She licks her thumb and presses the spine flat. His old black book, his old habit — she’d nearly forgotten.
“No one came by today. I haven’t seen the kids or grandkids in a few weeks now. It’s almost dinner time. The usual for me. A few telemarketers called. Bananas. I can’t forget my bananas at the grocery store.”
Her handwriting, now spidery from the arthritis, details another day.
"I just don't know what we'll do with all this junk,” my sister-in-law complains. She’s standing in the middle of the room, dirty shoes tromping all over the peaches-and-cream chenille bedspread I’ve just folded.
I nod, my eyes taking in the dust scattered by afternoon sunlight. I remember all the days after school, spent watching TV in this old bedroom. Granddaddy died in here, lung cancer, when I was little. There wasn’t anything for it but to wait. Grandmama never slept in there again.
It’s the last room left to pack up. Somehow, this one is the hardest. It’s too intimate. Too many things were left unsaid.
"I mean, really, how much can you keep all these years?” she continues. “This is going to take all damn day.”
I shoot a sideways glance from the floor where I’m sorting through dresser drawers. Everybody wants something but, surprise, they’re all too busy to help. Granddaddy’s lighter, a forgotten tobacco tin, handkerchiefs and framed photos to the left. Undergarments and empty checkbooks to the right.
“Ugh. So old-fashioned … the dark wood, chipped china, why are you even bothering to look through things? It's all junk, Della.”
Because I know something you don’t, I think to myself.
“Sasha, they spent nearly 70 years in the same house. Married for 51, and Grandmama was widowed for what seems like an eternity,” I begin. “Don’t you think that deserves a little reflection?”
“I think it all deserves to be thrown out in the yard and whoever wants to can take it. First come, first serve and no complaining.” Sasha rolls her eyes and sweeps a pile of old bills into a garbage bag. Lucky I tucked the stock certificates into my purse before she got here.
The drawers are finished and I need to get started on the closet. Ignoring her last comment, I move Sasha’s enormous designer bag and even larger Starbucks cup out of the way. Shaking my head, I wonder how someone even begins to think about spending $50 on a pair of flip flops. After scrunching her nose at the grimy insoles, Sasha’s kicked them off into a chair.
“Hey, Dee,” Sasha calls to me, too loudly for such a small room. (I really hate that nickname — are five letters really so exhausting?) “Wouldn’t it be crazy if we found, like, a bunch of cash stashed in here?” She laughs dryly, “Bertie was always so secretive. I bet we find some racy love letters, too.”
Grandmama Bertie, I think, emphasizing her name by deepening the wrinkle at my left eyebrow, was lonely and on a fixed income.
“Not that it’d be any use to you, though,” Sasha says, still with no clue when to shut up.
“Oh? Why’s that?” I ask, my voice muffled as I reach to the top shelf of the closet.
“Come on, Dee,” she says with a practiced pout. “$20,000 could fall in your lap right this minute and you’d … put it in savings!”
I’d pay off the last of my student loans, first. I think.
“Y’all just aren’t spontaneous. I mean, no offense or whatever, but what do you even talk about?” Classic Sasha, you can never tell if she’s deliberately trying to push your buttons or if it’s just default mean girl mode from years of bossing other people around.
“Asher and I have quite a lot to discuss,” I reply flatly.
I don’t have that much left on my loan repayment plan. We could add the money to our rainy day fund and price out that attic addition again, I think.
“Like the news and what’s for dinner? Dee, honey, y’all are plain-Jane bor-ing.” She drags out the last syllable and checks her hair with the front-facing camera of a smartphone that’s the size of her big mouth.
“Like running our business, like the bills? Like is the dog okay, has anyone checked in on Mom lately, what it would be like if we were married to characters from our favorite movies … b-books!” I rattle off, fully aware that it’s not just the busted A/C that’s making me irritable.
Italy. We talked about it when we were first dating. A river cruise, docking in all the major food regions. Eating our way through Italy with handmade pesto, braised shanks, airy ciabatta, fresh fruits, cheese and gelato bought while wandering side streets. Audrey Hepburn's Roman Holiday having a direct influence on my outfits. Sandals, sun, a red dress and wine by the river ... that's the vacation for who we've become.
“See? Exactly what I mean. Same ol’ Della. How did I get so lucky and marry the fun sibling?” she declares.
You cornered him in high school, demanded he love you, and now you open credit cards behind his back to buy whatever you like. A mean thought, sure, but I’m hot and tired.
Is she right? Are we really so lame that a chunk of change would simply be tucked away for safekeep–
I stop, mid-thought, my hands having sorted the closet on auto-pilot. Blouses, pants, summer dresses and sweaters to the left. Old luggage and shoes down in front. Two coats, wool skirts and a few threadbare handbags shoved to the right, out of Sasha’s line of sight.
I know something you don’t.
“Hey good lookin’ — whatcha got cookin’?” Oscar sings, off-key and deep.
Bertie smiles to herself, closing the little black book. “Summer soup, love. You know, you don’t have to plant quite so much squash. It’s just us here now,” she says, flicking a piece of peeling at her husband.
“No can do, doll. The kids might come over to eat and we need some to share with old Mrs. Allen up the street,” Oscar replies and swipes a handful of raw vegetables from the countertop.
“Are you still glad you married me?” Bertie asks, eyes flickering underneath her thick eyelashes.
“You crazy or something? You’re the best thing that ever happened to me,” Oscar says, tugging on her apron strings. “Bertie, why are you dragging this up?”
“Oh, it’s this book, Oscar. Every time I go to write down a recipe or a note, I have to flip past all those ridiculous girls you dated.” Bertie pushes the book away and looks down at the floor.
“Did you ever notice you aren’t in it?” he asks.
“Only about a thousand times. I guess it’s — I’m worried you’re bored with me,” she whispers, rolling the loose strings between her fingers.
“Bertie, you aren’t in there because you were beyond comparison the moment I met you,” Oscar says, pulling her chin up and looking into her eyes.
“Silly old man … I love you,” she laughs. “Have you ever thought about us going to Italy? I hear they have delicious food.”
I know something Sasha never will.
She’s back in the middle of the room, arms and hips stuck out like somebody’s looking. She heaves a sigh, and says, “Dee, I’m over this. Just like I figured, there wasn’t anything worth looking at in here.”
My eyes are squeezed tight, trying to realign my scratchy contacts. I rub the wrinkle near my eyebrow and wonder how many years of biting my tongue it took for that to show up.
“Dee, you hear me? I’m leaving,” Sasha announces, gathering up her bag and filthy flip flops. I’ll be throwing away the cup from her fat-free French vanilla venti machia-whatever.
“Say hey to my brother for me,” I say. He never calls but, really, what else is there to say?
She flicks a wave in my direction, already on speaker phone with the Thai restaurant near their house. Funny, I always thought my brother hated spicy food …
The house is quiet now and I can’t take it. I pull up an instrumental playlist on my phone and slip it into my pocket.
Back at the closet, I take the last handbag Grandmama ever carried — on the right, the one I hid from Sasha — and carefully run my fingers over the seams. The straps are worn thin from being tightly wrapped around her wrist during the weekly grocery shopping. No purse snatcher stood a chance against Bertie and her walking stick, that’s for darn sure!
Grandmama Bertie’s favorite blue suit slips off its hanger behind me. She’d made me swear to bury her in it. Told me it was the exact same shade as Granddaddy’s eyes. She was so thin when she passed away. That suit was way too big so I spent an entire night running around department stores until I found pants and a jacket that were the exact same shade.
Why not go to Italy? I think. We’re not dead yet. Just pull some out of the savings and enjoy ourselves … damn. Sasha was right, there’s nothing here.
How foolish of me. Daydreaming about a small fortune while Grandmama Bertie’s life is pieced and parted out for the convenience of others. I shake my head and–
The lining is torn, like it’s been carefully snipped away.
Bertie’s favorite hiding place.
I slide two fingers between the leather and the lining and feel paper. Pulling my hand out, I’m left holding an old black book.
The leather is soft and worn, the pages a blur of feathered ink. A man’s writing, old-fashioned cursive with little dabs and smears in the corners. The names Mary Anne, Margaret, and Marie Lee stand out. Jane, Ellie and Susan are crossed off.
This is Granddaddy's little black book.
I flip forward and the writer changes. Grandmama, in her early 50s, noting down important things from the day,“Matthew and Susan came for dinner again. Asked us to pick up the mail while they’re at the beach — we can keep the newspapers, of course.” “It was Comedy Night on Sears Radio Theater. Andy Griffith is still funny.” and “Della’s birthday is Saturday. I hope her Mama will bring her over so I can make a birthday cake. Chocolate with vanilla frosting is her favorite.” Then there’s grocery lists, getting shorter as people visit less. More snack cakes and candy, canned vegetables, loaf bread. Always small bananas, “As green as you can get,” she’d say.
Further along, a sadness and cramped writing. More notes. But now there are death dates, too ... her quiet witness of lives passing. Grandmama Bertie knew so many people and there were so few left to attend her funeral.
Teary-eyed, I run my fingers over her words and flip to the back. The last few pages are blank and I want to rip them from their stitches. It’s not fair that Bertie didn’t get to finish the book Granddaddy started all those years ago.
I stack the blank pages between my fingers, determined to tear out what’s left and see one last bit of writing.
“For my darling Della, I knew you'd find it. You always understood.”
Shocked, I pull a faded slip of paper from the back pocket. It’s a $20,000 check, made out to me, with “Love you always” in the memo line.
About the Creator
I'm a small business owner by day; a Kindle junkie by night. I love Indian food, MacGyver reruns, breaking grammar rules for the sake of sentiment & my tattoo of falling into a really great book. There is always time for coffee or a nap!