, clawed with age rest like ravens’ claws on the armchair. They are never going to die, I hear my father’s drunk voice in my head, her and the roaches will survive the apocalypse. I think of him as she talks politics and liberal values. He only talks of her freely when he’s drunk. As a child, he feared sleep, scared to death a witch would get him in the night. I look for traces of witch in her green eyes. I only have to grunt or agree. I know better than to open the arena to her questions; what do you want from life? Who did you love most? What makes a life meaningful? But now she is telling me about my ancestry, her mother, Myrtle, and Myrtle’s husband Bert, who was an alcoholic and a smoker and died early, very selfish. He was a nasty drunk. You don’t drink, do you? She talks, and I wonder how she does it, all those words in one breath. Addiction runs in the family you know, your father and aunt—both, alcoholics. Where did I go wrong? What did I do? I remember Dad telling me how kind Myrtle was, how she used to cry for him and my aunt, hang her head in her hands and sob, Mary should never have had children. The small clock above her head reads 1:40 am. She’s sitting in her white chair with her feet up on a cushioned footstool, in her flannel-red nightdress, big red zipper up the front. She fixes her eyes on me. I love you so much, honey. We have the best chats.
An ominous crash—a long and clustered syllable—shudders the room.
Grandma springs from her chair, and I follow her from the living room into the dark kitchen, turning on the lights behind her as she inspects the laundry room and bathroom extension, kitchen. Grandpa appears, putting in his hearing aid, a sparsity of silver hairs stands up from his bald head, ghosting the air above him. What was that, dear? He is monotone, but his nervous tremor betrays him. I’m quick to answer, I have no idea, we were just talking. Did it come from outside? I contemplate the black mirrors. Grandma investigates the piano room, the dining room with the long wooden table and chairs I can’t imagine anyone ever sits in. She walks to the basement door and it moans as she pushes it open, steps down into the darkness. Grandpa follows and so I follow in tow. Grandma pulls the light-string at the bottom of the stairs. I descend into the cold air.
In the far corner of the basement, about ten feet away from the mouth of the stairwell where we stand, a large metal storage unit, with tall, wide shelves had uprooted and crashed forward, smashing and splattering all its contents—grandma’s kitchenware from when she had her catering company; pots and pans lay where they’d fallen; three Le Creusset baking dishes had erupted to shards; mixing bowls fragmented, and crockery splayed; an assortment of plates, teapots, glasses—obliterated across the concrete floor. Glass and porcelain catapulted and strewn like landmines at my feet. Grampa warns we stay at the foot of the stairs while he inspects, tottering forward with a flashlight to the base of the toppled structure. Odd, he says, I thought I drilled the bottom of that into the floor. Grandma wanders forward, glass snaps beneath her slippers. We’ll have to see when Travis can come and clean it up, she says. Her arms akimbo. Travis is the young neighbor who lives opposite, he’s my age. Don’t worry about it now honey, she says. Go up to bed.
An old pickling jar she gave Alan is perched on my cooker. It belonged to Myrtle. The jar shines in the sunlight. I stare at it. Feed black cat, again. And stare at it. This morning, Alan blew a flat tire, locked his keys in his truck, and we had our first argument in months—about the sincerity of my grandparents.
The tension in my womb spikes. I Skype my friend in London and talk to her about my gregarious grandparents, how I felt entranced, happy to enjoy their company—I tried to articulate the shadowed feeling, the dark current beneath it all—ghost feeling, the family folklore of witches and warlocks, the façade and what lies beneath. My friend tells me of a shaman she met once who told her of the potency of menstrual blood. She’s just had a hysterectomy, and never had children. I just bled for the last time, she says. But you could still use yours—why not? We laugh at the absurdity of the cleansing ritual. I imagine the property manager, my neighbors—an old lady opposite and the young bachelor next door, catching me in the act as I pour period-pee in the dry dirt around the apartment, and then the complex. As soon as we hang up, I capture my blood in grandma’s jar, to cleanse, I think. Crack sea-salt in the jar and whirl and watch salt granules sink like snow through the red and purpled mixture. I mark the apartment unseen, bloodstain the perimeters. White cat follows me in through the back door. Black cat greets us with a meow. I’ve never peed menstrual blood into a jar before. And I don’t know why I cracked the salt seven times, it felt natural. The right thing to do. Place the antique books that shadowed the room in a burlap bag and leave it outside, under the wooden chairs until rain ruins them and finally, upon returning from his trip, Alan tosses them in the dumpster. Keep the crystal aperitif glasses in the back of the closet. Burn sage. Light a candle.
I am here.