We, Mama and I, move Grandmama through the living room like a fragile, ungainly piece of furniture, which is what she is, what she’s become. She’s the length of, oh, a floor lamp, and the weight of an upholstered leather armchair, without the footstool. She shuffles her size seven feet forward across the shag rug of this house in which she was married (there were braided rugs over top of creaking wood floors), in which Mama grew up and was also married (the braided rugs were gone by then, replaced by a mauve sculptured pile Grandaddy put down himself), to which Mama brought me up from Atlanta every summer of the ’60s (and in 1964, I think it was, that same carpet scratched my bare back raw while I let a boy french me and touch the nubs that were becoming my breasts).
I think of the static building up in her with each slow, rhythmic shush-shush of her slippers. She leaves a track across the shag, walks like an eskimo in snowshoes. It’s a dry, cold day; brittle. Like her. The phrase “cold snap” comes to me at once: Weather that could break you in two, a stick over the knee.
We three pass the spot where I lay 26 years ago, a life ago; back raw, breasts raw, tongue raw, and I realize with a start, a static shock: I grew up here in this house, in this town, Prospect, North Carolina, this two-horse one-light no-boy burg (summer of ’64 aside, it always seemed that way). Not in Atlanta; here. Just like my Mama did, matter of fact. And hers too. You do a lot of growing in the summer, that’s why teachers always want you to write about it come fall, when you go back to school tanned and two inches taller. New jeans, new bookbag, new boyfriend.
Maybe I’m still growing up, right now, in little movements like Grandmama’s shuffle steps; building up a charge with each movement, trying to ground myself, reaching out only to get shocked: Forty’s not too old to grow, after all. Sometimes a step (graduating from college, for instance–the first in Stoddard family history), sometimes a leap (marrying Lamar), sometimes a stumble (Lamar leaving me)–but forward, always forward. The only direction life goes. No rewind button.
Everything’s been forward for this family, for these girls, these 20-20 girls, as me and Mama and Grandmama have always called ourselves. That’s because there’s 20 years between Grandmama and Mama, and 20 years between Mama and me. I broke the chain–Jenny’s only 13. Now Grandmama’s broken it too–Grandmama whose sickness is to forget everything.
In a different family, for a different person, that might be a cure. But not us, not us 20-20 girls, us forward-movers and shakers, us up-and-comers, us go-getters. Everything’s always been up for us. In all the pictures in all the photo albums, everybody’s smiling, and they should be. Everything went right. Well, except for Lamar. And except for Johnny–Mama’s second husband, till he ran off too. And okay, except for Mama’s first husband–my daddy–who died in Korea. Who never knew me–and vice versa too. And except for Grandaddy, who died in the snow. And except for my ’64 boy, who stuck his sticky tongue in my mouth, who said he’d go steady and a week later was frenching Mona Bridges in the plain light of day. Why do I remember her name? Why don’t I remember his? Well, why should I? Like I said, Forgetting cures. If that’s so then Grandmama is well, Mama’s so-so, and I’m on my death-bed, laid up with a bad case of the past, and the future coming on strong to seal my fate.
Of course, we’re all sick with that–with the future. All us 20-20 girls, all us human beings. It’s the future that kills us, but it’s the past that makes us sick.