“Look! He’s standing behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the window!” Grandma Jazz yelled as she pointed her frail bent finger towards the living room bay window.
I got up to look, even though I knew I wouldn’t find anyone or anything. “Grandma, there’s no one. Don’t worry.”
Her shaded gray eyes were sparking with expectant hope, and her gaze never left the window, “Come away…” she murmured softly, “Come away, my lover…..” It was no use; she would never give up.
She really wasn’t my grandmother, or anyone’s in the family for that matter. When we kids were little, my mom was a single mother working at the hospital in the laundry room. Every day she would eat her lunch out on the front lawn, just to get away from the stench of crusted blood, reeking bodily fluids, and the overwhelming bleach smell. And every day, a woman in her mid-60s would walk by my mother and give her a shining smile, a chocolate-chip cookie, and say “How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful!” This went on for eight years, and then one day – no woman (now in her mid-70s) walked by.
Mom thought perhaps the woman was sick or had moved away, but she missed her cookies and her praise, so the next week during lunch, she went on a search. She found her sitting on a bench by the bus stop staring blankly at the sky. “Hello,” my mother began, “I’ve missed you!”
The woman turned to look at her, “Your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely,” she said with a smile the color of love. As she tells it, my mother tried to get the lady to tell her name, but never could. She ascertained that the woman had been evicted, because she had what seemed to be her life’s belongings in bags by her feet. My mother took her in, and for no apparent reason, named her “Jazz.” That was 13 years ago.
I live at home…again. I was seven when Grandma Jazz came to live with us, and I left when I was 17, pregnant and full of audacity. Greg was my biology lab partner which morphed into another kind of biology partner. He was my first, and before I told anyone about our relationship, Grandma Jazz somehow knew. “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires,” she said with no smile whatsoever. I had to look away from her flaccid face, her blue-gray eyes filling with tears. She never made any sense to me, but we all felt connected to her; it was like a direct line to the essence of love, an electrical current that joined our whole family in one circuit. We never understood her, but we loved her and would never disrespect her.
Three months into my afternoon rendezvous with Greg, I took a pregnancy test and fell into a panic. This was not the way my life was supposed to work out. I had a plan, and this wasn’t it, but I came to accept and love the embryo hidden in my body. Greg did not. His family moved to Philadelphia (his little sister informing me that it was probably because of the baby), and he was gone. I decided this was the time for me to grow up and grow out, so I dropped school, got a job and an apartment. The day I packed all my belongings, Grandma Jazz shuffled into my room and sat on my bed, a gentle, soft air of resignation and hope surrounding her. “Come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me,” she said with the slightest of smiles on her wrinkled face. She always talked like this.
She led me into her little room at the end of the hallway and motioned for me to sit on the antique chair upholstered with paisley in browns and blues and streaks of red. As I sat quietly, she fumbled around in the cardboard boxes that lined the side of her bed. A relieved sigh came tumbling out of her, and she emerged with a crumpled old brown sack. Grandma Jazz slowly passed me the gift as if it were jewels or gold or extremely breakable crystal. She couldn’t contain her joyous smile, even though I saw the corners of her mouth tug to protest. I took the bag and noticed immediately how heavy it was. Now I was curious. As I opened it, an old-lady squeal escaped her mouth and she squeezed her hands in front of her chest like an excited toddler. I laughed and took out the gift – it was a wooden jewelry box in the shape of a heart; it had what looked to be hand-carved decorative scrolling on it and it was painted a pale pink. Even I, a young teen, could see that this wasn’t junk, it was something rare and worthy.
“All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you. You have stolen my heart, my sister,” Grandma Jazz said mildly. I didn’t know what to say. I set down the box and wrapped my arms around the slight, aging body. I felt her bones as she shook with happiness. That was two years ago. I came home after my baby was six months old, broke, jobless, little Jackson screaming with colic, and a pink heart on my windowsill.
As the years wore on, Grandma Jazz became more and more distant, convinced that her lover was waiting for her, yearning for her, calling her to him. Sometimes the conversations were quite passionate and intimate. “Have you seen the one my heart loves?” she asked me one day as she sat on the couch.
I was folding Jackson’s freshly laundered onesies and feet-jammies. “No, I haven’t,” I humored her.
“Listen!” she said so suddenly and with force that I jumped. She had sat up straight, muscles tense, eyes glued to the front door. “My lover is knocking; my lover thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him. I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with perfume, my fingers with flowing perfume, on the handles of the lock. I opened for my lover, but my lover had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure. I looked for him but did not find him. I called him but he did not answer. Tell him I am faint with love.” She slumped back into the folds of the couch, a single tear slipping down the crevices of her face.
“I will Grandma,” I said with concern, “I promise, I will.” Her eyes closed and within a few minutes her breathing signaled sleep. Who was this “lover” she spoke of? She must have been fantastically in love in her younger days. Was he still alive? Was he even a real person or a figment of her imagination?
Grandma Jazz began to fidget in her sleep, one hand reached for the air in front of her, “You have stolen my heart….my heart.” Real or not, I wanted that kind of love – and then Jackson drew me away with his hungry cries.
Everyday necessities and details have a way of putting the most important things on hold. We put so much thought into what article of fabric to put on our body, making sure the hair on our head lays an exact way to draw attention, or to not draw too much attention. We fill up our vehicles with fuel, wash said vehicles, clean our dwellings, wipe runny noses, plan parties at Chuck E. Cheese, run on treadmills that go nowhere, and work at jobs we hate and have no meaning. At the end of our days, we hopefully have a structure over our heads to keep us from the rain and some kind of food substance to last us another week or so. Spiritual connection, or even family connection, appears to be on the bottom of our to-do list.
And so, Jackson grew. Grandma Jazz became his favorite person and toy. At two years of age, he could lead her anywhere around the house, her polyester dress sweeping the hallway walls and matching his chubby steps. She sang to him, played wordless games with him, and held him when I didn’t have the energy. Her love seemed boundless and unconditional – even with the rest of us. Forgiveness was so simple for her, trust was implicitly implied, kindness a given, and her chocolate chip cookies were a staple. We could not imagine life without Grandma Jazz.
It was spring, and I had taken Grandma and Jackson out to the backyard. I wrapped the two of them like a huge burrito on the porch-swing and I sat in the old rusty lawn chair. She looked at me, smiling as usual, and sighed, “See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The blossoming vines spread their fragrance.” She was swinging her eyes between me and Jackson, almost laughing, and I for once understood the message underneath some of her words. I had been through a personal winter, but the good days were coming. I breathed in the cold clean air and let out all the pent-up, stale problems. I felt empowered and alive. She smiled.
“Grandma,” I asked, “who is this man you always talk about? I want to meet this guy!” I was teasing her, yet she didn’t let on.
Her eyes took on that glazed-over appearance, and she began the longest set of words I’d ever heard her say, “His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven. His eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels. His cheeks are like beds of spice yielding perfume. His lips are like lilies dripping with perfume. His arms are rods of gold set with green gemstones. His body is like polished ivory decorated with sapphires. His legs are pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold. His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely. This is my lover, this my friend, I am my lover’s and my lover is mine.”
We sat in silence for a while, Jackson dozing off in the comfort of Grandma Jazz’s secure old bones, and the dull spring sun rose high enough to finally shine, giving us that delicious first baptism of warmth on our bodies. “Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits,” she started up again, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth– for his love is more delightful than wine, the fragrance of his breath like apples, and his mouth like the best wine. May the wine go straight to my lover, flowing gently over lips and teeth. Milk and honey are under his tongue. I belong to my lover, and his desire is for me. His left arm is under my head and his right arm embraces me. My lover is to me a sachet of perfume resting between my breasts. Thus, I have become in his eyes like one bringing contentment.” Her eyes were blue again, the mist of aging had cleared momentarily, and she saw her lover – he was there – but I wasn’t privy to the union. I didn’t dare move; this was holy.
The sun moved behind our old cedar tree, and the backyard turned icy and dark. Jackson rustled and whimpered as the fog crept back into Grandma’s eyes again. She smiled her creased and patient smile and tried to lift my child – I intervened and helped them both back into the warm house. She moved a little slower, and I remember feeling a twinge of worry, but then Jackson was trying to climb onto the shelf, and the tyranny of the details took over.
Gently, so gently, I fell in love. He was a friend of a friend, a guy I’d never noticed, not my type, and he wouldn’t stop pestering me. He pursued me and treated me with kindness and respect – I really didn’t know what to do with that. Grant was tall and nerdy, went to church, and worked at the locally-owned grocery co-op. He was nothing exciting, but there was a smoldering spark in my heart that slowly caught fire. I began to crave his presence, not imagining life without him. Jackson climbed all over him and began to prefer Grant to Grandma Jazz. She only smiled at the three of us and said, “How delightful is your love; you are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down,” obviously happy with our choice of each other. It felt right. He drug me to church. And that felt right.
And so, as Grandma Jazz weakened with every day, hardly making it out of bed to sit in the living room and stare at the front door, our wedding day approached. She was too frail to make it to the ceremony, but as I entered the room dressed in my simple white gown, she proclaimed, “Who is this that appears like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, majestic as the stars in procession? How beautiful you are and how pleasing, O love.” The words were raspy and tired but charged with the everlasting love she contained.
Jackson jumped up and down in his little ring-bearer suit chanting, “Yo eyes are wike doves, yo eyes are wike doves!” the mimicked words of his beloved Grandma Jazz. She motioned for me to sit in the old rocker next to her, and Jackson hopped off to find my mom. Grandma extended her papery thin hands to me, her wrists painfully purple from blood clots and wear. She drew my hand to her chest, and I could feel the dim heartbeat deep within her being.
“Place me like a seal over your heart,” she said passionately, “like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.”
I gazed into her eyes, trying to gather the pieces of this moment, and simply said, “I will Grandma, I promise.” She let go of her grip and looked down. “I love you,” I whispered, almost ashamed I hadn’t said it more over the years, “I love you.” She smiled and handed me a chocolate chip cookie from the plate on her right side.
As I gathered Jackson up into my arms and made my way to the garage, Grandma Jazz yelled forcefully, “Listen! My lover! Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.” Her eyes were bright sky blue, face smiling and open, anticipating. “Come away, my lover,” she said to him, “and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the spice-laden mountains.”
I softly shut the door, climbed in the car, and drove to the church as Jackson sang, “He taken me to ‘is banqeting table, ‘is banna ova me is love, he taken me to ‘is banqeting table, ‘is banna ova me is love!”
We never saw Grandma Jazz again.
Linda Lacy is a short story writer from Oregon. She has worked at a homeless shelter and now a men’s prison for many years. Her work mirrors these career and heart paths. Linda adores hiking, art, permaculture, and her four children of varying beliefs. Her cat, Luna, is an assassin.
Photo credit: Phil Bruxvoort, Flickr.com (modified by Veronica McDonald).
This is a powerful story, influenced, I am sure, by your work at the homeless shelter.