“Did you bring your little recorder with you this time?” my grandmother prods, darkening the imprint of her “Always Coral” lipstick on the filter of her Virginia Superslim cigarette. Her voice is almost a whisper now, wearing softer and thinner with every year like a favorite cotton t-shirt. Still, she rarely hears others on the first try, and it is often necessary to yell.
“Yes, I’ve got it,” I say loudly, plucking at the frayed hem of my cut-off jeans and pivoting my wrist to conceal the swooping indigo lines of my latest tattoo. My voice recorder is in its customary place in the console of my Honda Accord/ gypsy caravan, ready to capture the fleeting thought begging to be woven into a tale.
“I think I’d like to try recording the story,” she says, her lips pursed in determination. “I think I’m ready.” She used to ask this every time I saw her, and every time, at the last moment, she would change her mind. She’d gaze into the crystalline depths of her vodka tonic, blink the mist of tears out of her dimming blue eyes, and shake her head. “I’m sorry, Julie. I just don’t think I can get through it.” As the dishwasher hummed along, rinsing away the remains of our shared summer feast (Silver Queen corn, cucumbers in cider vinegar, flamboyantly ripe tomatoes, and succulent mounds of seasoned lump crab meat), I’d tuck my recorder into my back pocket and murmur that it was okay. There was no rush. Then, as if flicked on by a switch, my grandmother would brighten, light up another Superslim, and begin to talk.
Hers is not so different, I suppose, from any other wartime love story of that era. A wide-eyed girl from the Midwest follows her sense of adventure to a base in the Florida Keys, spots a dashing young pilot across a crowded room and says “He’s mine.” The enlisted man is smart enough to recognize the mother of his children when he sees her, and with the same derring-do that allowed him to fly safely through the eye of a hurricane and walk away from a “dead stick” landing at sea with no more than a grimace, he makes her his wife.
The honeymoon lasted until he passed away in 2008 at the age of ninety-two, from injuries sustained while bodysurfing. He was the love of my grandmother’s life, and called her his “bride” until the day the wave took him. To me, the best part of their love story is the way it lasted, despite its hurried wartime beginnings, or maybe because of them. Sometimes it’s better not to over think things.
For most of our acquaintance, my grandmother and I have had little in common. Her love for me has been ever-present, but the care packages she sent during my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa contained eyeshadow and nail polish. I used the nail polish to patch rips in my mosquito net, and mixed water with the eyeshadow to turn it into fingerpaints for the village children. But after my Grandpa’s passing, our talks became longer and sweeter, with more nods and fewer eye rolls between us. She never expected to have to live so long without him, and I never expected to find myself on so many remote roads that demanded to be walked alone. In this, at last, we found our common ground.
The dishwasher clicks and hums through the final moments of its cycle and the ice fades into a puddle at the bottom of Grandma’s glass. “Well, you got it out of me anyway,” she chuckles, running the manicured ovals of her fingernails through her cropped platinum hair. She looks at the pictures of her and Grandpa arrayed on the kitchen counter and presses her lips together, tears springing back into her eyes. “It was always the two of us,” she sighs, “no matter what happened.” Her voice held a lilt of wistfulness, and the hard edge of wisdom earned in her eight long years alone. Sometimes there is something that comes after “Happily Ever After”, and sometimes it feels like forever.