The news of my grandmother’s death reached me half a world away, in a small Italian town on the edge of the world. Vernazza, Italy was where I found myself. After having spent my entire childhood struggling to break free of the chains that bound me in my father’s house, I uprooted to the farthest place I could think of. Vernazza is a haven away from the chaos that was my life back home. The message came from my hysterical mother, not a surprise that she was creating a whirlwind of disaster around something that affected other people, and not just herself.
Skylar! Skylar! You must come home, Baba is dead and the whole house is upheaval. Your father is maniacal; he spends all of his time going through her things. He just sits in her room, with old photos in her lap. I can’t possibly cope, Skylar. Come home now! Call me the second you get this. Oh! And bring that piece of man-candy you call a boyfriend. You can’t hide him forever!
I heard her shout at someone as she hung up the phone. Baba had been sick for a long time, we knew it was coming but it didn’t make it sting any less. Everything is always worse when my mother is around. My mother. Our childhood was her play of which she chose to play her part as she saw fit. My father took on the load of the household while my mother was off gallivanting. So often she would return home past midnight, alcohol on her breath. She’d come into my room, sitting beside me while I pretended to sleep. She would brush the hair away from my face and whisper with gin breath that she was sorry she wasn’t a better mother. My sweet father did everything he could to facilitate her dreams. They uprooted to a small town in Eastern Canada, into a house by the ocean so she could work on her novel that never quite got past the first page. I used to hear her scream at him, up late in a never-ending tirade.
I simply can’t work under these conditions, John. You know that! I need space, I need freedom and that fucking kid is eliminating any possibility of me actualizing my dreams!
My Baba came with us wherever we went, of course. She always knew my mother was a train wreck. She used to say to me, “That’s just your mum, Sky. You’ve got to just accept how she is. Some people aren’t capable of carrying all the weight, that’s why we carry it for them. We don’t fault or punish them, you just learn not to expect anything from them.” She’d cook all our meals, clean the house and always make sure we had clean clothes and linens. She taught me how to read my first novel, and spell my first words. “You’ve gotta learn to take care of yourself, Sky,” she used to say to me, “the world is sometimes unfair, and you have to learn to survive.” She taught me that resilience comes in the form of education and that we were fortunate to be provided with many good opportunities and that we would be fools to not take advantage of them. “I worked for 25 cents an hour at the ice cream parlour, Sky. When I got pregnant with your father, I was forced to rely on your Babi for everything. And now look at what a pickle we’re in, chasing after your father cause I can’t manage on my own. You better pray you don’t end up in the same position as me.”
I remember looking up at her while she’d kneed dough, or cook dinner, eyes wide. Back then, she seemed so tall; a matriarch of our family. Visiting when she was sick, I remember she had gotten so frail, so small. Her husband, my Babi, had died when I was a newborn. She spoke fondly of him, remembered him as a gentle, soft soul that wouldn’t hurt a fly.
“That’s not what we saw…” my mother used to whisper to me under her breath, “Baba could rip a strip off of him like no other.”
I remember countless nights were spent alone with Baba while Pops worked and Mum was gone. “Baba where’s mum?” I remember asking her, tugging at her pant leg.
“Oh hush now Sky. She’s out.” She scoffed. “You won’t get anywhere good, bein’ soft like that. Your mother is a complicated woman, you might as well not put so much effort into worrying about her.” But I did worry about her. I wanted so much to be like my mother, admiring her endless supply of life. But, as the older I got, the more I realized it seemed exhausting to be her, and the less I wanted to resemble her, in any way. Though my grandmother was a good stand in, teaching me invaluable lessons, I yearned for someone soft to embrace me and teach me about the more humane, the more visceral. So, I worked relentlessly, in a simultaneous effort to both be as far away from the house as possible and to accumulate as much money as I could. From a young age, I worked around our neighbourhood, shovelling walkways and mowing lawns. Baba was of course proud that I was making a living, but it always came back to my studies.
“Baba, I’ve got a 3.8 grade point average, that’s more than most people can say for my age and working full time.” I’d whine exasperated when she’d come down on me.
“Sky, 3.8 isn’t a 4.0 and you’re not going to get a scholarship without a 4.0.” She barked at me. When I become of age to get my first full time job, I was hired as a hostess at a café in town. Every cent I made went into my savings account. Once a month I would treat myself to an ice cream cone. I’d sit by myself at the beach and eat the entire thing, ensuring not to waste anything. Baba’s voice would always echo in the back of my head.
You gonna throw that out? Back in my day it took an entire days labour to buy a loaf of bread, you best be grateful.
I got accepted into the University of Waterloo out of high school. Earning an academic scholarship allowed me to live on campus free of charge for one year. Despite my continual effort at school and at work, I found that I could never do right by Baba. I’d check in with her and life at home once a week. Slowly that faded into once and month and suddenly I’d be lucky to see her on special holidays. Fortunately for me, it was the acceptance into a research position with a university abroad was my ticket out of that life, permanently. I feared that I would ache too much to be with my father, but I knew I must go. Before I left, Baba placed her hands on my shoulders and said, “You better not screw this up. We’re counting on you to make a life for yourself. Lord knows we don’t need any more suckers bottom feeding your fathers income.” Yes Baba. When I told her that I was doing research into the affect social isolation has on the mind, she wanted nothing to do with me. “Why don’t you go into engineering like your father? What kind of a living are you going to make doing that?” The day after I graduated university, I packed up my things and left for Italy.
“Babe?” Enzo smiled at me from across the table. I had been sitting there staring at prices for airline tickets, lost in my own head. I glanced up at him. “Have you decided if you’re going to go?” I looked into his dark eyes. They were tilted upward, always looking like he was smiling.
“Well I have to…” I muttered to myself. I scrolled through pages of listings while Enzo cleared the table off. Half filled cups of coffee, plates with crumbs on them. Papers littered the table and the floor. After an hour of arguing with myself, I finally settled on going.
Enzo offered to help pay for the trip, but I wouldn’t let him. Nor would I let him come either. I flew out on the Sunday. I spent Saturday night pacing my living room and biting all my nails off. Did I have everything I needed? Should I stay in a hotel? I imagine mum will probably insist I stay at the house. “Babe you’re panicking.” Enzo chuckled from the couch, looking past me to try and catch a glimpse of the television.
“I haven’t been home in over 7 years, Enzo!” I retorted. “I never call, I only visited the one time and it took everything in me to not run back to the airport 10 minutes after landing there. What will my mother say? Lord knows.” Enzo listened well, as he always did. He’d nod, every time I found myself in an anxious fit. I often wondered where I found such a caring man. Fortunately, sleep finally found me after a heavy sedative.
It was first thing in the morning that Enzo had to drive me to the airport. The drive was quiet; I listened to the breeze and took in my last breath of ocean air. I’d read somewhere that for people who are born by the sea; salt water runs through their veins. Enzo broke the silence, “Just remember Sky, it’s only for a week and then you’ll be back here. I’ll make sure everything is in order for when you come back.” I sighed, relived. I grasped his hand in mine and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Skylar! Mum shouted at me, drink in hand. I could hear the ice cubes clanking around in her glass. One day! She barked, you’ll be all grown up and you won’t need me anymore. Jesus Christ, Caroline. Baba would mumble from the corner of the room. Get a hold of yourself. Mum barked something at Baba, slurring her words as she continued to talk at me for the next hour. I learned to tune her out.
“Ma’am? Ma’am?” I snapped out of my head, the stewardess was leaning over me, “Can I get you a drink, ma’am?”
“Oh yes. Sorry. I’ll have a dark rum and coke please.” I folded my tray table down. The stewardess passed me my drink; a tiny little napkin folded under it. The stewardess waited while I fumbled to get money out of my pocket, my hands were clammy. The man sitting next to me waved me off,
“I’ll take care of her drink, and a scotch on the rocks for me please.”
“Thanks. You really didn’t have to do that.” I stammered, careful not to spill anything on myself while I tried to take a sip.
“Don’t worry about it.” The man said. We clanked our plastic cups together and I drank my drink in one foul swoop. I suddenly felt queasy; it must be so apparent that I’m in emotional upheaval. The rest of the flight was turbulent. Fitting.
I landed 20 minutes later than expected. I knew that if my mother managed to show up, she’d make a fuss about having to stand around for 20 extra minutes. As if the world was constantly doing her a dis service. Surprisingly, she was there, oversized sunglasses on and a ridiculously large sunhat.
“Skylar!” She was waving and elbowing her way to the front of the horde of people. I expressed a weak smile, reflecting my exhaustion, which was completely lost on her. “Skylar, I’m so glad you’re here. It’s been so draining. Your father just mopes around all day, he doesn’t talk at all! I just don’t know how I’m going to manage. We have to go through all her things, and make funeral preparations and it has to be done soon! Where are we supposed to get the money? I mean your father does well for us, but for this?! God Skylar, I don’t know how we got here…” I eventually tuned her out, as I always did. If Baba were here, she’d be telling Mum to shut her trap. They didn’t get along that great when Baba was alive, but they had an understanding. We stood by the luggage carousel, her talking, me staring into the distance.
“Sky? Sky?” she caught on that I wasn’t listening.
“Yes mum?” I replied.
“Are you even listening?” She complained, frown painted on her face.
“Of course.” She continued talking as we made our way out of the airport, through lines of people and into a cab. I smelt the faint smell of body odour and damp clothes. Her complaints flooded the car as we drove home. I stared out the window. The sky was cloudless.
When we got into the house, it felt empty, too empty. The warm embrace of my father met me at the door. He breathed out a sigh of relief, “I’m so glad you’re home,” he whispered.
“Me too, Pops. I’m so sorry about Baba.” His eyes were red; lack of sleep. Tears welled in his eyes, he turned away from me and walked toward the kitchen.
“Something to eat?” He hollered from the kitchen. I set my suitcases down by the door and shouted back,
“How about some of Baba’s famous grits?” I found my way to the kitchen and sat down on a stool. I remember the stools being much bigger. He turned to meet my gaze, small smile in the corner of his mouth,
“I don’t think I can make them quite like she can, but I’ll try.”
The key to good grits, Sky, is to make sure you salt your water and you whisk ‘em real good. With all of your force! She passed the whisk to me and held my hand as I stirred as best I could. There you go! She’d beam. You’ll make a great cook one day. There was a time when I was too little to disappoint her.
We ate in silence, both knowing that everything had already been said. Small exhales found the stillness. With full bellies, pops and I made our way up to Baba’s room. “We’ve gotta clear it out, before the funeral.” We stood in the doorway, scanning over the small space. An entire lifetime, stuffed in the corners and closets of this small room. I found my way to the bed with a box of photos and placed them on the bed next to me. Pops shuffled to the closet, trying to pick out something for her to wear, for eternity. I held a stack of photos in my hands, flipping through images of her life. Weddings, graduations, first grandchildren and then seconds. A hollow grew bigger in my heart.
Sky you need to do something good for yourself, no more of this research, crap.
I put all the photos in one pile, careful to ensure they didn’t get wrecked. We filled garbage bag after garbage bag of donations to the local second hand store. Clothes, trinkets, books and shoes. Every once in a while, I’d come across something I couldn’t bear to give away. Misty eyed I’d look at pops. “Of course you can keep it, love.” I kept all of the items that reminded me of the good parts of Baba. Like her quick wit, her wry sense of humour and her unbelievable cooking. I kept old recipe books, pictures of her smiling while holding me as a baby. How the time slipped away from us all.
Amidst piles of old papers I found textbooks that she had found at the used book stores including a beginner mathematics book and a university geology book.
If I had time to do it all over again, Sky, I would have gone to school. Woulda been a geologist. Funny how life sometimes happens too fast and dreams fade away. Your father was my whole world, but I knew that I would have been capable of great things.
It took us a full day to pack everything up. We hauled bags and boxes downstairs into storage, or into the car. We took a final look at the room, now empty save for a bed and a night table. “Shall I get us a drink?” Pops asked. I nodded. I went over to fluff the pillows, smell them one last time. I picked up the pillow and brought to my face, burrowing into it, a photo fell to the ground out of the pillowcase. I bent over to pick it up. Looking at it, I started laughing hysterically. Tears streamed down my face as I remembered the day of the photo. “What is it?” Pops asked from the doorway, two Tom Collins’ in hand. Baba didn’t drink often, but when she did, a Tom Collins was her favourite. He came to sit next to me on the bed, arm wrapped around my shoulders. I wiped the tears from my face.
“It’s us. Baba and I, at the zoo when I was maybe 6 or 7.” I laughed.
“Looks lovely, but why is it so funny?” He asked as he took a sip of his drink.
“Baba had me convinced that she could make lions roar. For weeks she talked about this gift that she had. I didn’t believe her, of course.”
I’m telling you, Sky. It’s a gift. Passed down from my grandmother, to me. With a flick of the wrist, I can make a lion roar.
No you CAN’T Baba! I don’t believe you. I’d laugh.
Well…you’ll just have to wait and see.
“She had me convinced. So finally, she took me to the zoo to ‘prove it’. I was so excited when the day finally came. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, giddy with anticipation. We made a day of it; we packed a lunch and everything. I had my pink, Mickey Mouse backpack that I loved, remember?”
“Oh yes, I remember. You wouldn’t go anywhere without that thing!” Pops chuckled.
“I know! It was filled with everything I thought I needed. My disposable camera Baba bought me, water, my favourite toy and my note pad. I remember we took a bus there and it was the first time I’d ever been on a bus before. She even gave me the money and let me pay for my own fare. I had this huge grin plastered on my face the entire trip there. When we got there, I was so excited I started running like a maniac in all directions. Baba had to chase after me and tell me I was going the wrong way. We passed monkeys, giraffes and even cheetahs! We finally find our way to the lion enclosure. There were only two lions wandering around, a big male and a smaller female. My eyes were so big, I remember Baba laughing at how my face must have looked. After about 10 minutes of watching them, the bigger lion ended up roaring, and I was 100% convinced that Baba did it. You should have seen my reaction pops! It was like finding out that magic existed. My mouth dropped open and Baba just gave me this look like, ‘told ya so’.” I let out a deep sigh. “I remember thinking, ‘Baba is magic!’ I told all my friends about it at school the next day. None of them believed me, but I knew. I knew Baba was magic. And you know what? Even though I eventually figured it out that she didn’t make the lion roar, I know she was still magic.” I leaned my head on pops shoulder, my tears leaving a dark, circular stain on his shirt.
“She really was, love bug. She really was.”