It was the summer before eighth grade when I first noticed the dresser. Granny kept it in the guest room -- not the good guest room with the antique canopy bed, but the room with the twin poster beds where my sister and I stayed when our parents took their annual trip.
Dad would always say, “It’s a vacation with your mother. It’s an ordeal when you four kids come along.”
The boys slept in a pair of bunk beds wedged into a large hall closet that Granny converted for the sole purpose of having some place for them to stay during our visits. Adolescent boys still in the bedwetting phase would never be allowed to sleep in the canopy bed.
Furniture had never held my interest before unless it was a television. But Papaw and Granny didn’t believe in watching TV during the day, so I spent most of that visit in bed reading. One afternoon, after finishing the last of the books I’d brought from home, I found myself with nothing better to do than lie in bed and survey the room in detail. That’s when the dresser caught my attention. It had an oval shaped mirror and a white marble top against a wood that was so dark it was almost black in some spots and had a satiny shine to it. Later I learned it was mahogany, but at that moment the dresser seemed beautiful for no apparent reason. I rose out of bed to get a closer look.
The top drawer was filled with lace doilies and fancy handkerchiefs, each wrapped in tissue paper. In the middle drawer I found Granny’s special Christmas tablecloth, the one with the red and green poinsettias embroidered on stiff white linen. The bottom drawer had the extra set of sheets for the twin beds. A long slender drawer was built into the base that held the mirror’s frame; inside I discovered neatly folded newspaper clippings, yellowed with age. One was the obituary for Papaw’s brother, Great Uncle Walter. He’d died from emphysema before any of us were born. Granny said he actually died from stupidity because he refused to quit smoking even after the doctors told him he was sick. She said he’d have coughing fits that would send him to the floor hacking and wheezing, and then he’d light up another cigarette the moment he was in a chair again.
That summer afternoon I decided I wanted the dresser when I grew up, and had my own house. None of Granny’s other furniture appealed to me. Her living room couch was the old Victorian style, uncomfortable and not meant for lounging. The canopy bed was coveted by my sister and our girl cousins. I figured they could fight over it, and I would quietly select the marble top dresser as my personal inheritance.
Papaw died when I was in high school, but Granny didn’t skip a beat. For several years she continued to play bridge four days a week, walked to Mass every morning, and between activities with family and neighbors, she didn’t slow down until her longtime housekeeper, Nannie Mae, died out of the blue from a stroke. Once the underpinning to her daily routine was gone, Granny’s world seemed to close in, and soon afterwards she moved into an assisted living facility.
By that time I had my own place and for some reason, perhaps to prolong the anticipation, I let the dresser sit in my parents’ attic for almost a year while I visualized it in different spots around my small apartment. Finally I settled on the entry hall which may not be the traditional place for a dresser, but it made sense because it would be the first thing I saw when I walked in at night and I’d be able to do a quick check in the mirror before I left for work in the morning. The small window by the front door would let in enough light to show off the wood, though not enough to do any damage.
I scheduled Friday as a vacation day and the night before I had trouble falling asleep. Somehow, thinking about having the dresser in my own home made my life feel complete, a little more perfect.
Dad had a truck and we’d arranged to meet around noon. On the way over, I stopped at an antique shop to look for a piece of lace for the marble top. Aunt Emily had confiscated Granny’s special Christmas tablecloth and the rest of the dresser’s contents had been distributed, so I wasn’t expecting to find any hidden treasures left waiting for me. The antique shop had several pieces, but nothing like what I had in mind.
Dad’s truck wasn’t in the driveway when I arrived. Mother was in her sewing room.
“Where’s Dad? We’re supposed to move the dresser today.”
“He’s down at the bank.” She didn’t look up from the dark green fabric in her lap, and talked with a straight pin in her mouth.
“What are you making?” I wasn’t really interested, but I asked anyway.
“A new Christmas tree skirt for your sister.” She took the pin from her mouth, using it to secure another inch of red grosgrain ribbon to the fabric. “That felt one she has is getting a little ratty. Since we’re spending the holidays with her this year, I wanted to have a nice one.”
“It’s only April. Why are you working on it now?”
“I’m going to reupholster the couch in the den this summer, so I’m finishing up my little projects before I start the big one.” Mother put the fabric down and looked up at me. “I told Granny you’d come by around lunchtime for a visit.”
“Not today,” I said quickly. “We’re moving the dresser, and I’ve got other stuff I need to do this afternoon.”
“Do you remember who gave you the dresser?”
“Yes, I know, but it’s hard going out there and I wanted to get the dresser set up today.” I was trying not to sound ungrateful but I also didn’t want to be corralled into visiting Granny. It would spoil the mood of getting something wonderful that I couldn’t afford on my own.
“You have time to take Granny for a drive. It certainly won’t kill you to do it.”
It was clear this was an obligation I couldn’t refuse. Granny was only a short distance away, but I resisted going there. The smell was the primary reason, the sickeningly sweet odor of antiseptic straining to overpower the stench of deteriorating health. It stuck with me for hours.
The drive over was beautiful; bluebonnets covered the pastures and open spaces along the road. I lowered the windows and let in the scent of spring while I planned the visit. My priority was to get in and out as quickly as possible. Granny walked slowly and I wondered if I could ask for a wheelchair to speed up the trip from her room to my car. We could go to WalMart and buy her a few things. That would chew up thirty minutes, maybe. Then a quick lunch at the diner by the highway, a short cruise by her old house and I’d be back at my parents by early afternoon.
Granny was sitting on the front porch when I pulled into the parking lot. There were three other women with her. Who knows how long they’d been out there waiting for me, like four frumps on guard duty. I endured the introductions and we stayed for more than ten minutes, letting the others soak up my presence as though I were a celebrity. They all wanted to know what I did for a living. I ended up saying I was a secretary because it was easier than trying to explain what my real job as a financial analyst entailed.
We finally pulled away from the others. Granny insisted on walking to the car. Her pace was painfully slow; I had to force myself to take tiny steps while holding her arm. She had a purse hitched to her other arm and wore pink house slippers over support hose.
As planned, we stopped at WalMart. She needed a new comb, hairnets, and a jar of Vaseline. Hairnets are no longer a commodity item. We searched the aisles with no luck. Expecting Granny to get frustrated, I was surprised at her demeanor when we spotted a sales clerk. Her face lit up as the young black girl came our way.
“I bought some hairnets last month and they were right here,” Granny told her.
“Ma’am, I’ve never seen them before,” the clerk replied. “Are you sure you bought them here?”
“Yes, just last month. Stella and I were with her daughter. Stella needed some and so did I. They were right here.” Granny waived her arm up and down the aisle indiscriminately.
I turned to the clerk. “Could you check in the back, maybe?”
Much to Granny’s delight, another sales clerk joined the search and found the elusive hairnets. Granny bought two packets.
“Are you hungry?” I asked after getting her back into my car.
“Don’t worry about me. I brought my lunch.” Granny opened her purse and pulled out something wrapped in a paper napkin.
The smell was revolting.
“What is that?” I quickly opened the windows.
“Tuna fish sandwich. I saved it from last night’s dinner.”
I knew I had smelled something when she opened her purse at the checkout, assuming she’d passed a little gas.
“You can’t keep tuna fish over night without a refrigerator.”
I grabbed the offensive napkin-wrapped sandwich, hopped out of the car, and tossed it into the garbage can at the entrance to the store.
“Let’s go to that little restaurant you like. You might run into someone you know. Okay?”
I ordered a spinach salad and Granny had a bowl of soup. We ate out on the verandah in the back, watching a group of small children play on the swing-set in the yard next door. She introduced me to everyone we came in contact with, convinced they were all her oldest, dearest friends. I could see that some of them didn’t recognize her or me, but that didn’t dampen her enthusiasm.
We’d finished eating when she asked me, “Julie, you don’t wear any make-up?”
“It’s too much trouble on my day off.”
“Not even a little lipstick? You’re such a pretty girl.” She looked concerned. Granny might have lived in a small town most of her life, but she cared more about make-up and fashion than I ever would. Most of our lunch conversation had been about the new coat she bought last fall. She told me how Aunt Emily drove her to Dallas and she looked for two whole days before finding the right wool coat.
“The only thing those stores had were tan trench coats, and I wanted a navy wool, not too long and none of those fancy buttons,” she explained several times.
When my mother was growing up, each year in August Granny would take her and Aunt Emily to the big city to shop for school clothes. They would stay in a hotel downtown and buy enough new outfits to last until Easter. Funny how that day she was content to wear pink house slippers and support hose held up by homemade elastic bands that peeked out from beneath her housedress each time she sat down. People may not change, but their circumstances do.
After we left the restaurant, I headed towards her old house.
“Oh, I guess it’s time to go home now. I’ll make us a pitcher of iced tea. Would you like that?”
“No, Granny, we can’t stop.”
“Can’t you come in and spend the night, honey. I’ve got ice cream in the freezer and the bed is made up for you.”
“I can’t stay. We can only drive by before I take you back.” I couldn’t say the word ‘home’ when I thought about the institution she was living in now.
“But, I need to water my lilies. It’s been so dry lately.” Granny clutched her purse while she stared ahead at the road.
“You don’t have to worry about your flowers anymore. They’ll get watered by the new owners.” It didn’t quite register with her.
“I’m tired. I think I’ll take a nap before I fix supper. I told Nannie Mae to take a roast out this morning.”
“You can’t go in the house anymore.”
Granny’s eyes flashed at me. “I don’t want to see it if I can’t lie down on my own bed.”
“But, someone else lives there now.”
She turned her head away from me and looked out the window. I gripped the steering wheel tightly as I made a u-turn, uncertain of what to say.
Granny didn’t talk during the ride back to the nursing home. I hugged her a little longer than usual, leaving her sitting on a chair in her room, holding her purse as though she was expecting someone to come and collect her, like a child lost in a bewildering world.
Dad and I moved the dresser that afternoon, putting it in the bedroom, not the entry hall as I had planned. It didn’t look quite as wonderful as I remembered. There was a chip on the front of the middle drawer, and the mirror tilted up too much. As expected, the main drawers had been emptied but the small stack of fading newspaper clippings was still in the slender drawer.
Soon the marble top was concealed by the clutter of everyday life, and a few months later Granny’s clock wound all the way down, the minutes faintly ticking away until finally her time was settled. I cut her obituary out of the paper and placed it in the slender drawer with the others, knowing she’d resent being next to stupid Uncle Walter, but doing it anyway.
That perfect piece of lace eventually found me, a gift from my future mother-in-law, inspiring me to clear off the junk from the marble top. I cleaned the mirror and wiped down the wood with lemon polish and then decided to move it into the entry hall where I could remember how beautiful it was, and wonder who might discover those old newspaper clippings once the dresser is passed along to another generation.