Her eyes would follow me from room to room. Diamond eyes. Sliding under her glasses to latch onto me. Her face, birdlike; parched and leached, an abundance of angles. Tiny. Except for her eyes.
Even when she wasn’t in the present her eyes were always there.
And she: in every room. Every room had a piece of her, was flavoured by her. And there were so many rooms, a house that was big and rambling and always cold. Rooms that hadn’t been used in decades, that were haunted by whatever past they must have had. Two hundred years old, red-and-gold timbers, thick woollen curtains. And dust. Layers of dust to leave footprints in and draw circles and spirals.
Paintings lining walls that belong to generations before my time. These strange figures with bygone hair and fussy, fusty clothes, all these minute patterns, all the buttons and ruffles, something about their eyes too, maybe not following, but always attentive, never missing a moment.
And her flowers. Hanging upside down in rows, turned over again and twisted amongst cords, mounted on the walls, neither dead nor alive.
I was supposed to call her Grandma. And she was. My grandma. But she wasn’t like other grandmas: no cookies baking, no story-telling, no secret treats. She was a distant figure, a shadow, who watched me and hardly spoke to me. Who saw a six-year-old girl, but couldn’t see her as family, saw her more as memory: the same girl she’d been once herself. Wind back sixty or seventy years, and a girl with the same blond hair, longer, in a white dress, running amongst the paths, picking flowers, skipping, catching butterflies.
A girl whose long shadow fluttered like wind across the roses and jasmine.
Mum told me about her once.
“Grandma. Granny. Gran. It sounds wrong.” I was nine by then.
“She has reasons to keep her distance.”
“Other grandmothers don’t.”
And so, she told me about the other girl. The sister. “She was older than me. I only remember her a little bit. And that, that’s half made up out of photos. The only thing I remember about the funeral is the red carpet with weird circle patterns, and the little cream cakes that the funeral home served.”
“She died, love. When she was five years old. When she was playing near the river on the other side of Law St. When they found her, they told Mum that she’d drowned, that she must have slipped down the bank, maybe tripped or lost her balance. Her name was Marlena.”
Which was my name.
“I did name you after her.”
“I’ll show you why.”
These photographs. Of a little girl with my face. A stranger with soft yellow curls and big dimples, a scratch on the bottom of her chin. A serious portrait face, dressed in blue flowers and a lace-necked shirt.
Mum would leave me there because she had to work, and had to work shifts and weird hours, and long hours at times to make ends meet. There was no sign of Dad. Mum used the phrase “in the wind,” and her face set hard and would almost crack when she spoke about him.
“Selfish,” said Henrietta, half to me, half to herself. “I warned her about that. From day one. And still.”
She maintained her place at the window. A living portrait. As if she’d been painted onto the glass, always sitting in that straight-backed chair, red-padded, silky; and her creased, over-knuckled fingers resting in her lap, a loose gold ring on one them. Always staring out over the garden. Where I went to sketch the plants sometimes, or to look for snails, or to make daisy chains. Sometimes just running like I was still little, skipping or dancing.
Knowing now that she watched a different girl. Not her own childhood, but one that was even dearer to her, even rarer and more cherished. A girl with blond hair in ribboned plaits, a girl in a flowery blue dress, maybe drawing with chalk on the paving stones, maybe crouching to pat a cat or admire a hedgehog, then darting off again when something else caught her interest.
A girl whose mother named her Marlena.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work