My grandmother lived in a big old house where children remained standing until they were invited to sit. They did not speak unless spoken to. She always took great care when she spoke to me directly.
Never address an adult with your hands in your pockets.
In the bathroom on the windowsill behind a curtain was a fish made of Sweetheart Soap and purple tulle, with pink sequins for eyes. In the narrow space behind the hallway door a sheathed Civil War saber tilted against the wall. A ceramic frog on the table by the front door had an extra key in its wide-open mouth. There was a star-shaped ashtray on a kitchen shelf.
It is vulgar to smoke in public.
The basket of shells was on the floor in the front room, between the green brocade sofa and a wooden cabinet with solid doors that locked. I sat on that end of the sofa, peering down into the basket in its dark corner – sand dollars and abalone shells, tiny Maine conch shells, white clam shells – picturing my grandmother wandering on a beach, picking them out of the sand. Surely she would not have been barefoot.
Young lady, stop that fidgeting.
She always took off one of her beaded, clip-on earrings when she talked on the phone. She set it in a silver ashtray, which never contained ashes, and the earring might be lying there later, forgotten. Sometimes I would pick up an earring and hold it. I once clipped one onto my ear, where it pinched, and was heavy.
The last thing a lady does before she leaves the house is remove one piece of jewelry.
When I was thirteen she died. After the service at the Roselle Presbyterian Church we went to her house, where each grandchild was allowed to choose one small keepsake. I was afraid to ask for the basket of shells. Did it count as one thing? It wouldn’t do to appear greedy. But I wanted more than a single shell. I walked quietly around her house, into her bedroom. On her dresser was the bakelite box of faintly scented lavender talc.
One’s perfume should be discernible only to one’s intimates.
I didn’t know if I had any intimates. I didn’t think so. My mother called my name; they were waiting for me in the living room.
A tiny brass giraffe sat behind the box of talc. I had never seen it before.
I had never seen my grandmother’s bare feet.
I took the giraffe. It is impolite to keep people waiting.
Fifty years later, the giraffe sits on my kitchen windowsill. Was the basket of shells thrown in the trash, or maybe given to the Roselle Presbyterian Church bazaar? I wonder where the tiny giraffe came from. I wish I had stolen one of those earrings.