“Grandma, tell us a story,” my cousins begged in perfect unison. We all knew that if we had been well behaved that day we would be rewarded with one of my grandmother’s in depth and extremely detailed bedtime stories. My cousins, brothers, and I looked at her with bright eyes hoping we earned one of our favorite rewards. Some of the smaller cousins wiggled with anticipation inside their sleeping bags that were sporadically spaced across the living room floor of my grandparent’s house.
“Which story would you like to hear, my little angels?” She knew we all wanted to hear about the secret garden that could only be accessed through a secret passage in an old castle back in a magical place called Ireland, as that was the only story we ever requested. But she always asked us anyway.
“Grandma, can you tell us the story about the garden? The secret one?” My eldest cousin, Samantha, was always willing to ask for things. I always struggled with expressing myself because I felt like a burden, but she had no fear of burdening others. My grandmother started her story with immense detail. She would describe the castle, the stairs, the door, the flowers, the vines, the weather; almost to the point that it wasn’t a story at all.
That night, after she finished her long detailed narrative, I looked around the living room at all of the children that she lulled to sleep with her visions and voice, and I felt like I had disrespected her by not falling asleep to her story. I looked up at her and told her I was sorry I didn’t fall asleep. She smiled at me and said, “Oh, my Sweet Leilani, don’t apologize. Let me tell you another story, this one is shorter, but I think it can be our secret.”
I listened to her soft voice as it began to paint a picture, one that just she and I would share. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t as detailed as the tale she had shared moments ago with me and a handful of her other grandchildren. She started by sharing details about her mother, Polly, and her mother’s only sister, Fern. She talked about how they were the best of friends and the worst of enemies. She told me that their favorite thing to do was tease each other. Fern would sing, “Polish it in the corner” and Polly would reply with, “Furnish it in the corner.” I snuggled down and smiled as I drifted off to sleep enjoying the sound of my grandmother’s voice sweetly reciting our secret story. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand exactly what the story meant at the time, though once I was old enough to know what curse words were, it did finally dawn on me. The only thing that ever seemed to matter when I was with my grandmother was how much she loved me.
Many children grow up living in their grandparent’s home, so it wasn’t unusual to me being raised there for almost my entire childhood. Our situation was a little different because my parents lived there too. My maternal grandparents owned a five bedroom house on the corner of North Cashew Avenue in a city named Brea, in California. It had a fenced yard and a tree swing, as well as a two story fort my grandfather built for his grandchildren in the backyard. One thing that made our situation peculiar is that we often had other people living with us. Sometimes one of my grandparents other eight children and their spouse and children would move in with us. I would share my bedroom with various female cousins, and my brothers would make room for our male cousins in each of their rooms. My parents lived in the finished garage, so my aunt and uncle would move into the extra bedrooms upstairs, near the children and my grandparent’s master bedroom. Other times my grandparents would rent out the extra bedroom, either to missionaries, or strangers, or even church members. Growing up with the rotating door that was my grandparent’s home was oftentimes a strange experience.
Out of everyone who lived with us through the years, my grandmother was my favorite. She had a way of loving that could never be doubted. I loved her more than I loved my mother, and for good reason, my mother was often mean and cruel. My grandmother would sing to me as a young child and tell me those detailed bedtime stories that she kept filed away in her memories. I remember her hands vividly; at times I am convinced I remember her hands better than I can remember her face. I recall the topography of her hands, the way puffy veins created mountain ranges and how the valleys were the place where her liver spots gathered. I know they weren’t always so wrinkly and shaky, but that is how I remember them. I remember how it felt for her hand to hold mine and I remember how my hand transitioned from feeling so small in hers, to hers feeling so small in mine. I remember how gentle she was when she did my waist length hair; my mother wouldn’t allow it to be cut and was always rushed when she braided it. I remember searching my grandmother out in the mornings, hoping she would have time to braid it before my mother got a hold of me.
I hated having long hair. It was the bane of my childhood existence. It reached down slightly past my waist, just long enough to be in my way every time I sat down. I went through the morning torture of my mother braiding it for school, and the same ritual every night for bed. She would rip the brush through the tangles, as though having to brush it at all was burdening her beyond my young understanding. I would look for my grandmother some mornings, hoping that she hadn’t left to run errands, or decided to sleep in, so that I could have her put my hair up. My mother didn’t like the sloppiness of my grandmother’s arthritic hands. And I definitely couldn’t do it myself for multiple made up reasons, but mostly because I would have pulled it loosely back at the nape of my neck, which always upset my mother.
My mother would start by putting my mane in a tight, gelled down pony tail. So tight that there were days that I felt my eyeballs were on the brink of popping out. Then she would jerk my head about as she braided over two feet of hair. The last step required a can of AquaNet as she sprayed my bangs to the point of immobility. I do not believe there are words to describe how much I hated it. I would ask daily to have it cut. She always had a boy-based answer to shatter my wish. Her favorite was that boys liked girls with long hair, and the second place answer was that she didn’t want people thinking I was a boy. No matter her reason, the answer was always no. That is, until one morning before school when I was in 4th grade. I was trying my best to stand still during the morning pain session when I asked her if I would be able to get a haircut. She snapped. Before I realized what was happening, my mother was standing behind me with the kitchen shears. She asked me over and over if I was certain that this was what I wanted and I can remember staring in the mirror at my long locks, which were happily nodding along with my head in the affirmative.
I can still see my mother shaking her head in disappointment. I remember the feeling of her pulling my hair back in one clump and the sound it made as she cut through it with one hard slice of the scissors. She pulled her hand away, holding a symbol of multiple years of pain and headache up for me to see in the mirror. I waited for her to straighten the haphazardness out, but then I slowly realized that she had no intention of helping my new haircut look cute. She was smiling at me in the mirror, still holding the tail of hair, looking very proud of herself for teaching me a lesson. I stared at her for a little too long and realized that she was rewarded by the tears forming in my eyes. I quickly looked back at myself, at the haircut I knew some of the kids at school were going to laugh at, and I realized something. I was never going to be able to be the daughter my mother wanted me to be. My new haircut wasn’t perfect, but it was too short for a ponytail and braid. That second realization caused the corners of my mouth to begin to turn upward. I really wish my mother saw the beginning of my smile, but she had already tossed the hair into the bathroom trash can and stomped away victoriously.
By the time my grandmother picked me up from school that day, my best friend and I had already evened out my hair the best we could in the girls’ restroom during our first recess. My grandmother didn’t say anything about my hair. I wasn’t sure if she was as disappointed in me as my mother was, or if she didn’t know what to say to console me. I was so relieved that my grandmother picked me up that day; I don’t think I could have stomached sitting in such close quarters with my mother. I looked over at my grandmother as she drove the winding way home and whispered that I loved her so softly I almost wished she hadn’t heard me. She took her eyes off the road, which she was known to do for extended periods of time, and smiled at me. She put her hand on the nape of my neck and tussled my hair. Her soft, wrinkled, arthritic hand in my hair caused my heart to warm my chest and the tears to start to roll down my cheeks.
My grandmother would often drive me home, humming a song from her childhood, always ready to fling her arm across my chest if she stepped on the brakes suddenly. I remember watching her twiddle her thumbs at stoplights. I remember watching her hands roll out pie crust, or knead bread dough. I remember how her hands felt on mine as she showed me how to whip eggs into merengue and how to create clothing using her sewing machine. The smell of fabric and warm oil still causes my brain to recall memories of her and how she became more and more dependent upon me threading the machine for her. My favorite thing to watch her hands do was play the piano; it was the highlight of my week. I can still see her hands gliding up and down the keys, her voice traveling through the house like a lost opera singer looking for the stage. I tried to mimic the way she effortlessly made beautiful music sing from the belly of the piano, her hands never seeming to stay on a single ivory or ebony key for too long. I remember the way I felt when she told me I was old enough to learn as my hands could easily span over half an octave. I couldn’t hold my giddiness inside, I was swinging my legs back and forth on the piano bench, like the young child that I was, ready to learn the majestic piece “Mary had a Little Lamb”. She numbered the five ivory keys starting with middle C up to the first G above middle C, with 1 2 3 4 5. She sang 3 2 1 2, 3 3 3, 2 2 2, 3, 5 5. And I followed her voice to make my own music bellow out of the gorgeous instrument that I slowly learned how to play without the masking tape.
The year I turned twelve my grandparents moved out of their house on North Cashew Avenue and I desperately wanted to go with them. They had purchased a new house in Apple Valley, California. I begged my mother to let me go. Her answer was absolutely no; I was absolutely shattered. I remember helping my grandparents pack their belongings, sorting through years of memories that I wasn’t alive for, wishing that each thing I touched could stay with me. Standing out by the moving van I saw movement from the corner of my eye, a mound of blue blankets taped together and moving on wheels; it was my grandmother’s piano. I became hyperaware of my entire body in that moment, all the emotions I had been fighting back all week became ripples on the placid surface of my expression. As my grandfather, uncles, and father struggled to get the piano on the lift gate, I struggled to hold back the beads of tears that streamed down my face. I felt someone come up beside me and I turned to see my mother looking at me with her brow furrowed together. She angrily said, “Stop being so melodramatic,” and stomped into the house.
In late 2009 my grandmother died. She died quietly on the morning of her first born daughter’s 54th birthday. She died in peace in the hospital alone, after begging my sleep deprived grandfather to head home to get some sleep, assuring him that she would be fine. I wasn’t there; no one told me she had passed away until the day of her funeral and by the time my mother told me, there was no way to make it to California in time. But I can imagine her hands, resting across her chest with her spots, and mountains, and valleys, and it breaks my heart that I will never learn from them again. I see glimpses of her in my children. Though they only met her briefly while they were very young, a part of her lives on in them. I see her hands in my own hands, as I grow and age I see mountains start to form and my freckles gather like spots in the valleys, wrinkles magically appear that weren’t there before and I know that because of my grandmother, my hands are able to do things that they wouldn’t have ever done otherwise.