The back bedroom is really a sleeping porch with a wall of windows and a door that opens into the back yard. For as long as I can remember, I considered it my sanctuary. Now, as I walk through the dining room and down the short hall, I don’t feel frantic anymore. Fortunately, the years have not changed it much. The three windows are still covered with sheer white curtains and the double day bed is still draped with one of Ganzie’s handmade quilts. The scratches on the antique mirrored dresser are still concealed by a large hand-crocheted doily.
The room is filled with so much peace, I can almost reach out and touch it. I sit on the bed and don’t move for a long time soaking in the warmth. Then I get up and go to one of the windows and draw the curtain aside. The lawn is unexpectedly neat, showing signs of a recent mowing and weeding. Many a morning, I escaped through the door to play on that cool green grass. Most times Lily Dixon from next door joined me and with our legs tucked beneath us, we sat on the damp carpet not even noticing the grass stains building on our legs. We showed off our dolls while searching for four leaf clovers among the blades of grass, tasting the pungent wisps of mustard seeds or biting into the sharp rods of rhubarb that grew on the edge of the back yard.
Ganzie also had an apple tree, a grape vine and a small strawberry patch. Lily and I picked and ate the fresh fruit without giving a second thought to dirt or germs. We didn’t talk much about our separate lives. I kept my troubles to myself and Lily was quiet about the life she led when we were not together. Instead, we laughed, told stories of school and favorite subjects and far away dreams. It was a simple bond derived simply from the pleasure of being in each other’s company.
Once Lily told me I was lucky to have a grandmother to travel to visit. Her grandmother lived with them and she had never known what it was like to take a bus trip to do anything, let alone visit a grandmother. Now she is off in New York being a successful writer and has probably traveled everywhere. We haven’t shared a laugh for more than 20 years.
The summer I was ten I arrived in Sedalia with my arms wrapped around Jessie, my cheeks stuffed with anger and resentment vowing never to leave. The reason was simple: Mama had issued a command that I refused to obey. When she insisted on compliance, I replied, “you can’t tell me what to do,” standing my ground with great defiance. Then she slapped me, striking hard and quick in a fit of temper. Worse, she struck with the flat side of a plastic fly swatter, adding insult to injury.
The wound went deeper than the sting of the swatter and I made an instant decision to leave, calling Ganzie with tears stumbling my speech to describe my getaway plan. I would wait until morning, pack a lunch and then catch the 8 o’clock bus to Sedalia and I was never coming back.
“Let me talk to your mother,” she said and I reluctantly handed the receiver to the angry woman at my side.
“I can’t handle that child,” Alma yelled into the phone so loud it made me jump. “She is headstrong and willful and has no respect for me.”
“I’d say headstrong and willful runs in her blood.”
“She told me I can’t tell her what to do,” Alma shouted, causing Ganzie to move the receiver away from her ear.
“Calm down, Alma. You’ve lost control of yourself.”
“Mama, I will not let her talk to me that way.”
“Look, I’m too far away to solve this. Put her on the bus. Some time and distance may help the situation. But let me tell you one thing, you have no business hitting that child with a fly swatter to make your point. You were raised better than that.”
“Mama, you don’t understand.”
“I understand all I need to understand and if something like this ever happens again, Neely won’t have to come running to me. I’ll come up there and get her myself.”
In my heart of hearts, I smirked, so pleased to hear Mama getting a scolding from her Mama. That was the way she talked to me and she deserved a dose of her own medicine.
Ganzie met me at the bus station and caught the steel scowl I had worn all the way from Iowa to Missouri. This wouldn’t be an easy time, not like all the other times I came to Sedalia to visit. Those times were carefree when I would bounce off the bus gleefully and spend a few days or weeks having Ganzie brighten my world. This time there was no glee, no bounce and the light was dim.
Later, on the sleeping porch, Ganzie tried to console me. Hugging me warmly, she tried to make it all better.
“What’s wrong, my child,” she asked between hugs.
“She hates me,” I sobbed.
“Your Mama does not hate you. She’s not always easy to understand, but I can tell you she doesn’t hate you.”
“She slapped me with a fly swatter!”
“And what did you do?”
“Well…” I hated to admit my contribution to the fight. “I kinda sassed her.”
“Shame on you. You must never show disrespect to your mother.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, then added mournfully, “Do I have to go back?”
“Yes, you have to go back, Sweetheart. But I’ll tell you what—you can stay for a few days and we’ll make a new dress for Jessie.”
Ganzie held Jessie up to the light and gave her a once over. The beige fabric skin left over from a quilting project and the black yarn braids, remnants from an afghan crocheted years before I was born, were all showing signs of too many hugs and too many tears. The yarn hair was fraying, the hand-stitched seams were coming apart and the hand-painted eyes and mouth were fading.
“She looks pretty good for her age,” Ganzie laughed. “But maybe she needs more than a new dress.”
Over the next few days, she gave Jessie a new life as she mended the seams, re-painted facial features and re-braided hair. Out of a few scraps of nothing, she created a beautiful new dress complete with matching slippers.
“What do you think?” she chuckled.
I didn’t smile but I felt better. Just having Ganzie be the one in charge of things had improved the situation.
“Things will feel better with some pie in your tummy, don’t you think?”
Soon she had me eating her peach cobbler and laughing and my upside down world was righted once again.
I look out over the back yard and remember a lifetime of Ganzie setting everything right again but now perhaps the tables are turned. Maybe, this time, Ganzie needs me.
On the way back to the living room, I stop in the kitchen to check the refrigerator. It’s nearly empty. Only a few slices of a loaf of bread, some margarine on a glass dish, some jam in a half-full jar, a few eggs and some orange juice in a carton. I’m not surprised because Ganzie is so thin, like she doesn’t eat much at all. In the past the refrigerator would have been stuffed with leftover roast chicken and dressing, a half-eaten cherry pie, potato salad, bologna, cheese, dinner rolls and there would have been ice cream in the small freezer compartment. There would have been enough to eat for several days without ever leaving the house. Now as I look at the meager rations and consider Ganzie’s frailness, I know something is terribly wrong.
Ganzie is waiting for me on the living room couch, her face uplifted and full of smiles. I sit next to her, take both her hands into mine and kiss her on the forehead. Then I say firmly, “I want to know how you’ve been, Ganzie, and I want the truth.”
“You worry too much about nothing,” she replies simply.
“But, Ganzie, you have no food in the refrigerator.”
“If I keep too much food around, it just goes to waste.”
“You have to eat to stay strong.”
“I don’t have a big appetite anymore.”
“Well, you must eat. What do you want for supper?”
“Get whatever it is you want, honey. Don’t try to figure out anything for me.”
“Chicken? You used to love chicken.”
“That sounds good,” Ganzie says with no enthusiasm.
“Good. I’ll pick up some chicken and tomorrow we can go to the market together and get things you’d like to have.”
“That’d be fine, that’d be fine.”
“Do you want Original or Extra Crispy?”
“You decide, you decide.”
The more tired I get, the more I repeat myself and tonight I’m exhausted. Each day my energy dwindles and each day I struggle to hang on a little longer. In spite of all my trials and tribulations, life has been good to me and I hate to leave it. But the doctor said it won’t be long now and I am preparing myself to die in peace. It’s hard to go from the known to the unknown but my faith in God gives me comfort as I face the inevitable.
I look at my beloved granddaughter and know I should tell her about the tumor on my lung but I can’t find the words. Neely will be so upset and frightened that we’ll never get to the things she needs to talk about. And I know she needs to talk. There’s no way her tear-swollen eyes landed on my front porch by accident. Over the years she’s been closer to me than my own daughter and I can always tell when things are going well for her and when she’s in trouble. For sure, this is a time of trouble. The bruise on her cheek tells me something bad has happened between her and Roland. I haven’t seen her for three years and even her phone calls have been infrequent and brief. And suddenly she’s here. I know something is terribly wrong. And I know she’s come for my help.
No, I will keep my secret for as long as I can and give her time to tell me what’s going on.
But tell her I must because I know so much about the harm that secrets cause. Most of my trials and tribulations were because of secrets, those of others, especially my Charles who for a time, lived a double life and managed to keep me totally in the dark. And then there were my own secrets, ones I kept from him and ones I buried in my life as if they would never resurrect and hurt anyone.
But secrets never die. They lie in the subterranean cavities of the soul and wait for the day you’re at a low tide and then they pounce. In the meantime, they touch your life and every life you touch with their malignancy. But a secret revealed is a secret that no longer has the power to do any harm. That’s why I must tell Neely the truth before it’s too late.