Shenandoah Volume 68, Number 1
Volume 68, Number 1 · Fall 2018

My Evil Grandmother Wakes

Us up in the middle of night, every middle of every night, dressed, ready with the cane in hand, a knock on the door, or a subtle shove to widen the gap between wood and wooden frame, or a frantic handling of the brass knob: she is ready to go home, she says. This is not her house, she says. Just how did she get here, she says. Why did she walk out of her home, courageous and unafraid, and end up in this place? And it is a strange place, she says. Most of her belongings are here, but there are other important pieces missing. Like what, I’d entertain, when I hadn’t begun to hate her, when my dislike for her was easy, the simple rage of a young woman in defense of her mother, the recipient of the old woman’s fury. Oh this, and that, she’d respond. It doesn’t matter what she left behind; the question is how did she get here, because she needs to go home now—can I take her? She does not know the way back—do you? Do I? And I find there is no immigrant poetry to her words except, I guess, the poetry of dementia. The slow or sudden loss of oneself, memory uninspired to make herself known, memory a guest bent upon leaving, the confused host stumbling for the right words to make her stay. If my grandmother had been a nicer woman in the beginning, I’d be nicer too, I’d be more patient. I’d take her hand and ask her to lead me. Tell me the way, show me how you got here. Who was your father? Who was your mother? I know her husband never loved her, a drunk who came home in the middle of the night, in the middle of every night. But in that story he is the tragic figure, a man forced to come home to this frightful woman, and in my story the tragic figure is me, a twenty-eight-year-old dying, waking up to a ninety-year-old asking her which way is home. My home I too have left, the place I was born in not even a memory, not enough time having passed then for memory to form, memory quiet and shy, invited to no place other than that home she was born in. But there are the other places I’ve lived, and have left, and those places I remember because I learned to keep the details fresh for safekeeping. I would travel the streets of the old neighborhoods in my sleep, name old classmates, friends and enemies, as I showered, hoping to aid brain function, and also, admittedly, to stop time, just for a little bit. A writer needs imagination, but memory too. A writer needs stimuli, color unchecked, roots that can only be dug with the metaphoric pen, the dash of the keyboard. A shovel, I’ll say. Metaphors. As a young writer I had to leave this home because I could not see this old woman’s face, hear this old woman’s voice, and not go crazy. She was a burden on my mother, a devil on her shoulder, head, and back. She did not find faults in my mother—she imagined them. An overactive imagination, but I will not dare say I get this from her. When I write stories, I try to save my women from cancer, but know that I can’t. That’s the story’s tragedy, and beauty. You see me try. You see the author at work. My hand trembling. True story. Check my MFA thesis. So many women dying of cancer. My grandmother’s a cancer too, but of the metaphoric kind. She makes my mother’s life hell (cancers and devils, metaphors conflating, but you get the point, don’t you? Already? You see where this is going?). So I left home to write about home, as so many writers do, no imagination there in my move. But guess who’s back? All of us, me and the cancer, newly imagined, but very, very real, and in my lung, spine, stomach, and neck. I forget how many lymph nodes. Many. What’s not back is my grandmother’s mind. That’s gone, gone, gone. Imagination too, along with most of her memories, but a small strand of long-term memories still remains. She remembers odd things: the name of her dead brothers’ dead wives, that they all lived together in Greece, where she was born. She remembers Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. She loves to sing—a charm I’d grant her if she didn’t sing terribly, if she didn’t try to drown out real children’s voices singing on television or in the park. She remembers, too, that this house she lives in now is not the house she calls a home. So I don’t entertain her questions very often, is what I’m saying, in the dead of night. She wakes us up, all of us, me, my partner, my mother and father, with the shuffling of her slippers, with the shuffling of her packing—she finds so many plastic grocery bags to stuff her clothes in, from where, we do not know—and then she comes to us, comes for us, her hand reaching for the door. I have begun to lock our door. By our door I mean the door to the bedroom my partner and I sleep in. By that bedroom I mean my parent’s master bedroom that they have given to us, one of many small sacrifices I can accept. What I can’t accept is that I’ve become a burden on my family in the same way my evil grandmother has become a burden on us all, but has always been on her, my poor mother. My evil grandmother also remembers something else from her past, how much she hates my mother; now she calls her “that cleaner-lady,” “that one who didn’t make dinner again,” “that one with that sneaky mother.” My mother, who comes home from work at seven to make smoothies she’s sure will cure my disease, to wash my shit-stained underwear and blow-dry my thinning hair, stick suppositories up my ass, to cry telling me not to cry, who peruses white health food stores she would’ve been too embarrassed all her Armenian life to enter, looking for snacks, powders, and teas that could strengthen my immunity, help me sleep, give me some comfort. I’m a burden on my poor mother, and so I lock the door to keep out my evil grandmother’s face. Her face, a twisted reflection of my own. What terrible poetry is this? The destiny of the Armenian woman is to deal with her mother-in-law’s shit, not her daughter’s. That’s the American woman’s destiny. That’s metaphor. Drugs, divorces, yadda yadda. But I am speaking literally now. I am speaking true and fact. There is only one small example in my mother’s life that could be held up as example, as warning. Her aunt lost her daughter to breast cancer at forty-two, and that daughter was diagnosed at forty. There are twelve years missing between us; what is my mother supposed to do in those twelve years? What I fear: clean up constantly after two dying women. Sometimes, when I am wakened by the furious knock, I want my evil grandmother dead, to save my mother some trouble. But those times I am filled suddenly and terribly with fear (you thought I’d say guilt?). What I fear: if she dies, I will die too. Some vengeful God, or imaginative God, like a creative writing instructor sharing His tricks about patterning, about metaphor and meaning, about surprising but inevitable endings, killing two birds with one stone, and that stone lightening the load on my mother’s shoulder, head, and back. So what I want now, something that seems more plausible than my cancer being cured, is for all of us to go back in time, and for my evil grandmother to stay there, suspended, cruel and conspiring, but still all there in the head, and I, a young child, can whisper in my poor mother’s ear that there is still time for us to leave this house, just she and I together (fine, I’ll grant courteously, we can take my sister along too), and we can make a new home somewhere else. We’ve done it before, after all. All of us know the way. It begins with a door being opened and a light being turned on or off somewhere, somewhere else.

Naira Kuzmich was born in Armenia and raised in the Los Angeles enclave of Little Armenia. Her nonfiction appears or is forthcoming in Ecotone, the Threepenny Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Cincinnati Review, the Massachusetts Review, Guernica, and the Southern Review, among others. Her fiction can be found in West Branch, Blackbird, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015, and elsewhere. Naira passed away from lung cancer in 2017, at the age of twenty-nine.