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A Woman I Never Saw Before

Laura Hirneisen

My grandmother keeps packages of cookies and crackers in her oven. There has never been a time when I have peered into that buffed steel, circa 1950 oven and not seen cookies and crackers jammed tightly together on its racks. When I was a little girl, I believed that her oven was broken and that she could not afford to repair it, so she used it for storage instead. I would sit in her kitchen as she talked with my mother, my feet dangling above the polished linoleum floor, staring at those cookies. They were my forbidden fruit. If I could just manage to open the oven while Grandmom’s back was turned, my fingers would close around paradise. Maybe I was so fixated on the cookies because I was never offered one. Like everything else in my grandmother’s house, the cookies existed in a look-but-don’t touch dimension.

     My grandmother is the type of person who buys oriental rugs to lie atop her carpet to “save” it. Not just one rug, either, but an army of rugs to scatter over the original floor like a carpet parody of an onion. Never mind that this vast layering of ornamental rugs might prove difficult for an elderly woman to navigate. What is a broken hip, after all, when one’s shag carpet still looks and feels brand new?

     The rugs are by no means alone in my grandmother’s arsenal of stored items. Despite the tendency of most of society to throw away cardboard boxes, paper grocery bags, bubble wrap, and Styrofoam peanuts, my grandmother feels the need to collect such materials for future storage. An entire portion of her basement is devoted to the endless stacking and saving of boxes inside boxes, bags filled with bubble wrap, and wads of bags inside boxes. However, with so many packing materials horded away, there unfortunately remains little room for actually storing the items meant for the boxes and bags.

     Sales are her raison d’etre. Her faded blue eyes hone in on clearance signs as though they were a lighthouse’s beacon. Her steadfast motto remains that if something is on sale, she will automatically buy it. My grandmother never lets something as inconvenient as the question of whether or not she will use the sale item to get in her way. Recently, she purchased a spotlight simply by virtue of its sale status. But who am I to question? Perhaps a spotlight is something no eighty-year-old woman can go without in her daily life.

     Another unfailing constancy is that she is never difficult to spot in a crowd because of her affinity for…well… bold colors. A perennial favorite is what can only be described as a rather violent shade of purple, often accompanied by virulent teal. She wears little corduroy berets and sweat suits with appliqué, gets her hair done once every week, and goes to the mall just to spray herself with a free perfume sample.

     Although my grandfather died five years ago, she still keeps his vitamin jars on her counter and speaks of him in the present tense. Every square inch of her house has looked the same for the past twenty years, from the paint on the walls to the looped yarn toilet paper cover on the back of her powder room toilet.

     As can be expected from her habit of collecting various items, my grandmother’s home is incredibly cluttered. As a child, I always dreaded the necessary trips there on holidays. Just walking into her house is enough to make even the bravest of souls feel claustrophobic. The house is narrow, with its curtains always drawn tightly together to lend the place an air of gloom. So many antiques are scattered about, coupled with furniture no one is allowed to actually use. Most ironic is her sitting room, where there is a spacious antique settee, a loveseat, a sofa, and a chair, all upon which- to the best of my knowledge- no one has ever sat. Ever. I often fantasized that if I ever dared to place my bottom on one of those lofty cushions, a chasm would open beneath me, sending me to the other side of the rainbow or some other equally unlikely place.

     The walls of the sitting room are dotted with pictures of the most important grandchildren- you will not find me there- and antique prints and mirrors. A side wall has a terrifically ugly mural in shades of pink and green that was undoubtedly all the rage in the fifties. The mural is so distinctively hideous, in fact, that I can never do more than glance at it from the corner of my eye, so I have never seen it in its entirety. A vague image of a house and trees persists in my memory.

     To guide you into the living room from the sitting room, there exists only a narrow pathway, given all the furniture, glass cases housing porcelain dolls, and tables in the sitting room. Although the living room is called the living room, no real living has ever been done there. If possible, it is even more cramped than the sitting room, with a loveseat the only place to sit. It’s been years since I have sat on that loveseat, but it is still vivid in my senses. The way it smelled of powder and perfume, the way its velvet trim had been rubbed off, made soft and cool beneath my hand by years of use. The way it was so broken-in that I sank deeply into the cushions, as though it was trying to eat me. Christmases spent in that old loveseat were always awkward as I opened a present and pretended to be both surprised and ecstatic to find what frequently proved to be the same gift I had received the previous year.

     A set of stairs off the living room leads you upstairs to rooms that I cannot describe since I have only ever seen them once in my life….I vaguely recall frilly bedrooms and another bathroom. Another hallway leads you to the kitchen, with the round table in its center that is too big, and the ovens mysteriously guarding cookies and crackers. The table is always draped with a terrycloth covering, and stacks of mail consume over half the table so that while there are six chairs around it, only two people can ever sit at the table to eat at one time. Not even her refrigerator is exempt from the clutter, covered with so many magnets you can no longer see its textured surface. “World’s best grandma,” one magnet proclaims, juxtaposed with a magnet from the Bahamas and another advertising for a local car wash.

     There is no space in my grandmother’s house, scarcely any air to breathe. Somehow, though, my grandmother’s house- or what little I know of it- occupies a vivid chamber in my memory. The floorboards giving a slight, almost indignant creak beneath my feet, the shadows cast across the rooms, the scent of potpourri in my nose…all these snippets of sense and remembrance are emblazoned upon my mind. Perhaps my grandmother’s house gives me what she cannot: familiarity.

     Like the upstairs rooms in her house, my grandmother remains a mystery to me. As a child, I would write stories featuring loving, wonderful grandmothers…the kind I had always wanted for myself. I have no fond memories of her; we never baked together, played together, or even went anywhere together, just the two of us. She never kissed me on the cheek or patted my hand. She never came to my soccer games with her camera in tow. She never seemed to love me.

     I never understood why she never called me on the telephone, never invited me to spend the night at her house, never took me to lunch, never took the time to try to get to know me. She is the only living grandparent I have left, and yet I know and understand so little of her. I know that she wears gaudy gold jewelry and that her first name is Vera. I know that she has transferware hanging on her kitchen walls, and that she has so many clocks that it sounds like you’re standing inside Big Ben on the hour. But what do I really know? She remains an enigma to me, not unlike the cookies and the crackers stashed away in her oven.

     A few days ago, I visited my grandmother and I saw her through different eyes. Her back was curved and her hands were spotted and gnarled with age. Her gray hair was white, and it had lost its curl. I saw her as an old woman, and it saddened me. The woman who I had known without ever really knowing all my life had changed. In her place stood a woman stooped with the years, a lonely widow who ate cold suppers while she watched TV. In her place stood a woman I had never seen before.