Sticks & Stones
Michael J. Soloway
My grandmother, in her Golden years, was a collage artist. I remember the stacks of magazines she kept—Life, Time, Parade. Not to read, but to tear apart. Rip. Shred. Whole pages. Single words. Pictures of whatever caught her eye and would fit together with strokes of paint, watercolor, cotton, wire, and wood. She called it mixed media; I called it art.
There were scenes with houses and birds and people in bathing suits, as well as palm tree and ocean landscapes that were inspired by the Atlantic beaches only blocks away from where she lived in Lake Worth. Nana, as I called her, loved nature and the outdoors, just not being out in it. “Being able to hear the water is one thing,” she would say. “Getting tar and sand in your shoes is another.” She was one of her own collages—the picture was reality enough.
Apparently, Nana was also allergic to the sun. Or at least that’s what was said among family members. It was an easy explanation. Only one simple sentence that no one could argue with, that no one would question. “Oh you poor dear,” is what most people said. The reality was much more gruesome. My Nana had been injured in a fireworks accident as a child. Sitting under a tree in Connecticut on the fourth of July, a flaming bottle rocket went awry and landed in her lap when she was eight. Getting caught in her clothes, she was burned. Burned badly. Her shoulders, chest, torso, and legs still carried the white scars. According to my mom it looked as though someone had put out hundreds of cigarettes all over her body. I had never seen them with my own eyes. Nana was careful to wear long pants and long nightgowns and never walk around her apartment naked. Year-round, even when the temperature in Florida dipped into the 40s once a year, Nana would wear a wide-brimmed hat and find shade quickly and efficiently. During the summer, she had her own “spot” under a palm tree. Even when the tree shed its coconuts and dented the ground beside her, Nana never flinched. She wasn’t scared of anything, except that “damn sun.” I imagined my Nana was a vampire. In the pool I pretended I was a shark, elbow up through the water like a fin. I guess we all made ourselves fade into the background at some point. Like the lizards on the Chattahoochee that went from brown to green, depending on whether they settled on a wooden fence or blade of grass.
Nana ran into the sign with her bag and said, “Hello!”
There were two sayings my grandmother had, ”hello” and “peanut butter and jelly.” She said “hello” every time she dropped something, like a watch or glass. Or ran into something, like a wall or doorway, as if to say nice to see you, glad you came into my life. The other was “peanut butter and jelly,” a phrase she used whenever you were holding someone’s hand and the two of you got separated. For example, by a pole or street sign along a path. Typically, she’d lift our two twined hands above the object in our way—a trash can, a parking meter. But that didn’t always work. Sometimes we’d be separated anyway. But peanut butter and jelly would keep us together.
The Rules, always posted prominently on a white board and struck with bold red type, was something Nana read each time we went to the pool, over and over and over again, as though she were trying to memorize a speech. Oftentimes, Nana would dictate to me from her perch: Michael, get me a towel; Michael, no diving (Rule 2); Michael, use the shower (Rule 1); Michael, hand me that stick over there. Chattahoochee pebbles became her seashells. As I collected them from worn areas around the pool, Nana would put them in her change purse, and when that was filled, a plastic bucket I sometimes used to make sandcastles. Back home, Nana would arrange our finds in trays according to their size and color. There was a system, an order. But that’s where the rules ended. Collage was abstract. Collage was improvisation. Collage was chaos. Collage was a clean palette but a wild mind.
Insanity does not run in my family. Instead, it strolls through. Takes its time. Gets to know everyone personally.
Nana seemed to be immune, but in those days, when my father was “out of town,” my mother had developed a habit of chasing me around the house. Not in a loving way. Not for a laugh or game of hide and seek. But more of a pin the tail on the donkey kind of way—blindfolded, with an action that always ended with a pain in the butt, my butt. Her kind of chasing was for catching and for beating, if the moment allowed. This is what mothers were for, she would say. Little boys needed discipline, especially when their father’s weren’t around to provide it. After all, there were still hole-filled paddles in principal’s offices, so it wasn’t so unusual for a mother to have a belt or slipper or a loaf of stale Italian baguette that felt like a Billy Club, or simply the boney part of her palm. Later, I would learn my mother was bipolar. But in 1976 all psychiatrists would do for her was try and look down her blouse for an hour, and then tell her to go home and get a hobby. Crazy was reserved for killers and people slobbering on themselves. Not for lonely housewives who had model sons and whose husbands had built the Palm Beach Mall with their bare hands.
Although, I remember my mother kidnapped me in her ’78 Chevy when I was eight. She was thirty-four. The car was brand new.
Except for the roof, which was white, the car was rust orange, something along the lines of burnt sienna, a crayon color I owned but had worn down by drawing spaceships and my own name over and over. Orange wasn’t the wisest choice for a getaway car, but my mother wasn’t known for wise decisions, or for her ability to blend in, unlike the lizards I kept as pets back then, who could go green in an instant, in grass or in the boat-shape cocoon of an aloe Vera leaf. The car reminded me of a creamsicle. I went along with her without a struggle, without a fight. But that would change soon enough.
In 1979, Florida was a den of frosted hairdos, plastic pink flamingos, above-ground pools, electric menorahs, neon signs, fake ferns, and amusement park animatronics—both tacky and obscene no matter which way you looked. Mirrored sunglasses put a wash of yellow over everything: the ocean, the palms, the stucco buildings that look as though they’d been poured from a bread mold and turned upside down onto the sand and burrs, a sandcastle without the tiers. On the outside, my mother’s lenses made my face appear to melt like a funny mirror at a carnival sideshow. Even heavily chlorinated translucent pools transformed objects underwater, where, on the bottom, a penny could look like a gold nugget or a brave diver might resemble a manatee.
When we weren’t parked at rest stops along the Florida Turnpike for bathroom breaks and chocolate bars my mother simply drove, a film of dead bugs like dried cranberries taking the windshield head on. We lost and picked up radio stations as though they were hitchhikers. Another Chevy Nova passed on the opposite side of the road. It was cotton-candy blue. The man inside waved, like we were all part of a brotherhood. He reminded me of my own father, balding, thick nose, wide ears, who my mother had just left behind.
With a few clicks more than a thousand miles the car was barely broken in. My dad had bought the Chevy, as well as a Buick for himself, just before taking his turn in the hospital. The bench seats had yet to fade in the Florida sun; the air conditioning still blew cold. Even the steering wheel was orange. Leaves hadn’t had a chance to find their way into the ducts, where they’ll eventually rattle the vents like playing cards in the spokes of a bicycle. Decals and paint were factory standard. When I sell it nine years later, before I leave for college, the oil pan will leak and the wiper hose will have a tear, but right now it’s the ultimate in 1970s automotive perfection.
Walt Disney World had become our summer excursion, our escape. Four hours from the hospital, it was the perfect 3-day stretch, the ideal getaway. One of my favorite parts of the trip was seeing the orange groves that lined the turnpike. Stopping for gas and wintergreen Certs, window cracked, I smelled the blossoms, the fragrance, the sweetness of the citrus. I was upset my father was missing it.
My father had been wheeled into surgery at the Miami Heart Institute on a nifty moving tray, all silver and gold, it reminded me of a throne, at 3:35 in the afternoon, right in the middle of my mother’s “soap,” where somebody else named Christian Montgomery was also scheduled for surgery, because his estranged ex-wife shot him three times in the stomach with a 38-Special. Twenty-eight years of huffing and puffing on Camel cigarettes had led to two heart attacks, one case of pneumonia and emphysema, and now my father needed bypass surgery—quadruple was the word whispered around certain circles so I couldn’t hear.
We lived in Boynton Beach, Florida. But despite its name, had no beachfront; rather, it was located across the Intracoastal Waterway from the oceanfront municipalities of Ocean Ridge and Briny Breezes. My father said that as land became more valuable, housing developments along the Intracoastal Waterway and the Federal Highway appeared like mirages in the desert. To the west, dairies were established so that the Boynton area became the main milk supplier for Palm Beach County. But by the 1970s, the dairies were no longer profitable and these lands too were converted into housing developments. The land itself swept from flatness to a vast emptiness connected by more flatness, fields of grasses cut as short as military men’s hair, the only rolls set up by men who brought in sand and clay to make golf courses or artificial dunes. As a general contractor, my father was one of them.
I never felt comfortable in south Florida, with its stacks of stucco and shingles, like our townhouse that happened to be surrounded by neighbors on all four sides. We had a courtyard of stone and a slatted wooden fence that wasps like to nest in. The storage shed sat wedged in the corner, holding a gas grill, two wooden tennis rackets, and a 10-speed bike with a flat tire, bent handlebars, and the only real color to report, the rust on the bike’s frame holding its own as scabs against stark white paint, all of this covered with a dull blue tarp to keep out the rain, and the lizards.
We reached the main gate where Disney characters were carved into shrubs. They’re shaped like Mickey, Donald, Pluto, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
“Daddy is Sleepy,” I say, pointing at the topiary of him.
“Sleepy?” my mother says.
“His comma,” I say, thinking his problems have something to do with punctuation.
“Coma,” she says. “It’s coma.”
“Is he going to wake up?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Is he dead?”
“No, not really,” my mother said with a quiver.
My mother appeared especially eager. Anxious. Nervous. “We’re not going back there. I can’t. I hate hospitals.” She would tell me this in front of the Country Bear Jamboree, while stuffed bears smiled and sang. An ice cream bar shaped like Mickey Mouse was supposed to soften the blow. I would ask for two, and use the information in order to leverage a pirate-themed cap gun and new mouse-ear hat with my name stitched in cursive on the back. Country music played behind her on metal-ribbed washboards and I could just make out the smell of popcorn and lipstick on my mother’s lips.
At midnight we’re back in the car and I ask, “Why?”
“We’re not going back to the hospital.”
“Because,” she says.
“Where are we going? Can’t we say goodbye?” My mother didn’t have an answer for that. We simply drove. As we passed exits and tollbooths and moved by the light of stars and taillights, I thought about the glass blowers at Disney, where I was allowed to linger longer than usual. A man making delicate Tinkerbell figurines—one after another, after another—the glass like strings of taffy.
My mother talked about a better life for us, but at my age, I wasn’t sure what that looked like. What was better than a few days at the Magic Kingdom? Different wasn’t necessarily better, after all. Ultimately the drive was just a distraction from the problems at hand. Like those characters cut into the bushes, where I could see wire underneath. The illusions, the fantasy, started to fade. I stuck a magnet of Cinderella’s castle on the metal glove box in front of me. My mother bought several as souvenirs. I imagined it pulling us north. Away from the past. Away from the hospital. Away from my father. In the side mirror I saw headlights. In the darkness I felt the ocean. The salt weights the air. There was water to our right and to our left and straight back. Dry land was just ahead, but what we’d left behind was closer than it appeared.
Then one night, when I was a few years older, I remember sleeping over at Nana’s apartment. Staying at her place was a relief, a shelter from the beatings and the names my mother would call me almost daily. At my grandmother’s, I remember staying up late—Johnny Carson late—and still wearing a pair of faded Spider-Man Underoos. Nana said I looked like a retired superhero. She would push two twin beds together so we could sleep next to each other. I remember her upper teeth in a jar of water and a rubber-tipped toothpick that she used on her gums thirty minutes before the lights went out. I remember her snoring and taking several trips to the bathroom, and the sliding glass door in the living room opening and closing, opening and closing, rattling the thin drywall like a train passing by.
That night, curiosity woke me. It was difficult to see, but I could feel that Nana wasn’t on her side of the bed. In fact, she wasn’t in the room at all. My eyes adjusted and I found myself down the hall. The kitchen was empty. And so was the living room. Something brought me to the sliding glass door; something told me to pull back the blinds. The door was cracked open, but the screen was closed. I could smell the orange trees and the magnolia in the yard. Outside, a yellow lamp cut the darkness. A stone walk receded into the blackness. Green aloe plants now looked black; the grass a kind of yellow. The backyard was its own collage.
Then, out of the darkness, I saw movement. Branches bobbed and a figure appeared. My grandmother slipped into the yellow light, nude, except for the pile of sticks she was carrying under her arms like luggage. I stared for a moment, even as she walked toward the door. Her boobs took up a lot of space, starting at her chin and stretching to her thighs. Still, I could see her scars, white freckles that spanned the length of her oversized frame. They glowed brighter as she moved closer. I was finally able to break the spell. I ran, stubbing my toe on the carpet, and flung myself back into bed, eyes closed, sheets high.
I lay there silent, listening to her drag around the apartment—sticks tapping together, water splashing in the kitchen, light bulbs flashing on and off, the freezer opening, canvas being pulled across the carpet that sounded like a zipper.
The next morning, nothing was said. I ate a bowl of Lucky Charms as Nana slept. In the living room, another collage rested with its back to an easel. A house. A mansion. A wooden structure with a wraparound porch. It was a place you’d want to live, a place to escape and rest.
Soon after that night, some doctor called it dementia and recommended, for her own safety, Nana be moved into a home, assisted living, a place that would end her driving career, and feed her meds at the right time and at the right dosage, and where she didn’t need to cook anything, except microwave popcorn and frozen Mac-n-cheese, two of her daily staples. The place was in Tucson, near my Uncle Nicky and Aunt Wendy, and run by a Marriott, as if she would be living in a fancy hotel. Apparently, the complex manager had found Nana, naked, picking pinecones in the middle of the afternoon. So it was time.
Some years later, I would go to Arizona. I would go to her. To finally say goodbye. I would put away my own rage, my anger against the world and my mother’s insanity, and the opinion I had of myself. It would be just us.
I held her hand as she died. Even after all those years and all those collages, her hands were still soft, her skin so transparent, like her palms and fingers had been wrapped in tissue paper.
That final collage with the wraparound porch, those stolen sticks and stones, hang above my fireplace today, between two Victorian sconces. A magazine rack sits on the floor beneath it, but people don’t read them. They’re for comfort, for show; they’re for her.
My Nana is still with me today. When I visit my mother in Palm Beach Gardens, and happen to drive down I-95, past my grandmother’s old apartment. It’s her life, not her death that has drawn me here. It is her life I lead today; she is alive in me. She is alive and all is forgiven. I’m passing by, being pulled. I would battle my own demons and strolling depression—my own peanut butter and jelly moments; my own bumps in the night that made me shout “hello.”
I could have blamed it on the dementia. But I chose not to blame anyone or anything. After all, there I was, on the road facing north, with nowhere to go but up.
About The Writer
Michael is an Ancient Alien living in Denver, Colorado, with one canine unit, three feline, and two Homo sapiens, including a toddler who requires a balance of string cheese and Ritz crackers daily. Michael does not ski or snowboard, so don’t ask. He is addicted to Smart Balance, cantaloupe, and the drums. He was born and raised in Florida, where he was prone to smashing oranges, kicking tennis balls, and catching lizards. Michael received his Masters Degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and has served as managing editor of more than a dozen nonprofit magazines. Michael recently completed a draft of his first memoir Share the Chameleon, about attempting to break his family's cycle of abuse, as he becomes a father for the first time in his 40s. In addition, Brevity Magazine published Michael’s short essay, “Introducing Mother Nature,” in 2012..