It’s been awhile since I’ve written on my blog, but the Fall Writing Frenzy competition has unleashed some much needed inspiration. The rules? Write a 200-word (max) story based on one of fourteen pre-selected photographs. Here’s the photo I chose:
Fall. Credit: Daniele Colucci for Unsplash.
I crouch and examine the way the puddles mirror and break the light draining from the sky. I wonder if I can replicate it with my paints. The buildings are blue with twilight, as am I.
Where is Grandma?
The concrete, foreign beneath my feet, offers no clues or pine needles scenting my search. My hunt becomes as twisted as the braids hanging beneath my hood.
A soft growl from behind shoves me down the nearest alleyway.
My breath huffs out in too visible clouds. This is a terrible hiding spot.
I hold my breath and peek around the corner. My only company is the gurgle of the storm drain flush with rainwater and the howl of the wind down the empty streets. A paper napkin skitters by like a mouse.
I flinch when a red light turns on. Vivid and violent, staining the sidewalk purple.
It beckons me.
The doorframe is splintered by water and time. My fingers trace the intricate, roaming lines of the doorknob. A wolf’s head, edged in silver, is warm against my palm as I turn it.
My grandmother’s voice, gravelly and strange, echoes nearby, “Little Red Riding Hood! Where are you?”
Good luck to everyone else who’s entered, but especially to my critique partners: Hannah, Kristen, and Patti! Check out all the entries here. A big, huge heartfelt thank you to Lydia, Kaitlyn, and Alyssa for hosting + judging this competition!
I’ve known Maga my entire life, but I didn’t really know her until 2007. After Jobo’s unexpected death, loneliness became her new roommate and knowing the shape of it too well, I started calling her weekly to check-in, check-up, check on her. Unless I was traveling out of the country (upon which I would send her a postcard), I faithfully called and she dutifully answered.
“Hi, Maga! It’s Abby.” “Hi, Abby, dear.”
It was the same start to nearly every conversation. Wild travel adventures or quiet quarantine life, Maga was always an attentive audience. “I will always be interested in what you’re doing and where you’re going,” she said. And she meant it. Even this past year with no travel and nothing of note to talk about, Maga always thanked me for calling and for having such a cheerful voice, but it’s me who was grateful for the warm reception she gave me. It’s a rare breed who’s happy every time single time you call.
In August 2016, I began keeping track of our calls, scribbling notes on whatever was nearby trying to capture the cadence of her words. Sometimes the junk mail envelope or notepad was lined with a month’s worth of calls. Sometimes it held just one. I never knew how talkative she’d be or how fresh her memory. She wasn’t aware I was taking notes or recording the emotional threads on my blog (heck, she didn’t know what a blog was), but I think she would have gotten a kick out of them. Most especially because she also always kept a pen and paper nearby.
“I like to jot down little items like that. Catch up on things.” It was one of the facts I cherished because there we were, separated by thousands of miles, and yet, mirror images of each other with our note taking.
I knew the arc of her story (only child raised by a single mother, graduated high school, then college, married college sweetheart, had four kids, lots of grandkids, zillions of great grandkids), but the details were what fascinated me most and what I tried hardest to track down. She was usually content to stick to the present, but occasionally, I’d get a bit of history out of her, like why she and Jobo started sending $2 bills to each grandkid for Valentine’s Day.
“It was a crazy idea, I guess. We have so many grandchildren and it didn’t cost us too much to do that. Plus, $2 bills are unusual and neat.”
Her sense of humor often caught me off guard and made me laugh that much harder for it. In one roundabout conversation that started with her European travels, we got sidetracked by the bright, round, full moon outside. Me: “What do you think it was like to walk on the moon?” Maga: “Well, once you get there, there’s not much to see or do.” Or another time when she made sure to keep me humble: “I was just watching TV. It was sort of dull and I thought of you.”
Some nights, it felt just like two gal pals gossiping. Such as the time I detailed how my sibling’s family had been brought down by a stomach bug and Maga replied, “He didn’t mention anything of the sort to me. I guess one doesn’t really talk about unfortunate things like that. But you and I can talk about it privately.” It was a quick and dirty conversation short on epiphanies or life lessons, but it was one of those silly talks born from regular contact.
“I just need to know when it’s Tuesday because that’s our day. That’s always been our day,” she said. “You and me. We understand loneliness.” And because of that, even if we didn’t have much to say, the quiet was just better together.
Sometimes that quiet was punctuated with her eating her dinner as we chatted. And, of course, dessert was a must. “I like cookies. Always have.”
Sometimes it was the big things she said that I filed away, but mostly, it was all those tiny moments together that added up to one grand story.
What started as a spur of the moment idea transformed into a decades long relationship that filled my life in ways I never saw coming. I treasure the glimpses I got into the matriarch of this family and my heart hangs heavy at not being able to learn anything more. I will, though, always be comforted by one last similarity. Our love of the sky at sunset. This brilliant sky greeted me on the morning of February 5, 2021.
I didn’t yet know Maga had passed, but as I viewed the flat, endless gray sky mere moments later, I instinctively knew she’d had a hand in that beauty. Those colors painting the sky just as our phone calls added color to my Tuesdays. That even though a global pandemic had kept us physically separated this past year, she’d reached out to touch me one last time.
“Good luck and take care and be good.”
Her voice, while no longer just a phone call away, will always be inside my heart.
I haven’t been able to talk with Maga because she’s no longer talking. It’s another step in the transition from living to… not, so I faced my second Tuesday without a conversation with Maga with a heavy heart. My mom is traveling out tomorrow, so I’d made her promise to facetime me while there so she could at least hear me one last time.
Imagine my surprise when Caregiver M texted me this afternoon and said Maga was alert and she (CM) would facetime so Maga could see me, as she seemed to enjoy calls with her children this way. I, quite literally, dropped everything and embraced this golden opportunity.
At first, it was a little startling because of the awkward angle, but knowing the aerobatics CM likely had to go through to hold the ipad screen so Maga could see it, I swallowed my scared. And, by the end of the call, I was used to the shape of the underside of her nose, and I focused instead on her lips that twitched into a smile and her eyes that would dart to the side. Plus, the sunshine melting onto her bed lit up her hair in the most delicious way.
Her first smile came when I asked what she’d eaten for lunch and CM replied, “Ice cream.”
Maga’s always had a sweet tooth and the news of her lunch delighted us all.
I nearly fell off my chair when Maga quietly uttered her first, “No” in response to CM asking if she was tired and wanted her to hang up.
But the best part, by far, was when her hand blocked the screen and CM narrated that Maga was reaching out to touch me.
The days of the week don’t mean as much lately, whether it’s due to quarantine life or being two months shy of your 100th birthday, but I do my best to keep up with my weekly call to Maga regardless. Caregiver M responded to my inquiring text just as I was finishing up with dinner, which gave me a few minutes heads up to do the noisy tasks, like washing dishes, before it was time to settle in for a chat.
“She’s almost ready,” CM said to me, as she helped Maga get comfortably arranged in her chair. “It’s Abby,” she said to Maga.
“Hi, Abby, dear.”
Her voice was strong, but her mind was still a bit muddled. She knew dinner on the agenda, but wasn’t sure where it was. She knew we were talking, but couldn’t make out the words I was saying. I guess me detailing the new president’s inauguration involved words in a vocal register not readily audible for her.
“Just a minute,” Maga said. “I’m going to put the phone down.”
“Okay.” I continued wiping down the countertops. Despite some hysteria in her voice moments before, it was surprisingly quiet once she put the phone down. No dial tone sounded, so I stayed on the line. Eventually, voices crept closer.
“Abby’s on the phone,” CM said. “Talk to her.”
“What did you do today?” Maga asked.
“Not all that much. It’s pretty quiet around these parts.”
“It’s pretty quiet around a lot of parts. Where do you live again?”
Silence from Maga.
“Oh, yes, that’s right.”
I always forget that she remembers the town name more than the state, even though the state is one she lived in for four years. It’s fascinating what the brain latches onto and remembers.
“There are a lot of cars outside,” Maga said. “How do you…” She got stuck on that phrase for some time. I quietly let her try to work through her thoughts. “Oh, I don’t know what I’m saying,” Maga said.
“Something about the cars outside?” I suggested.
“I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Most days, me either!”
“Oh, Abby, dear.” It was a phrase she uttered multiple times throughout our conversation. A simple plea, cry, complaint, and/or frustration all politely packaged. It broke my heart not knowing what to do or say. Talking too much wasn’t working any better than talking too little.
“How I wish I could see you,” Maga said.
“Oh, me too. Me too. Me too. As soon as I can get the covid vaccine, I’m on the first plane to you.”
This comment spiraled out of control as I had to explain covid + vaccines + the current global pandemic. Eventually, CM returned with Maga’s warm(!) panini and as she was setting it up for her, her phone dinged repeatedly. Maga noted that her phone was busy and CM replied that there was a long line of people waiting to talk.
“Ah ha!” I cried. “I won the battle of who got to talk to you first!”
Maga chuckled at that. It seems the bloodthirsty competitive spirit is something (a) she understands and (b) I come by genetically.
It had been nearly 30 minutes by this time and my kitchen was sparkling clean. “Maybe I should stop monopolizing your time, Maga, and let someone else call through.”
“I suppose so. Did you call me or did I call you?”
“I called you.”
“Should I call you next or will you call me?”
“I’ll call you,” I said.
“Okay. That’s good. Thank you so much for calling tonight.”
“Bye, Abby, dear.”
And with that, I alerted the next in line (my mom) that the matriarch was up and communicative, because in this newfound competition, I couldn’t help but share some insider trading info.