This short short story was originally published on The Community Storyboard in May 2013. With some minor revisions, I’m reprinting it here.
The child’s cry pierced my ears, and I thanked God again that I was too blind to see her tear-soaked red face. Every Sunday they put me through this. As an old woman, a matriarch, I’m supposed to be grateful. And I cope well enough with the cacophony of patent leather shoes and Buster Browns tripping across my wood floors. I cope with the sting and stench of my son-in-law’s cigar smoke, fighting for attention with the sour aroma of sauerkraut and kielbasa, my shoulders constantly pressed and rubbed as if I needed a reminder that it’s another Sunday dinner with all my children and their children.
I cope with only seeing shadowy figures as they float from car to couch to table and back to couch and at last to car. It’s a sunny day when I can see the shadows. The rest of the time, well, all I see is the darkest gray. Not black. Not eternal night. Not yet.
I cope with all the chatter around me–some made for my benefit: “Oh, Mother, you are looking so well today” and “Rosa, come say hello to your Grandma Lein.” But most of the chatter I don’t really hear. I’m not deaf yet, but I don’t listen. I don’t respond right away to their questions. They ask a second or third time and then I respond. So they think I’m deaf. And they know I am blind. And they generally let me be.
Until that child starts crying, as she always does, at every visit. The youngest of my youngest. She is as loose with her tears as he was at her age. It must be in the blood, from his father’s side.
This time she leaned against the stove after being told not to and now she has a burn on her elbow which every adult has to attend to. Right before her mother was going to serve dinner.
I hear her brother next to me start to laugh. He always finds his sister’s tragedies to be very amusing. I raise my hand quickly to his face. My knuckles graze his cheek and it’s enough to make him silent. But I can feel his smile, his delight in little Rosa’s tears. If he hadn’t been sitting next to me at the time, I would have imagined him pushing her against the stove just to get her started.
Last Sunday she tripped and fell onto her knees while roller skating. She hadn’t even gotten to the end of my walkway, they said. Skinned both her knees on the concrete and she’s still wearing the bandages my son told me. Her knees are healing nicely, he said, but in case she trips again, the bandages will protect her. That happened right before dinner too.
And the Sunday before that, she missed a step coming down the stairs from the toilet and fell hard on her bum. I think she was more embarrassed than hurt, but she hollered as if she had broken a leg.
Her brother whispers to me, “I’m hungry, Grandma, aren’t you?” I shush him, but my stomach responds with a low growl. I hear him snicker and I start to raise my hand. I feel him move out of range.
I feel the heavy weight of my youngest as he resumes his place at the other side of me. I can just make out his large hulking form bent forward, his elbows on the table. How many times have I told him that elbows do not belong on the table. I gave up a long time ago.
“Is she all right,” I ask him softly in German. It’s funny to me that after all my years in this country and all I went through to learn English, that German is what most often comes to my lips. My youngest, though, and in fact everyone always answers me in English.
“Yes, Ma, she’s OK. Gertie is putting some salve on the burn. It’s not too bad. It won’t blister.” He sighs and leans back in his chair.
“She is accident-prone,” I say, stating the obvious, of course, but I could not resist. Like her brother, I take some cruel pleasure in her mishaps. She was like a gadfly to me–annoying me with her cries, her crises.
I know I’m being unfair. She’s just a child. The youngest of my youngest. And I have never seen her. My sight was gone by the time she was born. And because of that I will always remember her brother as being two years old because that is when I last saw him. The advantage of being blind, I once told my youngest, is that I will never see any of my children or grandchildren grow old.
“Oh, but, Ma, I wish you could see Rosa,” he says. “She looks just like you when you were little, like you do in those photos on the ship when you came over. She’s got your black hair and black eyes. Even her skin is dark, but the doctors say she’ll grow out of that.”
“You make her sound like an Indian,” I snap back. “There’s no Indians in this family.” That always hurts him, and I regret the pain that I caused him. But he seems too quick to forget that he had been dark like Rosa and that he had been tormented by other children. They called him Injun Joe. They said his father was a drunken Indian. They were right about the first part. All my husband ever did was drink. He claimed to be part Mohawk, but I never believed him.
“Ma,” my youngest took my hand. “We’re ready to say Grace.”
Everyone was suddenly silent, even Rosa. I felt his son’s hand gingerly feel for mine. I slowly clasped the soft, supple fingers, thinking how large they were for a two-year-old’s.