An Apple for My Grandmother
I walk the endless maze of corridors and the smell of disinfectant assaults my senses, burning the inside of my nose and stinging my eyes. They don’t manufacture enough disinfectant to rid the guilt and repulsion I feel for putting my grandmother in this place. The soles of my shoes tap a timid clip-clop as they meet the linoleum, and their beat becomes absorbed into the moans of the elderly as they sit in wheelchairs and witness my intrusion with unseeing stares. Gratefully, I soon come to the room my grandmother calls “home” these days. In truth, when in those isolated moments a bubble of cognizance floats to the surface, she considers the nursing facility anything but home.
I enter the room and she’s asleep. Her small frame, her weight now less than her age, is tucked underneath the throw I gave her last Christmas. It’s a Mary Engelbreit design that claims “It’s good to be queen.” She thinks that’s funny, being a queen in a place like this. I move closer and look for the up-down rhythm from her resting spot. I pray I won’t be the one visiting when that last sign of life vanishes. The fact that she’s here, in this place of varying degrees of death, doesn’t bother me as much as it did when she first came. This isn’t my grandmother. My grandmother is filled with life and mischief. She is built of nooks and crannies that cradle surprises and delights. This old woman is an alien that belies to the casual observer that she is my grandmother. But I know the truth. This impersonator has seized my grandmother and holds her hostage. This ridiculous impostor battles to kidnap the distant, tender memories that have knitted a lifetime of intimacy.
I lean over and touch her, gently, for anything too rough will cause a bruise. It takes several nudges before I coax her from the thick shroud of sleep. Where is it she goes, I wonder. Does she have dreams cobbled from an inventory of events and people over the last ninety-eight years, or are they visions of what lies beyond this life? Does she even know the difference between “what was,” “what is” or “what will be” in sleep? Most of her waking time she doesn’t.
Her small eyes open and she squints upward, looking at nothing in particular. I slide her glasses onto her face and adjust them so that they look comfortable, then wait while her eyes focus in on me. The clouds of confusion part and she smiles. She brings her gnarled hands from beneath the afghan and she claps; her chapped lips part, and she whispers my name.
The beat of my heart quickens; she knows who I am. Today I’ll visit my grandmother.
“How are you?” I shout into her face. Not that I need to raise my voice at all. She’s been totally deaf for as long as I can remember. But she’s a champ at reading lips and gestures. The Muhammad Ali of charades.
“Not good.” She lifts her right hand. The arthritis has turned it into a claw. “I hurt my finger on the door.”
I touch the spot where someone has placed a Band-Aid covered with Disney cartoon characters. I move my mouth to Mickey and kiss. I remember when she could kiss away my hurts. She runs her hand across my hair and then pats the top of my head. Her touch is like that of an apparition, never making skin-to-skin contact, hovering on the outer fringes of awareness and conveying only the allusion of a caress. I nestle my head into the hollow of her chest, breathe in her scent and listen for the thump of her life force. I turn my head so that she can see my face. I form silent words with my lips. “I brought you a treat.”
Her lashless lids widen and her rheumy eyes sparkle. Her lips form a tiny, parched “o” and her gaze follows me as I rise and slip my hand into my tote. I remove an apple, one I purchased from a farmer at a makeshift roadside stand about five miles from the nursing home.
My grandmother bought our produce at a farmer’s market. I dreaded these weekly visits. We rose before dawn so we’d be in the first group of shoppers. Rain or shine, hot or cold, she wanted to have the first crack at the garden selections, making her picks from the best of the bunch. My arm would numb in its raised position as she squeezed my hand, afraid that if turned loose I would wander off and get lost. It seemed like it took hours for her to rifle her way through each stall, assessing the grower’s display. Farmers traveled in from outlying rural areas each Saturday with whatever crops their gardens had produced. In the autumn they brought apples, and my grandmother was a stern judge of which ones would come home with us. I’d watch as she smelled and caressed each apple in the pile, ticking off a mental checklist and then placing to the side any that she felt didn’t measure up. The apples cost two dollars a bushel, a price much too expensive to let even one go to waste. Then she’d select the choicest from other baskets to take the place of the discards. The farmers had given up arguing with her years before.
I hold my selection up before her to see if it passes muster. Her smile widens, making her already too large dentures look like teeth sketched in by a caricaturist. Across the floor I scrape a white plastic chair, the standard nursing home issue, nearer to her bed and sit. My hand disappears once more into the tote and reappears holding a paring knife wrapped in a paper towel. I unwrap the knife and place it in my lap. Then I use the paper towel to polish the apple. The apple doesn’t have the red luster that ones purchased in a grocery store have. The color is splotched with areas that are more yellow-orange than red, and this one isn’t perfectly shaped like an apple from a gift basket. It was the smell and feel of the fruit that told me what I needed to know before I gave the farmer my money.
I press the tip of the blade against the peel and push. A small burst of juice appears, and its faint aroma is a prelude to what lies underneath. I lean forward and hold the place where I cut the apple under her nose. She sniffs and nods. I settle back in the chair, and like a surgeon, I make the incision wider and deeper, guiding my scalpel to expose the white pulp, the communion we will celebrate as one. The knife glides around the apple and skims off a thin layer of peel.
After we’d come home from the farmer’s market, I’d sit on the front porch at my grandmother’s feet while she’d peel the apples. She’d balance a large bowl in her lap. Her older sister had given her the bowl when she married my grandfather. During the peeling, she’d stop and cut off a piece of the white meat for me to eat, then a piece for herself. Even back then, she wore false teeth that forbade her a crunchy bite into the apple. Sometimes she’d place the knife in one of my hands and an apple in the other. Then she’d mold her own hands around mine. Her experienced hands taught me the precise pressure for the knife and the correct tilt for the apple.
I don’t look at the apple while I peel, for the tactile memory conducts the rite. I watch my grandmother as her hands tremble. I know she’s eager for a taste. I take the knife and trim off a small section. Her mouth can’t accommodate anything too big. I hold the bit between my thumb and index finger, guide it between her lips and finally, slide it the rest of the way into her mouth. Her tongue pokes the apple out and the piece catches on the pastel-colored, terry bib she wears over her sweat suit. I retrieve the piece and steady it in her hand. She raises the morsel, studies it and then shoves it into her mouth. She smacks loudly and her dentures slip.
“Remember Mr. Gilmore?” she asks as she swallows and readjusts her teeth.
I wait for a few seconds before I respond to make sure she doesn’t choke. “I do,” I answer and my head bobs in a continuous nod. “He lived across the street.”
“I didn’t like him.” Her jaw sets and her nostrils flare, a sure sign she never liked Mr. Gilmore at all.
“Really? He was always nice to me.” I tease and cock my head to one side. I know the reason she doesn’t like him because we’ve had this conversation at least a thousand times, but I ask anyway; it’s part of our ritual. “Why didn’t you like him?”
“He was shiftless.” Her head moves from left to right, then back to left. She closes her eyes. “Always looking for a handout.”
“I thought he had a job.” I know better, but I add, “Didn’t he sell tickets at the train station?”
“He punched holes in people’s tickets on the train.” She purses her lips, her face a study in disgust. “Wasn’t much of a job if you ask me. Only took him a few minutes. Then he’d nap the rest of the trip.”
I remember he did do quite a bit of napping. As teenagers, my cousin and I took the train a couple of times a month to visit an aunt, who lived out in the country. When I’d go to the bathroom, I’d catch Mr. Gilmore sprawled out in the rear car sound asleep.
My grandmother continues, “Best I recollect he spent Saturdays and Sundays asleep on the living room sofa. Anita had to sit out on the porch to get away from his snoring.”
Anita was Mr. Gilmore’s wife. She did spend a lot of weekend time in the porch swing come to think of it.
She lifts her face up to me and wrinkles her nose. “And he was stingy.”
“Stingy?” I act shocked. I slice off another sliver of apple and place it in her outstretched hand. The hand is dry and stiff, and all its strength is gone.
After she’d peeled the apples, my grandmother would core and chop each one. She baked strudles and cobblers. Pies and cakes. Apple Brown Betty and Apple Crisp. There was apple stuffing for pork roast. She canned and put up preserves. But the best treat was the fried pies for dessert on the day we bought the apples. She’d take the bowl of peeled apples to the kitchen sink and wash the slices in a silver mesh strainer. She’d set aside some of the apples for the fried pies. Over the rest of the slices, she’d squirt fresh lemon juice to keep them from turning brown before she was ready to use them, and those she’d store in the icebox. Then she’d spread a clean cloth towel atop the Formica table and dump a mound of flour from a canister. Without measuring, she’d add portions of lard and milk and salt. Her strong hands kneaded and punched the white lump as she sang. Soon she’d have a mixture that before my eyes had transformed into a ball of dough. Sometimes she’d move me in front of her, into the crook of her body and take my hands and douse them with flour. She’d bump my hands together to remove any of the excess and place my fingers on top of the mound. Then she’d rock me into the rhythm of dough making.
“Stingy?” I repeat. I don’t want to lose the thread of thought spun between us, a frail tether that has connected our minds.
“Yep. Tight as Dick’s hat band.” Her attention moves to something in the distance that I can’t see.
I touch her arm to bring her back. She looks once more to me. “Didn’t you loan him some money one time?” I prod. I know this is the sore point between her and Mr. Gilmore.
“Loan? May as well have just given it to him. Never even offered to pay me back.” Her face softens. “But I felt sorry for Anita. She’d just had that change-of-life baby. Near the end of her term she had to quit her job at the church and their money got thin.”
I slice another piece of apple and hand it to her. She chews and doesn’t talk. I think that her mind is mulling over the uncollected debt.
“Why didn’t you tell him you wanted the money back?” I ask.
A sly grin forms and she chuckles. “I’ve never told this to a living soul.” Her cheeks flame to a bright crimson. “He wanted me.”
The knife slips and punctures the pad of my thumb. A trickle of blood oozes and I place my thumb in my mouth and suck. “What do you mean, he wanted you?” I mumble and scrunch up my face, not at all sure I want to hear her answer.
“You know.” Her chuckle becomes a snort. It’s the loudest I’ve heard her laugh in a long while. “The night before Anita was to come home from the hospital with the baby, he came over and asked for a loan. Said he didn’t have enough money to buy food for the other kids. After I gave him the money, he tried to kiss me.”
My cheeks burn. I’m speechless.
“Never did have much use for him after that.” She clicks her tongue. “He was stingy and a snake-in-the-grass to boot!”
It’s the first time I’ve heard this part of the story. Is it even true? I remove my thumb from my mouth. The bleeding has stopped. I look at her. This is my grandmother all right. Even at ninety-eight, she never ceases to amaze me. Grandmother. I’ve really never thought of her as a woman before. My grandfather died before I was born, and she never dated. So I’ve never envisioned her as a wife or girlfriend, only as a grandmother. Certainly not the target of Mr. Gilmore’s advances.
“He was drinking that night and he got pretty feisty.” Her shoulders shake with unleashed laughter at this newfound memory. “I slapped his face good.”
I laugh, too. I see Mr. Gilmore in a new light. A regular Don Juan. The smile slides from my face. Now I don’t have much use for Mr. Gilmore either. He hit on my grandmother, and I’m proud she slapped him. Not only is he stingy and a snake-in-the-grass, he’s a sleaze.
I change the subject. “I loved your fried apple pies.”
Her face clouds over. Since she is deaf, she becomes easily disoriented with any shift in conversation.
“Pies!” I shout in spite of myself and hover inches from her face. “Fried apple pies!”
She smiles. She’s got it. “They were good, weren’t they?”
I nod. They were delicious. I sit back down.
When I wasn’t helping make the pies, I’d watch my grandmother lean over the table and flatten out small portions of the dough with a rolling pin. Back and forth, back and forth. When she’d push forward, her housedress would hike up and I could see the backs of her legs. She had nylon hose knotted below the knees. I’d cover my mouth with my hand and giggle at the jiggle of her fleshy, white thighs over the top of the binding hose.
I laugh now, thinking about her fat thighs. Then I stop. I wouldn’t want anyone laughing at my fat thighs.
“In the summer we’d put homemade ice cream on top,” my grandmother says.
She’s still thinking about the fried pies. I’m thinking about my thighs and wishing I hadn’t eaten so much ice cream with the pies. My stomach rumbles from the mental image of vanilla ice cream melting down the sides of the warm pastries.
I’d jab the edge of the spoon into the crisp outer shell. Steam would rise from the slit and mist the underbelly of the spoon. The butter and sugar she’d sprinkled onto the apples had cooked into a brown, gooey syrup, which spewed out like lava from a volcano. I’d scoop up a glob of ice cream, apples and pastry into the spoon and hold the mixture in front of my mouth, blowing hard to speed up the cooling process. The first bite always scorched my tongue. I’d drink a huge gulp of milk to ease the pain and to wash down the soggy treat. I’d eat until my stomach couldn’t hold another mouthful. After dinner, I’d take a bath and then curl up in my grandmother’s lap and drift off to sleep. After all, it had been a long day for a small girl.
I look over and my grandmother’s eyes are closed. Her chest has retreated to its steady up-down cadence. Her glasses rest askew on her face. The lenses are shoved up against her forehead and magnify sepia-colored age spots. One side of the glasses’ frame is jammed over an ear, causing it to bend at an unnatural angle. I remove the glasses and press her ear into an upright position. I take the afghan and drag it over her frail form, arranging her hands underneath. Then I smooth out the edges of the cover around her sides and over her feet. Her feet are as cold as ice, even with socks on. I lay a small blanket over her feet to warm them up. I tip her head to a comfortable position on the pillow and tuck the afghan under her chin. I lean over and kiss her, on the lips. They are scaly and taste of apple.
The core, a seedy skeleton and now brown where we’ve gouged out the fruit, is the only souvenir I have of the visit. I fold the paper towel around the core and shove it into my tote. I stare at her one last time and wonder if she’ll even know I was here. As I walk out the door, I pause and pull the soggy bundle from my tote. I unwrap the paper towel and remove the darkening core. I smile and dig out the small, hard seeds and return them to the paper towel. Then I toss the naked core into the wastebasket. Maybe when she awakens, my grandmother will smell the apple and remember.
This poem was reprinted from The Stonepile Writers’ Anthology with the Author’s permission. For information on how to order The Stonepile Writers’ Anthologies, click here.