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Mother, Grandmother, and Aunt Ellen

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August 15, 2013

And he imagined how Grandmother had sat there with a sugar cube between her teeth, observing her daughters with amusement as they ran around the table in tears.

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Image from Flickr via Andrew Woodyatt

He remembers his grandmother, but everything that happened before he was born comes from his mother and Aunt Ellen. They were full of stories, and right from the beginning they wanted to tell them all, and when they did they would look at him as if to encourage him to learn them by heart. Aunt Ellen, for instance, told how one time towards the end of the war they were baking vanilla cookies, but then the mailman came. As he turned into the farmyard, Grandmother got down on the floor and began to scrub the linoleum with her ass in the air. Grandfather was sitting in the parlor studying aerial photos of Leipzig and his mother had gone out to the rabbits in the cowshed. It was nearly Christmas and the mailman winked at Aunt Ellen and said something about the vanilla cookies smelling good. Grandmother sat like a mermaid on the floor and said with a giggle that she couldn’t get up again. The mailman had to help her while Ellen tried to close the door into the parlor with cookie dough on her hands.

He remembers his grandmother well. She was small, almost like a child, though very round. She had five children and her sons left home as soon as they could.

But what bothered Aunt Ellen was afterwards when the mailman had gone and Grandfather went out to the rabbits, Grandmother had that look on her face. She stood at the kitchen sink with one of Aunt Ellen’s vanilla cookies in her mouth and said it had no taste.

“She could be like that,” Aunt Ellen had said so often, and he doesn’t know how many times he saw his mother nod and put in her two cents. “You remember what she was like, don’t you?” they would say, and scrutinize him.

He remembers his grandmother well. She was small, almost like a child, though very round. She had five children and her sons left home as soon as they could. He doesn’t remember Grandfather, and to him Grandmother is a woman who lived in an apartment building in town and grew increasingly odd, while Aunt Ellen and his mother took turns to make dinner for her. Certain smells made him think of her, smells that linger in the bathroom, or bergamot candy in the kitchen. Or the sight of dish mats and the plastic souvenirs his mother and Aunt Ellen brought home from vacations. And her hands, mostly her hands. They were as small as a little girl’s and never at rest. Small and fluttering. How strange to think it was those hands that did it. The thing his mother claimed they did.

Another story they liked to tell was about the last years of the war when the tethered cow had to be moved. His mother loved it when Aunt Ellen told the story. She would light up a cigarette and sit nodding with it. It happened when the Allies attacked the landing strip and the Germans retaliated. Grandmother was afraid the cow tied up in the meadow would be killed. So Aunt Ellen had to go and move it. Of course, she was afraid, but Grandmother insisted the cow be brought to safety. Naturally, the animal was terrified, so it galloped around with Aunt Ellen hanging onto the rope behind it. The planes were diving in over the trees and the southern end of the potato field. Grandmother crawled on all fours to the gable end of the house to find shelter from the shrapnel.

“There she was with her ass in the air barking out instructions about which way I should run.”

“That’s the way she was. Mother was stupid.”

That’s how Aunt Ellen told the story, and then she would grimace and stress that the secret to understanding Grandmother was that she wasn’t very intelligent. She was stupid, Aunt Ellen would say, and his mother would snigger and Aunt Ellen would look at her sister with a flicker in her eye.

“That’s the way she was. Mother was stupid.”

It always went quiet between them then. Aunt Ellen would change the subject, or decide it was time to go home. She lived in the building opposite and the last thing he and his mother always did before they went to bed was stand at the window of the living room and wave to her.

All the time his mother lay sick, she and Ellen never spoke of Grandmother and her ways. But then his mother died, and after the funeral the subject came up between him and Aunt Ellen. It was his initiative. He took his aunt to a cafeteria and asked her about the old days. He assumed it was for want of anything better, but she told the story about the cow and the air raid once again.

“She was so stupid,” said Aunt Ellen, and he could see it was like the bottom fell out of her because his mother no longer sat opposite to put in her two cents. “I’m the only one left now,” she said in a small voice.

When she began to cry he ordered a slice of cake for her, and when she took the first bite he asked if she could remember them having rabbits during the war? Aunt Ellen remembered it well, but they all got sick from some disease, she said. He nodded, and Aunt Ellen got into a fluster about who was paying for the cake, and then it turned out she couldn’t eat it anyway. Afterwards he took her home. She wanted to hold his hand all the way, and when the street door closed behind her he stood outside staring at it.

Grandmother died when he was twenty-five, so his memories of her are clear. When he was growing up his mother and Aunt Ellen would sometimes leave him with Grandmother and go to the movies together. Memories can cover each other up, but he especially remembers one time he went over to her place with some leftovers of Aunt Ellen’s. She was going to give him a cookie, just as she always did, but first she needed to go to the bathroom. She went herself, but when she was there she called for him. She said that because she was old she could no longer reach. He wiped her, and as he did so there came a small sound from inside her. It made him look at her, and the way she looked back at him made him drop the toilet paper into the bowl. He told her she could pull up her underwear by herself. But she couldn’t.

“I’ve nothing on under my dress,” she said.

He helped her into the living room and sat her down in the chair where she always sat. Then he laid a blanket over her bare legs. He asked her when the home help was coming. But the home help had already been, his grandmother told him, and reached for a cookie.

It was one of the stories he had heard told the most and they told it in exactly the same way.

She had that look in her eye. The look Aunt Ellen and his mother always talked about before turning away, and he remembers how he hung around the soccer fields for a long time before going home. When he got back, his mother and Aunt Ellen were in the kitchen smoking cigarettes and they asked him how Grandmother was. He said she was fine and she sent her love. He sat there at the end of the table, and afterwards he stood as he always did, together with his mother, and waved across the lawn to Aunt Ellen who stood at her window and waved back. It wouldn’t pay to tell. His mother didn’t care for Grandmother, and yet she was always tagging along behind her. Every day, week in and week out, through one story after another. Mother and Aunt Ellen tagging along.

One of the episodes his mother and Aunt Ellen talked about most often as an example of how unreasonable Grandmother was concerned one Sunday during the war when his mother and Aunt Ellen had spent all day making paper-cuttings. It was one of the stories he had heard told the most and they told it in exactly the same way. It was about how they had been cutting all day until the tips of their fingers were red and sore. Then they had put all their fine paper-cuttings onto a string and joined them together in an intricate pattern to make a mobile. They hung the mobile up above the dining table, only for the two brothers who had yet to leave home to get the idea of using it as a target. His mother and Aunt Ellen tried to get Grandmother to make them stop, but all she did was sit with her coffee cup raised to her mouth and giggle.

“She giggled?” he asked.

“Yes, she damn well did.”

And he imagined how Grandmother had sat there with a sugar cube between her teeth, observing her daughters with amusement as they ran around the table in tears.

Later, Grandmother died, and now his mother too, and he was over forty and Aunt Ellen had looked like a frail bird in the doorway when he took her home after the funeral. It wasn’t enough to close the circle, he thought to himself as he crossed over the lawns between the buildings to take the back stairs up to his place. The apartment felt empty. He thought about his mother as he sat in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to brew. She had still seemed alert enough, and he remembered how everything around her got so infected at the end. It was like she had been leaking. Maybe it was the cancer, but he thought she smelled sour, and she felt around with her hands. All the time, back and forth over the duvet, her fingers like stalks. She told him all kinds of little stories. How he had bitten her when he was small. How she regretted not having moved further away. She told him about his grandfather, and how she loved to follow him around as a child and watch him as he sealed the potato sacks. Grandfather talked to the cows when he gave them fodder and washed their udders. Grandfather kept rabbits at the back of the cowshed. They were white and brown, and bred well during the war.

She didn’t want him to go. He had to stay at her side. Every time he got up to stretch his legs she became uneasy. Eventually he lay down beside her.

That was when it came out. How she and Aunt Ellen had come home from school one day and Grandmother had been standing at the entrance of the cowshed. She was in Grandfather’s gray milking apron and said they were to follow her in. As soon as they passed the cows and came to the back of the shed, Grandmother opened the gate of the rabbit enclosure. She said the rabbits had gotten sick with disease. The rabbits hopped around in the straw and Grandmother chased one of the brown ones into a corner. She took hold of the scruff of its neck and pressed it against her chest to make its legs stop kicking.

“This is how it’s done,” she said, and without wanting to watch, Mother and Aunt Ellen saw Grandmother’s hand squeeze the air out of the rabbit.

It peed on the apron while it happened, and a long, thin sound came out of Aunt Ellen. Mother wanted to jump on Grandmother and make her stop. She was going to scratch her. Or else she was going to run, or maybe just scream. But she did none of those things, because Grandmother looked at her in such a strange way. Like it was a kind of experiment and the idea was to find out how much chaos she could cause inside her. The more chaos and noise she could make there, the better.

“And I just stood there all quiet. I stood there and watched as though I didn’t care, while Aunt Ellen ran away and Grandmother squeezed the life out of four more rabbits. When she was done, her hands were shaking and there was such a wild look in her eyes. She said I was to go inside and wash.

He held his mother’s hand as she told the story. She looked at him with childlike eyes and claimed the cancer had come from that moment when in order for Grandmother not to win she had refused to be affected by the evil thing she did. He nodded, because what was he supposed to say? And then she was dead, placed inside the casket and buried, and he had packed away most of her stuff, but not all. There are still a number of boxes, the bags for the Salvation Army, and above the kitchen sink the obituary notice he reads every time he washes his hands.

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Dorthe Nors is the author of five novels, and the recipient of the Danish Arts Agency’s Three Year Grant for “her unusual and extraordinary talent.” Her stories have appeared in AGNI, A Public Space, Boston Review, Ecotone, and FENCE. Her collection Karate Chop, which includes this story, will be published by Graywolf Press in February 2014. Copyright © 2008 by Dorthe Nors and Rosinante & Co., Cophenhagen. English translation copyright © by Martin Aitken. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press.

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