What We’re Made Of
I play with the old green toy loader Grandma keeps in the dark nook between the wall and arm of the fusty couch. Its tires rumble a little against the linoleum, my lips putter like an engine. Mom shushes me. I pick up the loader and crawl under the plastic draped wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor so heat stays in the sitting room where Grandma sleeps on a sofa bed, eats meals on a tv tray, and watches her soaps and religious programming morning to night. She’s watching “General Hospital” right now. We’ve come at a bad time.
Grandma’s 1913 farmhouse was built by Great Grandpa and his two sons. It has two stories, an attic and a stone wall cellar with a dirt floor. They’d left the east fjords of Iceland in 1876 and landed on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. They spent two years there, lost seven children to smallpox and pneumonia and just being too little for the world, and then my great grandparents and their five remaining children walked the 160 miles to Dakota Territory in 1878 to try to prove up 160 acres near the Icelandic settlement of present day Mountain, North Dakota. They were given just one year to do it and they did. They started with a sod house, then a saltbox that eventually burned to the ground, and finally this house. Three generations lived here at the same time. My great grandpa died upstairs at 101 years of age, blind and bedridden for the last five, and now my grandma haunts it with her hollow cheeks and rotting teeth, a woman that’s never been to a doctor or dentist, a woman who after grandpa moved her here from her birthplace six miles away, never traveled farther than the neighboring towns. She was forty-two years younger than him. He’s been dead a long time.
I walk, carrying the loader, through the kitchen, the pantry, and dining room until I bump into the plastic sheets covering the other side of the sitting room. “Don’t mess with that,” Mom says. Grandma looks blurry through the plastic, like her face is melting. I return to the kitchen and sit by the woodstove to play. The windows have plastic tacked on the outside frames, but my nose runs from cold and I can’t feel my feet. I smell old bacon grease, smoke and ash, and musty cellar air. Cracks run along the plaster walls. Big white spiders make nests and babies in corners of the ceiling. There’s a closed door hiding steps to the cellar, and there’s a flight of steps leading up to another closed door. One night after many beers, Mom took me on her lap and started talking. How she loved her Aunt Polly with the thick, distorted glasses, who put Mom to bed with Icelandic tales of sea horses that drown bad children, who cared for my mom and her four brothers because my grandma just “wasn’t made for mothering.” How her “funny” uncle had a stroke and moaned continually from his bed upstairs. I was scared then because she was crying and slurring and squeezing me too hard. At Grandma’s house I’m not to open closed doors.
Mom calls from the sitting room, “Tayo, put the toy away now and say goodbye to Grandma.” I scoot across the floor on my butt back under the plastic, park the loader in the darkness by the couch and say “goodbye, Grandma.” No one hugs or touches Grandma. I sit next to my mom to put on my boots and she puts her hand on my knee. “What’s that?” she asks, rubbing my knee through my jeans. I don’t know what she means. “How long has that been there, Tayo?” I still don’t know what she means. She pulls up my pant leg and rubs a big lump on the side of my knee. After a visit to the doctor, I learn I have a tumor that will have to be removed once school is out and I’ll have crutches for six weeks. I am excited about the crutches. I think they will make me look tough. I tell everyone that I got a tumor at Grandma’s house. Mom doesn’t correct me. Hard things have been known to happen in that house.
Tayo Basquiat is from the northern plains of North Dakota but currently resides in Laramie, WY where he is a candidate in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Wyoming. He teaches philosophy and religion classes for Bismarck State College, is an avid adventurer, and a champion of public humanities programming. His work has appeared in On Second Thought, Northern Plains Ethics Journal, and as producer for Wyoming Public Media’s “Spoken Words” podcast.