When I showed up to my mother’s house, I thought we were hosting a party or a cookout, because tons of cars were parked out front. However, as I walked up our driveway, I didn’t hear music. Inside, I didn’t smell food. All I saw were my family and our friends.
Renee, a decade long neighbor, approached me slowly, wide eyed. I knew there was a problem immediately. In all the years, I couldn’t recall a time when Renee didn’t look ecstatic to see me.
“You have to be strong for your mom,” she said, skipping a hello. “Everything is going to be okay.”
She then embraced me.
In the living room, I noticed my youngest sister, her best friend, and her best friend’s mother, along with the rest of Renee’s family, and my other sister, the middle child. My mom and stepfather stood in our kitchen. My mother’s eyes were swollen and wet. Clearly, she had finished crying. Even so, she took it upon herself to inform me that my grandmother had died.
I headed back to the living room without saying much. All the seats were taken, so I sat on the couch’s arm. Despite the room being crowded, it remained quiet. I’m sure nobody knew what else to say. Eventually, my mom broke the silence by crying again.
Before my family moved to Atlanta, we lived in California, moving all throughout the Bay Area. Starting in kindergarten, after school, I’d walk down the street to my grandmother’s house. Once I arrived, I’d see my younger cousins running around. We were a large family, so she developed a couple of methods to handle all the tasks. She decorated the tops of twelve water bottles with different colors, for instance. Each grandchild received their own color. Mine was black. I’d grab my bottle and get out my homework while she made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or cut up some fresh plums from the tree out back. I’d eat. Afterwards, she’d help me with my homework. When I was done, I could play with my cousins until our moms picked us up from work.
I remembered how she got dressed. My grandmother was a diva. She refused to leave the house unless she looked exactly how she wanted. Hair done. No wrinkles in her clothes. At least one piece of animal print. Check, check, check. Despite it being a personal trait, it spread down my family like a genetic one, with me, arguably, being the closest inheritant.
After moving to Atlanta, our only moments together stemmed from phone conversations, which I tried to avoid by telling my mom she talked too long. My mother, of course, forced me to speak anyway. I never said much besides, “Yes ma’am.”
That changed when she came for my high school graduation. It would be the first time I had seen her since we left California a decade earlier. Fresh off the plane she was, still, so beautiful! It was something I could never comprehend. What was her secret?
Family from all over came to my mother’s house as well, some of whom I had never met. Naturally, we had a proud afternoon. At night, we ate, drank, and laughed. While grateful for the support, a house party was being thrown later and I had to attend.
I started doing my final rounds, waiting for my friends to get ready when my grandmother stopped me. She settled in the dining room on the chair closest to the front door, drinking vodka on ice. Everyone else lounged outside, or in the living room. She sat by herself, but the atmosphere made it hard to say she was alone. Having her in the center made her more like the core. I walked over, and we had our first real conversation in years.
“You’ve grown into such a handsome young man,” my grandmother said. She grabbed my arm very tightly, caressed it a little, and then grabbed it again.
“Thank you,” I said. I wished I told her how impossibly gorgeous she looked.
“And I love that you’re so dark,” she said. “Nice, chocolate skin.”
“Thank you,” I said, again.
The compliments poured heavily the entire week. It got to the point where my responses became robotic. Truly, my mind was on the party. News reached me that the girl I liked would be in attendance. Thanks to the recent attention, my confidence rose to an all-time high. I’d call her mine by the end of the night. I was sure of it.
My grandmother must have noticed me hallucinating, because she gripped my arm tighter, then she shook it back and forth. My attention was caught. We locked eyes. I admired the green in hers.
“When something happens to me,” she said, “you’ll have to take care of Papa. Nobody else will be calm enough to handle it. It’ll have to be you.”
Papa was the name we used for our grandfather. They were both in their fifties, so to me, the statement made no sense. Or, at the very least, it came too early. Still, behind her flushed face, my grandmother held a firm look, one that said she needed me to understand exactly what she meant.
She let go of my arm. Soon after, my friends gallivanted down the stairs. We said our goodbyes and left for the party. I thought about what she said for a little, but the closer we got, the more I thought about the girl. In the end, I had fun that night but got too drunk to walk straight, let alone hold a valuable conversation with her. Oh well, I told myself. I’d forget about her the moment I hit campus.
One afternoon, later that summer, my mom burst into my room holding a few sheets of white paper. She raised them above her head like she was about to play a high spade in a card game.
“I got them!” my mother said. She wore a genuine smile and tossed the papers on my lap.
I scanned them. They were printed tickets to California meant as a surprise graduation present. My flight was set for take off in a week. The gift was perfect. I looked forward to visiting my grandmother and the rest of my cousins.
During my visit I bounced around with different relatives, but my grandma was first. She moved out of the house with the plum tree into a yellow apartment in San Jose. I learned many things about her during the stay. Like her fear of crossing the Bay Bridge because she couldn’t swim. And that she still took care of all her grandkids, the new and the old, and it looked like a full-time job. I also found a picture of her in an elementary school classroom where she was the only girl with a purse. So like her. It was how I knew who she was when my family asked me to guess her in the picture. What I learned, most importantly, was that I didn’t know my grandmother much at all. Seeing how she lived day-to-day, with older eyes, helped refine my appreciation.
When the memories occurred, I broke down in the living room, in front of everyone, about ten minutes after I heard she died.
It was my first time crying in a few years, and I struggled, like I didn’t know how. It was slow, awkward, ugly, and I even heard the mother of my youngest sister’s best friend let out an “Oh God,” in a way that let me know I had to gain control. I wondered what made my grandmother think I’d stay calm in the wake of her death.
Renee and my stepfather guided me out of the living room and comforted me until I stopped. I had to be strong for my mother, they said. I tried my best, huffing and puffing and snorting back snot. Finally, I wiped away my salty tears. I apologized.
It’s been five years, and I realize now that I was mistaken about the girl from the party.
Turns out I’d always remember the girl, because I’ll never forget what my grandmother said. To this day, I can feel her grip on my arm. I imagine the phenomenon is like that of a phantom limb.
Tyhi Conley’s writing has appeared in Atlanta Magazine.
Conley obtained a B.A. in journalism from Kennesaw State University. Currently, he is working in Atlanta as a personal assistant.
© 2019, Tyhi Conley