Ginger Frambes answered the phone each night; a voice would ask if she’d eaten anything for dinner. She would say she ate a few beans and a piece of toast. Nothing looked that good. Her fridge held half-eaten casseroles drying to crust on one edge but someone would come take those away and leave her new green bean casserole and instant stuffing. Sometimes her granddaughters would push candy through the mail slot even though they were teens.
It was her decision to stay on in the house after they buried Bill. Told them it was the best place for her to be. Her husband had fallen from a ladder and was up one despite being told by the doctor he could no longer drive the car and probably should have a psychiatric evaluation. He’d hidden the orders from her. After the crash of aluminum had made her run to the porch, he made it into the house and into the bed, but it was Christmas Eve. No snow, but plenty of wind swerved through the spruces whose arms grazed his bedroom window. The next morning the children had tried to take him to the ER and he pulled the old Luger out from under the pillow and said he wasn’t going anywhere. He died that night, at home, as he was.
Hey Grandma, the girls would say as they held bags and clattered glassware behind the screen door and she pushed it open wider to allow them in. Sophie would drop her hat onto the table near the fireballs jar. Rosy patches burned on her cheeks. Christine would smile mostly with her eyes and hug her tightly. Then would come their mother, well-groomed bob, and serious amounts of mascara; she’d hug her with a look on her face paused perpetually between tender and unassailable. Her son emerged like an upright bear behind them. She held the doorknob as they streamed in and beamed at them. She looked increasingly lost in the blouse and her nylon pants.
Grandma, we made your favorite.
William liked fish and rice and little pieces of broccoli and so on. Had liked. The sacks were hefted onto the table in the peacock blue dining room across. She’d have run a rag over the wood before they’d gotten to the door and it then lay on the corner of the sideboard. They would unpack some roast beef, some macaroni and cheese with buttered Ritz as the topper. Butterscotch cookies. It was like the push to bring her food after William’s wake never slowed, it turned into consistently supplied parcels in foil and parcels in reused take out containers. She thumbed back her violet tinted glasses and swept her gaze across the array, looking through the noise and the smells and the chattering that meant people—her people—were there. These foods were not her favorite in that they were not gristle-bound pig tail or cornbread or green beans with ham hock. But she kept this to herself as no one had seen her eat them. Nobody had seen her eat them in decades.
She would sit in front of a plate of meatloaf and macaroni and cheese. The girls’ food disappeared slowly to reveal dish designs of bells and barns, get cleared and make noise under the water. Her macaroni would stop steaming, grow a film. Her arm would rest on the tablecloth then pull at Sophie’s curls. A discontinuity broke out in the momentum of dinner conversation: hilarious finds on the lawn her grandchildren would then surmise had been left there by the children next door; bottle rocket entrails and cans of soda. Ginger would preside and distribute her affection with an unchanging look of ease and when their attention finally gave up on her appetite, someone would pick up her plate releasing her to the recliner and a show about figuring out a phrase by knowing a few letters of it. In the kitchen, someone would tear plastic along fine metal teeth and cover the congealed scraps partly eaten. Grandma what would you like. I like what you like. But you don’t eat enough, Grandma. The smile on her face a version of talk to the hand. To her family, her expression of mild entertainment remained constant, her posture remained upright, yet they noticed her hair started to grow flatter. She complained more of the fall breezes coming in the window. Her pants with the front crease down each leg and an elastic waist stretched around less and less torso. Her tinted eyeglasses seemed to interfere with their reading of her eyebrows.
“Put on your big coat Ging,” said her daughter-in-law Addie. Her son warmed up the van. They all packed in blankets and brought her out. She walked on her own but they liked to be next to her, just in case.
It was no secret how sturdy she’d been when younger, and they all enshrined in their minds the image of her wedding photo. They talked and chatted, passing by cows silently chewing in the dusk. The air sharp and the leaves almost all down from the trees. Ginger nestled under some blankets in the back seat of the van. By the end of the byway they were murmuring about someone’s kid showing up for the Christmas pageant with a hat on because of chemo, how he’d gotten being sick in the pew, and something about death loomed in the back of their minds, but they all stopped at that point in the conversation, and pulled silence over everything in unison. Sophie held her grandmother’s hand and patted it and thought it seemed a little bit hard. Lights passed and streaked.
The van turned onto the amusement park drive. Immense strings of lights nailed to the end of a flagpole and then each staked into the ground around so that a green cone loomed out of the dusk. A long array of multicolored lights weaving their way across a hedge. Something funny about the green of a traffic light showing up in a Christmas tree made only of lights and not of pine or wood or anything grown. Lotta electricity, Ginger thought.
Grandpa Billy would have liked this, right Ging? said her daughter-in-law with a lot of sincerity. “Yes,” she said though the thought did not really touch her. Addie passed her a mint. The lights dazzled her and she tucked the mint in her coat pocket. Red bows and wreathes wired to frames. Toy soldiers with red cheeks standing in two dimensions near larger trees. Occasionally a string of plain white lights that were reminiscent of something very old, maybe from the Civil War even though such lights had not existed at the time. They exchanged looks but not with Ginger and then looked out the window.
By Christmas time, the sampler chocolates stayed untouched until they already knew the grey cast that would come on them by mid-February. Things got pitched. Sophie tried to make a deal: Ginger would eat one chocolate for each she herself ate and they got to about three when her grandmother got a little slack-voiced. The pink ones are gross, right Grandma? Too sweet, she’d say. And they went back to flipping through the newspaper side by side at the table. The granddaughters got it out of a cousin – she likes rice pudding with raisins and butter. They brought it still in the pot so they could warm it on her stove. Within a few minutes they had tucked more presents under the tree—they were going to open them all at her house—and sacked out on the floor in front of an Ice Capades special. Sophie and Christine sat on either side of her. All movement in and out of the kitchen, laughing, sleeves warm. She barely made a dip in the couch anymore, her light bones feeling rigid to the idea of posture. The candy grew a thin layer of dust. She looked down at her hand and can see blue veins roped around bones in the back of her hands. After people cleared out and only the granddaughters and the daughter-in-law are left, someone suggests a puppy. The idea hangs in the air.
The snow came down in tiny clear crickets. The phone rang at 6:30 in the morning. Sophie said, “Grandma, we’re so sorry but we don’t think we’ll be able to make it today.” The snow had fallen all through the night. The state troopers had blocked the Bluegrass Parkway and the corridor. “We know it’s a hard day, Grandma. You going to be okay?” Turned out even down by where Katie Dunlap had wrecked her car at the bend by the tree farm was completely set off with flares and some state trooper cars. Her granddaughter’s voice had sounded heavy because it was Christmas Eve.
She did not get up and make tea that she’d squeezed honey into. She did not get up and pull a vanilla drink from the plastic rings. The previous summer they had cut on the air conditioning to make her metabolism fire up. But under the heavy counterpane, she contemplated the quiet of the house and the strange necessary clockwork of bad feeling arriving on certain days whether she wanted it to or not. The ice began to flock the bottom of the windows.
She had lost her hold on what would happen or could happen. The house hummed with the sound of the heater or the air conditioner and it would cut off to reveal for moments a real silence. Sometimes she would sit on the front step and smoke one cigarette or lean out the window waiting for sweet invigoration. She saw out the window her husband not coming home. Her husband not bringing the paper to the table and kissing her on the cheek. But that would wait today.
Back in the fifties they had picked a honeymoon down to Florida. Instead of Destin where everyone seemed to go for vacation with their children, they chose instead to go down to Saint Petersburg near the Fountain of Youth. The thought of their spiny palms holding up hands in neither a hello nor a dissuading gesture hung a snag in her mind of foreboding. The air heavy with the sound of cicadas, much louder than the ones that had crawled out into the grass in Tennessee when she was a little girl: the memory was strangely simultaneous to the soft ticking of snow.
Her head resting back on the pillow, she recalled the straw fascinator with a plume from a cockatoo she had worn, pointing white from one of the snapshots the grandkids sometimes passed back and forth with her. But here and there in that unaccountable early morning, the shape of a usual day dwindled and snippets of the feeling of lying on the sand while Billy whispered to her and kissed her cheek were there in the sunshine bolted down around their shoulders and heads and legs pressed her from the inside, from the stomach despite the white outside. The sound of his voice coming in from the hallway before he got to their room, the way he would scuff his slippers on the bathroom tile. The times the dog had worn the plastic cone around its head to protect itself from scratching out stitches and had stood with him in the doorway to the kitchen while he stood with his crutches and neither could pass at the same time. This made her mouth slant open in an awful chuckle.
It was as if bad weather had gotten caught in the back of her throat and she didn’t know how she was going to manage it as it swirled there. But then she saw she could press the side of her head against the pillow and think through the ticking of snow that she realized was still sounding against the windowpanes. And she drew in a deep breath in some very anterior version of the gasp of children before wailing begins. And she wept realizing the dissolve of an idea, that of a normal day.
Further away the road stretched out towards traffic. Some of the church goers who knew her and had checked on her all fall and into the winter had fallen off their parade of brownies and taking her in to work in the soup kitchen. An anticipation of the familiar quiet, what winter did after the holidays, the darkness she used to take comfort in now simply passed by. She laid her head back and cried. She did not scrub the bathtub. She did not pick up the phone though it rang. She did go into the bathroom and do a cat bath between a change of clothes, and sobbed through the whole cold thing. The sight of her bones disappearing made her want to pray over herself in some way.
The sky was growing dimmer. It was as if a large gust of wind pushed at her back and she could not do anything about the way it brought her forward along not a road but along a series of sobs that started as individual and then became a series. She reached for the tissue on the bedside table and the birds printed into the cardboard trembled and flowed together. This sinking to the inescapable began a new jag of sighs. Her throat hurt. There was a way wicker furniture creaked when someone a little too big sat on it and this is how the joints of her neck felt. She stared at her hand, its own blue-veined cage that she opened and closed as if seeing it for the first time. It occurred to her that in the dim corner of the living room stood a decorated Christmas tree. All the presents waited. She had not considered herself nor did any of her family consider her the type imprisoned by the expectations of a holiday. On this one count she felt relief. She got out a stepladder.
The snow continued into the evening and the phone kept ringing. Finally she answered. Grandma are you okay? We can’t believe we can’t be there tonight! It’s too crazy. Are you sick? You sound bad.
This set up a feeling of disbelief in a southerner as it was so rare snow continued all through a morning, much less noon, all the afternoon, and into nightfall. But this snow fell without remarks to anyone. The tulip poplar and the coffee trees rutted up against some pines out the back window.
I’m fine. But I’ve been crying all day.
She snapped on the light of the back door. The snow piled up against the garage door and along the black electric lines. The trees held three finger widths. It clung in the corners of the bay window. She had lain all day in bed knowing they would not be able to get the sedan up the little incline of the driveway. Snow was stacking in great cakes. The bird bath. The tire. She fetched the tissue for herself, sniffed the air and cocked her hand against her flattened hair. She padded into the kitchen to boil water. She looked at the small rock Sophie had given her with a passage from Deuteronomy and she saw the words as markings. Then they suddenly came to her clearly. He is rock. His works are perfect. She thought of bread being made from rocks. All the hard bread in the fridge, stale with cold. The snow started to click with sleet and icicles started to make the thin trees at the far side of the yard lean to either side. While the kettle steamed loudly, she blinked globs of tears into a dishtowel. Primroses and violets wound along the bottom. Soon, she stepped back into the bedroom, laid her head back like a hot gourd on the pillow, and fell asleep.
She woke up and turned on the news in the living room. She opened a vanilla meal drink and sipped it while the newscasters came on standing by downed trees and cars partly in ditches. She was startled to find she’d reached the end of the bottle. She padded into the kitchen and pulled open the refrigerator door. Some cornbread in foil. She sliced a thick piece and put butter on it, then apricot butter. She put it on a dish and grabbed herself a napkin.
The phone rang. Ginger could imagine her granddaughter saying just checking on you Grammy. Bible study had been cancelled the night before she saw on the news. If she had actually picked up the phone, she would hear Sophie saying no big deal it had been the lesson on wives being helpmates and last time it had come up, Sophie was 13 and had gotten into it with the elder minister about how wives would be slaves if not obedient to their husbands and anyone would go to hell if they did not believe this. How are you Grandma. Were you okay all night? How do you feel after all the crying, poor Grandmommie? But she did not pick up the phone. Not yet, though she would. Set yourself down, she would say, I am eating a second piece of cornbread. Ginger smiled with her eyes, tipped her head towards the window and with her free hands, unwrapped the bread.