by Cynthia Bostwick
After I turned fifty I got braver, and when she says, “Your grandfather was a good man,”
I say, “No, mom, he was an abusive son of a bitch.”
My mother’s memory of that night must be vivid. As she’s gotten older, she tells it more often. She awakens in the night, in her upstairs bedroom, to find her father in her bed. He’s drunk. She’s a teenager. She says the worst thing was he threw up on her new bedroom rug.
My sister and I share a glance. What the fuck was her father doing in her bed? Drunk? So drunk he threw up? The story is endlessly shocking, even on repeat telling, because it always ends the same way. My mother gets a far off look in her eyes, and she giggles a little, “I really liked that rug. I was so mad.”
I was so mad. But she was never mad when he kicked her, breaking a rib. Or when he broke a date’s nose when she got home half an hour late. Or when he called her a bitch in heat and made her smoke a cigar with him. After I turned fifty I got braver, and when she says, “Your grandfather was a good man,”
I say, “No, mom, he was an abusive son of a bitch.”
My mother shrugs. “Well, he was strict,” and she looks into the distance, “but he loved me.”
I have never told her about him exposing himself to me in a rowboat, with my brother. Well, I must have told her when it happened, unless my brother convinced me I shouldn’t. I never told her about the recurring nightmares I had about that time, how I would never again go fishing with my grandfather, how my dreams had me getting hit in the head with a rock, and my grandfather telling me not to tell my mom, because I had gotten blood all over my blouse and she would be very, very mad at me. I no longer know, clearly, what part is the dream and what part is real. But I know what I saw, and I know my brother said, “Grandpa, your snake is showing.”
I am awakened by a mooing sound outside my bedroom window. I know it is my grandfather, and we are going fishing today. I am six, maybe seven. My parents had a party the night before, and it was pretty loud. They are still sleeping. I get dressed. My brother is already in the kitchen. He hands me my straw hat. We walk down the front lawn to the lake, and there is grandpa, with his khakis, his old cotton shirt, a burning cigar, and our poles. He has a grownup version of my hat on. His wire-rimmed glasses are perched on his nose. In the boat is a cardboard cylinder, I know there are squirming worms inside.
My grandfather waves his cigar, motioning us into the boat, and he steps in. The boat rocks a bit, next to the dock. He stumbles a little, and we take our seats. Me in the bow, my brother rowing, and my grandfather in the stern.
The sun is low, below the trees, the summer day is just beginning. My grandfather unwraps biscuits, cut in half, buttered and put back together. I can smell my grandmother’s Estee Lauder perfume on the handkerchief he has them wrapped in, the sun shines through the soft cotton. The water is still, just the ripples around the oars as they dip into the water, in rhythm. The galvanized catch pail sits waiting. He tosses a biscuit to me, and I catch it with one hand. He eats one, smiling at me.
We’re out just before the weeds, over the bluegill beds. He puts the biscuits back in his pocket, and take a pole from the seat. He lifts it up, and lets out a little line to unhook the line and sinker from the rod. Reaching back sideways, he casts the line over the beds to catch a fish. The red and white bobber sinks slightly, then rights itself on the surface. I bite into the biscuit, the warm butter drips out the side of my mouth. My brother tucks the oars into the boat and readies his line. There’s no rod for me, I am just along for the view. A pair of mallards swims into the reeds.
My brother casts, and I duck—he is close enough to hook me and I am dreadfully afraid of fish hooks. Last week, my brother hooked Andy, our neighbor, as they were casting from the shore. The only way to get the hook out of his back as to push the barb through his skin and cut the barb off with a pliers: Andy tried to be tough, but in the end he cried as the barb pushed through his pale skin and my father clipped off the barb.
I right myself and look at my grandfather. I see that his penis is hanging out of his open fly like a long sausage. My brother sits between us and I poke him. He looks at me, and I point. My brother laughs. “Grandpa, your snake is showing.” I giggle. My grandfather looks right at me. It seems like forever, but finally he tucks it back inside his baggy khakis, the ones he always wears fishing.
That night I have a dream, the first of my many recurring instances of the dream. My brother and grandfather walk me up the shore to our house. Blood streams from my head, and I am wearing my favorite blouse, a white and blue sailor’s blouse, what they called a “middy.” It’s soaked in blood. I cry. My brother tells me to be quiet.
“Mark threw a rock out of the boat and it hit me in the head,” I sob. My grandfather orders me to take the shirt off, and he puts it in the catch pail. I go to my room. No one else is there, and I am still bleeding. My brother tries to wipe away the blood, and my grandfather says I can’t tell anyone what happened.
“But my middy blouse,” I sob, “Mom will be so mad.” He says he’ll get the blood out, but I think how can he? My blouse is soaking in the fish pail with hooked bluegills.
Years after my grandfather died, I ask my brother about this dream. I tell him I’ve had it so many times, and ask if he remembers anything. We’re both high from the joint we’ve shared. “Never,” he says, “that never happened, Cin.”
I tell him not to call me that. I hate that nickname. He looks shocked. “But we’ve always called you that,” he says, incredulous.
“I know, but I am not a Cin,” I say. I feel the fear and sadness rising. “I am not a Cin and I don’t want to be called one.”
He holds his hands up, as if to fend off a blow, “OK, sure. No worries.” I pass the joint back to him. I never have the dream again.
A couple of years ago, I asked my mother about the events in my dream. “Mom, I have this memory of getting hit in the head with a rock Mark threw and bleeding all over my middy blouse. Do you remember that?”
“You loved that blouse. I loved you in that blouse,” my mom says.
“I did love that blouse,” I say. “But did that ever happen? Do you remember that?”
“Your brother was always throwing rocks,” she says, “and you put your hand through two windows,” she says.
“But do you remember if he ever hit me in the head with one? I think we were out fishing with Grandpa.”
“No, I don’t remember that. I do remember Daddy coming and mooing at your window to wake you up to go fishing,” she says. “He loved you kids.”
And that’s the end of it.
Cynthia Bostwick lives and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she learns new lessons everyday from her ten year old son, her spouse, Linda, their dog Henry and the sad and angry people she meets in her day job as a lawyer.