Histories and Illnesses
The sound of a pot crashing to the floor woke me. I sat up and looked around the room, startled for a moment.
Gram stood in the archway. “I’m sorry, Nela, for waking you. The pot just slipped out of my hand.”
I rubbed my eyes and stood, stretching the stiffness from my bones. “What time is it?”
“Almost eight, and I want to get the tomato sauce going so it will have a long time to simmer before dinner.”
Still a bit groggy, I followed her back into the kitchen and watched her rummage through the food in the refrigerator, moving a carton of milk to the top shelf and placing a lone apple in the bin drawer. “Did you get the ground beef for the meatballs?”
“Should be right up front,” I said.
Gram reached for the eggs, opened the carton, and placed each one in the special egg section on the refrigerator’s door. “Nela, I simply don’t understand how you can live so unorganized.” She turned to face me. “If a woman doesn’t take pride in her own home, no one else will.”
I frowned. “Because the eggs are in the carton instead of on the refrigerator door, I’m not proud of my own home?”
“You’re grasping at semantics,” she snapped. “You know perfectly well what I mean.” She grabbed the hamburger and went to the sink. “Your sarcasm doesn’t wash with me! It didn’t when you were a little girl, and it doesn’t now.”
I remembered as a little girl: my mouth would get washed out with soap whenever I sassed Gram.
“Conduct yourself accordingly, my dear,” Gram warned.
I sighed and made myself a cup of tea and a piece of toast. While I munched on the stale rye bread, Gram busied herself around the kitchen, making her famous meatballs and tomato sauce with stuffed artichokes. The sun’s rays streamed through the kitchen window above the sink, shining heat on Gram’s face. Her flesh began to warm and glow with a healthy hint of color, the gray hair suddenly turning a beautiful shade of silver. Though I’d seen the transformation before, it never ceased to amaze me at how beautifully Gram thrived once back in her element.
“You’ve gotten all the groceries right,” Gram praised. “I lack nothing here.” She turned toward me and smiled. “Which is good; I won’t have to send you back to the store.”
I returned the smile and kept quiet about the fact that my mother was the real shopper who stocked my kitchen two days ago with everything Gram would need.
“While I make the garlic bread and scrambled eggs for breakfast, you go and take a shower, Nela,” Gram instructed.
I nodded and left her to her own devices. I knew better than to get in her way when it came to cooking.
I closed my eyes as the hot water cascaded down my back, thinking the whole time of a way to tell Guylan about our family blessing. Would he think it was a blessing? Would he think my family was a bunch of freaks and take off running for the hills? After learning the way Gramps and my father took the news, I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to put Guylan through the ordeal. Though I thought him to be a keeper, what would I do if I found out he wasn’t?
I opened my eyes and looked down at my feet, curling my toes under to grip the wet porcelain of the tub. Some things are just not possible to accomplish. Would getting Guylan to understand my family’s secret be an impossible task? Would he embrace the difference and look at it as an adventure?
I stepped from the shower and dried myself, glancing at my naked reflection in the mirror. I turned from side to side, surveying my body. I wasn’t a model, but the package was better than average: a slender waist, full, perky boobs, and high cheek bones
I groaned and applied after-bath cream on my legs as I thought about what made me fall in love with him. Guylan wasn’t a shallow man. He was all about sharing, caring, and wanting to be best friends as well as lovers. With him I could have a relationship like my parents and grandparents shared—he kind I’ve yearned and dreamed about all my life. Guylan was Prince Charming without the chauvinism. He was protective without being controlling, and he valued honesty.
I sighed, realizing that I wasn’t getting any younger. In December, I was turning thirty-four, and my biological clock wasn’t just ticking, it was clanging loud and clear. If I didn’t marry and have a child soon—a daughter—the blessing would end with me. This fact filled me with resentment. Yet, the burden of being the oldest was often cast upon me.
Growing up in a household with two younger sisters and a full-time, working mother, I was always hearing, “You’re the oldest, and should know better! We’re depending on you to watch your sisters, to know what’s right, to work along with us in caring for this family.”
I was just a kid, but I carried a lot of weight on my shoulders. I sympathized with my grandfather and how it was for him, helping to raise his brothers. Next time I see him, we’re going to have a long, overdo talk.
Unexpectedly, Gram opened the bathroom door, pulling me from my thoughts. “Nela, where do you keep the oregano?”
My first instinct was to cover myself with the towel.
Gram laughed. “You’ve got nothing that I haven’t seen before, sweetie. Who do you think it was who cared for you when your mother was expecting Hannah, when she was put on full bed rest?”
She reached over and playfully pinched the cellulite living on my backside before repeating her question. “Where do you keep the oregano?”
“In the cupboard to the left of the sink on the bottom shelf,” I said, slipping on my panties.
Gram nodded. “I might be able to reach it. If not, I’ll holler.”
She shut the door behind her and I finished dressing.
Hannah hadn’t slept well since Joe had been deployed to Iraq. The bed was just too large, empty, and cold without him. For weeks after he left, she refused to change the bed coverings, keeping his scent upon the sheets and pillowcase.
She missed his arms around her—rubbing her breasts as she fell asleep–and awaking to his kisses and the sensuous foreplay leading into passionate lovemaking.
When he left a part of her ripped away. Her sense of belonging was lost with him. As long as he was so far away, so too was her heart. She hoped, as the many months dragged on, that it would get easier, but in truth she feared for his welfare, now even more than she did in the beginning. She grew up with Joe West. He was there through so many aspects and changes occurring in her life. He stuck around throughout all the trials, never leaving her side or wanting anything more then to spend his life with her.
She stretched and climbed out of bed. If she dallied, she’d never get to Nela’s to see Gram. She opened the bedroom door and shouted down the hallway to her daughter. “Cara, you up?”
“Five more minutes,” Cara snapped. “And don’t keep ragging on me ‘till then.”
She rolled her eyes in frustration. Guiding a teen-child was exasperating at times, especially without the other parent around to help.
“I’m probably getting back what I did to my own parents,” she grumbled, making her way to the bureau. Atop the chest of drawers sat a picture of her and Joe on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey. She remembered the day vividly: it was warm and humid, and the smell of the ocean wafted lazily about in the coastal breeze.
Then she thought further back to the day she met him in Cooper’s Market, where he worked as a grocery bagger. She’d gone in with her mother for Kotex pads, and their eyes met when she placed the box of feminine napkins on the counter to be cashed out.
Embarrassed to the ends of her hair, and wishing the floor would open up and swallow her whole, she gazed elsewhere, but her eyes were drawn to his. He flashed a lop-sided, bad-boy grin, and that was all it took: she was hooked. She couldn’t even resist. But what chance did she have, a shy girl from Holy Cross of Christ School, with a jock from Temple High? Yet, a week later, to her enormous shock, Hannah found him sitting on the Catholic school steps, waiting for her to be dismissed.
He stood, hands shoved in his pant pockets, flashing her that sardonic grin. “I’m Joe West.”
The blood rushed to her head. “I’m Hannah, Hannah O’Riley.”
He arched a blonde brow. “Nice to meet you, Hannah O’Riley.”
His dark eyes penetrated her soul, melted her heart. “What are you doing here?” Her voice sounded as erratic as her pulse.
He removed a hand from a pocket and pushed aside the blonde curl that fell across his forehead. “I wanted to meet you.”
She frowned, a mixture of anticipation and apprehension washing over her. Why would this guy seek her out? Was this a trick Marjorie Benson was playing on her? The upper classman lost her seat to her as music club chairman, and maybe this was how she was getting revenge.
“Why me,” she blurted out, flinching as soon as she’d spoken the words.
Joe’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “Because I think you’re cute.”
Her heart danced.
“Thought maybe you’d like to go have a pizza with me,” he added.
“Now?” She felt a bit faint.
“Yeah.” He reached for her backpack and slung it over his shoulder.
“Well, I can’t . . . I just can’t . . .” she stammered. “My parents, they would never let me . . . I mean, they don’t know you.” She swallowed hard. “I don’t know you.”
He shrugged. “What’s to know?”
“Well, you could be a . . . a . . .”“A thief, a murderer, perhaps even the local rapist?” he finished the sentence for her.
“God, no,” she gasped. “I didn’t mean . . .”
“Didn’t you?” he interjected. “Isn’t that what parents always warn their daughters about when a guy’s interested in them?”
She frowned. “You’re not making this easy.”
Joe chuckled, taking a step nearer. “Nope, and I don’t intend to, Hannah O’Riley.”
She raised her chin defiantly. “You don’t intimidate me, Joe . . . whatever your name is.”
“West, Joe West, and I’m not trying to intimidate you, Hannah. I just want to get to know you.” Again, the devilish grin appeared. “Maybe even get to kiss you.”
“Ugh,” she shrieked aloud, but she was secretly thrilled over the kiss part. “Go easy, young West,” she quipped.
He screwed up his face playfully. “Very funny, Hannah Banana.”
She stuck her tongue out at him.
He chuckled again. “Good come back—that was very mature.”
She flipped her long hair over her shoulder and reached for her backpack. “Leave me alone.”
He tightened his grip on the satchel. “Can I at least walk you home?”
And that was how it began.
What proceeded was every parent’s nightmare, she understood now, as a parent of a teenaged girl. She lost her virginity at seventeen on Halloween night, 1993. It was the beginning of her senior year, and she and Joe made love in the back seat of his clunker: a 1980 Chevy Camaro. For two years, they kept from going all the way, but that night he was dressed like Zorro in tight black pants and a shirt opened to the waist, mask and cape adding to his handsome looks. And when he said, “I would love you now, Senorita,” her resolve and strict Catholic upbringing dissolved.
In spite of the cramped quarters, her one foot dangling over the front bucket seat, and the other hitting the rear window, she opened herself to Joe. He pleasured her whole being, filling her with an intense and driven urgency she never knew existed. Her sweaty back stuck to the seat’s leather covering, lips swollen and sore from his demanding kisses, and her thighs moist and sticky with the aftermath of their lovemaking.
It was something she wanted to experience over and over again for the rest of time, this being the greatest night of her life and a dream come true. But the day she had to tell her parents that she was pregnant, that day—that dream—turned into a nightmare.
What would she do if Cara every dropped a bomb like that on her?
Hannah had to quit school and get a G.E.D. instead of graduating with her class. Joe had graduated the year before, but he was never good in his studies and couldn’t get a job that paid enough to support a wife and baby. The two of them struggled. If it wasn’t for her parents allowing them to live for free in the basement apartment and her grandmother bringing them meals, they wouldn’t have survived.
Then Joe joined the National Guard, and when his training period ended, further education was paid for. He chose a trade college, where he learned carpentry and masonry. He started a construction company of his own, and as business increased, they were able to rent a small house a few blocks away from her folks and buy a used car. Everything seemed to flourish, and just as they decided to purchase a home of their own, Joe was called to serve his country. With Joe gone, the business began to crumble. Soon it seemed that all was lost, and once again she moved into her parent’s basement apartment.
“Oh, JoJo, your Hannah Banana misses you,” she whispered, grabbing clothes from a drawer and heading for the shower. She met Cara in the hallway. She pushed aside a strand of strawberry blonde hair from her daughter’s forehead. “Still have a sore throat?”
“Yup,” Cara inaudibly responded.
“Then you take the bathroom first,” she offered. “And I’ll fix you a warm water and salt gargle for you to do after your shower.”
Cara curled up her nose. “Uck.”
“It will help, trust me.” She set her clothes down on a nearby kitchen chair and made her way to the cupboard for a glass. “Before you take anything to reduce a fever, I want to take your tempera-ature.”
Cara frowned. “Thermometers make me gag.”
She sighed. “Please don’t be obstinate today, Cara, there isn’t the time.”
“I said thermometers make me gag,” Cara repeated and slammed the bathroom door.
She sighed again. What was it Joe always called Cara, Star Shine? She rolled her eyes and whispered to herself, “More like Star Shit.”
Alana stood beneath the shower spigot, head back and eyes closed, as the warm water cascaded down her neck.
The shower curtain opened, followed by a soft request. “Mind if I join you?”
She turned to face her lover and smiled, stepping back to make room. Face to face the two stood, the warm water sandwiched between their breasts. Beth’s were tinier than hers, and her nipples were a darker shade of rose.
Beth’s hands rested on Alana’s hips, pulling her closer. “I’ll miss you while you’re at your sister’s.”
She looked deep into Beth’s amber eyes, the tender gaze stirring her senses. “Come with me, then.”
Beth dropped her eyes to Alana’s mouth. “Not today, you need to tell them without me there.”
“I’ve already told my sisters,” she admitted.
Beth arched a brow. “And you don’t think they’ve already said something to your parents?”
She shook her head. “They’re good at keeping family secrets.”
Beth, a head taller than Alana, bent to kiss the tip of her nose. “And what about you: are you keeping any family secrets?”
Her heart raced. She only kept one secret from Beth—the same secret that Nela kept about the blessing. But she needed to take one coming-out at a time. Clearing her throat, she changed the topic. “How did you begin when you told your parents you are . . . you have . . .”
“An alternative lifestyle,” Beth interjected with a smile. She nodded.
“It’s not as if I had the plague, Alana,” Beth teased.
“I know. It’s just that I’ve only come to accept what I am recently, myself. How do I make my parents and my grandmother understand?” She sighed. “Coming from an Italian/Irish/Catholic household . . . well, this isn’t going to be easy.”
“It never is, no matter what type of household you come from,” Beth reflected. “Just start with the truth, Alana. No one can deny you the truth.” Beth’s hand wandered down to the juncture of her thighs. “Have you washed here yet?”
There was a tingling in the pit of her stomach. “No.”
Beth’s long, dark lashes swept down across her cheekbones, her reply breathless. “Then let me do it for you.”
She was powerless to resist, spread her legs wide in response and smiled.
My mother, my sister, Hannah, and my niece, Cara arrived around nine. Cara’s metamorphosis after her recent fourteenth birthday was comparable to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The dreaded teen years infiltrated her innocent body like an enemy army, the alteration turning the sweet little girl we all knew and loved into a moody, self-absorbed bitch.
My mother hugged Gram, holding long onto the embrace. “Mom, I’ve missed you so much.”
Gram kissed her only child and wiped the tears from her eyes. “Gloria, you look tired.”
“Gee, I’d better return that expensive eye cream,” my mother joked.
“This isn’t a laughing matter, Gloria.”
“Work’s been hectic,” Gloria said.
Gram frowned. “I thought you said you were going to retire last year.”
My mother shook her head. “Just couldn’t do it, Ma, with Alana still in college and all.”
“That’s what happens when you have a baby late in life: you’re old when they’re still young,” Gram quipped. She searched her daughter’s face. “You need Vitamin C. Go into the kitchen and pour your- self a tall glass of orange juice.”
My mother nodded and obeyed as though she were still a child.
Gram turned her attention to Hannah and gave her a hug. “And how’re things with you, Miss Hannah?”
When my sister was little and visited Gram, she loved poking around in an old trunk filled with clothes. Hannah, dressed in a dropped waist dress adorned by a feathered hat upon her head, would put on a show for Gram. It was the Miss Hannah Show, starring Hannah O’Riley. From that time on, Gram always called my sister Miss Hannah.
Hannah sighed. “It’s been a hard year, with my daughter not giving a crap what I say and Joe being in Iraq.”
“Being a single parent can’t be easy,” Gram sympathized. “And, as well as missing him, I’m sure you’re scared for Joe.”
“All true,” Hannah agreed.
“But you’re a smart gal, honey. You’ve got to pull it together. You’ve got the right stuff,” Gram encouraged.
Hannah flopped down beside Cara on the sofa and sighed again, pulling from her purse a digital thermometer. “Yeah . . . right . . . I can’t even get my daughter to take her temperature.”
Gram turned her attention to Cara, who sat sulking. “Aren’t you feeling well, Cara?”
Cara shook her head. “I’ve got a sore throat.”
“This is the third time in two months,” Hannah explained. “I took her Friday to the doctor, and lately he doesn’t want to administer antibiotics as quickly as he did before. The new mindset is not to squelch the immune system. Constant use of antibiotics won’t give the system a chance to become strong. So, he told me to keep track of her temperature. If it gets too high, then he’ll prescribe something.”
Gram nodded in agreement. “Sounds like a wise plan to me.” She turned to Cara. “Obviously you have a problem with it.”
“The thermometer under the tongue makes me feel like puking,” Cara mumbled.
Gram turned away from Cara and toward me, giving a wink of her eye. “Nela, do you still have that special thermometer?”
I instantly knew what Gram was about to do. “Yes, in the bathroom medicine cabinet.”
Gram made her way to the sofa and took Cara by the hand. “I know just how to solve your problem.”
Cara followed behind Gram, turning to cast a smug look at her mother before entering the bathroom.
Hannah and I looked at each other, burst out laughing and together counted aloud backward from the number five. Three . . . two . . . and on the number one, Cara raced from the bathroom and flung herself onto the sofa.
“Did you get your temperature taken,” Hannah inquired, struggling to keep a straight face.
“No,” Cara snapped.
Hannah arched a brow. “Gram’s way won’t gag you.”
Cara folded her arms across her chest. “Yeah, well, I’m not doing it that way either.”
Hannah prodded further. “Why not?”
Cara’s cheeks turned scarlet. “Because, Great-Gram wanted to shove the thermometer up my butt! I’m too old to have it done like that!”
Gram came into the room, hands on hips. “Your mother was exactly your age when I took her temperature that way.”
Cara gasped. “Really, Mom?”
Hannah nodded. “I had been sick with the flu for days, and my parents had to attend Aunt Alana’s kindergarten moving up ceremony, so Gram came to take care of me.”
Cara’s voice rose an octave. “And you just let her do it to you?”
Hannah shrugged. “I didn’t have much choice. I was as sick as a dog, lying half-dead on my belly in bed, when Gram came into my room. She ripped off the blanket, yanked down my pajama bottoms and inserted the thermometer.”
Cara shuddered. “This family is weird.”
My mother laughed as she entered the room. “Oh, honey, you have no idea.”
Cara’s eyes widened. “No one’s touching my butt.”
“And that’s part of your problem with this child, Hannah,” Gram scolded. “If you took her over your knee a time or two when she was younger and reddened that part of her anatomy, she’d be more civil to you now.”
Gram cast a glance my way, and I stifled a smile, remembering the story of Gramps and my father she’d told me earlier. I guess you’re never too old for a spanking.
Hannah sighed exasperated. “Things are different now, Gram, than when Mom was a kid. You can actually be hauled away on child abuse charges if you do stuff like that to your children.”
“Hauled away for giving your own child a well deserved spanking?” Gram asked appalled.
Hannah nodded. “The child experts are finding such discipline causes sexual issues, bed wetting, and other anger problems in a kid’s life as they mature.”
Gram turned to my mother. “Gloria, have you got sexual issues? Do you wet the bed or have anger problems because your behind got whacked when you were bad?”
My mother sat back in her chair and crossed her legs. “Can’t think of any.”
“There, you see,” Gram said.
Hannah held up her hands. “I’m just telling you how it is now, Gram.”
“How come you didn’t spank us, Mom,” I asked my mother.
She folded her hands in her lap. “I didn’t have to. One look from your father, and you girls obeyed. And when your father wasn’t around, I threatened to call him.”
“I remember, when I was older, being grounded from the mall,” I said.
My mother nodded. “That worked too.”
Gram shook her head. “You had Brian standing with you, Gloria. Hannah’s doing this all alone for now.” She pointed to Cara. “You can’t let that child run amok.”
My mother stood and went to Gram. “Come on, Ma, I’ll help you set the table.”
Gram nodded and the two left the room.
Hannah grabbed the digital thermometer from her purse and handed it to her daughter. “Under the tongue, now!”
Cara shook her head and clamped her lips shut.
My sister’s rage turned her cheeks red. She glanced my way. “Do you think, between the four of us, we could manage to take her temperature Gram’s way?”
Another ploy . . . instantly I went along. “I don’t see why not.”
Cara’s embarrassment turned to raw fury. “You’re all sick!”
“No, you’re sick,” Hannah countered. “And the only way you’re going to get well is if you let me take care of you.”
“Your grandfather and Aunt Alana are due to arrive here at any moment,” I added. “I don’t think you’d like it much if they found you lying face down on the sofa with your pants . . .”
“Okay, okay,” Cara interrupted, grabbing the thermometer from her mother. “This sucks, it really sucks.” She glared at her mother. “Don’t blame me, then, if I puke all over Aunt Nela’s floor.”