Cleaning House

I’m afraid to reply, so I sit and wait for her to speak. Grandpa’s hands still spasm, and I stare at them, wanting them to stop, afraid that they will.  Grandma seems to know where my gaze falls.

“You do what he does,” Grandma says. “You turn off when you don’t want to talk.  You turn away.”

Grandma lifts herself out of her chair part way, pauses, then sits back down. I try to help, but she’s too heavy. I press the call button.

She swats Grandpa’s feet. “Wake him up.”

I hesitate.

“Wake him up.” She raises her voice, and I lean over and tap Grandpa awake, tap until his eyes open slowly, and he looks at me.

“Tell him I’m giving you the gift now.  Tell him not to turn off.”

“What gift?”

“The gift we’re giving you. Don’t argue.”

She presses a buzzer near her chair. Soon Kirsten knocks on the door, then comes inside. Without a word, she lifts Grandma from the chair and sets her walker in front of her. Grandma leans heavily on it. After Kirsten leaves, Grandma walks slowly over to her dresser drawer and pulls out a box.

Grandpa shakes his head. “I told her you wouldn’t want this,” he says. “I don’t want her to do it.”

Grandma grips the box in her hand, turns, and I’m shocked that she lets me guide her.

I think about ritual, about the passing on of china, of linen, of antique furniture. To me, family history is made up of stories more than material goods, and the thought of wanting something, of saying, yes, I’d like the china, seems crude. I want the stories. I want connections, and the rituals that forged them, like Grandpa and Grandma’s October favorite anniversary meal (beef stew and biscuits), Dad playing Santa each Christmas, my annual snow fight with Glennie. I want only to remember. I can’t believe that one day she’ll be gone; that Grandpa will be gone; that I’ll turn from the stove on Thanksgiving, turn from stirring the gravy, and not see them waiting at the table to taste; that I’ll walk down the aisle, one day, far away, and they will not be sitting in the front pews; that their stories are ones soon I will tell, and never as well.

“Here,” Grandma says, having returned to her seat and taken a breath. She thrusts the box at me, and when I hesitate to take it, she nudges my hand with it gently. “This is for you.”

I take the box. It’s made of a rough, hard material, and the white has yellowed.

“I’m not giving you the china.”

I stare at her.

“I’m giving it to Glennie. She’ll use it. You won’t.”

I smile, but I don’t feel much like laughing. Grandma smiles at me, too, and her smile is a steady one, determined. “I’m also giving you my tea towels,” she said. “You make more messes.”

I laugh, and the laugh is like a bubble; it lets the tears loose.

“Just keep one or two nice,” Grandma says. “Keep the ones with my good embroidery for nice.”

Grandpa clasps his hands together as if he’s praying, and his hands still shake. Grandma waits for me to open my box.  Inside, on a piece of soft, old white rag, is her wedding band. It’s dark in spots and needs a good rubbing clean, but it is there, with sixty-one years of marriage wound around it, slightly tarnished, but still holding firm.

I can’t touch it. I just stare at it. I raise the box in the air, hoping Grandpa will see the motion, and he does. His eyes follow my hands. He takes a deep breath.

“That,” Grandma says, sounding triumphant, “you will use.”

I give Grandma a kiss, then Grandpa. He holds my hand and whispers in dulcet tones, “I didn’t want her to do this yet. I wanted her to have it all her life.”

I say thank you, but my voice cracks, and I’m not sure he hears.

“Whenever you’re ready, you use that,” Grandma says. “He’s mad, but I want you to have it now, when we’re able to give it.  He’ll talk to me soon. He’ll talk to me.”

I leave the ring in the box and slide the cover back down.  I sit with them silently for a long time in the room that is not their home, in the place that is temporary and cold, and watch as the last light slips in a breath from the sky and the deep darkness seeps in, as winter takes over. Grandma eases herself back into her chair, and Grandpa, wide awake in the growing darkness, trembles. I tremble, too. Only Grandma is calm. Only Grandma is at peace. Only she is ready.


Caitlin Hamilton Summie, photo by Colin SummieCaitlin Hamilton Summie earned her MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University. Her short stories have been published in Puerto del Sol, Wisconsin Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Mud Season Review, and Long Story, Short. She has stories forthcoming in Hypertext Magazine and Belmont Story Review. Her short story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, is forthcoming from Fomite in August 2017.

Author’s Photo Credit: Colin Summie