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She died on a sunny day, making the entire event seem somewhat unremarkable. It was the peaceful death we all crave. Surrounded by loved ones, her eyes fluttered once, twice, and she was gone. Her face softened, her jaw relaxed, and she became content. Mother began to cry of course, my father taking her into his arms as she sobbed into his chest. My uncle stood stoically in the corner, only allowing two tears to fall. I remained silent. I was trying to memorize her face.
The sharp pointed jawline hidden under a sagging neck. The petite, bubble nose she always hated, claiming it made her look like a pig. The laugh lines that were carved so deeply into her skin. Her startling white hair that had felled from its usual bun to splay across her pillow. And her still open eyes, a brown softer than velvet. I carefully leaned over, my fingers drifting across her eyelids, letting them rest.
I remember when I was little, and my parents would drop me off at her house while they had a date night. After they’d gone she’d look down at me.
“Well, where do you want to go today?” She’d ask, eyes twinkling.
And I’d shout some far off country or place. We went to Paris, London, Athens, and Madrid. Grandmother would pull her old trunk out of the closet, it was filled with the wonders from her travels. I was certain Grandmother had explored the entire planet, an epic adventurer exploring vast and mythical lands.
She’d pull out exotic clothes, strange baubles, and paling photos. With haste, she’d scatter the decorations across the house and we’d begin our tour.
“Look hun! There’s the Eiffel Tower!” And I’d crowd over the picture in her hand, spreading my fingerprints over the fading surface. “Did you know it’s over 1,000 feet tall? You look like an ant next to it.” And she’d hold the photo high above her head, standing on her tippy toes as I bounced around trying to reach it.
Then we’d travel further onto the streets of “Paris”; we’d walk into a boutique, which was really her bedroom, and she’d let me try on the clothes she’d brought back. Sparkling dresses that I dragged across the floor and slipped from my shoulders. She’d throw on a hat adorned with a poofy feather and we’d be off again.
“Look hun! A café!” Grandmother would drag me into the kitchen, now a café, leading me to a chair. She’d become my waitress, asking in broken French what I would like to eat. I’d respond in gibberish, which in my young mind was close to French, but she’d still decipher, and bring me a decaf espresso and a croissant. I never understood how she kept her kitchen so fully stocked with foods from around the world.
So we’d sip our espressos and gossip on the weather or remark on the quaint decor. “Paris is lovely this time of year.” She’d sigh wistfully, lowering her cup. “Oh hun, I wish you could see the real thing for yourself. You’d love it there.” She’d grow quiet for a moment, remembering her own time there. Paris had always been her favourite place. Mother used to say Grandmother would have stayed there forever if not for her and my uncle.
I don’t think Grandmother ever wanted children. Not that she didn’t like children, but she was still a child herself when she got pregnant. She was in her mid-twenties, a wild, untamable vixen who craved adventure. At that age, Grandmother hated responsibility, hated having ties to people. She preferred to use her parent’s wealth to travel across the world, exploring the pyramids of Egypt, the ruins of Greece, and the biscuits of England. Mother said she was looking for something worth settling for. I think she was looking for herself. Looking for what made her life important, what made her special or different. I don’t think she ever found it. Instead, she found a boy and that tends to always screw those things up.
Grandmother rarely spoke of my Grandfather when I was younger. But as I aged, so did my curiosity. I’d bombard her with questions, looking for any crack that might lead to an answer. I wore her down until near resentment, until she finally agreed to tell me the tale.
“Well hun, I suppose I should start with this.” And she had leaned back on her couch, into the plush cushions. “He was a soldier, and we met in Paris.”
I had sat on the embroidered rug in front of the couch, legs crossed and leaning in to hear every word.
“We met in a seedy little bar, he was with some other recruits that had just been shipped over. I was looking to get drunk.” Grandmother’s bluntness had also grown with my age. “I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but sometimes you just make eye contact with someone and a little voice in the back of your head tells you this person is about to ruin your life. But of course you don’t listen, because all you’re thinking is, damn this guy is hot.” She smiled to herself, and I wondered if she could still see him now. Could she picture how he coyly smiled at her before crossing the bar to whisper in her ear? Could she still feel his strong arms around her waist? Her nostalgic smile told me she could.
“So we flirted for a while. Mostly teasing each other, testing the other’s wits.” She looked directly at me. “I can’t stand stupid men you know. Don’t ever marry a man whose brawn takes precedence over his brain.” I nodded, wanting her to get back to the story.
“Right. So then we started drinking. Which by the way, if your parents ask, I do not think you should ever drink. Alcohol is bad.” She winked. “Anyways, I was near blackout drunk and he offered to take me back to my hotel. I don’t think I need to elaborate what happened next.” A pause, a slow release of breath. “And when I woke up he was gone.” Her voice had softened and deepened, her pace slowing. Her brow furrowed, as if she could still not figure out why, as if she was still that young girl waking up alone and confused. “No note, no number, nothing. All he left was kids, two of them now growing in my stomach.” She stood up, the couch still holding her outline. Slowly, but deliberately, she made her way to the bookshelf across from the couch. It was filled with pictures of my mother and uncle growing up. Their first birthday, their first day of high school, all the way to Mother’s wedding. She picked up a small black frame that held their first ultrasound. “I had no choice but to return home, I had no chance of getting a job in France.”
“Do you hate him? For leaving you?” I had asked cautiously. She was still staring at the photo, finger gently tracing around the blurry twins.
“I did for many years. But in my old age hating someone takes too much energy.” She’d returned the photo to its shelf, turning around to face me. A gentle smile now spreading her thin lips. “I’d much rather spend my energy loving my favourite grandchild.” I had leaped up, hugging her tightly as I laughed that I was her only grandchild. She had hugged just as tightly, the vanilla smell that always followed her now engulfing me. I remember now how that hugged lingered, as if she was almost afraid I too was about to slip away.
Mother had now finished crying. She was patting at her eyes with a used tissue, her nose still sniffling and my father’s arms still wrapped around her. My uncle had left the room to get a beer, he preferred to confront problems after he had a little alcohol in his bloodstream. I was still staring at Grandmother. Now that she was gone I was suddenly able to see her impact. Throughout my life she had been a beacon of strength, someone whose advice I followed nearly religiously.
I looked at her face that still appeared content. Perhaps below that she was filled with regret. Regret that maybe she never did find her purpose, regret that she didn’t play life a little safer. Or perhaps she had no regrets, instead she liked the way her life had turned out, even if it was not what she had planned or expected.
As my mother had wiped away the last of her tears, I had risen slowly from my chair next to her bed. The floors creaked as I crossed the room to the door.
“Where are you going?” My father asked, arms relinquishing hold over my mother. His eyes were glassy and his face drawn.