“Yeah, you did,” I said. “Did they have lumps?”
“The potatoes. Did they have lumps?”
“Of course they did,” she said. “They’re only good if they have lumps.”
“I know it,” I said. “Save me a bowl, okay?”
“Okay,” she said, her voice crackling across the line, reassuring as always. “I will.”
I got to know my Grandma Halley a little better that weekend, and it wasn’t through the few short visits I spent by her bedside, holding her hand. She was still in pain from her surgery and a little confused; she called me Julie more than once, and told me stories that trailed off midway, fading out in the quiet. And all the while my mother was there behind me, or beside me, finishing the sentences my grandmother couldn’t, and trying to make everything right again.
In my bedroom at Grandma Halley’s, there was an old cabinet made out of sweet-smelling wood with roses painted across the doors. One night when I was bored I opened it up, and inside were stacks of boxes, photographs, letters, and odds and ends, little things my grandmother, who was an intense pack rat, couldn’t bear to throw away. There were pictures of her as a teenager in fancy dancing dresses posing with gaggles of other girls, all of them smiling. Her hair had been long and dark, and she wore it twisted up over her head, with flowers woven across the crown. There was one box full of dance cards with boys’ names signed in them, each dance numbered off. I found a wedding picture of her and my grandfather bending over a cake, the knife in both their hands. It all fascinated me. I read the letters she wrote to her mother during her first trip abroad, where she spent four pages describing an Indian boy she met in the park, and every word he said, and how blue the sky was. And the later letters about my grandfather, how much she loved him, letters that were returned to her postmarked and neatly tied with string when her own mother died.
I went downstairs and found my mother at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of tea and sitting in Grandma Halley’s big green chair by the window. She didn’t hear me come in and jumped when I touched her shoulder.
“Hey,” she said. “What are you still doing up?”
“I’ve been reading all this stuff of Grandma Halley’s,” I said, sliding in beside her. “Look at this.” And I showed her the dance card I had tied to my wrist, and the wedding picture of them dancing past the band, and my birth announcement, carefully saved in its own envelope. Hours had passed as I’d sat going through my grandmother’s life, stored in boxes and envelopes, neatly organized as if she’d meant for me to find it there all along.
“Can you believe she was ever so young,” my mother said, holding the wedding picture to the light. “See the necklace she’s wearing? She gave that to me on my wedding day. It was my ‘something borrowed.’”
“She fell in love with an Indian boy the summer she was nineteen,” I told her. “In a park in London. He wrote to her for two years afterwards.”
“No kidding,” she said softly, her fingers idly brushing across my hair. “She never told me.”
“And you know that bell she keeps in the window halfway up the stairs? Grandpa bought her that at a flea market in Spain, when he was in the service.”
“You should read the letters,” I said, looking down at my own name on the birth announcement: Welcome, Halley!
She smiled at me, as if remembering suddenly when moments like this between us were not noticed for the very fact of how rare they were.
“Honey,” she said, gathering up my hair in her hands, “I’m sorry about that night at the restaurant. I know it’s hard to understand why we can’t let you see Macon. But it’s for the best. Someday you’ll understand that.”
“No,” I said. “I won’t.” And then, just as easily as it had closed, the distance opened up between us. I could almost see it.
She sighed, letting my hair drop. She felt it, too. “Well, it’s late. You should get to bed, okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” I got up and walked toward the stairs, past the framed front page of the local paper, announcing the comet’s arrival. HALLEY MAKES ANOTHER VISIT, it said.
“I remember when the comet came through,” I said, and she walked up behind me, reading over my shoulder. “I sat in Grandma’s lap and we watched it together.”
“Oh, honey, you were so little,” she said easily. “And it really wasn’t clear at all. You didn’t see anything. I remember.”
And that was it; it was so easy for her. My own memories did not even belong to me.
But I knew she was wrong. I had seen that comet. I knew it as well as I knew my own face, my own hands. My own heart.
The next morning we locked up the house, fed the cat and left money for the petsitter, then piled into the car for one last visit with Grandma Halley. Evergreen was quiet then, with the visitors already having hit the road, getting the jump on each other. My father said his good-bye quickly and went out to the parking lot to stand by the car, eyes on the freeway ramp, his head ducked against the wind. Inside, behind the sealed-for-your-own-safety windows, we couldn’t even hear it blowing.
I sat for a long time next to Grandma Halley’s bed, her hand in mine, with my mother on the other side. She was coherent, but barely; she was tired, the drugs made her woozy, and she kept closing her eyes. Her cheek was dry when I kissed it, and as I pulled back she put her hand against my face, her fingers smooth and cool, smiling at me but saying nothing. I remembered the girl in the pictures, with the roses and the long dancing dresses, and I smiled back.
I waited in the hallway while my mother said good-bye. I stood against the wall, under the clock, and listened to it ticking. Inside, my mother’s voice was low and even, and I couldn’t make out any words. Next door, the man with the tubes was alone again, the equipment by his bed beeping in the dark. The TV over his bed was showing only static.
Finally, after about twenty minutes, I walked back to the half-open door. My mother had her back to me, one hand on Grandma Halley’s, and as I looked closely I could see Grandma Halley had fallen asleep, her eyes closed, breath even and soft. And my mother, who had spent the entire holiday weekend almost manic with reassurance, squeezing my shoulder and smiling, forcing conversation, was crying. She had her head down, resting against the rail of the bed, and her shoulders shook as she wept, with Grandma Halley sleeping on, oblivious. It scared me, the same way I’d been scared the night I came home from Sisterhood Camp and found Scarlett in tears on her porch, waiting for me. There are some things in this world you rely on, like a sure bet. And when they let you down, shifting from where you’ve carefully placed them, it shakes your faith, right where you stand.