by Andrea McCullough
When my daughter Alice was two, and my husband had been gone for about eight months, I went to work at a new school. I couldn’t return to Hillside Elementary after he died. I couldn’t face the kids and the families, and my colleagues. They looked at me full of pity and tilted their heads to the side. I needed a fresh start where no one knew of my loss and grief—a place where I could pretend.
A few months into the school year, I broke a cardinal rule of reading aloud. I started a book aloud to my class that I had never read myself. The book was Tales of A Gambling Grandma by Dayal Kaur Khalsa.
The cover is bright yellow, and the illustration is designed to look like a photograph of a big green weeping willow tree. Under the tree, the grandmother is dressed in a purple dress, with white hair piled on top of her head, and she sits across from the little girl. They are playing cards. Her grandma is no ordinary grandma. She plays cards for money, tells fantastic stories, and cuts her granddaughter’s sandwiches in fours just like the little girl likes. The book builds to a sad ending. I felt it coming from the first few pages. I could tell from how my heart beat so hard inside my chest. There was only one way for this story to end.
When I read the second to last page, the part where the little girl comes home from school to learn that her beloved grandmother has died, I heard a sound come from my throat.
Don’t do it, I told myself. Please don’t do this now.
But it was too late. The sob escaped.
It came from deep inside of me.
I closed my eyes, and it emerged.
Intense and loud.
I put my shaking hands over my face.
Before me, sat my new class of third graders. Each child sat on the rainbow class rug with their legs crisscrossed in their little square.
“This book is so sad,” I mumbled.
I tried to breathe slowly to hold back the tears. But my weak words and their horrified stares quickened the sobs that flowed like the ship waves of my childhood. Big and fast with white caps. It scared me.
I glanced at the book’s last page and read it in a whisper. After the news of her grandmother’s passing, the little girl went straight to her grandma’s room and checked her special drawer of treasures to make sure they were in place. Next, she headed to the closet.
Then I opened her closet door and stepped inside.
I closed the door behind me and hugged
and smelled all my grandma’s great big dresses.
I am this girl.
I checked drawers for treasures.
I opened the closet door and stepped inside.
I stepped into the closet late at night and smelled everything that was my husband’s. I smelled his work shirts and t-shirts and flannels. I hugged his jacket. I buried my nose in his fuzzy blue bathrobe in which I had a matching one – a favorite wedding gift from a friend. The truth is, he hadn’t worn any of those clothes in months. He spent his last days in pajamas. The clothes didn’t smell like him. They smelled like me.
At night, when my daughter was asleep, I felt free to look at pictures, flip through his wallet, and cry. Free to be me without worrying about upsetting her. One night as morning approached, I folded the 1970s silky dress shirt that I got him from the Goodwill in Santa Cruz, his dress pants, his old Jerry Garcia tie, and his favorite shirt – the guayabera he wore when we got married. I folded each one with tender care and placed them all in a box. I labeled the box: Save for Alice.
I looked at my class now, sitting in front of me. I noticed Jenny sucking her thumb and looking at me with wide eyes. One boy stared at me, and when my eyes met his, he looked away. Was that disgust on his face? I felt shame burning in my red cheeks.
Then AJ stood up. She was new to the school too. She, like me, hoped for a fresh start. She was intelligent and funny and old beyond her years. She was taller than the other kids in the class and strong. She knew how to solve problems.
“Excuse me,” she whispered to her classmates as she stepped between them and headed to the edge of the rug. She bit her bottom lip. She walked up the colors of the rainbow rug: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. She reached me.
I sat in front of the class on a wooden chair. Shoulders rounded and face puffy. My eyes met hers, and my lips lifted into a small smile. I worried I was terrifying her, but her gaze was steady and sure.
I whispered, “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head and put her arms around me. Her hug was strong and tight. I hugged her back. Her body relaxed in my arms.
Suddenly I heard her.
Low and tender.
And then I knew.
She has looked in drawers for treasures, opened closets, and stepped inside.
She was like me.
Andrea McCullough is a teacher, mother, and writer. Andrea received her MFA in creative writing from Northeastern University at Mills College in Oakland, CA, where she received the Amanda Davis MFA Thesis in Prose Prize. Andrea’s essay Reaching For My Pen was published at LiteraryMama in May/June 2023, and she has a forthcoming flash piece to be published at FEED Lit Mag. She has recently completed her first book, an epistolary memoir.
Image original: Elena Kloppenburg/Unsplash