Caeli Benson, BFR Staff
I have a talent for recognizing faces in the crowd while remaining a face in the crowd. They stand out more than I do in my tie-dye and Hawaiian shirts or my Frida Kahlo socks. I see the flags flying over their heads; the staff marks where our paths have crossed, and the colors mark our memories. There’s Marge from Beverly Cleary, the girl who defends R-Kelly when she’s drunk. And there’s Nick from Latin American Studies, the lacrosse player who pronounces Chile like “chili.”
I relive these experiences constantly with different people all the time. I’m the only one who recognizes the other person, but it’s not like I do anything about it. I don’t say hello or wave frantically to get their attention. But with her, I did.
Dorothy sits with her feet crisscrossed, her fingers interlaced in her lap, and her head bowed low. Before I approach the green bench she rests on, I see how much age has withered her. The clothes she wears—her light pink plaid shoes, dark grey slacks, white dress shirt, and the black North Face jacket—hang loosely on her. Her hair is completely white, whiter than the dress shirt she wears on a daily basis. It seemed like only a few years ago that she was the woman who protested eating hamburger after the Mad Cow epidemic hit the US, who told me when I was eight years old that I’d never be a better writer than her, and who drove both of her Volvos into two different telephone poles.
I walk slowly to the bench, the dry grass and wood chips crunching under my feet. She looks up and the sun hat shifts on her head, “Well hiya, kid!”
“Hey, Grandma. How are you?”
“I’m good. Just resting.”
“That’s good. Can I sit here?” I point to the seat next to her.
“Oh, sure.” She grabs the small purse sitting next to her and sits it on her lap. It’s a new purse that she’s used the past two years. She never opens it, but she always fidgets with its zipper.
I sit next to her and we watch the families flooding out of the dining hall. I watch their every move, hoping that one of them will help spark a conversation between us. We used to talk a lot more than we do now, but it’s been six or seven years since it happened.
“What’s… that thing over there?”
I look in the direction she’s pointing. I tell her that it’s some sort of pipeline that firefighters can use in case of an emergency. I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but she gives me a small shrug saying, I’ll take your word for it. She looks up at the sky, staring at the tops of the trees. I follow her gaze, trying to see what she’s seeing.
I flip my phone open to check the time. “My dad wants me to take you up the hill to take your meds. You almost ready to go?” I ask, predicting the answer she’s given me every time I’ve asked.
“You know, I think I’m going to sit here for a little while longer.” I nod, and we return to our silence.
For the next hour and a half, I ask her icebreaker questions that I already know the answer to. How has the weather been in Berkeley? Really… cold. Have you been going to the Happy Hours at Amy’s cabin? Yeah… Lars brings me some wine and crackers. Have you written anything new recently? Well, no. I haven’t had time. I’ve been… busy lately. (I call my Uncle Lars every night who responds, “Oh, we just watched TV.”)
She swatted an ant that was crawling up her leg. She let out a laugh, “That was huge!”
“I never knew ants could be that big!” I joke.
I was thinking of another question when she asked, “Have you seen my mom?”
I don’t let the sigh leave my chest. I know that I should tell her the truth, but what’s the point? I remember the lesson I learned at Miller’s Place, when the patients would ask the head nurse where their husbands and wives were. “I haven’t seen her around in a while. What does she look like? I’ll keep an eye out for her.”
“Oh, yeah okay.” She chooses her words painstakingly, fitting each into her narrative. She tells me how her father, a Portuguese butcher, left my great-grandmother when he found out she was older than him, how they sold produce on the side of the road, and how her mother would only smoke two cigarettes a day—once after breakfast and the other after dinner. The more she talks, the longer it takes for her to form her story. I let her struggle through it because I’ve never known much about her or her family. She never liked talking about her life, but she showed me the diaries and bundles of old envelopes she wrote in for most of her life.
I hardly recognized my dad walking down the hill. “Hey Mom.” He said, waving at her.
“Well, hi…” She nodded, trying to remember the name she gave him.
“Let’s go take your meds.”
“Oh, okay.” She struggled to get up from the bench, so I gave her my hand. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I whisper.
We begin the trek up the hill, stopping every five or six steps to let her catch her breath. As soon as we get to her cabin, my dad asks, “Do you know who this is?”
She looks up at me, “Well, no.”
“She’s your granddaughter.”
She looks up for the second time, “Oh!” She shines a smile up at me, and I smile down, trying to hold back my tears.