by Julie Wise
I opened my grandmother’s wooden paint box this morning and found dried and wrinkled tubes of oil paint, well-worn brushes, and a palette dabbed with blues and greens. As I picked up a brush, the tang of turpentine and linseed oil rocked me like a rogue wave on a calm sea. I was 10 years old again, it was Saturday afternoon, and I was in Grammie’s kitchen while she made us lunch.
Dried gourds stretched like rainbows across an open shelf. Ants disappeared into peony blossoms picked fresh from the garden as she set a freshly toasted peanut butter and honey sandwich on my plate. She poured chocolate milk into a small glass and handed it to me. The skin on her hands was as transparent as dragonfly wings; loose as if she was shrinking from the inside out. She wore a pearl necklace and clip-on earrings, a blue flowered dress under her yellow checked apron and sensible shoes (or so she called them). Just a hint of a heel to make her tiny frame seem taller.
We put our dishes in the sink after lunch and headed upstairs to her studio with the big windows overlooking the garden. I perched beside her on the paint-stained bench as she transformed blank canvases into crashing seas or dusky woodlands. She worked in silence, and I sat, barely breathing, watching her create magic until she decided it was time to clean the brushes and go down for tea.
While the kettle boiled, she set out the terracotta teapot. It was special, used only for our tea parties. There were two matching cups and saucers splattered with orange blossoms and black birds. The sunlight tumbled over the chipped edge of one cup. Mine.
She filled my cup halfway with warm milk before adding the steeped tea. Loose-leaf. No sugar. She said I was sweet enough already. She took hers black. Butterscotch cookies, warm from the oven, beckoned from a plate. Birds called through the open window as she tickled my back with long tapered finger nails.
When we finished, she read my future in the tea leaves (a boat shape meant a trip, an envelope suggested a surprise in the mail). Then we went out to the garden to find the flower fairies among bluebells and forget-me-nots. She reminded me that each flower had its own fairy.
‘Shh, you must be still, child, if you want to see them,’ she whispered, finger to her lips.
They were too quick for me. But I knew they were there. Grammie had seen them. She said they danced under the moon and the stars at night, so she left them treats for their feasts – cookie crumbs and flower petals sprinkled on a flat rock in the middle of the rose garden.
She knew how to talk to birds and squirrels and get them to eat from her hand. She even knew how to fly, at least in her dreams. A blackbird taught her. She told me so.
She was my whole world when I was little.
She was where I went when I was scared.
Chlorine and sanitizer. Glaring lights, white walls. Brisk footsteps on speckled concrete floors. Whispers and muted conversations. I held my breath and stepped behind the blank curtain. Strapped on top of a perfectly made bed, a skeleton with feathery hair writhed in pain, begging God to take her.
My heart screamed: that’s not my grandmother.
I forced myself into the chair, took a claw-shaped hand in mine and called her by name.
She didn’t know I was there.
But I knew how to find her.
When I got home, I set out the terracotta tea set. I filled the chipped cup halfway with warm milk. I poured steeped loose-leaf tea into both cups from the teapot with the black birds and orange blossoms. I sipped from each cup and then turned hers upside-down in the saucer. Gently spinning the cup three times, I whispered the magic words, turned the cup over and peered into the bottom to read her fortune.
Out of the tea-drenched leaves, a tiny bird took flight.
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