“Let’s play a game.” Grandma pushes aside the flyers and coupons littering her kitchen table to make space for the yellowing cribbage board—a brittle piece of plastic molded into the number 29.
I collect the dishes from the coffee and stale cookies she’s been saving for my visit and place them in the sink. Using the crocheted rag that always hangs over the faucet, I douse the cups and saucers down with soapy water and rinse and stack them in the drying rack. Despite our persistent pestering, there’s still no dishwasher.
It hasn’t snowed yet, but the late afternoon light is heavy with the promise of flakes. Glancing up at the hand-carved cuckoo clock that traveled from the old country and has hung on this wall longer than I’ve been alive, I see it’s half-past three. Night falls fast this time of year. I should be on the road by now, but I feel obliged to stay a little longer. Grandma already has the cards out and is waiting patiently. I return to my chair, the brown pleather-covered foam exhaling a withered sigh at my weight through a rip across the back edge.
“Turn that down, will you?” She waves her hand vaguely in the direction of the television in the living room, on which marching crowds condemn the inaction of their elders.
The camera zooms in on the frowning face of a young woman hailing from across the ocean, who waits patiently on the capital’s sandstone steps to deliver her revolutionary rhetoric to the rallying masses. She’s barely beyond the dreams and scribbles of childhood. Standing in the time capsule of my grandparents’ home, I marvel at her tenacity, courage, and passion for change. The movement she spearheads to rescue our planet from the fumes and skins and carcasses of human waste is going to change the world.
“Hannah?” Grandma calls.
This is hardly the first march she’s seen in her eighty years.
From this very room, hundreds of miles from the action, she listened to anti-war protests, supported feminist demonstrations, and praised the civil rights movement. And in small crevasses carved between her duties as a farmer’s wife, a mother of five, and a dedicated Sunday school teacher, Grandma found her own quiet ways to contribute. She cooked meals for the families of the fallen, was first in line to vote on election days, and tutored many of the local children from hopeless drop-outs into capable college-graduates. I wonder if, somewhere along the line of a long life, the progressive buzz of betterment faded to a conservative stagnant static.
I find the remote sticking out between the brown floral couch cushions that sag from the weather of three generations. Reaching down, I pause and take a deep breath in. Ten years later, the fabric still clings to the memory of grandpa’s signature perfume of cigarette smoke and engine exhaust. Just as the colorful crowd quiets and the budding young activist steels herself with a deep breath into the microphone, I hit mute and return to the kitchen.
One of the green marking pegs snapped a few years ago, and its severed foot is still stuck in the first hole, so we start two points in and cut the deck. Grandma flips an eight; I flip a king.
“Shuffle for me, dear?” She slides the deck of cards across the table with an arthritis-riddled hand, still loyally adorned with a thin gold wedding band.
A touch of anxiety spiced with shame squirms in my chest while the cards zip between my nimble fingers. I fear a similar fate looms over my hands, though the cause of my suffering will be hours of mindless scrolling through fake news and photos of faraway places, rather than a lifetime of scrubbing pots, peeling potatoes, and sewing patches for my family.
I hand the cards back and she deals slowly and deliberately, rubbing each card between her thumb and index finger to ensure none are sticking together. I’m reminded of her patience, her thoughtful nature, and her do-it-right approach to life.
Waiting for the cards to fall, I gaze out the window to the frozen patch of black earth she has put to bed for more winters than I’ve shivered through. My first and last food production venture crawls gleefully from memory, and I smile ruefully at the five-by-five-foot plot of dirt that Grandma gifted me the spring I turned seven.
Encouraged to plant what I pleased, I had tossed handfuls of seeds haphazardly because it was easier than measuring depth and space. I had ripped weeds without their roots because it was faster than digging. My plot yielded almost nothing but thistles and dandelions and a few tiny carrots with sunburnt heads.
The rest of Grandma’s garden had been lusciously green, with tall leafy corn, bright bold sunflowers, and rows upon rows of squashes, carrots, peas, beans, and more. I cringe now, at the way I stomped my feet in protest, certain she’d given me the worst part of the garden, that the dirt in my spot was no good. Even I would have lectured me. But she had simply smiled and let me forage for spoils in the rows of her lovingly tended produce.
I spool back my meandering memories and return my focus to the task of cribbage. Grandma wins the first hand and pegs 14 points. I only peg eight, my broken green marker hobbling along behind its taller companions. She appraises me over the top of her glasses while I reshuffle for the next hand.
“I don’t think you’ve been eating enough,” she admonishes.
We’d had this conversation when I arrived two hours ago, but it’s a topic that comes up at least twice every time I visit. I shrug and deal out six cards each.
“I’m going to send some potatoes home with you. And some roasts. And a casserole or two. I think I have a lasagna…”
I’m a vegetarian, which she knows but doesn’t understand. I’ll accept whatever she’s offering and hope it keeps her from worrying.
Grandma wins the first game and suggests best of three. She’s watching me with cautious optimism, and I refrain from checking the time on my phone. I come to terms with driving home in the dark, and Grandma wins best of five. We say goodbye an hour-and-a-half later than I had intended (likely an hour-and-a-half longer than she had hoped). I promise to eat more, stay warm, and drive carefully.
I step out onto the frozen porch with a shiver, laden with plastic bags full of food I won’t eat. The evening is dark and crisp. A few icy snowflakes twirl on the sharp breeze. I thank myself for having started the car a while ago, letting it run with the heat cranked to turn the chilly cab cozy while we played our last game.
Grandma gives my shoulder a pat and totters back into the living room. She passes by the beloved couch that now holds her hostage when she sits on it, and settles down into the new electric lifting recliner we insisted she needed. She dials the television volume back up and searches for the ball game. Behind the channel guide, my peers cry out in angry indignation at the generations that have done us wrong.