copyright © 2014 by Anjoli Roy
In the dark water, daughters don’t swim straight. Grandmother, mother, daughter, back to grandmother again. Fins splash, curl water, wake waves. In the dark water, daughters don’t swim straight. Such stubborn fish. Pull forward. Arch back. In the dark water, daughters swim spirals to hold our past, to guide us, the water, forward again.
Grandma is our only “grandma,” because we call my other grandma thakurma, which is grandma in Bengali. Even though grandpa called our grandma Großmutter, we never did. Maybe that was because his parents were from Germany, while ours are from San Diego, USA, and Khulna, India.
Maybe ancestral languages spoil after one generational step, when the second generation has both feet planted on foreign soil. The tragedy of week-old curry or a crusty lemon meringue pie lost in the back of a moldering American fridge.
Come over here.
Maybe those languages skip over murky descendants like stones over water. Maybe we’re the water, waiting for those cold tongues to touch us, hoping this time that we’ll get something warmer than English.
I want to tell you a story.
Grandma met grandpa because of a duck! Did you know that?
It was a Sunday. There I was, driving with the blooming duck in my lap.
She picked him up off the side of the road!
. . . It was moments like this when I feel the hand of God in my life.
Grandma never complained. That’s because she lived through the depression. That’s like a really, really long time ago. I wonder if she was really, really sad.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t know how to tell a story!
What is this story if not the tinny recording of Grandma’s voice stuttering on your tape recorder? The voice of your sisters, your mother, disagreeing with you about the details? The telling and the retelling, the un-telling and the telling again?
Fragments of words and phrases torn up over time in addled memory, knocking about like loose change in a forgotten coin purse.
It’ll come to me a little bit later.
A story when, in the end, she couldn’t remember his name anymore.
Remember that nice man? He was such a nice man.
Maybe Grandma told you this story so you’d look for more than a man who could read your body like a sentence. Maybe she wanted you to have more words than that. Maybe Grandma wanted you literate.
I’m home from college for winter break. I’m with a guy who’s not the guy (my dad’s uninvited assessment. I’d introduced them a few weeks before when Dad was in New York for business, though I’ll stay with the guy for another six months).
I’m itchy at home, am checking my Nokia constantly, grabbing at calls from my boyfriend like he’s air and home is a dead-water wade pool.
We make the 2.5-hour drive from Pasadena to Escondido for an afternoon dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Mom’s not with us. It’s starting to occur to me how unusual it is that it’s my dad who makes these trips to see my mother’s parents. Maybe he does it because his parents have passed already. Maybe he does it because even after the divorce, he still calls my grandparents Mom and Dad.
Maya’s home from college in Atlanta. Joya is chasing Rab and Momo, her dear boys, across Grandma and Grandpa’s living room, scolding Grandma’s collection of brittle seashells out of little boy fingers. Her soon-to-be-husband Ben is here too—he’s a good guy who she’s known since high school and who has been in love with her since then, even though she only recently noticed him. The boys are tumbling over each other in the plush water of Grandma and Grandpa’s wall-to-wall carpet. My sisters and I still wrestle here too despite our basically-full-grown-ness. There is a promise here, but one it’s not safe to trust yet.
Chairs pushed back from linoleum floors. I’m clearing plates. When Grandma starts clearing with me, I pretend not to see Grandpa’s hand graze Grandma’s bum. She smiles, swats at him half-heartedly. Grandpa’s orange potassium pill fizzes a water glass. Grandpa looks hollowed, his collarbone too loud, his voice a lowercase O, cancer cutting at him, the sharp sparks pulling him back.
I move to join the rest of the family in the living room, where as kids my sisters and I would gum up with sweaty palms the full-wall picture window that looked out on lazy cars slowing at the four-way stop of South Beech Street and East Fourth Avenue. We would watch the afternoon pass by like anything in a frame was more interesting than real life.
Grandma stops me under the arched doorway that leads to the basement. A mounted plastic fish that one of Grandpa’s fishing buddies gave him a few Christmases back is stuck on the wall. It used to sing, but doesn’t anymore. Grandpa heads out to the living room.
I want to tell you something, she says. Eyes magnified behind thick glasses, her paper fingertip skin cold on my forearm. I look for my sisters. She pats my arm. We sit back down at the kitchen table. I hope it’s not another Daily Bread she wants me to look at. Even in all of my agnosticism, I feel bad for hoping this, but I hope anyway.
Joya is loud-laughing in the living room.
Something about a duck. Easter. The 40s.
I watch Grandma closely but don’t hear much. I hold my ribcage, keep my gill flaps closed, not wanting to offend her.
Blah blah, something about World War II blah-blah, about Uncle Gordon in Florida for the Air Force blah-blah, and Grandma went to Hawai‘i—
Momo is howling in the living room. What about Hawai‘i, Grandma?
Grandma went to Hawai‘i because her big sister, what was her name? It’ll come to me a little bit later. That’s right Virginia Mast! (Not her blood sister; her nursing school big sister who was one year above her.) Anyway, Virginia had moved there because there were plenty of jobs and dates (dates!) too if you wanted them.
Grandpa’s big old laugh is bouncing off the picture-window.
Grandma left San Francisco on the S.S. Lurline, the same boat Grandpa would take a few years later when he was shipped out, but I’m getting ahead of myself, she says, laughing.
Hawai‘i was wonderful. Parties on the beach, so many friends, learning about aloha, nice folks who took good care of her, each other, the land. A cliff (the pulley?) with wind so strong it turned a well-dressed woman inside out? Upside down like the waterfalls on something called the windward side? Something about watersheds in mountain cavities. Something about dating military men? (Grandma!) Something about a family called the Kempers who Grandma stayed with. Folks who took care of her. How she worked at a hospital called Tripler in the maternity ward for army wives.
The husbands were never around. Grandma’s words like high-pitched water sprinkled on dusty scales. The head nurse said that as long as they were there to lay the keel, we’d take care of the rest! I don’t get the ship reference, but I laugh anyway, getting her gist.
Something about the paper. About folks coming and going, how you’d have to have your named published before you left port. Something about debt collectors and keeping people honest.
I want to go wrestle with my sisters.
I check my phone under the kitchen table. No messages.
Uncle Gordon with a one-month leave so he was coming home to San Diego. Uncle Gordon, Grandma’s favorite brother. She’d only been in Hawai‘i six months, but she took the Lurline back home at the end of November 1941 because she wanted to see him. It’d been so long! She docked back in California and heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Honolulu on fire when Grandma had just been rocking on a boat, lurching toward home.
All those friends back in Honolulu to worry about. Uncle Gordon called back to his post. Gordon asked Grandma to take care of his brand new car, and Grandma obliged, and Grandma suddenly in the Navy.
What I want to tell you about is in March, though, but I don’t know how to tell a story.
I pat Grandma’s paper hand, feel myself settling down.
One of the other nurses in Grandma’s bunk in Balboa got a duck somehow. Cute for a while but not for long. Pooping everywhere.
I told them about my mom’s orchard, said I could take it there.
All her bunkmates so relieved. Grandma heading back to Escondido from Balboa. The blooming duck in my lap, all over that car.
You know, I listened to the radio. They told us to pick up any army men we saw, take them home for a meal since they were so far from their families.
(For a meal, sure.)
I was used to picking up a bunch of guys (Grandma! [The desire to read into everything]). You know, to take from the base to the local bar, but there wasn’t anyone this Sunday except two guys. I pulled over. Hold this duck, I said. That was the first thing I said to them! I handed that blooming duck to the guy who sat up front in the cab with me.
Grandpa? I’m feeling the water, finally.
She smiles, looks at the plastic fish, mounted at the wall. I asked them where they’d like to go, if they had a bar in mind, and this young fella who I’d given the duck to said, well, I don’t drink. He said they were just a couple of guys from New York. That they’d arrived recently and didn’t know what there was to do out here. Well, I remembered how nice all those folks had been to me when I was out in Hawai‘i and I asked them had they ever picked an orange. When they said no, I took them to my mother’s house.
Rab is calling for me from the living room. Momo is crying. Grandpa is scolding someone, Momo most likely.
I am leaning forward, holding Grandma’s hand. I want this water to swallow me whole.
Grandma stands, gives the kitchen faucet a good twist shut. I hadn’t noticed it dripping. She crosses the linoleum back over to me. This is when I feel the hand of God in my life. You see? she says. The smallest decisions, they can change the rest of your life.
That was the end of our first storytelling session. I was 19.
Grandma met grandpa because of a duck! Did you know that? I’m talking to my sisters in our dad’s kitchen in Pasadena. Maya is scrounging in the fridge. Joya is sipping at a fat glass of hot tea.
Yah, Joya says, smiling warmly. It’s a good story.
Momo toddles into the room, looking puffy faced and ready for bed. She scoops him up and he pulls on her shirt as the two of them head to the back bedroom. It’s good to have you home, Anj, Joya calls over her shoulder.
Ben is reading a story to Rab in my old room.
Maya is making a plate.
Can you believe she picked him up on the side of the road? I say.
Maya shrugs. Propaganda. They coulda gotten people to do anything they wanted at that time. She drops into a chair next to me.
I was thinking about writing the story for her, I say.
That would be really nice, Anj. She takes a big bite of the cauliflower, potato, and pea dish that is our favorite.
What happens if, in the course of writing a story about her, you turn your grandmother into a fish? And what if you turn the duck that brought her to your grandfather into a warm-bellied ship?
If grandma is a fish, and grandpa is his aluminum skiff, I am the knife blade separating scale from skin. I am a drag of red jellied belly bits across the cement pathway outside their house, where crystals sprinkle rainbows in yellow afternoon light the way candles dance dark across warm walls. I’m the cold cavity, borne within.
I’m looking for where the water is.
Grandma kept the story going when we spoke on the telephone for birthdays or holidays, in her cramped cursive in her birthday cards that she sent across the country from Escondido to New York to me.
Happy birthday, Anjoli!
Know that your Grandfather and I
pray for you every day.
We love you very much.
P.S. Remember, you’re at that age!
Grandma watering me with this story again until the words were heavy and full inside me, until it was all around and through me, until my fins cut water like deserts never existed, like love was always there.
She gave me these words so many times, she started drying up herself.
When Grandpa died. When Alzheimer’s started its cruel bleaching of bones.
How long was Grandma in Hawai‘i again, Momma?
A long pause. Her wireless crackles. An ambulance races on the street below my living room window followed by the NYPD. Two years, I think, sweetheart.
But she wasn’t in Honolulu during Pearl Harbor, right? I thought she got there in ’41?
Well, she certainly left before the bombing. That was why Uncle Gordon was called to post and she got to have his car.
Listen, you’ll have to ask her again, sweetheart. When you’re home, though. Her hearing is going the way of her memory, I’m afraid.
I knew that if I didn’t accept the story, make room for it in my heart and mind as truth and acknowledge it as such, it would be lost for good.
I angled for details like I wasn’t desperate for them. Like I wouldn’t be lost without them. Like I could live without them. Like I didn’t need water to breathe.
The next time I was home, I used a tape recorder like cheap buckets all over the house, captured what I could until the roof gave way. Grandma came up to Pasadena with my mother’s sister, Ginger. The two of them had brought Grandma’s Hawai‘i albums to help jog Grandma’s memories. We set up shop on my father’s dining room table.
You see, in my day, photographs didn’t really last the way they do today. So, I never bothered to buy a camera. My friends sent me all of these.
The pictures were black and white, mounted on a black paper background. Grandma’s fingers ran over them.
Grandma, why was it a big deal that you dated Grandpa again?
Well, to begin with, he was a Catholic.
I nodded vehemently, understanding that that was a big no-no then for her. She was Protestant. I jotted in the margins of my notebook that maybe it would have been like interracial marriage back then. And then he was also a corporeal. I was an ensign, an officer, that is. So that just wasn’t done either. Even to run around in the park wouldn’t have been acceptable, she said. If I was in my uniform, anyway. So, they were friends. How it wasn’t until Grandpa took his one-month leave back to New York that she realized how much she missed him.
He’d asked her before he left what he could bring her back. Hose, she said. I wanted black nylon hose.
A racy gift to ask from a friend, wasn’t it, Grandma?
She patted my hand. Silly granddaughter. Bob wouldn’t take any money from me, and I felt bad about that. They weren’t cheap. He was gone for a whole month. I nodded along, remembering this bit of the story and how it would connect to the next about what she did when he was back in California.
Grandma trailed off. I dated some real jerks when he was gone, she said.
I thought I heard her wrong when she said this. If I didn’t have her saying it on tape, I probably wouldn’t believe she did. Not only did this crack my perfect image of Grandma and Grandpa, post-duck, but Grandma never complained or called anybody a jerk. Ever. What had these guys done to my grandma?
I’m a freshman in high school and am coming home from a high school party. I am climbing the dank driveway up to my father’s house, where my friend has dropped me off. The moon is playing in the oak tree branches and the playhouse looms darkly in front of the bamboo forest. The manmade wade pool dug a few steps from the playhouse’s front door is filled with leaves.
When I was little and the family was still together, that was where Mom would hose me off when I came home too muddy for the clean inside of the house. Eventually, she filled the shallow pool with water from a nearby hose and dumped in a clutch of goldfish that the raccoons clawed out as easy as salad from a buffet tray. We drained the pool then, when the mosquitoes started taking over, when Mom moved out to live with the first of her boyfriends, when Dad started getting engaged, when my sisters went away to college, but I never stopped getting bitten.
As I near the house, I fight the urge to run inside and slam the sliding-glass door shut behind me. There are wolves in the bushes, bodies ready to grab me into the shadows, all kinds of menacing, fast-running things that I’ve actually never encountered in real life.
I am singing “Jesus Loves Me” to myself quietly, even though I’m not Christian, because that’s what Grandma told me to do ever since I was small when I was scared, and I still believe it helps somehow.
When I collapse into my bed, I drop like a stone into the shallow clutches of sleep, my heart still racing. I am tired from drinking the better part of a forty and fending off my boyfriend, who is determined to take my virginity, which I refuse to give him. I am swimming through something I learned in bio today: about how girls are born with all of the eggs they’ll ever have in their lives. That this was completely unlike boys, who make and dispense of sperm throughout their lives. I scribbled something in the margins of my spiral notebook about how crazy that is, that we are like nested dolls, that to carry a girl baby is like carrying all of your potential grandchildren too. That, in that sense, granddaughters are a grandmother’s route home. And vice versa.
A matrilineal, genealogical connection.
That night, I have a nightmare about a monster that moves a screaming baby across the house while everyone in the house is sleeping. In the morning, we find picture books in the mailbox that prove it was true.
I learn that love is a barbed-wire necklace.
The tape recorder crackled and Grandma was talking about when Grandpa’s one-month leave was finished and he came back to California. She didn’t confess her feelings to him right away. There was that Catholicism to contend with, for one. So Grandma started talking to Grandpa about God. Do you know where you’re going when you die? I asked him. Now this is something a marine was thinking about a lot, and your grandpa was a marine. When he told me no, I told him I did, and that got him listening.
Grandma agreed to go to Grandpa’s church with him since she wanted him in hers. (She was the daughter of a mission builder; she knew how conversion worked.) She met with his priest and went head to head with him on Bible verses. I wanted to marry him. I think you should know what I’m talking about.
She laughed at that and I laughed too, though I felt something pinch in my chest. I was dating a man I’d been with for several years, who a few years later I’d split from. I wondered if I would have to find a religion to be in a relationship that would last. My partner at the time was very religious. I was very not. I knew I couldn’t ask Grandma this.
The flock of my now three nephews whirred past where Grandma and I were hovering next to the dining room table at my father’s house. The usually smooth surface of water ribbonned, tore. Was that me or the water?
Grandpa got to see then that Grandma knew her stuff and, surprisingly, his priest didn’t. Also, Grandpa liked her picture of a forgiving God rather than the fire and brimstone one he’d been raised with. He converted, and they started dating officially. They spent all their free time together. The war waged somewhere in the periphery and the two worried silently about when Grandpa would be shipped out.
Have you checked the board? one of the nurses in Grandma’s bunk asked her one morning.
I told her no.
Well, your name’s on it!
The inevitable hadn’t happened, the impossible had. They’d been so busy worrying about when Grandpa would be shipped out, they’d forgotten that of course Grandma could be shipped out too. Grandma called Grandpa for the first time ever—you just didn’t do that—and Grandpa went AWOL from his post, something he just didn’t do either.
I told him the only way I wouldn’t get shipped out was if I was engaged. She’d laugh at this, blushing at her forwardness even more than a half-century later. I still feel bad about that too. What was worse, she’d said, was that since he’d just spent all this money on her hose, she’d been the one to put up the money for her engagement ring.
The Navy released me when I told them I was engaged. They didn’t take married women. The head nurse asked me who I was engaged to. When I told her a marine, she said it’d never last. Phooey! We sure showed her! Grandma laughed at that too, and I couldn’t keep my arms from wrapping around her. She never muscled like that. This was my favorite part of the story.
They were married a year, living in a bare beach cottage by a small stream that one day flooded its banks and their kitchen. That’s when Grandma learned that Grandpa could build things, and what a talented fisherman he was. He was a freediver who, in one breath, would touch down to the ocean floor with a chisel and hammer and knock abalone off their rocks before they could suction back down. When he had them loose, he’d stick them on his swim trunks and swim back to the surface. Walking out of the water, he must have looked like a beautiful (I’ve seen the pictures) mollusk-ed sea monster.
Grandma would batter the abalone. Grandpa would inlay the shells into a coffee table that Grandma would still play solitaire on, long after Grandpa had passed away.
On the day of Grandpa’s funeral, when my sisters and aunt and parents and I took turns weeping in Grandma’s kitchen, Grandma told me the rest of the story.
One day your grandpa came home and said tomorrow’s the day. He was getting shipped out. So, anyway—that was the phrase my Grandma-who-never-complained would use when something too hard was happening that she didn’t want to dwell on—when they finally boarded their trucks and Bob said goodbye, I watched the truck where he was and when they got out on the road, I went out and I kept going up until I got behind his truck and he was sitting outside looking back so I drove all the way down to the entrance of the ship, from Miramar down to the base. When we finally got to the base, they turned in and I couldn’t go. That was the end, so I had to keep going straight ahead. That was the worst day of my life. So, wooooooo! she mimed crying hard here. I cried and cried! It wasn’t fair—we were just getting started! Here the Lord had given the man He’d made just for me, and he was getting taken from me! That’s why now, she’d said, water flowing down my face, filling me, I can’t cry. Not like I did that day. I cried my tears for your grandpa that day. The Lord gave me more than fifty years with that man after that, and I’m grateful. He gave me a man He’d made just for me. And I got to love him and have my life with him all these years. And, anyway, in a little bit of time, I’ll get to be with him again!
A few years later, in her telling, she did.
Can a story hold us together?
Grandma wanted it to. To give us a story that we needed when parents split and little girls were in danger. To nurse us through the heartbreaks and worse that we would endure. Grandma wanted to give us everything, even if that meant she had nothing left.
It was her favorite story to tell. It was her last story, the one that brought her back to the present.
You’re at that age now, she’d start, hoping that was enough to weave the story back into us, even after it had been lost to her, that promise that there was a way forward, that the dark water would hold us together.
Grandma had been waiting for my sisters and me to be 19 our whole lives, so she could tell us this story. One on one, one at a time.
I keep thinking about what a long time to wait that was.