Stories About Not Being Afraid of Ghosts
what does it mean to be remembered?
It is the last year of my great-grandmother’s life, and she believes she was born to royalty. She tells me of her girlhood in a Spanish castle, bare feet skidding across ancient stones and running grooves into the corners of the hallways. My great-grandmother is beautiful, with big almond eyes and dark skin that always seemed sun-kissed, even in winter. She tells me she was taught how to smile by her lady-in-waiting, a small Spanish girl from Cadiz. The houses there are white and the ocean is always grasping at the sidewalks. She and her lady-in-waiting would sit in front of the mirror and smile together, over and over and over again, until the melon of her lips burst so red and sudden across her mouth that everyone in the room stopped talking to stare at it. “That’s how I met your great-grandfather,” she whispers, tender as a ragdoll on her bed while the sun slips in through the window and kisses her. “I was buying fruit. I smiled at him and he offered me an apple for free.” I don’t know if any of the stories she has told this year are true. I have built my great-grandfather out of the photographs he has been cut from. My great-grandmother stopped speaking of him when he died, put his things away and never looked too long at my brother, who has my great-grandfather’s chin. “Did you love him right away?” I ask as she pushes a spoon through a murky bowl of soup. Her eyes don’t entirely focus when she looks at me. “Heavens no,” she says. “Not until much later.” * There is a painting in the basement of a red-haired man. He has dark eyes and flushed cheeks, mouth hinting at a smile. He was painted with love. He is not my great-grandfather. “That’s Edward, my father’s brother,” my grandmother tells me as she bends over to pull fresh cookies out of the oven. “He died before I was born. He was very dear to my parents.” My family loves our dead in direct proportion to how little we speak of them. The year my Uncle Tom is absent from all our remembered calendars. I only learned I used to have an Uncle Tom because once, when he was very drunk, my father forgot that his brother was dead and looked for him. My grandmother saves voicemails so that she can hear our voices when we are far away, but if she outlives us she will delete them. My grandmother pulls her oven mitt off her hand and drops it onto the counter beside the sink. She pokes at one of the cookies to test the temperature before sliding it off the baking sheet with a fork and handing it to me on a napkin. “Edward died before they were married. I don’t know much about him, dear. My parents never said.” She waits, hands on her hips, until I take a bite. “How’s it taste?” she asks. “Delicious,” I tell her, and she kisses my forehead. * “Did Grampy have a brother?” I ask my great-grandmother when she finishes telling me the story of how she escaped Spain wrapped in a rug like Cleopatra. Dust catches the sunlight and swirls over my great-grandmother’s head like a faded crown. She runs her hands down the worn surface of her blanket, humming the way my grandmother does when she is putting off an answer. “Yes,” my great-grandmother says at last. “Eduardo.” “What was he like?” She smiles her melon smile. “He was beautiful,” she tells me, and sinks back against her sheets. “I loved him very much.” “Did you love Grampy as much as you loved Eduardo?” “I loved Grampy because I loved Eduardo,” my great-grandmother says, but refuses to elaborate. * In the attic is a trunk with the letter “E” scripted in embossed gold. Thick lines of dust cling to all its edges. The letters inside are all addressed to Eddie, signed all my love. The prose has a certain twist: “I think of you daily. I think of you the way the ocean thinks of the shore when the tide is out.” My grandmother speaks of a Spain she’s never been to with the same nostalgia, the same artist’s eyes. She holds her breath before she speaks so that the words rush out like waves. The last letter is dated in December. It begins, “My mother tells me you’ve been sick.” * My father doesn’t know anything about Uncle Edward, either. He knows better than to ask an old woman for secrets. But: “Tom was a redhead,” my father says, thoughtful. * “What happened after Grampy gave you the fruit?” I ask my great-grandmother. It is not the last time that I will speak to her, but it is getting close. She sits by the window, on a chair that seems to swallow her. She used to be a dancer, but all of that muscle is gone. She smiles and points out her window, at a landscape that I can’t see. “See him at the fruit stand? Eduardo in the tree above him? Do you see them?” We are in a castle. Somewhere in the marketplace outside, a young man is selling fruit alongside his beautiful brother. My grandmother is loved by the sun and by a peasant girl from Cadiz. We have mouths like melons, red and bursting. “I see them, Grammy,” I say. * The year after my great-grandmother dies, I stand outside the Royal Palace of Madrid. The sun is setting. She must have come here once and remembered it, I tell myself, startled by how close her descriptions had come. From a small stall on the side of the road, a dark-eyed Spanish boy with flushed cheeks offers me an apple.