By Michelle April
My Mémé holds out a bowl of tiny, purple grapes direct from the vines she shares with Mrs. Kinini, her neighbour. “Grapes?” Ken politely declines the offer. I take a grape, though I’m not a fan. When it comes to Mémé, I often perform beyond the call of duty. Like for example, risking my employment status last summer to bring her a paper bag of stolen deep-fried frogs legs that I snuck out of Menard’s Tavern while on cooking duty.
I am bringing Ken to meet Mémé for the first time. I live with his family in the country, sleeping on a couch so old the springs jab me in the back throughout the night. I would like to stay with Mémé, but I go to high school near Ken’s family home, and I work for Ken’s dad making fishing tackle in the nearby workshop. I asked Mémé if Ken can stay with her in the city just while he gets his car on the road. “That’s fine for a little bit” she agrees neutrally.
As we converge in the living room making polite introductions, she whips off her shirt. Ken averts his eyes. Suddenly my respect for my grandmother multiplies. Her bra alone is of epic-scale, like an environmental textile installation, making an impact on an endless landscape, and like a textile artist, she is not afraid to show it off. Mémé is short and endowed. Her shoulders are dented where the bra straps have held up her heavy breasts while, in her younger years, bartending and balancing on a pair of high-heeled shoes. She is unselfconscious about having a stretched, gravity-challenged belly from having carried at least 11 children to birth. She does not explain the Catholic roots that led her there, and has never once apologized for the variety of shapes and colours of her children. And now, in the company of my first serious boyfriend, ‘the love of my life’, she is stripped down to her underwear and bra, while barefoot and sitting cross-legged on her home-made bed that is also her couch.
He looks to me for help. I look at him shaking my head and cocking my eyebrow, and offering assurance with a small shrug as if to say, ‘what are you going to do?’ Over my 16 years of life, I only ever saw Mémé this way.
“It’s hotter than hell in here!” Hard to argue with that. “What, you never saw a bra before? Have you seen the women in their bikinis these days? They are wearing a lot less fabric than this!” She waves and points to her ensemble. Ken’s face is stuck. It makes about as much sense to argue with Mémé as it does to stuff an orange into a gas tank. You may as well eat the orange. She laughs from the deep well of her guts and spastic lungs as she lights up an Export Plain Regular, expertly planting the filterless cigarette in her mouth; all gums and no teeth. Mémé is my angel. My hero. Her face caves in a bit as she takes a well-rehearsed drag. She laughs at Ken’s discomfort as much as at her own commentary.
Ken will get used to Mémé. He’ll have to. He will be living with her until he gets his car on the road, which could take a month or two. I can’t say I am petrified as I imagine some might be at the prospect of their fresh-faced boyfriend living with their farting, smoking, naked grandmother. A fish doesn’t know it’s in water. Of all the family water, this is the water I am most proud of. I can’t begin to understand it. There is something honest about it. Also, Mémé’s place feels nurturing of my creative spirit. Recently, I gave her a clay mask that I had made at school. She proudly displays it in the front garden. While visiting Northern Ontario together, she taught me how to carve an oil slick bird out of driftwood without taking out an eye. “Move the knife away from your body. Away” she repeated.
Ken’s expressions tell me my family water is a bit ‘off’, or perhaps too honest, but I think, ‘more off than his family water?’ His is a bit like a cess pool to me, especially as it relates to his mother. She exudes a phoniness in her love affections toward her husband, she commits to bilking me of every cent of my skimpy welfare cheque, and is a vociferous bingo addict. Somehow, he takes pride in his water as though it is a flawless infinity pool.
Against the odds, all I know is that my favourite two people in the whole wide world are about to live together. In some ways they share world views. My Mémé really loves nature and fishing. Ken loves nature and hunting rabbits. I think this will work out just fine.
Fast forward one week: When Ken gets home from work, Mémé is on the roof in her bra and overalls driving roofing nails in where she is lifting a shingle to repair a hole. She is wearing knee pads and moccasins with her ensemble. Ken offers to help. Mémé insists that she’s got it and thanks him in a sing-song way – the way you’d thank a puppy. “Thanks shweety, I got it” she says melodically through the corner of her mouth, while the other corner expertly clamps down on nails. She returns to her singing, please forgive her, life maaade her that waaaaaaay. She makes guttural humming sounds with spatters of country-ditty lyrics as she hammers some more.
Fast forward two weeks: When Ken gets home from work Mémé yells from the front porch while in her bra and underwear. “Ken, move these God damn tires out of the driveway!” Ken, while thick-skinned does not know how to respond except to experience a touch more respect for my grandmother who never tiptoes around her truth. Ken told her he’d move them and then he didn’t move them. Mémé does not suffer fools or broken promises. I think Ken secretly loves her for this. Ken moves the tires.
Fast forward three weeks: Mémé and Mrs. Kinini, the first-generation Canadian-Italian grandmother next door are both in their bra and underwear as they pick grapes off the vine together and lean on their shared fence exactly where the grapes are growing. Mrs. Kinini’s underwear is lacier and prettier than my Mémé’s getup of dull whites, but they pay no mind. They gossip together discussing the flawed ‘Pollocks’ surrounding them past and present in the form of Mémé’s ex-husband and ‘the other’ neighbours. I would later learn that ‘Pollocks’ is not a proper expression when my friend says, “you know that ‘Pollocks’ is derogatory right? It is better to refer to the Polish people as ‘Poles’.” I laughed at the word Poles. Before history was scrutinized, I imagined the word ‘Pollock’ being alright, because it did not follow the F word as used by Mémé when referring to anything bad.
Of course, it is when Ken is coming home from work that he finds both nearly naked women. Ken is used to it now and even stands with the women for a moment to learn more of the gossip. He’s a big hit around Mémé’s place.
Fast forward one year: Ken dumps me. He says, “I don’t want to hold you back. You really need to sow your oats. I want to start a construction company, marry a nurse and have four kids. Yer more than that. Yer an artist.” It was his form of flattery.
“I can be a nurse.” I plea, collapsing into his lap. I don’t like being told what I want and what I need. I don’t know how to articulate that yet.
Fast forward some weeks after the breakup: I break down. I fold limply on the counter at the gas station where I work when Ken accidentally ‘runs into me’. Ken walks away.
Not long after: I leave Windsor and move to Northern Ontario. I tell Ken’s cousin, also my friend, stories of my adventures with other men, none of them true, in the hopes that she will tell Ken, then he will track me down and beg my forgiveness, proclaim his love for me is still very much alive, and insist that we start over. I wait and I hope. Nothing becomes of my attempts to make him jealous.
I tell my Mémé about Ken dumping me. She says, “I never liked him anyway.” I knew she was lying. She said that about all my boyfriends when it didn’t work out. She said it about my next boyfriend. That time she was telling the truth.
Fast forward 13 years: I get home from playing a gig with my husband, who is not Ken, but Al. We had played at the Manx pub. It’s late. My mother calls. We communicate daily. Mémé has been catatonic and has not uttered a word in two days. My mom asks me if I want to whisper anything in Mémé’s ear because her time is almost up. We had just spent two or three weeks with her and she kept hanging on. With a broken heart, we had to return to Ottawa from her hospital in Northern Ontario. I say, “Mém, I played walking after midnight for you.”
I hear the tiniest sound. I press the phone to my ear a bit harder. I pause in silence to hear more. A faint, “I love you Meesh” comes through like a laser beam on an ant. My eyes immediately become two fountains. I can’t say I had ever experienced the force of tears like that before. The tears nearly shoot out from my face. I cannot believe she is speaking to me. “I love you too Mém. I love you so much. You mean the world to me.” Mémé keeps repeating I love you and then there is silence. The purity of that love, is unparalleled. There is no baggage with this love. I say goodbye and hang up.
I tried to eat those grapes when Mémé wasn’t looking, as if to practice liking them. I had the idea that love and honesty could not reconcile. I also came around to admitting to myself that Ken was right. I would not have been happy with him in the long run. While Mémé seemed to relish the grapes, I found them rather sour. I think it’s safe to admit that now.
Michelle April is an Art Therapist and Registered Psychotherapist who has tried her hand at a multitude of artistic modalities. She maintains that creative expression is the essence of life and the way to heal all that ails. She performed, wrote, and recorded music with the roots-based band, Red Wood Central, from 1995-2014, was a creative contributor and performer with STO Union (theatre) from 2008-2012 (Intimacy with 1,000 things, Epiphany, Earle’s Hall Live), had studied fine arts including visual arts and creative writing in her undergraduate studies, has had sporadic art exhibits and published works along the way. Currently her creative pursuits include pandemic-painting with her daughter on Zoom and exploring memoir and other forms of creative writing. She is rediscovering her voice, merging fiction and non-fiction, because as she momentarily dives headlong into memoir, she can’t help herself, she must make up stories. Sometimes fiction is a better vehicle for the truth.