Grandma's Life Lessons: The World in Cliche

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic


Grandma’s Life Lessons: The World in Cliché

 

The dining table, turned on its side, could be a fort wall or the unbreachable outer wall of a ship’s hull. Standing in the cramped dining area, it was merely an expensive piece of furniture, a little worn and always in use.

In other words, a metaphor for life. Agnes Maldonado rubbed a hand lovingly over the marred oak surface and smiled. One didn’t get through sixty years of life with the supple body and mind of a sixteen-year-old, or even the frustration and independence of a thirty-something, looking up and realizing there was less time ahead, perhaps, than behind. No, bodies wore out. Minds faltered.

She sat down in the nearest chair, nearest the stack of three brightly colored notebooks.

Anyone who knew her would assume the notebooks were full of forgotten grocery lists, bills to be paid, ideas for stories that were never born and bad sketches of trees and puppies and kids. Happy colors, they would say—almost as if they were Easter eggs in a basket, according to her youngest grandchild. Neon pink, an ugly chartreuse—all chartreuse was hideous, though—and electric blue.

Technically only one of them was labeled, but each one held a specific part of her.

Blue, long her favorite color, if only the darker hues, held what lucid thoughts she occasionally still had. More often than not, if she left the solid fortress of the desk in her bedroom, she would forget what she was doing in any other given room. So, she wrote down information about her objectives and the reasons to travel between rooms:

10:35. Kick the dog out or he’ll pee in the living room again.

Remind Ann that she should buy the principal a birthday card unless the whole grade is doing something.

Post to FB and catch up on birthdays or other events you didn’t catch up on already.

You can sleep when you’re dead. Don’t go near your bed. Or the couch.

Although her kids, grown and sometimes impatient, didn’t understand, digital memos and reminders were useless. Half the time she misplaced her phone and she seldom heard incoming calls or alerts.

Once, there had been her brain, the gray matter still somewhere there inside her head, functioning much the same as the kids’ smart phones and tablets. Trivia, facts, test answers—the organ she always hated to think about in 5th grade health class served her well. Now, the blue book held what her brain might lose.

She smiled at the stylized drawing of the brain on its front cover, compliments of her oldest grandchild, sixteen-year-old John Iglesias. He had created a horrific mass of blue and pink tissue with a winking eye and cocky smile, then stenciled the name “Guy” under it.

They had argued about the name, because—gender politics and current events aside, her brain had always been a woman’s brain. And Guy was an ugly name anyhow. So secretly, she told John, she would call her brain “Liberty Dawn”. They laughed at that, grandma and grandson, because he knew that his own mother had escaped that name only because his grandpa had been in love with Jeannie, from the series about the gorgeous harem escapee. What John didn’t know, is that occasionally even into her late twenties, his proper, practical grandma had crossed her arms and wiggled, pretending that magic might happen.

Hoping, yearning, anticipating. Willing. Willing something to happen.

So many words for an overwhelming desire to escape the mundane life that cocooned her. Cocooned, sheltered, cloistered….

Imprisoned.

She picked up the pink book, neatly labeled Life and Life Lessons, and flipped through the pages. Pictures of the five kids she had brought into the world, adults now. Looking at them, though, she could remember them as children and smile. Immediately after her kids, labeled by name and birth date, came her horde of grandkids—ten of them, labeled by names, parents, and birth dates.

All life’s important information in a glaring pink book she hoped would be hard to lose.

She smiled and hugged it to her chest. Most days, her kids thought she was fine. Now and then, surely, they saw her fear, when she misspoke, called one of them by a sibling’s name or made random comments that might not appear to be connected to reality. They never told her if they worried about her runaway mind, but the looks among them or heavenward were easy to translate.

The last family member was three-year-old Lorelei. Round-faced, dimpled, and with bouncy brown hair. There was mischief in her brown eyes and infectious grin.

Blessed innocence. She traced her youngest granddaughter’s face with a finger that ached less today than it had in a week. Maybe today she could finally bake cookies for the grandkids as they came in after school to wait for their respective parents to pick them up.

Buying this house, over family protests, had been the smartest move she’d made in her life. Too expensive for a house that turned out to have a slew of defects, an inconvenient flight of steps in front, too steep for her to climb—but located between the high school and middle school where all her kids except the baby went to school.

Lorelei’s October birthday was noted under the picture, along with a comment none of the other children had: don’t mention the origin or historic connotation of this kid’s name again.

She smiled and shook her head slightly, mocking herself. She doubted grandmothers here in south Texas were conversant with the historical trivia she grew up knowing. Knowing without a clue where all her random facts came from. Maybe from the ancient variety series starring Carol Burnett. Her mother might have explained it. Or, since she read a lot and always had—maybe she knew from reading some book inappropriate for a child.

But telling Lori’s older sister, Sarah, that back in the early days, sailors referred to hookers as “loreleis” hadn’t gone over well. Sarah took that information home to a father who really didn’t approve of her grandmother anyway, and the fight had been one for the record books.

“You and your life lessons,” Mary grumbled then, and still did half the time when she left after a visit.

“How did I know your fifth grader would know what a prostitute was?” Agnes argued, reasonably.

“Ma, you taught school! And you were a substitute! You have nine grandkids in middle school! Of course you know they know or—you should!”

“Well, I can’t help that Sarah told me Lorelei’s name before she was born. I was just trying to save her from any embarrassment.”

“Embarrassment? She’s not even here yet. If someday she meets some really old hooker named Lorelei, I’m sure she’ll survive. Ma, you need to watch your mouth—"

 Like I never told you that?

Agnes heaved herself up and went to pull a diet soda out of the refrigerator and hand it to her youngest daughter. As usual, giving her something to drink stopped the argument in its tracks.

She smiled at her daughter. Mary swallowed most of the soda and smiled back.

Victory.

Silence.

What passed for a loving gesture also covered her real intention—to shut her daughter the F up.

She almost giggled, thinking of the entry she would make in her pink book when Mary left with Sarah and Andy. Don’t let anyone know you’ve decoded WTF on FB. Or that you don’t really think the ‘f’ stands for fudge, the way you swear to the grandkids.

The front door opened and closed, shutting out the memory of the fight over Lori’s name.

She put the books back in the stack, leaving the pink book on top but burying the chartreuse book. She had smart grandkids. If she left the book she never talked about on the bottom and had to leave the room, someone would peek.

“Letter for Agnes Maldonado,” Jr. called down the hall. She glanced at the computer screen she’d pushed away to make room for the books. He was early. She swallowed hard. Last time he had been this early, students had been sent home because of a credible bomb threat.

She lived a mile or two from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where the gun fights between carteles and government forces could be clearly heard. As much as she loved this house because of its location, there were days she turned up the television or music to drown out the sirens that could be heard too often right around the school. Frightening things seemed to relish this hot, dry world of hers, and the sleepy town she knew was a cosmopolitan hub hurtling through time and space, with all the attendant big city dangers.

Her greatest fear, though, was sitting here, sandwiched between schools, waiting for the loves of her life and then hearing gun shots. Or screams. She crossed herself, something she seldom did any longer. She wasn’t sure if she’d actually lost faith, or just become forgetful of the ritual that had sustained her for so many years.

She pushed herself up to greet her grandson.

“Grandmaaaa! You don’t have to get up—”

“You stand when someone comes in, and when they leave.”

They grinned at each other like two kids much younger than they were.

“Is that in there?” he asked, glancing at the stack of notebooks.

“Well if it isn’t, it should be.” She reached over and plucked the pink notebook, flipping through the book. “Aha! ‘He who is courteous will be much loved’.”

He laughed, because as tall as he was, he undoubtedly saw that the “lesson” on that page was “A sharp tongue is a dangerous tool.”

Agnes chuckled, too, and held out her arms. “I’m missing a hug. I’m sure there’s something about that, too.”

He draped himself over her shoulders, trying not to touch her with his perspiration-soaked shirt, and she laughed and pulled him close. “We did social distancing. Didn’t like it myself. I want real hugs now before the next new thing comes along.”

“But I just got out of football practice—”

“Same as every day. I don’t care. Sweat may be smelly and disgusting, but it’s the honest payoff for hard work.” She hugged him again. “And yes, that’s one of my life lessons.”

He pulled away and started rummaging for food, and she realized she hadn’t made cookies after all. Plus, he was home early.

“Why are you here?”

“Just thought I’d check up on my favorite grandma.”

His only grandma. His dad’s mother had passed away, unknown to any of her grandchildren. Thinking of her always made Agnes that much more aware of how gifted she had been.

Five children grown and working with hardly a hiccup along the way. Ten grandchildren who made time for her in spite of school work and social media and a world full of distractions and diversions.

She refocused on Jr. “So, cut to the chase. Why are you really home?”

She saw him think over his options and decide on the truth. “Suspended for three days—just for football practice, not school.”

“Why?”

He turned bright red. “You don’t want to know. And that still leaves Mom and Dad after I piss—make you mad.”

“What did you do?”

He couldn’t look her in the face. “Hit a dude.”

“John William Iglesias, Jr.—what the hel-helck did you do that for?”

He still didn’t raise his eyes. “He asked Sammi to go out with him and he knows I asked her first.”

“You hit him for that?”

“Fuc—dge yeah! Teammates don’t steal each other’s chicks.”

“Guys who want to date a girl don’t call her a chick.” Agnes drummed her fingers on the polished oak surface. “I love this table.”

John looked up. “What?”

“Is this Sammi someone you want to sit at a family table someday? Someone worth getting in trouble over—really?”

“How do I know? She doesn’t want to go out with me.”

“Wait.” Agnes shook her head and put her reading glasses on. Maybe then she’d understand the mind of a teenage Romeo. “I thought you got in a fight over her?”

“No. I hit someone for disrespecting her and me. Because if she had said yes to me, then she shouldn’t have even listened to him. So, he shouldn’t have given her a chance to cheat on me if she had wanted to go out with me.”

“Her choice,” Agnes reminded him firmly.

“Yeah, grandma, don’t worry. Turns out her choice was the quarterback.”

Isn’t it always?  Agnes picked up the pink book to hide her smile. She hadn’t known what a left tackle was until her three sons became left tackles. But she herself had always had crushes on quarterbacks.

“Your parents need to know.”

He looked miserable. “They already do. Coach called home. Then he called my uncles, too. Chismosos! Coaches are the worst gossips in the world!”

Her phone buzzed, cutting off any sympathy she might have given, since if his uncles knew, he was in trouble enough. The text was from her second oldest, Ava. Odd—Ava had conditioning right now. With her dad, Junior’s uncle—a football coach. And Ava’s softball coach. Apprehensively she lifted her phone and clicked on the message.

Grams. We’re in lockdown. I’m so scared.

Clammy sweat broke out on her forehead as she digested the message. Her hand trembled.

Calm down, Agnes Maldonado. Be here for them

. Junior’s phone buzzed and he glanced at it and bobbed his head.

“It’s an alert from the school,” he said, puzzled. “I just left there—”

“Ava’s in a locker in a gym,” Agnes whispered, as if the intruders might hear her. She hoped they couldn’t hear the pounding of her heart from two blocks away. She glanced again at her phone. “She says the coaches are blockading the doors with baseball bats because the dressing room doesn’t have actual doors.”

Junior bent his head, whispered a prayer, and crossed himself.

Both their phones went off together.

Ava: Grams, I love you. I texted you first.

Ava: I don’t know why. But I had to talk to you.

You’ll be fine, Ava. Stay safe. You know I love you.”

“Mom said that it’s on the news and everything,” Junior reported. “The middle school is on lockdown, so my cousins aren’t coming.”

She nodded that she heard.

The roar and rattle of choppers coming in overwhelmed her for a minute. The police and Border Patrol, probably. A double whammy.

Her fingers shook when she keyed in another entry.

Don’t get caught texting. Don’t make any noise. I love you. And your dad.

Ava: I know. He does, too. He loves you, Grandma.

Agnes touched her forehead, recoiling at the feel of sweat-dampened skin. Her heart raced, and for a moment, she thought of sharing the secret hidden in the chartreuse notebook.

Then she pushed the fear aside and covered her grandson’s hand with her own.

“It’ll be okay.”

“Yeah?” he asked, then realized that she was trying to reassure him. She saw him force a smile. “Got something in that stupid pink book that says so? Hit me with your best shot.”

“Sure. Babe Ruth said not to let the fear of striking out keep you from batting—or something like that.”

The insanity of the quote in the context of the situation slammed them, and they both were laughing with the mindless hysteria of shock and fear when John’s dad walked into the room, unheard.

“It’s all over,” he said through the laughter, startling them. “Everyone’s fine.”

He hugged them both, explained that students were only being released to parents, so that none of the other kids would be by.

“Agnes, are you okay?” He peered at her, reached out a hand to touch her forehead, then sighed. “Would you like someone to stay with you tonight?”

She shook her head. “Of course not.”

“You had that stroke last year. Maybe we should run by a clinic and get you looked at. You just look—off.”

“I look like a grandmother who had sons and a granddaughter in a horrible situation. And everyone else worried sick.”

She stood up and hugged John, Sr., then her grandson. “You guys get out of here. Take care of your families.”

They left, and she doublechecked the lock on the front door and let the dog out one more time. She thought about eating, but really wasn’t hungry—mostly, she was just grateful.

A blessed life, she thought again.

She thought of going to bed early, because she couldn’t seem to catch her breath. Instead, she took a baby aspirin and wondered if she should call 911. 

She just needed to write something down before she forgot.

Then she would call.

She sat down and reached for the blue book. All the things she needed to remember.

Then she realized the book she needed was chartreuse, and she opened that one instead, sticking the envelope with her last test results further back between the pages and picking up a pen.

***

A few hours earlier, the table had been laden with food and flowers, brought by friends and co-workers, as well as colleagues from the days when Agnes also taught.

When everyone was gone, the family sat at the table, the children leaning on their parents or huddling together. Lorelei, blissfully innocent of the situation, hummed little songs to herself and played with everyone’s keys or phones.

“Grandma would love this,” Junior said suddenly, and everyone looked at him.

Sarah’s lips trembled. “That she’s dead?” she demanded, and broke into tears.

“No,” Ann told her gently. “That her whole family is here, at the table. She always said a good table was the front wall of a family, that it kept them safe.”

Ava sat in a folding chair in the corner, crying soundlessly into her hands.

“I shouldn’t have texted her,” she mumbled, and her father walked over and put his arms around her.

“She was glad you did,” Junior assured his cousin, looking around the kitchen with alarm.

“We should all go,” John Sr. suggested, standing. “We’re taking the dog home, and we’ll have to get him settled in. We’ll have a lot of stuff to deal with over the next few days.”

“Wait!” Junior said, panicked abruptly. “Grandma’s notebooks—she would want us to keep them.”

Ann went to the pantry and fished around, then pulled them out.

“It was the easiest way I could think of to make room on the table,” Ann explained, Blue, with all the things that Agnes feared forgetting. Pink—with family captured in words, and sixty-plus years of life preserved in clichés and the occasional Spanish dicho—sayings in two languages to capture the depth, breath and inanity of life.

And on the bottom, the much-hated chartreuse notebook.

Junior stood staring at them mutely. Some of the grown-ups dabbed their eyes again.

“Wait,” he whispered. “This is wrong. When we came in, the chartreuse was on top.”

“True, but sweetheart—she had a heart attack,” Ann reminded gently. “I don’t think—”

Junior shook his head. “Please, Aunt Ann. She kept something special there, I just know. Please.”

Ann took a deep breath and picked up the notebook. An envelope fell out. She recognized the name as her mother’s cardiologist. There would be time to read that later, and it didn’t really matter. She glanced at the first page and sucked in her breath.

“Don’t cry for me,” Agnes had written in large print. “All of you and each of you gave me a reason for living every day. Because of you, I led a blessed life.”

“My last life lesson is just that—love each other. Nothing else matters.”

“And quit crying.”

Blinking back tears, holding on to each other, the five families headed for the door.

Behind them, a chartreuse notebook gleamed in the soft light coming in the kitchen windows from outside.

Junior brought up the rear, turning at the door to stare one last time at the table.

“Love you, Grandma,” he whispered, and turned off the light.

 

 

 

 


Submitted: August 15, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Leslie P. Garcia. All rights reserved.

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