When my mother died, Grandpa, my Mom’s father, tried to help. He was waiting at our house after school each day to watch us until Dad got home from work. One afternoon, Grandpa met me at the door and followed me into my bedroom.
“Elizabeth, what is this on your dresser?”
“It’s a cemetery. See the gravestones?”
Grandpa nodded. “I see. You did a pretty good job.”
“What’s it for?”
I shrugged and straightened a couple of the rock tombstones nervously. “I just liked it. I like making things.”
“Do you want some cheese sandwich?” he finally asked.
“Yes!” I said, and shimmied out of there on the double.
Sometimes we would go to Grandpa’s house on Saturdays. Eddie occupied himself playing with his muscle-bound friend, Stretch Armstrong, or hung out with neighbor boys. I followed Grandpa around, helping him with household chores. He showed me how to replace washers in the kitchen sink faucet, and how to tighten loose drawer handles. Sometimes he asked me to sew a button back on one of his church shirts, because his big hands made threading the little needle frustrating. I whiled away time going through his “junk drawers,” which he had a lot of. They were crammed with jumbled odds and ends, small tools, keys that no longer fit any lock, bits of string, old stamps, and the occasional black-and-white snapshot of people he couldn’t remember. When I got done with that, I would organize the cans in his cupboards, grouping them by type and lining them up according to their expiration dates.
Grandpa had pictures of my mother on his walls. In her high school graduation picture, she was perfect. Her complexion was flawless; not a hair was out of place. Grandpa once explained it was a black-and-white photograph that had been painted to add color. Her beauty was tantalizing. I could not walk into the living room without looking at that picture. When I was alone, I gazed at it until I was on the verge of breaking down in tears, then I would run away.
I wanted to ask Grandpa if he was sad his daughter was dead, but I didn’t have the guts.
Then Grandpa died, too. He had a stroke one day and that weekend he was buried next to Grandma in the pristinely kept grounds of a Catholic cemetery. During the graveside service, I couldn’t keep my mind on what the priest was saying. I looked around at the neatly ordered headstones and thought how weird it was we were leaving him in such a tidy, tightly shorn place. What did all this orderliness have to do with my Grandpa of the delightfully messy junk drawers?
“Why was Grandpa buried there?” I asked on the way home.
“So he would be next to your grandmother,” Dad replied.
“Why did she pick that place?”
“It’s where most of the burials from their church are done.”
Eventually, at the age of ten, I was sent to grief counselor, not so much because of my strange obsession with death or my juvenile harassment of my brother but because my father was getting remarried. He felt we needed a mother. I wasn’t having it. When he was preparing for a date, I would suddenly come down sick, going so far as to make myself throw up if that’s what it took to keep Dad home. I demanded his help with every single homework exercise I brought home and threw gargantuan fits if he didn’t give me his full attention. I went out of my way to act outrageously as often as possible, including at the counselor’s office.
The sessions were filmed so specialists could watch them and assess how I was doing. My father could also see me through a TV link in another room. Three weeks into the sessions, the therapist left the room, probably to discuss something with my father. I suddenly thought it would be a good idea to pull down my pants and dance.
The therapist burst back into the room, told me to pull up my britches, and sent me to rejoin my father. Ten years old, I had to watch myself striptease with my father and the grief counselors. Then the questions began. Why had I done this? I had no idea.
“Because,” I said.
“Because why?” one of the counselors pressed.
“Just because,” I insisted, trying to think of something to say that would appease them, sure that if I said anything, the great cinder block of shame and sorrow in my chest would split, expand, and blow us all up.