After finishing my undergraduate degree, I decided to take some time off before applying to law schools. I’d failed to get the “Mrs.” degree that was the objective of “normal women” my age and although my prospects of admission to any law school were slim, I’d worked hard, gotten good grades and was still young enough to believe I might play a small part in changing the world.
I'd come home, in part, because the lease on my apartment had run out and so had my savings. My aunt and mom were relieved, since their lives were too busy with kids and committees to take on the additional responsibility of chauffeuring my grandmother, whose glaucoma and cataracts were slowly robbing her of her eyesight. Grandma’s mind was still sharp but she was able to read only with a magnifying glass and needed a cane to walk even a few steps.
I moved into the guest room in her two-bedroom upstairs apartment. I drove her to the grocery store and to her doctors’ appointments. We watched the Detroit Tigers games on the television in the small living room, sharing a beer and a bag of peanuts. We stayed up late to watch Johnny Carson.
In the morning, after I’d done the breakfast dishes, I typed trial transcripts at the kitchen table, handling the carbon copies gingerly, to avoid smudging the print on the delicate onion skin paper. I typed carefully, as any page containing evidence of an erasure was rejected and had to be retyped. One day, after I’d returned from making my daily delivery of the previous day’s proceedings, I found Grandma in the kitchen, lining a wicker basket with a dish towel. “We’ve got to go see Willie Lee,” she said.
Willie Lee had helped my grandmother with her housework one day a week long before I was born. She was as stern and strict as grandmother. As a child, I had been terrified of her.
Grandma was 90. Willie Lee was around the same age.
Grandma handed me a small plastic envelope containing an accordion pleated rain bonnet. “Put this on your head,” she directed. I knew it looked ridiculous with my jeans and flannel shirt but it had begun to drizzle a few minutes earlier and I never argued with my grandmother. She knotted the plastic strips attached to an identical bonnet beneath her chin and we made the painfully slow descent down the stairs.
Grandma gave me directions as we drove, but otherwise said nothing. We crossed the creek that divided the town into separate, but unequal halves. Groups of kids playing in the street curbed their bicycles, waved and yelled, “Hi, Grandma.” We smiled and waved back.
We pulled up to a small, well-kept house. I carried the basket in one hand and Grandma hung onto my other elbow as we slowly made our way up the front walk. She knocked twice before opening the door and yelled, in falsetto, “Yoo-hoo!”
Without waiting for a response, Grandma entered and I followed. Willie Lee didn’t acknowledge our presence. Grandma directed me to bring a chair from the kitchen. After I helped her sit down, she handed me her cane and took the basket.
“Willie Lee,” Grandma said, “It’s Flo. I’ve brought you some pickled pears.”
Willie Lee didn’t answer. She sat immobile, her thin legs covered by a blanket, staring straight ahead. At that moment I realized the room was dark because Willie Lee was blind. I turned the switch on the table lamp, so my grandmother, whose vision had been partially restored in one eye, could see.
Grandma removed a small jar from the basket, together with a battered teaspoon. Grandma, the plastic rain cap still tied around her wigged head, handed me the jar, which I opened and handed back.
“Can you take the spoon?” Grandma yelled at Willie Lee.
Willie Lee didn’t respond.
“Well then, I’ll feed you.” Grandma said loudly and determinedly.
Willie Lee shook her head. Her eyes narrowed, and the look on her face brought back memories of her scolding me for leaving fingerprints on the furniture or running through the house.
Those pickled pears are moments away from being airborne, I thought.
Grandma extended the spoon in her arthritic, freckled hand, and placed the other on Willie Lee’s shoulder. Willie Lee turned her head toward us. The sightless eyes softened, and she opened her mouth.