Grandmother tugged the rope handle attached to the retractable attic-stairs. Pink fiberglass fragments and fluffy gray lint fell out. I gazed up at the rafters, staring at the ventilation fan, which was slowly spinning as heat rose. The eerie scraping of metal against metal made me cringe. It was mid-August, one hundred and two degrees outside. I knew the attic would be at least ten degrees hotter, but up I went, the obedient child.
There were boxes labeled with my name, stacked four and five high. Some had listings of their contents, but most simply read: To: Paula, From: Betty (my mother’s name was Betty). Grandmother didn’t want me rummaging through those keepsake boxes, duct taped shut; she only wanted me to find her punch bowl and bring it down for the church homecoming covered dish supper.
I was ten and limber; she was old and heavy with bad hips and knees. I knew she couldn’t spy on me up there, not like she did downstairs, watching my every move and critiquing each comment and action. She even pulled back the shower curtain and watched me bathe, making sure I opened the washcloth flat against my palm, lathered it properly, started at my face and worked my way down to my feet, rinsing and lathering after each significant area.
On this particular day, my grandmother was distracted by a phone call with one of her best friends, who was going through a divorce. These conversations usually lasted for hours.
I spotted the punch bowl by the Christmas decorations, but thought I’d look through my old toy box for a few minutes, since it wasn’t taped shut, before climbing down the stairs. The toy-box was stuffed with all my favorites from two years prior, when I still lived with Mama. There was a “baby alive“, who only pooped and peed if you fed her and gave her a bottle. I figured that out real quick and decided she didn’t need to eat or drink anything. There was also a music box with a spinning ballerina. It had a tiny velvet lined compartment that held all the Avon pins my mother had given me, plastic pins filled with cream perfume. My favorite was an Asian girl pin, the head lifted and in a metal well was the fragrant cream. I lifted the pin to my nose and breathed in that beautiful familiar scent, imagining I was back in the cinder block house behind our trailer in Florida, the cinder block building where Mama and Daddy kept all my toys, the lawn mower, Daddy’s golf clubs, and other junk. This was where I went to play when it was cold or rainy, or whenever I needed to hide from the arguments between my parents.
Every item I pulled from the toy-box transported me to a time when I was happiest. Before I realized it, I had unpacked the entire box and had strung toys all over the attic floor. My grandmother stood at the base of the stairs, yelling for me to hurry up and come down with her punch bowl.
When I heard her laughing and talking with her phone buddy again, I continued to change the dress on one of my blue-eyed dolls with curly blonde hair. This was the doll I had taken with me to the hospital, the only time they let me in to see Mama.
I remembered hiding in the laundry bin with my doll, as the nurse rolled us to Mama’s room. Mama had a private room, because she screamed too much -- from the pain, according to Daddy. The nurse told me she could get into big trouble for sneaking me down the hall. My father thanked her for being so brave. He tried to explain to me that Navy hospitals were strict about having children running about when sick people were trying to rest. I pretended to understand.
In the attic, I examined the right leg of the doll and found my teeth marks, where I tried to muffle my cries, after visiting Mama. I didn’t want to get the nurse into trouble. Daddy said to be quiet, but I was so sad, because Mama told me she was going to die and that I could hug her, but she couldn’t hug back, because her arms didn’t work anymore. She didn’t look like my mama. She had no hair and she was too skinny.
Those memories made me want to rush into my father’s arms, but he was at sea and I was stuck in a house with his mother, a grandmother I barely knew. Everything went red and I felt dizzy. I crawled to the stairs and tried to climb down, but my legs went limp and I fell. It felt like I was dropping out of an oven. I landed on a load of dirty towels piled on the floor, waiting their turn for the washing machine. Grandmother heard me and came running around the corner, phone stuck to her ear, one of those long spiral cords tethered to it. She kept talking to her friend. The next thing I remember, I was in a bath of ice water, and my grandmother was asking me if I found her punch bowl. She opened the washcloth, flat against her palm, lathered it carefully, then reached toward my face. I pulled away from her, slipped beneath the water, held my breath, and stared up at her blurry image waving like heat above asphalt hot enough to burn your soles.