Tough – abridged

The pile on the bed was from the dryer, but rough as if my grandmother still refused to indulge in machine-dried and softened clothes. As I shook out a bed sheet, I sighed in exasperation. She only asked me to fold clothes because power-washing the house wasn’t women’s work. The customs of this town still baffled me. My grandmother was in a room full of people, none of whom brought consolatory offerings—only stomachs primed for her cooking. Heaven forbid anyone show up and she can’t offer them food. Heaven forbid people allow the woman some rest. Heaven forbid someone bring a casserole or flowers or even a card to say “I’m sorry for your loss”.

I remembered my mindfulness exercises and focused on my own dutifulness. My hand moved toward a green cotton pajama top covered in outlines of little flowers and I saw a name written by the tag: VARIA BAILEY. It was strange seeing her name written because I had always pronounced it with the same Southern drawl as everyone else, so the individual letters became a sinuous sound. Ain-vayrah. These must’ve been the last clothes she wore, or at least the last set of laundry my grandmother brought home. The top was so small. The pants were even smaller—they didn’t come much higher than my knee. I suppose I didn’t realize how much she had shrunken over the past few years.

I last saw my great aunt in the nursing home a month ago. She was surprised to see us—my brother and me—and mid-conversation, another resident strolled in…probably lured in by the sound of visitors. She sassed him in a familiar way and I chuckled because she was always tender and sweet with me as a child, and it was only as an adult that I saw how feisty she was. If I walked into the room wearing something flattering she would say, “You look tough, Nille.” Tough. I thought about that as my grandmother put away laundry and presented a new pair of shoes. My brother bent down and put the black Velcro sneakers on her feet and she exclaimed, “Ooh…boy! Those feel good!” I guess even in a wheelchair, she could appreciate a comfortable pair of shoes. Ain-vayrah retrieved her snuff cup—a small plastic cup with filled with tissue—and spat. I hadn’t seen her dip snuff in 20 years, and liked her I’m-old-and-I’mma-do-what-I-want attitude. Feisty.

Back in the day she dipped Bugler and kept the two-tone blue tin in a cabinet next to a dresser on top of which sat a black rotary phone. Over the phone was a window that opened onto the porch where Ain-vayrah and Uhncl-lonzo sat and watched the cows stand and chew. Sometimes Ain-vayrah let me help her feed the chickens. Sometimes Uhncl-lonzo took me into the pasture. His death was sad, but my memories of him remained through her. Now, they’re both gone. And I can’t ask them what breed of cows they had and I just can’t remember.

The guests in the living room were still chatting, so I quickly folded the pajama top and without drawing attention to myself, took it to my car and placed it under my purse. After a moment, I walked back into the house and casually continued folding—comforted. I didn’t want funerals or wakes. No memorials filled with relatives mourning over the embalmed flesh that was once her skin. No…that pajama top, a cylinder of snuff, and these memories: that is all I need.

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27 comments

  1. Ain-vayrah sounds like a feisty lady, indeed! I’m not a big fan of the whole “funeral” thing either.. I think taking those memories with you, in the can, the top, is a beautiful sentiment. Beautiful story.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s not into funerals. Sometimes I feel guilty for not going to them & worry that I’m sending a message of being “unsupportive”, but I need to grieve in my own way, ya know?

        1. Thank you so much! It was the best news to wake up to. I cried a little because it was a memorial to my aunt & that made the honor even more special. But also, I have been grinning & skipping around all day 🙂

  2. This post is fantastic. Your aunt sounds awesome, in fact, every matriarchal figure in your life seems to be so strong from how you portray them here. I sincerely enjoyed reading this, and I’m sorry about your loss.

  3. Memories are so fickle. I have similar ones of my grandma, not the ones I should have, but of things like the cigarettes she smoked and the way she always drank Kern’s guava juice…

  4. What a great description of your aunt. I too find a certain comfort in the small, mundane tasks when faced with something too big to contemplate, know what I mean? Thanks for sharing this.

    1. definitely! it’s sort of a double-edged sword, though. while it’s nice to have the mundane because it keeps you busy with minimal effort, those tasks also invite waaay too much room for intruding thoughts.

  5. What a feisty lady! I have the last pair of pajama pants my mom wore. i didn’t unpack my suitcase for a month b/c I was not ready to face that memory. This is a wonderful tribute.

    1. Aw, that’s really sweet (about your mom). And sad… Where do you keep her pants? I haven’t decided what to do with the top b.c nothing seems “right”, ya know?

  6. i really like the narration here. very personable, honest, real. your great aunt’s memories truly come to life. i like the details with the cup, the sneakers, and your response, ‘feisty.’ well written.

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