The End of the Reign of Queen Helen
I remember first the mouth. Always open, mauve tongue cracked down the center from seven decades of use, disappearing into a cavernous blackness beyond. Granny Gombar had a voice like a bull horn, ruined, she said, from swallowing a fish bone at twenty-five. I suspected the Salems.
I see one smoldering, caught in the bird’s beak of a silver sculptured ashtray. I see her, through a haze of years and smoke, smoke and sun, slatting through blinds from the treeless yard. The affronted black eyes behind butterfly glasses, the yellow skin, flat nose, white, tightly curled hair, the girth loosely encased in a flowered shift, wide feet in cloth wedge sandals. And the wide mouth – always open.
“My son the doctor,” she bragged to her neighbors about my father, the dentist.That voice, screaming repartee at her powder blue parakeet Bootsie (1962-1965).
“You’re late!” she’d bellow into the phone to my parents, who used to drop my sister and me at her apartment for a few terrifying hours every few weeks. There, by the tea table, under the embroidered portrait of three cats in dresses jumping into a lily-pad pond, among the white ceramic figurines of shepherdesses and swans in eighteenth-century dress, Granny reigned.
She bought us coloring books, but wouldn’t let us color. We sat idly by, watching her neatly fill in Bambi, Cinderella, or Lady and the Tramp. She never let us near Bootsie. I wanted to take him/her/it, touch its pale blue feathers and squeeze it so its little purple-black tongue would pop out. Bootsie was the last in a line of revered pets, the most notorious of which was a canine called Mitzi (1938-1947) who was fed scrap meat from a restaurant. “That dog ate better than we did,” my Dad recalls bitterly.
“Eat! Eat! Eat!” she’d bellow at me, frozen in terror.
“You’re not a Gombar!” she’d shout at six-year-old me. “You’re ike your mother’s family. You’ve got those round cat eyes!”
“I was a beauty,” she often proclaimed to skeptical listeners. Impossible to tell. Few photographs were taken in that family, as if there were nothing to celebrate. The earliest traceable picture of her is at sixty, her looks already obscured by butterfly glasses and garish fashions. The occasion: my father’s college graduation (first in the family), where he stands pompadoured, but otherwise like a prisoner between his dour father and gloating mother.
“This is the year!” she’d proclaim. “I had a dream!” Hand over heart, upper arms billowing, bulk settled in the big easy chair. “For my funeral I want a high mass and I want her” – points to my sister, “To sing Ave Maria.” Rose had the voice.
“She’ll never die!” Her sons declared.
“Work! Work! Work!” was Granny’s battle cry. Imminent financial ruin predicted if my father took a day off with the flu, two weeks summer vacation.
“You’re killing him,” she told my mother, after she produced a fourth child – a boy finally – too late in life.
I was told that Granny:
Had secretly dressed Uncle Russell as a girl.
Drove her husband to an early grave.
Drove Mitzi to an early grave.
Drove Bootsie to an early grave.
“I told the doctor – Don’t tell me I’m frigid! I had three children!”
As a teenager, I began to understand her.
“I wanted to be a nurse,” she told us. “I went through all the training. Then my father said, ‘I don’t want you looking at naked men!’”
So she married Mike at nineteen. But Mike stay out nights and without warning escaped to the Merchant Marine, a four-year hitch. Helen moved back to her father’s in shame and disgrace. And then:
“I was in the kitchen, rolling out dough for a strudel, when I looked up and saw him standing in the doorway. I thought he was a ghost. I went up and hit him with the rolling pin.”
Their first appearance as a reunited couple was at the doctor’s office, to repair Mike’s broken collar bone. “I didn’t know where babies from,” she said innocently in her prim baritone. “On my wedding night I thought Mike was trying to kill me.”“I always wanted a girl,” Granny confessed. “When I got pregnant a second time, I was sure it was going to be a girl. I made all the little dresses” – pantomimes sewing – “I bought a doll. I was going to call her” – eyes closed in rapture behind butterfly glasses – “Gloria.”But Gloria turned out to be Uncle Russell, who took the fanatical neatness and excitability that were Granny’s own trademarks to extremes, joined the Navy at the first whiff of World War II, got tattooed, kept his buzz cut to the end of his days, collected guns.
“You tell them,” she said, meaning our boyfriends, “If they don’t treat my girls right, I’ll go after them with my cane!” She brandished her weapon only in her imagination – she used a walker now.
When I was nineteen, Granny suffered a heart attack and stayed with us to recuperate. “What’s wrong with him,” she fretted primly in her bullhorn voice about her son-the-doctor, “That he won’t eat what your mother cooks and makes a mess on the stove a midnight?”
Between this disorderly atmosphere and the lack of Salems, it was all in all a disquieting stretch, and soon she was back in her apartment, with Salem Lights and an oxygen tank for when the emphysema kicked in. “I’m glad to see one of my girls get married before I kick the bucket.”At ose’s reception she sat on a fold-out chair in green satin, like a great jeweled frog, bearing an affronted look. The fact was, my sister’s husband and Granny took one look at each other, resulting in instant mutual disgust.“You ell him – my cane,” Granny said, pulling my sister aside at one point.
I was home alone at my parents’ house one sunny Sunday when the call came. My Uncle Russell, who should have been a girl, walked into Granny’s apartment in his crew-cut and tattoos after the six o’clock mass. In the bedroom: curtains floating and sun streaming in, the walker knocked over, Granny splayed, face down on the bed.
“You’re Grandmother’s dead,” Russ told me over the phone in his bullhorn voice, copied, like so much else, from her. From his tone, you would have thought it was something he’d done.
Russell took charge of the funeral, and with his mania for efficiency and detail, arranged everything so swiftly, there was no time to ponder, no time to come up with the right words, and no one to sing Ave Maria. I knelt at the casket, trying to imagine Granny in the afterlife. What came was a vision of her shrouded in cigarette smoke, a host of pale parakeets swirling o’er her white head.I looked down. She made a marvelous corpse. She had scarcely lost any bulk in her last years, despite finally succumbing to dentures. She was dusted white, well-rouged, and arrayed in the same jewel-green dress she’d worn at my sister’s wedding. (She still resembled a dressed-up frog.) On her mouth, the same deep red lipstick. Something different about her mouth, though. What? Then I realized – it was the first time I’d ever seen it shut.