American Contemporary Fiction

Days before my ailing elderly grandmother passes, she appears to me in a dream. I am visiting her in a nursing home, but instead of finding her in the usual bed, she lies in a baby’s crib. And the air, rather than thick with the stench of antiseptic and death, is sweet smelling and fresh. I inhale deeply: Andes chocolate mints, her favorite, and mine. The floor is covered with their discarded emerald green wrappers. Next to her cot is an octagonal tin – the same one I so often reached into as a child – brimming with Andes mints. I unwrap one and savor its familiar flavor.

As I approach I take in the sight of my 96-year-old grandmother in the guise of a newborn, her aged skin smooth and ruddy, milky eyes clear and blue, withered arms strong, reaching for me. I pick her up, expecting a baby’s babbling, only to hear her say, in her own familiar voice, “Nice to see you, Mom.”

I cradle the baby, rock my grandma gently, hear myself singing "Hush little baby, don't say a word, Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird..." As I stare at her, her features meld with those of my own three children, and they become indistinguishable, the four of them. She is one of mine, as much as they are, and my purpose is to protect her, nurture her, love her, even though I understand implicitly that her life in this world is nearing its end.

The air thrums with a deep-toned tranquility. The late afternoon sun casts warm shadows. The taste of dark chocolate lingers on my tongue. I shift and we stand in the light, the two of us. She is luminous in my arms. I am a different mother: I do not feel out of my depth. I am not frightened of what will happen – of whether I am doing the right thing. Of whether I am good enough.

She looks at me knowingly, then says, “It is time to go home now.” I nod and hold her closer, her head at my chest, her fisted hands nuzzled against me. Then, she begins to change. She folds herself up, tucks her legs, crosses her arms. She is shrinking, becoming smaller and smaller until she is the perfect size and shape to fit into my womb.

* * *

Andes mints were first sold in a confectionery shop in Chicago owned by a George Andrew Kanelos who called his store “Andy’s Candies.” He soon realized that male customers didn’t like giving boxes of chocolate with another man’s name on them to their sweethearts so changed the name to “Andes Candies.” The slogan “Andes the peak of all Candies” appeared on the frontage of his Art Deco-style store until it closed in the 1960s. The company was sold and later acquired by Tootsie Roll Industries.

The original building still stands and has served variously as a shoe store, a pizzeria, a children’s clothing boutique, a bookstore, a realtor’s office, a tanning salon, and, most recently, a funeral home.

* * *

Orogeny: from the Ancient Greek words meaning “mountain” and “origin”; otherwise known as mountain-building.

* * *

A couple weeks after the dream I am in my mother’s kitchen, helping her with arrangements for the reception to follow my grandmother’s funeral. She doesn’t understand why I insist that we need to have Andes mints. “Because she liked them,” I say. “It was her favorite candy. Don’t you remember the tin—”

“It’s not like she’s going to be there to eat them herself,” my mother says smartly. “I’m making a big lasagna, and the church ladies are bringing some casseroles. No one will want to eat chocolate mints at a funeral.” And she resumes her list-making. I watch as she writes paper cups, napkins, orange juice on a slip of paper in her perfect schoolgirl cursive. She looks up at me and thrusts the list into my hand. “Here. I’ve put you in charge of these,” she says.

I am catapulted back to my ten-year-old self – the girl who always did as she was told, who never veered from a straight path. Who sailed through school, got good grades, always acted sensibly.

Except when she visited her grandma’s house. There, she could be a different girl for a little while. One free to bend the rules, take risks, and... live.

As I stand in my mother’s kitchen I feel the ground shift, just a little, beneath my feet. I am 38 years old, I have children of my own now. I watch her rifle through the pantry in which all the cans and jars are stacked in neat columns. When she’s not looking, I grab the pen, add Andes mints to the list, and stuff the paper in my pocket.

* * *

The formation of the Andes mountain range began in the Triassic period and continued through the Jurassic. It was during the Cretaceous period that the Andes began to take their present form through a process known as subduction, in which tectonic plates collide and slide beneath one another. The orogenesis has occurred over tens of millions of years and is still occurring.

* * *

In the beginning the rift between my mother and grandmother was subtle, as imperceptible as the Earth’s rotation, evident only in the occasional raised eyebrow or sharp comment. “You didn't let her watch TV, did you?” … “I'm sure she didn't drink this whole can of Coke?” … “And I hope she finished her homework first…?” were my mom’s typical greetings when she picked me up after a late shift at the pharmacy where she worked as an assistant. It was a job that suited her with its attention to detail, requiring her meticulous precision to ensure customers received the correct prescriptions in the right suspensions and dosages. Even the slightest miscalculation, she liked to remind me, could be detrimental. Too much or too little or, God forbid, the wrong medicine, could mean – death.

My grandmother seemed to take it all with a pinch of salt, deflecting her questions so as not to incriminate me – or herself. “She was so helpful,” she’d say, “watering the flowers, bringing in the laundry…” swelling my mother’s pride in me, her only child. In truth, I helped out when she asked, but such occasions were rare; even well into her eighties she had the energy and health of someone half her age. The two of us had an implicit understanding about our visits together: as long as I didn’t tell Mom, I could do things I was never allowed to do at home – drink soda, watch soap operas, use a calculator for my math homework, practice handstands in the living room, strike a match and blow it out, jump on the couch, and eat as many mints as l liked.

Those times stand out as the best, most deliciously illicit, days of my life. Then one day everything changed.

* * *

“I don’t climb because I want to die,” a mountaineer said upon his ascent of Aconcagua, the Andes’ highest peak. “I climb because I want to live.”

* * *

I woke up on Independence Day buzzing with excitement. My mom had taken me to see the Fourth of July fireworks every year that I could remember. It was one of the highlights of my childhood, not only because of the display itself – unlike most kids, I loved the bangs and pops and whizzes of the rockets – but also because it was one of the rare times when I felt close to my mom, our shared awe at the pyrotechnics of the glittering “chrysanthemums,” “waterfalls,” “willows,” and “dahlias” momentarily masking our differences.

And while Mom never allowed me within arm’s reach of a sparkler (“it could blind you!”), even she had to concede that public fireworks, with their necessary precautions, the firetrucks and ambulances on standby, presented minimal risk to spectators.

That morning my mom dropped me off at my grandma’s until her shift ended at five. It was a perfect summer’s day, warm and still and sunny, promising ideal conditions for the celebrations that evening. My grandma and I spent the morning baking a special cake, slathering it with white icing and using strawberries and blueberries to make an American flag design. We were going to surprise my mom with it later.

After lunch, my grandmother suggested we take a walk to the local store to get “a treat.” I jumped at the opportunity, reining in my enthusiasm so as not to appear too greedy at the prospect of a Hershey’s bar or pack of Juicy Fruit.

But when we got there, we veered past the candy aisle to a display of slim rectangular boxes beneath a red, white, and blue banner proclaiming “BUY YOUR SPARKLERS HERE.” Before I could protest, she grabbed two boxes, took them to the cash register, and paid.

There was a spring in her step as we walked back, but rather than excitement, a feeling of dread washed over me at what my mother would say.

It was around three o’clock when we returned and my grandmother put the sparklers on the kitchen table. Before I knew what was happening, before I had a chance to utter “But Mom will never let me…” she drew the curtains, pulled down the blind, and in the semi-darkness, took out a matchbook from the drawer.

We’re indoors! the mother inside me screamed. We can’t possibly… But I didn’t say anything. Instead, I watched as my grandma, giddy as a child, pushed the kitchen table into a corner, clearing a big space in the middle of the linoleum floor. Then, she plugged the sink and filled it with water. She opened a box, thrust a sparkler into my hand, and lit a match. The flame roared to life. I stood, terrified. What would happen? Didn’t I need to cover my eyes, wear gloves, put on long sleeves…? The stick ignited, and I gasped, my arms held stiff in front of me, my body arched back as far as it would go. Sparks cascaded like glittering confetti, spewing in all directions. A few grazed my bare hands. I flinched, but there was no pain, no charred skin, just a dazzling display – a luminescent dandelion exploding with golden seeds.

I looked up to see my grandmother beaming, a glint in her eyes. I smiled back and grew bolder, now arcing the sparkler in the air, creating lines, swirls, patterns. After that one burned out, we lit another, then another, both of us twirling and spinning our sparklers in the kitchen, weaving a latticework of light. I laughed at the simple pleasure, silently vowing that when I had children of my own, they too would experience this.

Then, with a shudder, the world imploded and my mother walked in.

* * *

The Andes lie along the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile-long horseshoe-shaped belt that spans much of the rim of the Pacific Ocean. It is along the Ring of Fire that many volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.

* * *

List in hand, I go to three supermarkets – Acme, Giant Eagle, Wegmans – and buy their entire stock of Andes mints. In all I spend $234.22 on 98 boxes.

At home, after I’ve put my kids to bed, I open up the boxes, one by one, and pour the mints into a sprawling heap on the floor. Altogether there are 2,734 individually wrapped chocolates. I eat one, then another, and scoop the rest into grocery bags, which I load into the car with the paper cups, napkins, and orange juice.

For days afterwards my living room holds a hint of peppermint.

* * *

The American flag cake went uneaten. We didn’t go to the fireworks that night. My mother’s unforeseen early arrival is seared into my mind – the lingering scent of sulfur, the slow burnout of the sparkler in my hand, the red-faced rage on my mother’s face as she stood, speechless with betrayal. She wrested the dead stick from my grip and flung it into the sink. It sizzled weakly as she shoved me toward the door. I glanced at my grandma, who seemed to stand taller than her five-foot frame.

Steely-eyed, she glared at my mom, her daughter, and said, “For Pete’s sake, can’t you just live a little?”

Then my mother and I left, the door slamming behind us.

* * *

Orocline: from the Greek for “mountain” and “to bend.” A bend or curvature in a mountain belt that occurs after it is formed.

* * *

My mother and I are cleaning up her kitchen after the reception. The day has gone well, the service not too somber (she did, after all, live a long and happy life), the burial sunny and bright, the guests good natured and numerous. My mother’s careful preparations have paid off: the lasagna pan is scraped bare, the casseroles and side dishes nearly empty. Grief in any degree is taxing, awkward; people find solace in the familiar actions of living – eating more than normal in defiance of their own mortality.

My children sit in the living room watching cartoons, wearing their sorrow lightly like children do. As we throw away the last of the paper plates and cups, I can hear their periodic shrieks and squeals.

My mother washes the few remaining dishes, I dry, and then we strip the tables. My grandmother’s tin sits in the corner. I topped it up at intervals during the reception, until most of the mints went. My mother neither acknowledged its presence nor protested against it. Now, it is the only thing left. I pluck out two, pass one to my mom.

I am struck by how simultaneously old and young she looks, her features weary with the events of the day, but seeming to soften, the hard edges eroding, just a bit. I step closer to her, see the glisten in her eyes, the slight smudge of mascara. I peel off the glossy green wrapper. She follows suit, unfolding it slowly. She lifts the mint to her mouth, holds it there, inhales deeply, smiles.

"Come on," she says to me, nodding. "We'd better eat these before the chocolate melts in our fingers."

February 17, 2022 15:06

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