I sneezed four times in a row. Dusty attic. Stifling. Wasps droning, so hot themselves they seemed benign. I sighed out the tediousness of cleaning out this place. Sighed out the sorrow that Gram was finally dead and gone to "her reward" as the elders of my tribe put it. Oh, yeah, Gram: your reward is waiting.
As the only female within hailing distance, it fell to me in a patriarchal way to clean out Gram's attic. "Save what's good, honey," mother had said long distance. Click. Your problem, the disconnect said.
What could possibly be good in this woman's life? I coughed and sat on a big wooden steamer trunk. I had never been in Gram's attic. I would like to say she was a woman who smelled of lilacs and fed me tea and let me rummage through her attic to dress up on rainy days. Not her.
I hate it that I have her straight lips. Cold lips. Sometimes I paint them fuller and then fancy I look better but know it looks ridiculous and mildly obscene.
"OK, Gram," I whisper to her dead soul, "now I get to know your secrets. Let's see the skeletons!" I got off the trunk and tried to pop it, but it was locked. Locked! Bitch. Lord knew where the keys were. I glanced around and saw a cobwebbed screwdriver on a window sill. I started to jimmy the lock.
I didn't imagine that a dead body would pop up, but suddenly I thought: she was a very private person. Do I have a right to invade that privacy?
Yes. I did. I was alive; she was dead. She had treated my mother horribly, accused her of being pregnant when mama was married (my elder sister arrived early weighing 4+ pounds. I understood preemies even as a child). She doted on her son and wondered aloud why he had married my talented, sensitive mother. And mama bore it and was unfailingly kind, so that, when Gram slipped into Alzheimer's, mama was the last person she recognized. But . . .
Forget it. I thrust the screwdriver against the old lock violently. It gave with a tiny shrug. I overwhelmed the past.
Creak. And the top was opened. Half a trunk-worth of -- what? Manila folders, all carefully labeled in her fine up-and-down hand. "The Gift." "Secrets of Andrea." "The Train Ride." "Careless." "At the Theatre." I opened "The Train Ride" carefully.
It was a story. In the vertical hand, brittle and beautiful and unsmudged. A story about a young girl who went on a train ride and met a handsome stranger who changed her life. I couldn't stop reading until I had finished it.
"Careless" was about a fire accidentally set in the barn that wiped out a farmer's horses, and his hopes. And I couldn't stop reading until I had finished it.
There was a foot-deep layer of such manila things. Nothing else. Gram's secret life. She wrote it. And showed it to -- no one, I guess.
I removed them all, carefully. There were tears in my eyes not caused by the heat and the dust and my allergy to mites. One of the bottom layer was styled "At the End." I opened it holding my breath.
"I am 83," it started, "and I have never been to Egypt, never seen Paris. I have never seen whales. But I have lived the life I wanted in these stories. Do not judge me harshly, I beg you. I had more love than I knew what to do with, and did not know how to say what I wanted. Needed. My spirit was often too large for my body. It pained me when it moved.
"I am slipping. Slipping into fantasy, into darkness, into grayness. The grayness is the worst. My life, in my mind, has been so full of color and action and caring. Pity me that I never knew how to translate that life into the one that I was forced to assume. I loved my children. I came to love my husband. My grandchildren pleased me. But, in my bitterness at the life I could not have, I denied them.
"If you are someone who knew me, reading this, know that I was a woman whose life was internal and hidden. It was sensational and almost enough. I failed. Maybe my kin will forgive me, maybe not. It won't matter by then, anyway. But if you -- reading this -- knew my coldness -- please see the other me who never was, or could not be. And say a prayer for a soul that wished to soar."
Was that ovate smudge, the only one on the manuscripts, a tear?
I closed the folder and sat with my hand on it, open-palmed, pressing it down.
"Oh, Gram," I said, "I've found your bones."
Mama had said, "take what is good." I reached into my cardigan pocket and pulled out the chalk. Very carefully I made a large "X" on the top of the trunk. Yes. This is good. This one we'll save.
Phoebe Wray lives in an old farmhouse in Massachusetts with a dog, two cats and a turtle. She is a published poet, has a body of non-fiction writing in environmental conservation, especially endangered species, and has had six plays produced. She teaches in the Theatre Division of The Boston Conservatory and is an adjunct at Bradford College.
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