A Bowl Full of Jelly
A few weeks before I began needlepointing, I was so miserable over the death of my paternal grandmother that my mother, while sorting through Grandma’s things, set aside for me a hand-embroidered handkerchief. I suppose she thought it would be a small security blanket to defend against the bad dreams. I didn’t call them nightmares. I would just leave the house for school in the morning and tell my mother, “She died again last night.”
Actually, Grandma was dead as each dream began, and save the time or place, the dreams were pretty much the same. We—my grandma and I—would be sitting in a living room. It might be my house, my aunt’s, or even my grandparents’ home. Everyone else in the room, extended family, would be having animated conversation. I’d stare at Grandma, and she’d return a smile but never any word. I knew she was dead, and she knew it too; but the point was to keep this from everyone else, so they wouldn’t be hurt. For them, her presence in the room was as naturally pleasing as it had always been.
After many nights of this, my dream self, on impulse, walked over to sit right next to Grandma on the couch. “Grandma,” I said, “you’re dead,” at which Grandma turned toward me, still speechless, and fell into white and gray ashes in my hands. One more night of my announcement—this time Grandma simply turned the same funny color she had been in her casket—and the dreams were over. Yet in my waking hours, she was with me, and I tried to conjure up those qualities that made me love her so much.
Since my father knew more about her than anyone else in the house, I thought the best thing to do would be to get him to tell me a bit about what Grandma was like before I knew her. He sat quietly alone in the family room, and as I approached him, I put my hand over his in sudden panic, thinking that despite his heavy presence, he seemed to be floating off into space. These last several days, he had been wandering around the house, seeking a place to sit alone, and turning a forty-five degree angle away from my mother whenever she stepped in to ask him a question. For months, he had been turning funny angles when speaking, and I couldn’t remember now how long it had been since I had seen his face directly. He looked down at my hand and then up at me.
“Tell me something about Grandma.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I mean something about when she was younger, something before I knew her.”
What followed was an incoherent story about how “Mom and Dad” had borrowed nine dollars and forty-five cents against a life insurance policy during the Depression, and that my father never knew this until now. I couldn’t imagine that anyone ever lent an amount smaller than ten dollars, but I stood silent as my father was wracked with convulsive sobs. I had never before seen my father cry, and all I could think was, “God, there’s snot running out of his nose; he needs a Kleenex.” As he cried, I turned and walked out of the room, hot with shame for not being able to get this thought out of my head.
Though my father was incapable of talking about his mother, he did understand what I wanted. The following weekend, the family packed into the car and headed for Lancaster, a Southern California desert community. We were going to look at the old ranch where Grandma and Grandpa had lost their shirts after the war. “It was their big dream to get back to the farm,” my father turned from the front seat to report. “They just couldn’t get enough water to irrigate.” I didn’t want to hurt my father again by asking why anyone would move to a desert without knowing where the water would come from.
The ranch was gone. “The house isn’t even there,” my father said. “The road to the house isn’t even there. You’d never know anything was here.” My mother pointed out that you could kind of see where the pond had been, but my father was already pulling back out onto the highway.
After this, I relied on my mother for stories, beautiful stories about the Depression and living in Arkansas with three babies (twins and one younger) under a year old, with no electricity or running water. This in itself seemed so heroic to me that I couldn’t imagine having to do anything so difficult in my own life.
Yet despite the stories of her hardworking nature, her sharp wit, and her ability to tell a fine story, all that would come back to me when I thought of my grandmother was a single incident, which occurred not long before her death. When sitting at the dim light of our kitchen table, she opened her mouth wide in laughter, baring her much decaying, gapped teeth; her tummy shook like Santa’s in “The Night Before Christmas.” I couldn’t remember the story she had just told that was making us all laugh, only that I saw her in that moment when, had she been someone else, she would have looked like a caricature to me; and yet there she was, teeth, tummy and all, breaking my heart with loving her. I needed to never separate myself from this woman and determined that we could continue to meet in dreams.
So I turned my attention to the handkerchief. It was blue and had handmade blue and white tatted lace around the edges with blue and white and pink roses embroidered in the corners. It was too pretty for use, and I imagine it sat a good many years in Grandma’s drawer. Each day I placed it in my drawer, and each night before sleep, I took it out, inhaled to evoke her presence. After a week, this, too, stopped working. The handkerchief smelled like my room, my drawers, my things.
This is when I decided to take up needlepoint. The Valle Seco Community College offered a continuing education night class up at the high school, and I attended twice weekly. I thought taking the course would be a good idea since in my regular high school art class, I was supposed to be making something with yarn. There I had time to work on my sampler while everyone else coiled short, varied-colored strands around jute in the hope of eventually coming up with a basket. Our teacher, Mr. Brown, stood over me every day. His rapid side-to-side nods and sudden up-jerking of his head made me think he would whinny at any moment. While I anticipated sound, I couldn’t work, and he would walk away, reminding me to come up with a finished product that he could grade.
My Tuesday and Thursday nights were different. Doubtless, they, too, were spiced with tedium as I sat in a room scattered with middle-aged women and learned new stitches until I had enough to complete a sampler. But I liked the ladies at my table, even though they all told me that the colors I’d chosen—yellow, orange, and red—weren’t going to work in a needlepoint. They could gossip so frankly, without the slightest hint of intrigue, that whatever they said seemed at once as honest and as harmless as the stories of their housekeeping or their cactus gardens. What they had to say to me never slowed my progress, and I was sure that when we had all finished, my sampler would have the same continuity of weave and color that my classmates were achieving.
The class always took twenty-minute breaks and ate delectables the women had brought from home. For any favorite, the recipe would be distributed to all at the following meeting as if it hadn’t belonged to anybody’s family in particular. Because of my age, I was excused from contributing. Nevertheless, I once thought to give it a try and pored through a recipe file that my mom had brought over from Grandma’s. My grandparents had owned a bakery during the war, so the recipes were useless to me. They had ingredients like twelve pounds of flour or fifteen tablespoons of baking powder.
At the close of each class, I walked home alone in the dark. Our city had no streetlights because, as neighbors old and new agreed, the country atmosphere should be preserved. In truth, Valle Seco was not in the country. I think it had conjured images of itself from commercials about living in the Heartland of California. Either that or the night, being the only thing left of the incipient town of one hundred years ago, was a tenuous thread to its past. As there are many Valle Secos in Southern California, no one thought much about what it had become.
Parts of Valle Seco were old by local standards. Thirty- to eighty-year-old single-story ranch homes still dotted most streets. The rest of the houses, built within the past few years, resembled New England Tudor or Georgian mansions. Our neighbors across the street bought an old home and the acre lot it sat on for several hundred thousand dollars. The first thing they did was bulldoze the house to the ground. They built a 4,500 square-foot Tudor-style with a four-car garage. None of the old neighbors minded because it made their property values go up.
Besides, the new house certainly wasn’t the largest around. The city required all property owners to have lots no smaller than half an acre. Most builders would buy up a neighborhood, knock out the homes and the orange, lemon, and avocado trees, and build new houses that were nearly half an acre big. These always seemed to be looming over me when I walked to and from school. In the light, they were so close to the street that I could never get a good view of them. Their eaves nearly touched over the walls that separated them.
At night, they were invisible. Often the darkness was so deep that I would have to stand in one spot and wait for a car to pass, memorizing what I saw ahead in the glow of its headlights. Once a neighbor of ours, who was taking a real estate class, saw me and stopped. She had a Mercedes convertible and the license plate said “VS Chevy.” I guessed that it was supposed to be funny, but I wasn’t sure.
“Don’t walk here in the dark,” she warned me. “Now that that woman’s been found, no one can be sure what will happen, even in Valle Seco.” That woman was a girl who had been raped in one of the few groves left in our city. She wasn’t from the area, but had been left there and found hours later, in shock, by a couple taking their evening stroll.
Working on my needlepoint sampler helped me conjure my earlier world as well as the magic to dream again. I was able to put constraints on my nighttime visions by following directions from a school library book. I repeated over and over while I fell asleep that I was to dream of Grandma, and that we were to talk. When I closed my eyes, I found my grandmother pulling weeds in our yard. I sat down to talk to her, but all I could think to do was to ask why she had died and left not only me, but a huge family, hurting so much. “It was time.” As I stared, she added to reassure me, “I wasn’t afraid,” and continued to pull weeds.
Rather than reassure me, her words invoked fear. If people weren’t afraid to leave forever, what did it mean to love someone?
I had wanted to dream of the day I came home from school wearing a knitted vest my grandmother had made for me. She was at the house, so I told her how everyone in my classes had admired her work and asked if they could trade grandmothers with me. “No way!” I had told her, bouncing out of the room. Later that night when my grandparents were gone, my mother told me that Grandma had repeated our conversation to her and had added, “She really knows how to make an old lady feel good.” I had not been trying to make my grandmother feel good, I was just telling her what had happened. As an adolescent, I had a distinct sense of fumbling through life; what my grandmother had said about me gave me faith in an instinctive ability to do the right thing. It was a good deal of comfort, and I clung to her words, and the vest, through six years of social error.
My dreams had failed to bring that comfort back to life. I knew I would not dream of my grandmother again.
I finished my sampler. My art teacher was disappointed and said it wasn’t representative of anything, just a strange combination of colors and texture.
“You said I could do what I wanted.”
“If you’re going to do something so old-fashioned, why don’t you make it recognizable? If you’d made some flowers or something, you could at least use them for a seat cover or a footstool. What are you going to do with this?”
“I guess I’ll give it to my mother.”
“And what will your mother do with it?”
“I suppose when she gets old, she’ll hand it down to me.”
“And what do you intend to do with it then?”
“I’ll give it to my daughter.”
He gave me a quizzical look and a C–.
On the last night of needlepoint class, we all brought our finished work to show off. Our teacher showed us how we could make a pillow with the sampler as its face, but, without sewing machines, we couldn’t work on it there. We spent the evening talking and listening to leaves tapping at windows, asking to come in.
It was unseasonably warm as we all moved outside for a break. One of my classmates said to us all, “The Santa Anas.”
“Yes,” agreed another.
“You know I read that when they blow, it changes the balance of the electrons in the air.”
“My skin is prickling.”
“That’s why. People commit suicide and murder their lovers in this wind.”
“Oh?” I said. None of this I could imagine. I thought I had already experienced the worst day of my life with the death of my grandmother. Only much later would I picture the chessboard with its powerful Queen Death, coming from any direction and across distance to remove those in her way, piling grief in the corner.
Class ended, and I stepped out into the deep darkness. I knew that when I got home, my mother would say, “We’re having weather.” I didn’t want to arrive. It seemed best to stay out where the very air was unhinged, waiting for a passing vehicle, my intermittent shadow thrown before me by someone else’s light.
Victoria Waddle‘s work has been published in literary journals, anthologies, and included in Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2016. She reviews books for teens and contributes articles to Inland Southern California’s Press Enterprise, Literary Journeys, which celebrates local writers. Follow her on Twitter: waddleido.