Read this, what I have so far. Tell me if it’s interesting enough that you want to know the rest:
Berneeta and John Henry. By the time I knew them, they were old. I remember them coming over for Thanksgiving dinners, her doting on him and him towering over her, even as hunched as he was. I once asked my dad, in all seriousness, “Why do you think Granny and Grampy don’t fight?”. This wasn’t a commentary on my mom and dad’s relationship, it was genuine puzzlement. And to be fair, they did bicker, I remember hearing tell of it, but I never saw it. Kids see different things.
My dad sighed. At the time it seemed like he was bored with my chatter. “Well I suppose they’re both old enough to know it doesn’t do any good.”
Much of what I know about my Grampy Dunn is based on the various artworks we inherited. As far as I can tell, he had impeccable taste which I inherited. Grampy loved little glass blobs, he loved chandelier pendants, loved anything in gilt. His sculptures and paintings are something you’d have to see to believe. The one I remember best, which I think was tragically lost at some point, was a picture of either the UnitedStates with glass blobs in key cities, or it might have been a tooth, roots and all, with glass blobs for accent, or to represent cavities. It depended on which way you hung it, portrait or landscape style.
I know very, very little about Granny Dunn. All that survives to me is her pronunciation of the word Fabulous, which was “fab-a-liss”. I know my Grampy called her Little Girl until the day she died. Legend has it that she treated John Henry’s skin lesions (cancer) for years with witch hazel.
They lived in Edina across the street from a park, in a place where horses still sometimes came trotting up the streets. It was quiet, just the kind of place Great-grandparents should live. They drove a Lincoln or a Cadillac, or some other kind of boat of a car.
My aunt Martha used to go over once or twice a week. She picked up groceries and drove them to doctor appointments. She listened to Berneeta complain about John Henry and to John Henry tell the same stories over and over. She checked the supply of pink-perfumed toilet paper and witch hazel, noting what needed re-stocking.
As an aside, there’s your evolutionary advantage for spinster aunts, lesbians, bachelor uncles and gay men in the family. They’re the ones who take care of the elderly and the sick while their procreative-sex-crazed, child-saddled counterparts are busy making and rearing children. If not for them, the pull between caring for one’s parents or one’s kids might tip towards the elderly, leaving the children unmade, unfed and generally neglected. (Oops, did I digress again?)
Well Martha went over to do her Christian work of mercy and she couldn’t get them to answer the door. Her stomach sank. This was bad. Because the only time Granny and Grampy went anywhere it was because Martha took them. She did a quick mental calculation. Nope, she hadn’t taken them anywhere. She went to the window to their bedroom and peeked in.
What she could see didn’t make her feel better. She could only see part of granny’s leg on the bed. That leg didn’t move, even when she knocked on the window. But something in that room moved, just a little.
What she could see didn’t make her feel better. She saw granny’s leg on the bed. Even when she knocked on the window that leg didn’t move. But something in that room moved, just a little.
After panicking, pacing, knocking and fretting, she went to a neighbor’s house and called the police who came and helped her break in. The house was dark and quiet. You know when someone has been sleeping all night and half the day in a room with the door closed, the smell? Kind of sweet, funky and icky old air smelling? The whole house smelled like that. It made Martha gaggy.
In their plushly carpeted, sheerly curtained bedroom it smelled worse. The sweet sleepy breath smell met up with a sick ammonia smell and something else. The cop called for paramedics as soon as he hit the door. He had done this before.
Martha could hear grampy whimpering and mumbling. “Grampy? Granny? It’s Martha.” It took everything she had to approach the bed, because it was becoming clear that Granny was dead. She had been dead for a while, more than a day.
“Oh Martha! I was sleeping and having the most terrible dream. I seem to be a mess here, but I just couldn’t get up and I kept having this dream. I was with a little girl…Oh the poor thing. She fell into the water, the little girl. She fell into the water and she was so cold. I was holding onto her, but I just couldn’t warm her up. She was so cold, and I couldn’t get her warm.”
He was delirious and dehydrated, laying next to his dead wife. She had been dead more than a day and he was unable to get out of bed. Granny had always been in charge of making sure he got up and going.
He went into the hospital where he lived only about a week. My aunt Berneeta came into town from Louisiana to be here for Grampy and the rest of the family. My mom’s family was always too hard on Berneeta. I think because she was always just a little too earnest, trying too hard. The harder she tried, the more people laughed at her. With slightly knocked knees and a voice that carried like a tropical bird, she was an easy mark. She was also serious and awkward, which in my family is just begging for trouble. On top of it all, she had a child who died, which I think made the family want to treat her as ‘other’. They would probably never admit that, but I think it might be true.
Berneeta (the younger) sat with Grampy in the hospital while he died. Family lore has it that she put lotions on his hands and massaged them while speaking quietly to him. Sometimes she wasn’t so quiet, she got worked up about being there for Grampy. It was during those times she could be heard down the hospital hall, telling Grampy, while massaging his hands with lotion, “I’m right here Grampy… Grampy, I’m here to help you over to the other side. I’m here with you. Berneeta’s here, Grampy, I’ll help you over.”
To this day, people in my family snicker about massaging people’s hands and helping them over to the other side. And when my mom was dying, my brother said to her, “Mom, I can make you one promise. If Berneeta shows up, I’m not gonna let her fucking touch you. She will not be helping you over to the other side as long as I’m around.” It made the corners of my mom’s mouth turn up, which was all we wanted out of a day with her.
The problem is, that when Berneeta showed up, Patrick started to get belligerent with her and everyone in the family. He said my mom didn’t want her around and he was going to keep his promise. He said my mom didn’t want Bern to remember her as a sick person. But Berneeta just wanted to hug her sister once more before she died. Eventually we all pulled rank on Patrick, but it wasn’t easy. Because he was deadly serious about it. It wasn’t a family joke anymore.