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Blowing Smoke Rings Before Jesus, Mary & Joseph

  grandma & dawn 8

WHILE SITTING ON our twin beds, sharing a cigarette beneath Grandma’s beloved statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Grandma and I practiced blowing smoke rings. We had gotten so good at this game that sometimes we could blow them right through each other’s ring. We giggled like schoolgirls when that happened.

I would ask her, for the hundredth time, to tell me about my real father. What else better to do when your grandma is in a best-friend kind of mood than ask her to let you in on another girl-to-girl secret?

In the past, she had always shied away from  the  subject of my father’s identity as if she feared my mother would walk in and somehow smell her disloyalty. But this day, with a sigh that seemed to reach all the way to her toes, Grandma stared off into space while slowly blowing the most perfect smoke ring ever, without even noticing she had done it. Looking up toward the ceiling with a faraway expression on her face, Grandma told me the story that I so longed for.

“Your father’s name was Roland, and he was quite the handsome lad.” Then Grandma’s face seemed to grow soft, and it sort of glowed. It seemed to make her younger just to think about the days before my mother climbed inside herself and locked us all out of her soul. Looking at me for just a moment and then quickly away (as if looking at me would bring back the loss of those better times), she continued with the words I longed to hear more than any others: “Roland and your mother were wildly in love, Dawnie.”

Now that I was almost fourteen, I guess Grandma thought I was old enough to talk to about such things. I mean, after all, she had been sharing her cigarettes with me for two years now. As she continued to recall the events of long ago, the faraway look returned to her face, but the softness was fading. I cringed inside; I knew that look. She got it whenever she was talking about hard things from the past. I thought, had the love between my parents faded that fast? I tried to stay very still; I didn’t want her to stop.

“Roland  thought your mother was the most beautiful woman he ever saw. He told me that more than once. He said he ’specially loved her skin. One time he told me that he thought she was as delicate as fine bone china. Every time your mother  would come into the room where we were, he’d whisper to me, ‘Doesn’t she just remind you of an angel gliding  in?’ You know how she’s always been about posture and all, Dawnie. How she makes you stand up straight and makes you walk around with a book on your head? And how she yells at you to hold in your tummy?”

I momentarily turned my eyes from her face to stare at the glow emanating from the Lady of Fatima night-light on the altar—a soothing light with two children sitting at the figurine’s feet. I had always found this night-light comforting.

I tried to keep my grandmother from noticing how red my face was as I recalled some of those things my mother said. “Men don’t like girls with their stomachs  sticking out,”  or, “It’s much easier to catch flies with honey—learn to be sweet for men, Dawn.”  It was always about how to be and do in order to ensnare a man. In my mother’s world, a woman was nothing without a man.

I slowed down my breathing to control my rising anger. I let my mind dwell on the air going in and out as I focused my eyes on the changing shapes of our collective smoke rings.

Grandma didn’t really notice me now; she had moved into a semi-trance. She talked with a remembered pride in her eyes when recalling these stories of her daughter, totally oblivious to the fact that I was drowning in anger.

For so long I had ached for my mother’s attention, but not in this way. This way just felt mean. Only yesterday she had said, “You used to look like a graceful racehorse, Dawn, but now that you got your body, you look like a goddamn plow horse.” I didn’t know what a plow horse looked like, but I remembered Dolly, the old swaybacked horse. She was filthy and pitiful, and God, I didn’t want to look as ugly as Dolly. Turning my attention back to Grandma, I said, “Then  what?”

“Anyways, Roland always said about how your mother danced with the lightness of an angel’s wings. He was blushing when he said it, don’t you know. He even said to me that her sea-blue eyes made his insides have feelings that only a woman can give a man. He was truly sweet on your mother,  Dawnie.”

He also told my grandmother that it was my mother’s hands that most mesmerized him. Her long, delicate, china-like fingers moved with an innate elegance that captivated his eyes. She was even chosen by a modeling  agency to model jewelry for the most expensive stores in New York City.

I wasn’t surprised that Roland confided in Grandma. All the boys confided in her. Being such a homebody, she was always available, easy to talk to, and incredibly non-judgmental. And she knew her sports, especially baseball. She knew everything  there was to know about baseball.

She knew the history of every team that ever played. But her love affair was with the New York Yankees. She loved that team almost as much as she loved her bible. My guy friends and their friends loved to sit and smoke cigarettes with my grandma while mulling over batting averages. I would come home to find all sorts of my guy friends laughing with my grandmother, and often my mother. I did my best to smile, but I resented that I had no privacy with my friends. I kept wondering why they didn’t get their own friends (besides the disgusting June White, who let her husband have their own daughter for pleasure). But now I’m getting ahead of my own story.

 

 51NVdAmazon pic of RD

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