Midland, Michigan, USA – October 2012
When I knock on her front door, she doesn’t know who I am. “Dobrý deň, Pani.” I hold up the bag of tomatoes from my mother’s garden. She knows that I live in Slovakia now. “Would you like some tomatoes?”
“Dobrý deň,” she answers, still no recognition in her eyes. “Come on in.”
I follow her into the dining room. Maybe she just isn’t that excited to see me. We talk about the weather and the changing leaves until my mother comes in a few minutes later. I asked her to wait around the corner for a few minutes so that it could really be a surprise.
I look at her and shake my head. Her face goes pale. “Mom, it’s Julie.”
In my grandmother’s eyes, the turbulence of muddled memory. “No, it’s not! It doesn’t even look like her!”
“You shouldn’t let strangers into your house, Grandma.”
“Oh, I can take care of myself.” She shuffles around the living room and shows me the weapons she has hidden in strategic places – a hammer, a letter opener. And there is her faithful dog Chaz.
Her eyes hold no recognition of me, even as I walk out the door.
A few days later, she calls me. “I’ve got some stuff that needs doing around here.” Her memory is back. I grip the phone and sigh.
“You don’t have to do it,” my mother says, her face full of hurt. “She hasn’t seen you for five years and she calls you up to work?”
“It’s okay,” I say, trying to stifle the resentment. The only way to communicate with Grandma is to work for her. It has been that way ever since I was old enough to hold a paintbrush. “She’s eighty-eight. This is probably the last time I’ll see her.”
When I show up, she takes one look at my clothes and shakes her head. “You can fill the bird feeders.”
As I carry the ladder across the leaf-strewn lawn, I step in dog shit.
“Oh, calm down. Just clean it off with a stick.”
I fill up the riding lawn mower with gas, take down some tools from high places and replace others.
“Let me drink a coffee and think about other things you can do.” She goes into the house.
I walk down the long cement path towards the sunken garden. The hedges are now trimmed by a landscaping company. It is paid for by my uncle. Grandma nags the workers and eventually fires them, so my uncle keeps rehiring new people. Midland is not a big city. There are only so many landscaping companies.
Her property spans three city lots. It is one of the largest private properties within the Midland city limits. My grandfather crafted it into three sections: a vegetable garden behind the house, an open field for sports in the middle, and a sunken Japanese garden at the very back. An A-frame tea house, a heavy stone lantern, a cherry tree, a stone waterfall, a cement pond. He fell in love with this look when he passed through Japan during WWII. Each of his seven children had their prom and/or graduation photos taken on the bridge over the robin’s egg blue-colored pond.
When I was small, I would lose myself here. It was no longer Midland, but Japan, or some unknown mysterious land. I crept along the stone waterfall under the bridge. Distant sounds kept me just barely anchored to earth. Laughter and shouts from my aunts and uncles playing baseball. The meaty thuds of horseshoes hitting sand pits. The older generation’s game of preference. I explored every hidden corner of this sanctuary. Behind every bush and tree. Even inside the tiny copse where no one ever strayed. I wanted to see and learn everything about everywhere.
One by one, the aunts and uncles drifted away to the mountains and the far coast. I became too big to fit under the bridge. My brother, my sister, and I would climb up the A-frame, and then afterwards dig splinters out of our feet and hands with sewing needles. As a teenager, during a family reunion, I outdrank my cousin Tom back here. With the help of Great-aunt Monica, we had unlimited access to beer. He puked in the pond. I continued to drink and got sick on the living room couch. This was the first story Grandma told when she met my friends and boyfriends. I probably deserved it.
I doubt she remembers this now. Such is the physics of our own individual Universe. We explode into being, the boundaries of our existence expand outward for a time, and then they contract until the inevitable implosion. The only thing that remains is I. A bewildering isolation.
Maybe I’ll be gone by then.
I sit on the stone steps leading down to the garden and watch the languid tumble of leaves to earth.
There are things I wish I had never seen or heard or done or felt in my life. Why did I have to go looking for everything?
The A-frame has been replaced by a simple square gazebo. Violets have overrun the stone waterfall. The bridge railings are loose; the wood is rotting. The only beings that hang out back here these days are deer and partying teenagers. I remember some kind of crisp, pine-smelling bushes, but they are gone, too. The pond is full of leaves and stagnant water. I will ask her if she wants me to sweep it out.