This story is by Maria Marica and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The house smelled like clementines and medicine. Once in a while, Nina would visit her in the living room, pretending she was prowling the Christmas tree for candy. A part of her wished she could use that room for reading or watching movies, like she usually did around the holidays, but now the couch had turned into a hospital bed.
“Nina, tell me more about your life there…is it raining all the time?”
“Most of the time, gran. But we also have sunny days. The Germans yearn for them like you and m’am Bessie used to yearn for bread and milk, during communism.”
“And how is he?” she asked.
“We’re fine, gran,” replied Nina and kissed her cheek. She then popped the piece of candy in her mouth and chewed it like a dog chews its rubber toy. If there was one thing she remembered from school, it was to look busy whenever you don’t want the teacher to ask you stuff you don’t know.
She knew, though, there was no escape from these questions. In her grandmother’s eyes, she was a woman now.
“Do you cook more these days?” said she, coughing. She had been lying still on her back, since the fall, so her lungs were suffering as well. “You know, men need to be taken care of, my dear. I did it for your grandfather. I did it for your father, and what a fine man he became. It’s a woman’s job.”
Nina smiled with the ignorance of a little girl, hiding how much she disapproved of her advice. She tried to keep her mind from flying back to the stories her mother had been telling her over the past couple months.
“I wish I could see how you’ve changed, dear, but my eyes don’t help me anymore.” Her words brought the girl back from her train of thought. Her grandma’s sight had been long gone, yet she still had the kindest eyes Nina had ever seen. “They tried to repair them, but now i’m worse off. When will they learn that there’s no cure for old age?”
The girl’s heart sunk as she could find no right words to say. She remembered the days when her gran was still a sturdy woman, and the little girls’ bellies were full of pancakes, polenta and rice puddings with cinnamon.
“And now this leg…as if I wasn’t enough of a burden to your parents.”
“Nonsense, gran,” said Nina with a smile. Then she left with the promise of coming back later. She did not feel guilty for leaving her alone, because she knew that in the meantime, the old woman relied on her favourite companions: the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
“Mom, you don’t have to do that,” said Nina, as her mother came out of the living room holding a diaper in her hand.
“It’s fine, Nina,” said she in resignation.”Now i’m the one she depends on.”
The girl ignored the irony in her mother’s voice.
“Why don’t you check her in a nursing home? It would be best for everyone”.
“They said she doesn’t need to stay in a hospital,” answered her mother. “She is your grandmother and she’s sick.”
“Look, mom, it’s the only time of the year when you have us home together, you have the right to enjoy it without having to take care of the woman that hurt you so much. Did you forget all the stories you told me?”
The young girl could not believe the selfishness of her own words. It was her turn to be an advocate of her mother’s wellbeing.
“Nina, I’m fine. As long as you and Alana are home, I’m happy. Let’s not spoil these holidays,” said she, while the girl kept the stance of a witness to an unbearable injustice.
“You cannot tell me how she mistreated you, how dad never did anything about it, and then expect me to live with it”, the girl continued as her eyes turned red and trembled in an attempt to contain the tears.
“I never meant to turn you against them. You know I have nobody to talk to, my baby”, said her mother. “Those were the days, our generations were not as educated as yours. He’s still your father and he loves you.” Her words sounded like they were addressed more to herself than to her daughter.
“How do you expect me to react? You should cry on your friends’ shoulders, not mine. I am not a child anymore, now I understand how a man should treat his woman. Why doesn’t he do anything to get you out of this situation?”
“He’s your father and he loves you, that is all that should matter to you, baby.”
“No, mom, ” said Nina, “ever since I moved in with Daniel, I can understand what -“
Alana entered the kitchen in that moment, having heard the last bit of their conversation. She pretended not to hear the words that Nina was uttering when she came in. She poured herself a glass of water and took a sip as leisurely as she did everything else in her life. Nina was jealous of her, of how the things that troubled the girl so much seemed not to affect her older sister.
“Nina-ballerina, why do you make a drama out of everything? She’s our gran, and dad’s doing the best he can in this situation. It’s hard for him seeing his mother like this.”
She took another sip of water and then turned towards their mother, as a judge about to give her final decree.
“And you, mom, stop telling her these things, if you know she’s not strong enough to handle them. Tell them to me, if you must. But we’re not here to fix your relationship. You both wronged each other in this life, he’s not the bad man here.”
The kitchen door had remained open, without the three women noticing it. As soon as he walked in, Nina felt her anger climbing up from her chest to her throat. She had already forgot Alana’s words; after all, she thought, her sister could not understand the situation as well as she did.
“What are you girls talking about?” asked the father, unaware of the storm he’d stepped into.
“Why are you not taking gran to a nursing home? Or at least find a nurse to take care of her at home? Mom doesn’t have to go through this, after everything she suffered in your marriage,” said Nina. She knew she’d later have to forgive herself for crossing that line, but she did not care. “You think I don’t know about everything? You always took gran’s side instead of our mom’s. Why does she now have to take care of YOUR mother?”
He looked like a puppy trapped in a lion cage.
“What do you want me to do? How should I find someone to look after her, two days before Christmas? I am helping your mom in every way that I can, I don’t know what else to do.”
The kitchen sunk in silence, as if in a tacit consensus that there was indeed nothing left to be done.
“Fine,” said she, defeated, before rushing out of the room. She’d never felt more entitled and misunderstood, like a character in one of those realist patriarchal novels that she had studied years before, in high school.
Christmas came and passed quicker than ever. Every day for the rest of her vacation, Nina would spend an hour after lunch with her grandmother. She’d stroke her hands, arrange the pillows or quench her thirst with clementines.
“Do you remember, Nina, when you used to give me phone calls every week?” asked the old woman one afternoon.
“Oh, gran, you were always surprised to hear me, even if you it was me,” said the girl, remembering her university years.
She wished she could go back to those old days, when she didn’t know more than she needed to. Back then, she was still the good granddaughter, and her older sister was the reckless one.
Five days after Christmas, Alana took her sister to the airport.
The cellphone rang two days later.
“Yesterday we left her in the nursing home, then she started feeling worse during the night,” said her dad over the phone, with a sadness in his voice that Nina had not heard before. “She was in pain, it’s better that it happened.”
Nina felt like a foolish, foolish girl. She cried in Daniel’s arms that night and alone thereafter. Gran had taught her how to talk to her guardian angels and to God, and she started speaking to them more than ever before, now that she knew her grandma’d be right up there listening.
She cried, desperate for forgiveness, because of all those wasted afternoons and conversations cut short. But mostly, because she’d loved her gran for twenty-something years, yet not enough during the goddamn week that mattered most.