She was what you would call a “character” if you were being kind, something else if you were not. We didn’t use the B word back then, lest we find ourselves gagging on the curious flavor of Irish Spring soap. Manly yes, but I did not like it. We called her Ginny, which was her name, a nickname for Virginia, the virgin grandmother. Grandma, Granny or Nana was too soft a moniker to stretch over that tough exterior, arms always crossed, black patent leather purse in the crook of her arm, plain woolen dress and dark plastic eyeglasses resting on the end of her nose. Her fire red hair was the one colorful accessory, a warning of sorts. Hugging her was like wrapping your arms around the wrong end of magnetized iron, you always felt as if you were being repelled.
“Great heavens above,” she used to say, cigarette perched between the tips of two fingers, which she held above her right shoulder, à la Bette Davis.
She could bend that phrase to suit almost any emotion, shock, disbelief, disappointment. But whenever she said it, it always felt as if she was summoning an army of angels to judge my sorry, sinful ass. And I was a sinner, because every time she asked if we still had that Martin guitar, I’d lie and say “Oh yes!”
“It was your grandfather’s guitar and then your father’s, you know that don’t you?” she’d continue the interrogation.
“Yeah,” I’d reply.
“Yes ma’am,” she’d correct me.
She’d take a puff of her cigarette, narrow her eyes and say “You’re too skinny. Doesn’t your mother feed you?”
My mother sold that Martin guitar years earlier for the express purpose of putting food on the table after my father, Ginny’s cherished only child left us. But the phantom guitar remained. Sometimes my brothers and I would embellish the story and breathe a little more life into the fable. “We just had it re-strung,” we’d say or “It sure does sounds pretty.”
“It’s valuable. Don’t let your mother sell it,” She’d command.
Though we were children, my brothers and I understood that somehow my grandmother knew the guitar was as gone as my father. But we clung to the numinous fantasy, in part because we feared her reaction and perhaps more so because as long as the guitar remained, there was a piece of my father in the house.
We probably would have gotten away with the ruse had my grandmother chosen not to make a rare visit to our home after the divorce. It was strange to see Ginny out of her environment of stiff Victorian furniture and oriental rugs without “the help.” She was like a piece of antique furniture appearing all the more displaced in a room of orange shag carpeting with a brown corduroy upholstered sofa where four misbehaving boys were scattered about the floor like throw rugs as our mangy dog, Tiger farted.
During dinner, we attempted to steer the conversation from tumbling down the road we all knew it would eventually take. My older brother Chuck regaled us with his adventures in Boy Scouting and the call of the wild. My younger brother John secreted away the obligatory three bites of vegetables into his glass of milk. Matthew, the youngest, batted his eyelashes that were as thick as a girl’s and then, without thinking, I offered to play a rousing rendition of “Hot Cross Buns” on the piano.
“What?” I asked when my brother Chuck kicked me under the table.
“Why don’t you get the guitar and make it a duet?” Ginny asked.
My mother scanned our faces and then asked Ginny to join her in the kitchen while she washed the dishes, relieving us from our usual post dinner clean up. We sat in the den in silence just as we did while listening to my mother’s one sided phone conversations begging my father not to leave. “You never could make my son happy,” we heard Ginny accuse my mother in the same kitchen where my mother sobbed over many a phone call from women confessing to affairs with my swarthy, handsome father.
And then, Ginny appeared in front of us, like one of those birds popping out of a coo-coo clock her body stiff as a daguerreotype portrait.
“You don’t have the guitar anymore do you?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” I said as her eyes became watery and red-rimmed.
Shortly thereafter we heard the tires of my father’s car pull up the gravel drive and then Ginny was gone. If I had been a good Christian boy I might have felt guilty, but I didn’t. I was just so relieved to be rid of that God damn, worthless guitar.