The kitchen smelled of apple pie and cinnamon. I smiled, throwing my backpack on the counter and running into my grandma’s arms. Her embrace felt like a holiday.
Freckles speckled her nose and cheeks like lights on a tree, embellishing her natural glow. “How was school, sweetie?” she asked, sorting olives into individual plates of salad.
“Fine,” I said. Though it wasn’t. But I didn’t feel the need to elaborate. Not at grandma’s.
“Desert’s in the oven! Would you mind setting the table?”
I loved helping grandma, mostly because I enjoyed mimicking her every move—dancing behind the counter, singing to oldies, mixing the gravy on the stove.
I fetched dressing and lemonade from the fridge and brought it to the kitchen table in the corner of the room. There were only three spots to set—for grandma, grandpa, and me. My brothers were eating at their friend’s house, and my parents were working late. I didn’t mind at all; I’d eat two pieces of pie instead of just one, and maybe I’d even be allowed a trip to Barnes and Noble with grandma after grandpa leaves for Knights of Columbus.
“So tell me,” grandma said once we were seated. Her voice was laced with exhilaration, like she was about to hear top-secret information. “What’s new in school?” She was the only person I knew who could make St. Matthias sound like a state college rather than a strict Catholic middle school. She was as naive as she believed me to be.
I stopped eating and began to play with my food instead. “Nothing.”
She smiled, nodding her head, a gray curl tickling her blue eyes. She brushed it away. “Well, tell ya what…How about we pick you up a new book tonight.” Books—the way to my heart.
Grandma had read to me since before I could speak. She’d carry me to the shelf next to the TV and let me chose any story I wanted, then place me on her lap, my legs dangling in delight as she spoke. It seemed that was the only way to calm my anxiety attacks as a child—still was.
“Ready for dessert?” my grandpa asked, though mostly for his own benefit. He’s the one who carried the sweet tooth gene.
I beamed, nodding and jumping to my feet to help clear the table. I shadowed grandma’s every move: collect the plates, toss the napkins, empty the cups.
Once finished, she took her apple pie out of the oven and placed it on the stove. “Would you do the honor?” she asked, handing me a glass container of sugar. She reminded me of a little girl on Christmas morning, waiting at the top of the stairs.
I grinned. This was my favorite part about grandma’s pies—she always sprinkled extra sugar on top before serving. I took the sugar and scattered it along the crust, breathing in the aroma of spicy apples. “All ready!” she said, walking it over to my grinning grandpa at the table.
The pie grew cold and stale soon after.
I’m not sure when Christmas faded into Boxing Day at grandma’s house, but I think it was a long time coming. Years can work magic, or sometimes quite the opposite.
The laundry was wrinkled. The bookshelves were dusty. No fresh lemonade in the fridge.
I didn’t notice how deep grandma’s wrinkles sunk into her forehead until the day grandpa snuck out with the car. “Don’t you worry,” she said. But her diverted eyes and hunched shoulders told me otherwise. “He’s okay, sweetie. He’ll be back soon.”
“Where did he go?” I asked.
She shook her head in return, didn’t say a word as she scrubbed at the spotless countertop. I poured myself a glass of water and sipped.
He was back soon. I could see the relief in her eyes, mixed with anger and pain. Still, she remained silent as to keep some sort of peace on behalf of my presence; but I was ten years older now, and so was grandpa. As he said hello to me, oblivious to his offense, she took his keys off the counter and stuffed them in her pocket.
“Would you like some pie?” she asked me, her smile abandoned by the dark circles under her eyes.
I nodded and felt lighter, meeting her gaze in hopes of recollection; I clung to the slice of the pie like it was my childhood. But when I took a bite, it wasn’t nearly as sweet as it used to be.
She’d forgotten the extra sugar.