Nana Hardy lived next door to the graveyard; its stonewall boundary spilled rocks onto her property creating steps to enter the other side. This entrance was too tempting for us to ignore.
Margie, Johnny and I climbed up the steps into a century-old world. The faded white tombstones filled the cemetery in rows. “Look. How sad,” I said as I pointed to a small marker for the death of a baby who lived only two months. Next to it lay the mother, Esther, who died 30 years later. Her husband was buried on her left.
“O-ba-di-ah,” Margie sounded the word out.” What kind of name is that?”
“An old-fashioned one, I guess,” I answered.
“Look at this one,” Johnny said, as we came upon a tombstone which had fallen over. “This guy died in 1815.”
“I guess he has no family still alive to fix it for him,” I said.
The cemetery lawn was mowed in rows between the tombs but the overgrowth of brush was never pruned. Markers close to the ground were unreadable, covered in weeds and thorns. Trees overhead blocked most of the sunlight, casting shadows on the tombstones.
A Methodist church sat on the other side of the cemetery. The back door squeaked open and a thin gray man emerged. He walked towards us, his dull eyes opened wide. “What are you kids doing here? Get out.”
He didn’t have to tell us twice. We scurried back over the stone steps to Nana’s side lawn. We darted around the back of the house to the back door and into the kitchen.
“What’s all this racket?” my father asked. We froze in place.
“Sorry,” I muttered. My shoulders slumped.
“Children should be seen and not heard,” Nana said. She turned to Father. ‘Speak when you’re spoken to, come when you’re called,’ that’s what my father always said.” Father’s eyes bore into us. We took our seats on the steps that led from the kitchen up to the sitting room. I shushed my brother and sister.
“You can each have a cookie from the cookie jar right there,” Nana said.
I reached for the cookie jar. “What do you say?” my father boomed.
“Thank you,” we three said in unison.
“What is it you wanted me to look at?” Father asked Nana. I never heard him call her “Mom.”
“Upstairs, I was hoping you could put in another bathroom for me, in the back room behind my bedroom.”
We all went up, through the sitting room and into Nana’s bedroom.
Pepto-bismol pink colored the walls. Black curtains hung from the windows and a black bedspread covered the bed.
“Quite a color scheme you got here,” Father said.
Nana and Father continued through her room and into the back room. “I would like a toilet, a bathtub and a sink. You know we don’t have a bathtub in the other bathroom and I would like to soak in a tub sometimes.”
I spun around her bedroom, puzzled as to why someone would decide to paint a room this color. “I didn’t even know they made black curtains,” I said to Margie.
“And a black bedspread,” Margie answered. “Why would anybody want that?”
“Look at these books,” I said, as I picked up a book on Palm Reading. “Look, it tells about the lines in your hands—love line, life line, how many kids you’re gonna have, all kinds of stuff.”
“Let me see,” Margie said as she grabbed the book out of my hands.
I resisted the urge to grab it back as I saw another book on the table and picked it up instead. The cover showed a woman screaming and a ghost standing in back of her laughing. I thumbed through the pages, enthralled and terrified as I read of blood dripping from a knife and thumps in the dark.
“I’d like the bathtub over here,” Nana said from the other room.
“No, we can’t do that because the heat comes in there, you need to put it over here,” Father said.
There was a huge stack of books on the black bedside table. I picked up an Astrology book which described zodiac signs based on a person’s birthday.
Father and Nana walked back into her bedroom. “You can borrow that book if you would like,” Nana said to me.
“Okay, thank you.”
“What about this one?” Margie asked holding up the Palm Reading book.
“Sure, take that one too.”
Father looked at Nana and told her, “I’ll call you when I have all the pipes and supplies and then I’ll come over and start working on the bathroom.”
“Thank you John,” Nana said. “I should call Jimmy—he can help you.”
“No. I don’t need his help. Don’t call him.”
“Well, I just thought—“
“No.” Father looked at us. “Come on, we’re going home.”
On the ride home, Margie and I read our books. I memorized all the astrology signs and the birthdate ranges associated with each. I wanted as much information as I could get.
Margie quickly lost interest in the Palm Reading book, and instead began to sing along with the radio. I picked up the Palm Reading book and examined all the diagrams. I soaked up all the material.
When I closed my eyes that night for sleep, I could still see the diagrams inside my mind.
We visited Nana again the following Saturday. Father had assembled the pipes and supplies for the bathroom, and he brought his friend Don along to help him. Father knocked on the door and Nana answered, still wearing her pajamas and robe although it was two in the afternoon. She held a cigarette in her right hand.
“You really oughta quit smoking,” Father said.
“My cigarettes are my best friends,” Nana said. “I couldn’t get through the day without them.” I crinkled my face at Margie and she reflected it back to me as we inhaled the stinky smoke of Nana’s cigarette. “You kids can go downstairs in the kitchen and have a cookie,” Nana told us. Nana, Father and Don walked to the new bathroom area and discussed placement of the bathtub.
Downstairs in the kitchen, we went straight to the cookie jar. “Look, it’s full to the rim,” I said. We grabbed a few handfuls and sat down on the steps, our assigned seats.
There was a knock at the door. It was Nana’s friend Emily. “Hi Gloria, I brought my coffee,” Emily said, holding up her steel thermos.” Are you almost ready for the meeting?”
“Come on in Emily,” Nana said. “I’m visiting with my grandchildren. Come sit at the table, kids, you don’t need to sit on those steps.” We were stunned, but scrambled to sit at the adult table.
“It must be so nice to have grandchildren. I don’t have any,” Emily replied.
Nana cut herself a slice of yellow cake with gooey chocolate icing. “Would you kids like some?”
“Yes, please,” I answered obediently. Nana got out the good saucers and gave us each a slice of cake.
“Jimmy likes this kind of cake, that’s why I always have some in the house, in case he stops by.” Nana turned to Emily, and Emily nodded. “Jimmy was always such a good son, ever since he was a little boy.”
“I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was Christmas in 1936, and Al and I were living in Brooklyn in that apartment on Red Street. Ruthie you know, Al’s sister, she was living with us too. Al couldn’t find steady work. Ruthie was doing some sewing at the factory, but it didn’t pay much, and it was all we could do to buy food.
“Somehow Jimmy managed to get us all gifts that year. I felt so bad. We got a tree late Christmas Eve after the businesses closed down, to be honest I think Al stole it but I never asked. We had a few old ornaments in a box. Of course, Al still had enough money to come home with a bottle of booze that night, but no gifts. By that time I never expected anything. He did share the booze with me.” Nana winked at Emily. Emily shrugged back.
“So anyway, we woke up Christmas morning and Jimmy was all excited. He had gifts for us, all wrapped in newspaper. I guess he went to the Five and Dime. He handed out the gifts and stood there looking at us, all wide-eyed and expecting something. He was only 6 years old. We had nothing to give him. I felt like the worst mother in the world.” Nana picked up her coffee cup and swallowed several big gulps. I saw that her eyes were watery. She blinked several times, put down her coffee cup, and grabbed her cigarettes and lighter.
“It’s time to go to our meeting,” Emily said changing the subject.
“Yes, you’re right,” Nana said, as she took a drag of her cigarette. “Let me just throw some clothes on first.”