My grandmother, June, wakes up every morning and puts on a light shade of lipstick, a touch of mascara and a hint of blush. The blush makes it look as if there’s blood running through her cheeks, as if she’s been laughing at a joke, but in truth, June can only stand up for one full minute before needing to sit down on the vintage leather chair in her sitting room. Her hospice nurse comes in the afternoon to help make her comfortable and check on her oxygen. She doesn’t want any other visitors. She refuses to answer the phone and on the off chance she answers my emails, she tells me her tulips are starting to bud - the one thing she longed to see before her departure.
This morning, June is watching the sun pour down onto her perennials and admiring them as her nurse walks to the kitchen to get her a glass of water. Somewhere in California, I’m drinking coffee on the front steps. June hasn’t responded to my latest emails and now she is all I can think about. I take a lukewarm sip, and stare into space.
In most of my memories of her, I’m twelve years old. We are always at her country club, and she is always tiny and delicate. I am not. I am growing hair under my arms and have tiny bumps on my chest that I’m positive are cancerous until my mom buys me a training bra and says I can’t wear a tank top anymore without it. Next to June I am big and weird and when I talk I have cheeseburger caught in my braces and I laugh nervously and scream at my little sister to shut up when she points out that I sweat through my shirt. I’m sitting next to June and her legs are crossed tightly in linen pants without a wrinkle in sight. The only conversation topic that provokes a response from her is about her collection of vintage jewelry and designer purses. I am enthralled, at both the information and the attention. The only thing I have noticed that June and I have in common is that we both laugh too hard at my Dad’s jokes. It is the only time I have seen her lose her composure, and when it happens it’s a wonder of the world. She unravels completely. One moment, she is sipping an iced tea and the next her face is beet red, almost contorted. She laughs so hard I worry she can’t breathe.
All at once, the memory shifts and I am fifteen. I've just had my first kiss and my first period and it was all embarrassing. I don’t know that June has ever done anything truly embarrassing a day in her life. I have chipped, blue, sparkly nails and I am drinking a Coke and listening in a state of rapture as this tiny, elegant woman tells me about a pair of diamond earrings she got in Beijing in 1963. They are in perfect condition to this day, having never left the case, not even once.
On my front step, I take another sip of coffee, which has now gone cold. This has turned into my morning ritual, living in these memories, the only thing I have left of her. Staring out in the yard I am lost in thought and I am vividly eighteen. My attitude toward the world is getting bigger and my clothes are getting smaller. I arrive at her house to show off a new boyfriend and a new naval piercing. June appears unimpressed. She wears slacks and a crisp white shirt and we sit in silence in her foyer. When I catch myself in her mirror, I try to clean up the eyeliner smearing under my eyes. June lets me dig around in her basement for my Dad’s old record collection. I spend the morning scouring through long forgotten belongings in search of the elusive crate of the Who, the Clash and the Beatles.
“I don’t know why you’d want that old junk”, June remarks solemnly about the collectibles. After an hour, she remembers she donated them the year prior. When I get home, I color a new, thick line of eyeliner and adjust my prized, pink belly button ring.
The memories become clearer and simultaneously more distant as time goes on. I heard less and less of her explosive laughter, a familial plague that would cripple me as well and cause snorting and peeing of the pants (although June never fell victim to these side effects). I tried to draw threads between us, June and I - our common heartbreak as my Dad faded into our backgrounds and a love of travel. As we saw each other over the years, her cold and proper demeanor doused and torched my messy pile of feelings and unconventionality (and most likely, vice versa) until our threads seemed to disappear.
Now, we have run out of time, and I’d like to hug her, to hear her secrets, to hold her hand and say goodbye. June never cared much for hugs or secrets or goodbyes. That used to make me mad, but now, I can only honor her choice to gracefully and quietly exit as she has from every room her whole life.
In my last memory of her, I am twenty-six and June is indulging my love of white wine. She herself would only ever have one glass, but the bottle will “just go to waste” if I don’t drink it. We seem to be in agreement on that. We are at my little sister’s engagement party and June sits quietly in the corner. I run around with my cousins, dancing and cheering on the engaged. I barely talk to her, but when I finally sit down to catch up, it is so loud I can hardly hear her before I’m whisked away to the party again. It will be another year before we know about the cancer and before I will send her emails asking her about herself, trying to hold onto my memories and our moments together.
This morning, I’m twenty-eight. June is in Chicago, perched on an upholstered lounging chair in the sunroom watching her tulips. Somewhere in California, I am watching mine.
Beyond that, June is a mystery to me. I think she would like that.