I imagine her.
My father’s mother, Diane, died several years ago aged 99. I met her only twice both times before I was younger than 8 so all I have of her are clipped memories, secondhand accounts, a timeline of events, and the ache under my skin where I think I might understand her.
If asked to recall something about her the first thing that comes to mind is her absolutely terrible cooking. On the first day in her small apartment in Florida she made us eggs which she overcooked to the point of burning. The tasted like soot and rubber and even as a hungry, tired child I couldn’t choke them down. She made us two more meals of equal edibility before my sister and I took over cooking for the rest of the few days there.
Her house, a hot sweltering box even in February had crooked white stairs leading up to the door from its empty, soggy front lawn. I see the cracking skin on her hands, the garish colors of her furniture, the yellowing wallpaper that is slowly peeling down every surface of her house. More than anything I smell bleach and lemon. I smell that overpowering mixture the second I walk in the house and I smell it when I close my eyes and wonder if I am going to drown inside of it. Chemically burned from the inside out like mustard gas.
I’m not sure it explained everything about her, or anything at all but it made enough sense to me that this woman’s defining feature was that she woke up every morning and washed her walls with a bleach and lemon solution. Every morning. Every single morning.
I didn’t understand it then. I didn’t understand that the thing that lived inside of her lived inside of me too. Maybe it lives inside of all us. One morning I sat at the edge of the living room and I watched her sponge in hand, humming under breath washing peeling wallpaper. As if wiping everything clean. As if it could all be reset.
And years later, washing my own walls, dousing my own kitchen with bleach and lemon and cracked hands and the illness that lived inside of me I realized I did not know when it started.
Had that happened before her son died tragically young from the genes she carried in her body? Did that happen before her adopted son died tragically young in an echo of an accident that took his parents? Did it happen when she was forced to marry someone she almost certainly didn’t care much for to secure a life for herself? Did it happen when she gave up her activism to be a good wife? Or when she moved south to escape her grief? Or maybe it had started happening even earlier, when she was separated from her parents? When she was sent alone to America? Had it started when she stopped being able to speak her native language? When she was told she could not go to college? When she lost touch with her baby brother? Or maybe it just happened? But maybe it wasn’t really any of that. It was just that one day she woke up and it all just happened and it was time to bleach the walls and get ready for a new day. Which she did, dutifully, every day. Waiting for a new day.
At the end of her life she woke, as she always had, to wash the walls with bleach and lemon. By this time she had spent the last six years of her life filling her house with food for a new day, for a new disaster. Cans and cans of food she would never eat (though surely it was better than her cooking) stacked all the way to the ceiling. All the way to door. Nearly bursting through the thinning walls. These shining, horded beacons of the land of plenty she now inhabited threatening to rip through her garish peeling house. In the end she died anyway, having washed her walls to get ready for a new day and having refused to eat in her valley of food.
I did not know this woman. I spent five days with her one summer in my childhood and yet I see myself reflected in her. I see the heavy weight we carry with us. The people stolen from us. The hard consequences of other peoples actions we learned to live with. But most of all I smell it in the thick bleach I use to clean my walls, that is never enough to stay. And I wonder if I too die in my land of plenty?