Grandma was playing canasta with Aunt Ada, her brother Lou’s wife, in the small dinette just off the entry hall, and she said in her loud, scraping voice, “Well, here she is. Here’s the brat.” But her face, pleated into a dozen smiling lines, said something else.
“Give me your coat,” said Aunt Rosie, in a muted version of my grandmother’s voice. She had just opened the door for me, and I wait for her pillowy hug. But she seemed intent upon my coat, peering at it through thick, rimless glasses that made her eyes look like they were under water.
“How’s my Püpchen,” my grandfather said, coming toward me. He was a gentle wisp of a man, quiet and pale as a pigeon feather. Among the family he was known for his fine handwriting, and for pen doodlings that turned up with unexpected lyricism — birds in flight, clipper ships, tulips — on used envelopes and paper napkins. Once, in a forgotten corner of Austria-Hungary that had since disappeared into Poland, he was a draftsman. Now, half a world later, years in a chemical laboratory had coarsened the skin of his hands, but not their skill. Those hands reached out to pinch my cheeks. I noticed that one was shaking.
Uncle Lou called hello from a wooden rocker that was half in the dinette and half through the archway into the tiny yellow kitchen. For a moment he looked shockingly small. Then I realized it was because he was sitting down, and I never pictured him that way. Like most of the men in the family, he was a walker, a stander. He was also the oldest, and when there was a gathering, with the women clustered noisily in the living room or around the dinette table, Uncle Lou was always in the background, a calming presence standing benevolent guard over them.
“I can’t stay very long,” I said. “I’m going back to school tomorrow, and we’re leaving early.”
“She can’t stay very long,” Grandma repeated, her proffered cheek demanding a kiss. “She comes once in a whole year, and the first thing she says is she can’t stay very long.” It hadn’t been a year — or had it? They looked as they had always looked, as if no time at all had passed. Aunt Rosie was a little fatter, maybe, and those glasses were a new addition. But her grey hair had the same yellowy tint and popcorn home permanent it had had for as long as I could remember.
“Well, sit down,” Grandma said, indicating the chair opposite her and next to her sister-in-law. Aunt Ada gave her sweet but slightly goofy smile — Mona Lisa with wispy white hair, tilted head, and a wandering right eye, so you were never quite sure who she was looking at.
“We were playing canasta,” Grandma said. “You want to play?”
“You want I should make you something to eat?” Aunt Rosie asked, moving heavily toward the refrigerator.
“No thanks, I just had dinner.”
“You want something to drink? I got milk and seltzer and Pepsi Cola.”
“No thanks. Nothing, really.” I gave a decisive head shake, then picked up the cards and began shuffling them.
“You want I should make you a sandwich?” the voice persisted. “You want some coffee cake?”
I took a chocolate-covered caramel from the cut-glass dish on the table, held it up for her to see, and bit into it with ceremony.
“So where’s Billy?” Grandma demanded suddenly. “He couldn’t come for five minutes?”
“He has a date.”
“Always with the girls, that Billy,” Aunt Ada said, with her trademark smile.
“But always true to his one and only,” I said, with a wink at Aunt Rosie. She had been a back-up grandmother to us both, but my brother had always been her favorite. I had an undated vision of them at family weddings, bar mitzvahs, and golden anniversaries: Aunt Rosie, a mountain of pale blue brocade, and my brother, half her width, somehow guiding her in wide box steps around the dance floor to Tales from the Vienna Woods. She had taken his part in arguments with my parents, bought him his first two wheeler, and smacked his behind and teased him loudly about girls. Now, she came and sat down at the table, next to my grandmother. She did not seem to have heard what I said.
“I bet you never see him either,” Grandma accused. Billy was at the same university, but it was true that I hardly ever saw him there.
“He calls me sometimes to get him a date.” Once, actually, and it had been a disaster, but I wanted us to sound connected. “And if there’s anything I need, I call him. Anything from furniture to football tickets.”
“He’s a smart boy, that Billy,” Grandpa said.
“You’re telling me,” said Grandma. “Last summer I just happened to mention that I didn’t have an ironing board, so he goes and finds an old broken one in your cellar, and fixes it up like new.”
“That’s smart,” Aunt Ada said, smiling at one of us, I’m not sure which.
“Actually, it’s a funny story,” Grandma went on. “Always I used to borrow an ironing board from Mrs. Kupperman, who lives across the hall.”
“The one that died last month,” Aunt Ada said helpfully.
“No, that was Mrs. Klapperman, she should rest in peace, from upstairs. Mrs. Kupperman, she should live and be well, is a younger woman with good health.”
“You never know,” Aunt Rosie croaked. “You remember Mrs. Schneck, she had a locker next to mine at the beach — a young woman only sixty-three years old? Suddenly, poof! She gets hardening of the arteries and drops dead right at the dinner table.”
“So anyway,” Grandma continued, “Billy fixed up the ironing board and brought it over. Only nobody was home, because I didn’t even know he was doing it, so he left it outside, in the hall. Well, what should happen, but my neighbor’s husband comes home from work, sees the ironing board, and thinks it’s theirs — that I’ve borrowed it and left it out there for them. So without another thought, what does he do? He takes it into their apartment!”
We all laughed, except for Aunt Rosie, who was busy clearing the empty little brown paper cups from the chocolate dish.
“But that’s not all,” Grandma went on, laughing as she talked, so that I could see the dark, toothless space on the side of her mouth. “A couple of days later, I went across to Mrs. Kupperman’s to borrow her ironing board. And she opens the closet door and finds two ironing boards!” The last three words came out in a shriek, she was laughing so hard. It caught on — Grandpa grinned, Aunt Ada gave a parched giggle, and Uncle Lou lurched in the rocker.
“Aunt Rosie,” I said. “Isn’t that hilarious?” Somehow she seemed left out.
She turned and looked at me, those glasses strange on her familiar face. Nodding, she said, “Seymour always could fix things. Even the toaster he fixed.”
“What?” I said, still smiling. Seymour, I wondered, who is Seymour?
“Two ironing boards!” Grandma gasped, rekindled by our laughter. “Her husband was home then, and you should have seen his face. Oh God, two ironing boards!” And she was off again, the tears rolling down her face. We laughed too, half from watching her.
“That’s because she always borrows,” Aunt Rosie said to me, her mouth and fleshy cheeks folding into a frown. “The hat and the candles and Mama’s topaz brooch and the gray rabbit muff that she lost in the woods… .”
I nodded my understanding, but I was baffled. Was she angry at my grandmother? What was this list she was presenting? And in Brooklyn, where were there woods?
“Oh, I’ve never laughed so much in my life,” Grandma said, choking a little and wiping her eyes with a flowered handkerchief. “Did you ever hear anything so funny?” She didn’t seem aware of her sister’s disapproval.
“—when you always borrow,” Aunt Rosie was saying. Her blurred, magnified eyes sought each of us in turn.
“Enough already, you women,” Grandpa said. He had his hands over his ears. Uncle Lou’s rocker slowed to an even rhythm. Grandma blew her nose.
“C’mon, I’ll play a hand of canasta,” I said, beginning to deal out the cards.
“With that fancy sewing machine you just bought, you couldn’t even afford an ironing board?” Aunt Rosie persisted.
“Yes, I just got a new sewing machine — secondhand but with all the attachments,” Grandma said to me, as if I had introduced the topic. She had not ruffled a feather at her sister’s sharp peck.
“Who are you going to leave it to?” Aunt Rosie demanded.
“You want it?” Grandma said to me.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll leave it to you, in my will.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said quickly.
“What’s silly?” She gave a one-shoulder shrug. “If I have a few more years….”
“Well, I’ll certainly go before you,” Aunt Rosie said. “I’m older. I don’t know who I’ll leave my sewing machine to, even though it’s not as fancy as yours.”
“You want it?” Grandma asked again. “New, it cost 320 dollars.”
“Leave it to me,” Uncle Lou said, getting up and coming over to where his two sisters were sitting. “And you can leave me yours too, Rosie.” He put a hand on each of their shoulders, and winked at me. For a moment, his six foot frame and thick, springy white hair made his words seem plausible. Then I remembered the pacemaker and the pills and the time eight months earlier when he had been rushed to the emergency room.
“What kind of talk is that?” Grandpa demanded of the two women. “All about dying — that’s no way to talk!”
“You and me, Sol,” Uncle Lou said, “we’ll outlive them all.” Grandpa was about the same age as his brother-in-law; next year, they would both turn 84. He walks four miles a day, I reminded myself. He has all his own teeth.
No one moved or said anything for a few seconds, and suddenly it seemed to me that the scene had the frozen, formal look of an old photograph. The three women seated at the table and the two men standing behind them were like faded figures whose action had been caught and stopped as they were looking forward to the next moment.
“How about some music?” I said brightly.
“Yes,” said Uncle Lou, going back to his rocker. “Let’s have a little music.”
“You want I should get Seymour’s guitar?” Aunt Rosie asked. Seymour, I remembered now. Her youngest son, who had died in the war five years before I was born.
I nodded eagerly, remembering the times the guitar had been brought out — somebody’s birthday or graduation, with all the cousins piling three-deep around the couch to sing folk songs. I had one memory of someone playing a few klezmer chords, and Grandma and Aunt Rosie holding hands, dancing a slow, circling hora in the middle of the living room.
She brought the guitar from the bedroom, embracing it like a Torah brought forth from the ark. There wasn’t a mote of dust on it. When I strummed it tentatively, a low minor sound came out, almost a sigh. I tightened the E string as much as I dared, and though it wasn’t quite an E, I tuned the others from it.
“What should I play?” I asked, looking around at their expectant faces.
Anything I wanted, they said. I tried to think of songs we might have in common. Pop? Folk? Rock? The Star Spangled Banner? Finally, I started in with Bei Mir Bist Du Schön, the one Yiddish song I could think of. I knew only the first line, but Grandma filled in the rest in her tuneless, rasping voice.
“Now play some American songs,” she said. The others nodded in patriotic agreement.
I played This Land is Your Land, and then the lightest, bounciest stuff I could think of, like Putting on the Style and Mountain Dew. But soon I found myself lapsing into some of my favorites — slow, mournful ones like Barbara Allen and St. James Infirmary Blues.
“Play some of the ones that fellow Mitch used to have on his program,” Grandma said. “The one with the beard. We always used to watch him.”
I thought of a Mitch Miller program I once saw, and played a song I thought I remembered from it.
“Go tell Aunt Rosie, Go tell Aunt Ro-o-sie,”
I sang, with a nod toward Aunt Rosie.
“Go tell Aunt Rosie, The old gray goose is dead.”
Aunt Rosie didn’t seem to hear. The others all smiled. I went through the stanzas about the old gander weeping and the goslings crying, and when I came to the end with, “She died in the mill pond, Standing on her head,” everybody laughed. Everybody except Aunt Rosie. She just stared at the table.
“You think that’s funny,” she said suddenly. “Making fun of an old lady.”
“Oh no,” I said quickly. “The song was about — “
“I heard, I heard,” she said. “Saying I’m an old gray goose, and I’m dead already. I heard.”
“No, you misunderstood. The song says — “
“I heard, I heard. Old gray Rosie is dead. That’s what you said. Old gray Rosie is dead. Old gray Rosie is dead.” She rocked back and forth in her chair, and kept repeating it. Wordless, I looked to the others.
“Play that one again about putting on the style,” Uncle Lou said softly.
I nodded and swallowed, then plunged in so vigorously that my fingers hurt and I was out of breath before I came to the end. Then I played a few chords, and went into a slow Goodnight Ladies. When I finished, I stood up and said it was later than I realized, and I really had to go. They protested, especially Grandma, but I went around the table and kissed them all goodbye. Aunt Rosie was quiet now, and seemed to have forgotten what had happened. She proffered her cheek and told me to take good care of myself.
Grandma started to get up, to walk me to the door, but I insisted that they all stay where they were, that I would let myself out. When I turned around for a last goodbye, they again had that frozen, waiting look of a photograph. They were all smiling and looking at me, except for Aunt Rosie, who was staring at the table. Outside, it was still snowing, and the wet flakes against my face were a fresh relief from the close, overheated room.
Phyllis Bronstein, a retired professor of psychology, has published 3 books and numerous articles in her field. This is her first published piece of fiction.