"Let me cook for you."
She smiles, sitting back in the oversized recliner. I hand her a box of More cigarettes and cheap Bic lighter. "Sorry, I don't really have an ashtray. You'll have to use one of these bowls." It's a Fiesta, dark blue. It belonged to her back when she lived in Savannah. I babble a little as I continue. "Mores are hard to find now. Hell," I pause, making eye contact through her large framed glasses, "I mean, heck, uh...well, my Walmart doesn't even sell smokes anymore, but I never picked up the habit, myself."
"It's ok, sugar." She grins, and she says shugah instead of sugar and it's a voice and accent I've not heard in forty years. I get a lump in my throat.
Pressure builds behind my eyes, and I turn away before I lose the reins on my emotion. I busy myself with tenderizing cubesteak before dredging it in flour.
I feel her watching me in the kitchen. It's not an uncomfortable silence, but I don't particularly like the smell of the tobacco. It isn't unpleasant, per se, because it's tied to early childhood memory. Other than the nostalgia, though, it isn't great. I try my best to ignore it, getting lost in the prep. I decide to ask, since it's the elephant in the room.
"Where have you been?" I look up from the stainless steel bowl filled with flour and beef.
She sighs, flicks ashes into the empty bowl. She reaches over and takes a sip of instant tea from the Coke tumbler that looks like stained glass. It's Lipton, because I couldn't find Nestea. The cup wasn't hers, but it is one that looks just like what she used to use. I bought it on eBay a few years ago because it reminded of her. I say none of these things, waiting for her to answer me.
She clears her throat and looks up at me. "I can't talk about that, baby. Just know it's a good place."
"Like in that tv show with Kristen Bell?" I half-joke.
"I don't know who that is."
Of course she doesn't.
"So there aren't movies where you've been? No television?"
She smiles sadly. "I can't talk about that, baby. Tell me about you."
We have decades to catch up on in just a few hours. I fill her in as best I can. I try to describe the influence she's had on me.
I try to describe the impact her absence has had on me.
I'm not sure I do a great job, but she finishes her cigarette and gives me a hug. I try not to get flour on her gingham shirt.
For a moment, all I smell is her Worth perfume. All I feel is the warmth from her arms. The world falls away and my grandmother stands with me in my kitchen, and I feel like I'm an eight year old again.
I don't particularly like feeling like a kid again, but I do like the feeling of my whole world being filled with the love and tenderness of a grandparent.
"Let me help you in here," she says, tenderly.
I feel a little like she doesn't trust my skills, but I welcome her. Together, we laugh and work and clean as we go.
"You still love corn and peas?" she teases me, stirring.
"Yes ma'am, but I don't fry much." I lay the cuts of cubesteak in bubbling grease.
"I know this used to be your favorite meal. I hope you have French's."
"It's the only worcestershire I buy," I laugh.
The meal is prepared and plated and we sit at the table. I had to clean it off; it's been nothing more than a catch-all for years. I usually take my meals on the couch, watching television. She tells me stories from her youth that I've never heard; featured prominently are tales of she and her sister back when they taught school together just out of college.
She asks me about my education and job, and I tell her about the things I've done and the degrees I studied.
Her eyes mist and a single tear forms. She tells me how proud she is to hear about me finishing college and making a career.
I'm forced to admit that her career and mine share some parallels, and I have to name the influence for what it is.
I ask her how much longer we have, and she just smiles sadly.
"Not enough, sugar."
She holds my hand, and her grip is strong and sure. I remember the last time I held it, the sounds and smells of the hospital. I remember the strength of her grip then, how she put on a good show of being fine. How I thought, somehow, that she'd be home in a few days after some treatment.
"I was a dumb kid," I blurt out.
She laughs at me. "No, you were just a kid. My job was to protect you."
"But you left me," I couldn't help but cry. Tears explode, and I'm a wreck.
She wraps me in those strong arms again, and decades of grief flow.
"I'm proud of you," she says. "You did a fine job." I almost think she's talking about the meal, but I look at her and I think she means something completely different.
"How are you here?" I have to know.
She reaches up and wipes away my tears. "Oh, baby. This is a dream, but that doesn't make it any less real."
I wake with a start, content.
I swear I can almost smell Worth perfume and More cigarettes when I sleepy-stumble into the kitchen.
My heart skips a beat when I notice ashes in her old blue Fiesta bowl.