“Give me your teeth,” Mom says. Grandma ignores her, leans on an elbow tucked in the tray of her wheelchair, and stares at a calendar on the wall. It’s turned to August with a picture of Paris, although we live in Tennessee and none of us have been farther than New York City.
“I’m seventy years old. I’ll do as I like,” Grandma says. We’re in a small room with one window and barely space to stretch our arms. Grandma’s hair is in loose white curls and smells of hairspray. I’ve seen pictures from when she was my age, nineteen, in teetering heels and dark, glossy lipstick. I’m not surprised my grandfather asked her to marry the first week they met, although she made him wait another year first.
“Mom, do you want me to clean your teeth?” The nursing home is supposed to clean Grandma’s dentures, but nothing happens with any consistency unless Mom is around.
My mother plays down her beauty, wearing shapeless blazers, keeping her blond hair tucked into a bun. Grandma’s the opposite. She wears a gold and pearl necklace like a Hollywood starlet. My taste leans closer to Grandma’s.
I’m in town for spring break. My college friends are off to Europe, but I’m visiting my boyfriend, Josh—a curly-haired man with laughing eyes who makes me forget everything else. He convinced me to save money and stay home with him instead. We’ve been dating since our senior year of high school, and although we live two hours apart now, we’ve been together over a year.
“Dentures,” Mom says. She’s trying not to look rushed, but I know she has to get back to work. “You need your right hand.”
Grandma smiles wryly. “What were we talking about?”
Mom leans toward me. “She does this all the time. Thinks she’s funny. Mom. I’m not forgetting what we’re doing.”
Grandma sighs toward the calendar. “I always wanted to see Paris.”
In the picture, a boardwalk lines a blue-gray stretch of water. Josh doesn’t want to travel any farther than the nearest movie theater. I promise myself I’ll travel someday, with or without him. I’m not going to waste another spring break at home.
“Do you want gum disease?” Mom glances at her watch.
Grandma shakes her head. “Your mother was actually very good when she was a little girl. She didn’t turn stubborn until she started dating.”
“Mom, I told you. You can’t distract—not funny,” Mom says, her mouth turning down to stifle a laugh. But when Mom looks at me, her shoulders shake. We laugh until the tears come. Grandma is pleased.
“Honey, would you bring me some water?” Grandma asks.
“Okay. You win,” Mom says. “But when I get back, I want those dentures. She whispers to me, “This is what my life is like.”
When Mom leaves for the cafeteria, I see my chance.
“How was Mom stubborn?” I ask.
Grandma smiles, because she has an ally now. “Too ready to marry.” Her words are slurred, so I lean in. “Married at nineteen! And pregnant a year later.”
I try to imagine Mom at my age, but I can’t. She’s permanently weary in my mind, shuffling between work and caring for Grandma. If she has any life regrets, she hasn’t shared them. She is not a romantic like Grandma. But she finds pleasure in the little things she allows herself—a movie night in, dinner at the steakhouse with Dad, where Josh works.
Josh is working there to save money, but it never amounts to much. He was supposed to go to college like me but decided to work a year first, and then missed the deadline to apply for next year. I am the first woman in my family to go to college. I think about Mom and promise myself I won’t get married or pregnant for a long time. I can be stubborn too.
Mom returns with a glass of water for Grandma. “Mom, give me your dentures. No, Mom. Put down your cup. You need your right hand free.”
“I’ll use my left,” Grandma says. “Bossy, bossy.”
“You can’t, Mom. Put the cup down. You can’t use that hand.”
“I’ll show you.”
“You just watch.”
Mom bows her head. “Okay,” she says. “Use your left hand. Show me.” The room seems to freeze, and I suddenly become aware of the sun shining through the window, forming a hot square of light on my neck.
“Your left side is paralyzed, Mom. You can’t move it.” Mom’s eyes well up with tears.
“I’ll hold the cup, Grandma,” I say. Grandma finally takes her dentures out with her right hand and puts them on her tray. She looks away so she doesn’t have to see them.
I suddenly see Grandma and Mom and all the women in my family I can imagine all way back, pushing the only levers they have at any given time. Make him wait. No, I’ll marry now. Give me your teeth. I’ll keep them in my mouth, thank you.
When Mom slips away to brush Grandma’s teeth, I want to tell Grandma something happy. I tell her I think Josh and I are in love. She sets her jaw, and I wonder if she heard me. I follow her eyes to the calendar. When I see the picture of Paris, I feel stupid for making a promise to myself I don’t know I can keep.
Mom is running water in the bathroom. “Don’t marry right away,” Grandma says over the sound. But I have a suspicion Josh is saving for a ring. He told me once he didn’t want to lose me to one of those college guys.
“See the world first,” Grandma says, stretching forward the arm she can. I don’t know how to answer that.
I am afraid that I will end up stuck too, not late in life, but before I’m thirty. I’m afraid of being paralyzed without knowing it. I can already feel the ring closing in around me.
When Mom comes out of the bathroom with Grandma’s teeth, I can’t even look at her. Mom told me once Grandma had the highest grades in her high school, that every boy was in love with her, and that life must have seemed awfully dull for her after that. I turn away from Grandma too, who’s touching her gums and smiling at something far away.