My mother sits at the kitchen table, her purple bathrobe loose around her thin body. She covers her face with her hands.
I drop to my knees beside her chair and look up at her. I am like a baby bird, waiting to be fed my mother’s wisdom and understanding and love.
She drops her hands to settle in her lap, her fingers interlocking, but she doesn’t look at me. “I can’t tell her. You’ll have to.”
“But why?” I whisper, shame coloring my fair skin pink.
My mother shakes her head, closing her eyes, and I know she is remembering another moment spent in this very kitchen when she was much younger, seventeen years younger in fact. But she has misunderstood my question. I’m not asking why I have to tell my grandmother or why my mother can’t tell her for me. “Why tell her anything?”
My mother stands up and grabs my hands. I am surprised to feel her hands are as icy as mine are hot. “Hush, now,” she says, pulling me to my feet. With a quick squeeze of my hands, she releases me, moving over to the counter where her purse rests. She hands me five dollars. “Get the donuts.”
I nod, recognizing the urgency in her voice even if I do not completely understand it. I admit I am surprised by the request. The doctors have counseled my mother on limiting my grandmother’s sugar intake and my mother, “the Sugar Nazi” as my grandmother calls her behind her back, has taken their advice seriously. As I hurry out of the house, she calls after me, “The white kind!”
I set a fast pace despite the summer heat and while I walk, I think of what I will say to Grandmother Rue when I return from the bakery on the corner. I should keep it simple. State the facts and wait for her reaction. But what will her reaction be? She is so old, her joints stiff with arthritis, her eyes nearly blind. We don’t really expect her to live much longer, which is why I don’t want to tell her. And which is why my mother’s desperate call for donuts is so frightening.
When I return, I do not enter the house right away. Instead, I pause and peek in the kitchen window. I see my mother, sitting at the table. She has changed into a dress, the cotton material decadent in blue Hydrangeas. It is my grandmother’s favorite dress, the color blue matches her eyes, which are the same color as my mother’s eyes, the same color as my eyes. My grandmother sits across from her, her back to me. She is wearing men’s striped pajamas and a white ushanka, the thick sheepskin and ear flaps a perfect hat for frigid Russian winters, but a conundrum in this summer heat. I know there is a story behind the hat (she wears it everywhere and in every season), but she does not share the details, only corrects my mispronunciation of ushanka. I once thought something was wrong with her hair and perhaps that was the cause of her attachment to the hat, but I was wrong because the one place she takes it off is at the beauty parlor. This perplexes the stylist, a woman named Jan, who spends an hour getting grandmother’s hair set with perfect finger-curls only to watch them be crushed, hidden beneath that inappropriate hat before Grandmother Rue thanks her formally and walks out the door.
My mother spots me looking in the window and leaps up. When I walk in the back door, she grabs the box of powdered sugar donuts out of my hands. She won’t meet my eyes and I realize that she is just as afraid to hear my truth as I am to speak it.
Quickly, she places two donuts on a chipped plate with pale blue flowers adorning the rim. It is a plate from my grandmother’s days as a young bride and is chosen to make my grandmother happy, much like my mother’s pretty dress. But the plate just seems like a sad reminder of happier times and I wish my mother had not chosen it. She hands the plate to me and nods once. It is her signal to me to speak and get it over with.
“Hello, Grandmother Rue,” I say, setting the plate down in front of the old woman. I feel a trickle of sweat slide down between my breasts from my fast walk to the bakery.
Grandmother Rue doesn’t even look at me. She reaches quickly for the unexpected treat before my mother can change her mind and take the plate away. She lifts one donut to her mouth and takes a bite.
I pull out a chair and sit next to her. “How are you feeling today?”
She remains silent, quickly finishing the first donut and moving on to the second.
I take a deep breath. I need to tell her of my shame before she finishes her last donut. “Grandmother Rue…my father…well, he—“
My mother suddenly lunges forward, placing her hand on my shoulder. “Lift the flap.”
I frown, wondering what kind of code she is speaking in.
“She can’t hear you. Lift one of the flaps.”
I swallow the saliva that seems to be collecting in my mouth before reaching over and lifting the soft flap that covers her ear. I lean in as if I’m sharing a secret. “I’m pregnant,” I say.
Grandmother Rue looks up from her donut, her lips coated white with powdered sugar. She needlessly straightens her ushanka and then turns her attention to my mother for confirmation I think, but no, she points her finger and says in a matter-of-fact voice, “This is your fault. Now she’s got his devil-child.”
My mother flushes and begins to weep. She believes Grandmother Rue is right, that she is to blame. I remain in my chair and watch as my grandmother licks her finger and then runs it over the plate, picking up the loose sugar from her donuts before sucking her finger, greedy for the sweetness.
This scene was written for the Scriptic prompt exchange. My prompt of “Lift the flap” came from SAM. Cheney ended up with my prompt suggestion of “a black and white photograph, the edges curled and yellowed, found in an old, empty Folgers coffee can.”
Some of you may remember Grandmother Rue from another prompt challenge I was a part of this past week. I’m not sure if she and her daughter and granddaughter will turn up in anything else I write, but I couldn’t let them go just yet.