“I have something to tell you,” Daddy said as we sat around the table eating red Jell-o for dessert one night.
“Grandma Thomas has cancer,” Daddy said.
Surely that wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard that word. I knew it wasn’t good.
“The doctor is going to operate on her and take her bladder out. That’s the organ in your body like a rubber ball, kind of, that holds your pee.”
“Where will her pee go?” my brother Wayne wanted to know.
“Well, the doctor will bring two tubes out of her kidneys and the pee will drain into two bags.”
“Ew!” was all I could say. “Where will the bags be?”
“Outside her body, under her dress,” Daddy said. “I think.”
“Poor Grandma,” my little brother Greg said.
“Will she die?” Wayne asked.
“This will get rid of the cancer,” Daddy told us. “I hope.”
* * *
Hearing the wood floor creak a little, I turned to see Grandma stepping into the living room from her bedroom. Tuesdays were our day to take care of Grandma, fix her lunch and clean house. She slowly settled into her old blue rocker. “How you feeling, Grandma? Do you feel like helping me make a new dress for my doll? She only has her majorette…”
“After this dip,” Grandma interrupted me, using a tiny spoon to fill her bottom lip with Garrett Snuff.
Now that she’d had her operation, Grandma seemed sicker instead of better. I wondered if having cancer meant that your body started shrinking. She hardly looked like fat old Grandma anymore.
Her kidneys emptied into two bags she wore on her sides, under her housecoat, like gun holsters. She couldn’t wear panties anymore, but that didn’t change the way she sat in her old blue rocker, her skirt pulled up over her knees, her stockings rolled up below them. It did change the way she smelled. From my vantage point on the floor, I could look right up her housecoat.
Grandma picked up the magnifying mirror and tweezers from the table by her chair. Peering into the mirror, she started pulling hairs out of her chin.
“Grandma, you said after that dip…”
“I ain’t done yet,” she said, spitting in the Folger’s Coffee can on the floor by her chair. I watched her closely, pursing her lips back and forth to enjoy the snuff, as she pulled out a gray whisker here and a black one there. Eventually, Grandma finished her chore and spit one last time in the can. With her tongue, she poked the wad of snuff into a Kleenex and threw it away.
“Okay,” she groaned, creaking up, holding her back. “Let’s go look for some ribbon.”
Grandma took me out on her back porch to look in her papa’s scruffy old WWI army trunk. It was stuffed with calico quilt scraps and pastel silk ribbons, some narrow, some three inches wide. Grandma’s brother worked at the cemetery, so after the funerals were over, he brought her all the silk ribbons left from the bouquets. I loved to reach my arms in there up to my armpits and wiggle them all around inside the silky scraps.
While Grandma was digging, she muttered to herself, “I ought to be making a nice quilt out of these ribbons.” Then she pulled out an enormous pair of pale pink nylon panties, two little patches of lace on each side. “Listen, honey,” she said, pulling them open wide to inspect them, “I might as well let you know, I’ve kept these panties because when I die I want to be buried in them. And if the girls start looking for me some panties, you tell them they’re in here.” Her clear blue eyes pierced mine for a few moments as she squinted down her nose and through her glasses.
I couldn’t speak. I just swallowed hard. She had no idea what a stew she was cooking in my brain. So Grandma really is going to die? I have to be responsible for her panties? Why do I have to have this burden? I didn’t say a word, though, just nodded my head, too full of questions and concerns to speak. I was only eight.
“How about this pretty pink ribbon?” she asked, turning back toward the trunk. It was the same color as her panties. “Miss Dolly would look pretty cute in pale pink, don’t you think?”
“Her name’s Mary Hartline,” I said, but I knew Grandma didn’t care. I just nodded yes and stood up as Grandma closed the chest, those pink panties stuffed inside there with the ribbons and quilt pieces. “Come on in and I’ll show you how to measure this ribbon and where to baste it,” Grandma said.
I followed her into the house, thinking now about my doll’s new pink party dress instead of Grandma’s panties. I really didn’t want to think about those.
* * *
I started worrying about Grandma after that, noting how she was shrinking from every Sunday to Tuesday to Sunday again. Her dresses all hung on her as if they belonged to somebody else.
My little brother Greg was two years younger than me, and I was sure he didn’t remember when Grandma had been fat or he would never have asked her that question that day, again on her back porch.
Greg and I were playing with the baby kitties in the basket on top of the army trunk. Old Puss purred and flapped her tail as we pulled the kittens, first one then the next, off her nipples to look at their little pink tongues. It didn’t take long for each to find his way back.
Grandma creaked open the screen door, holding some table scraps for Old Puss in her hand. She was wearing a bathrobe even though it was the middle of the day. “C’mere kitty. Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” She leaned over and dropped the scraps into Puss’s dirty dish. Puss stood up in her nest, the kittens still attached to her slowly dropping one by one.
“Grandma, why are you flat in the front like a boy?” Greg just blurted out. “Don’t you have any titties?”
My heart jumped to my throat! Oh, no, we were in for it! I squirmed off my butt and onto my knees so I could take off when necessary.
Grandma glared at Greg. Right there on her back porch, she reached inside her slip and hauled out a breast, unrolling it until it rested in the palm of her hand, long and flat. Greg’s mouth flew open, and I felt mine do the same. “Of course I have titties! I nursed your daddy and six other babies with these titties!” Each sentence was louder than the one before. “You wouldn’t even be here if I didn’t have these titties!”
Greg and I stared in shock at her and then at each other, then we leapt off the porch and took off running across the back field.
“Don’t ever tell me I don’t have titties!” Grandma yelled, pumping her fist as, still running, we looked over our shoulders at her. We knew it would be a while before it would be safe for us to come back.
* * *
We kids hadn’t seen Grandma in a couple of weeks. She was too weak and in too much pain. Daddy didn’t want us to remember her that way.
The phone call came early. It woke me up, of course, since the family phone was right outside my bedroom door. Mom answered it in her nightgown. I don’t know how I knew Daddy hadn’t made it home last night.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mama said. “I was afraid…” her voiced trailed off. She was quiet for a while, listening, and I heard her starting to sniff, trying to hold back a real boohoo. I knew Grandma was dead.
Daddy was home in time for breakfast. While we were all gathered around the breakfast table, he told the story of her death, how his brothers and sisters had been gathered around her bed, how her face had been wrenched in pain, and then suddenly the life just left her, and all the wrinkles left her face, and she smiled. “She has gone to be with Jesus,” Daddy told us, smiling. But his eyes were red, and I knew he’d been crying. His mother had died. My grandma was dead.
At first it didn’t seem right because I couldn’t make myself cry. I wanted to. I knew I was supposed to. I guess it just didn’t seem real that she was gone. Roxie Lucy. I wouldn’t be able to sit by her feet anymore, sneaking my head under her hand so she would pet me like a puppy.
* * *
A day or so later, Mama got us all dressed up in our Sunday clothes to go to the funeral home to see Grandma. Mama thought we should be able to “spend a little time saying goodbye” before the funeral.
Well, lying there in that pink coffin, she looked so skinny I was shocked. Her closed eyes were sunken in. Her nightgown was really pretty—pale pink. It crossed her chest, like two wide pink ribbons from her army trunk. “All the girls picked it out,” Mother said. I thought Grandma looked really comfortable, like she could sleep in that nightgown for the rest of time. And what Daddy had said was true; there was a faint little smile on her lips. I looked really close to make sure there was no snuff in the cracks around her lips. Her hair looked smooth and pretty. All of a sudden I was able to cry. Mama gave me a Kleenex.
At the funeral, I walked by her coffin pretty fast because I had already said my goodbye. Daddy stood there quite a while, but instead of looking at Grandma, I looked behind me at my cousins and aunts and uncles waiting in the aisle to have their chance to spend one last moment with Grandma’s body.
That night it was cold. As I nestled in bed, I thought about Grandma covered in dirt inside that cold pink metal coffin. I remembered her hands crossing her chest, her pretty pale pink nightgown. I pictured her lying there in her coffin, the little smile on her lips, ready to sleep for the rest of time, and then suddenly I saw her blue eyes open wide and stare straight at me.
I sat up in bed. Her panties! I had forgotten to tell my aunts about her panties! How could I have forgotten? Did they bury her without panties? Did they buy her new panties? It was too late to ask the aunts about it. I knew I would never have the nerve to tell them now. How would I be able to fall asleep tonight or from now on, bearing this heavy guilt, knowing it was my fault if Grandma was sleeping in her coffin for the rest of time without her panties?
“Grandma’s Panties” originally appeared in My Finest, available in paperback or on Kindle from Amazon.com. Printed in This Land, Vol. 5 Issue 1. Jan. 01, 2014.