Around the time I was sixteen, visits to my grandma’s tiny cinderblock house in Hallandale, Florida were no longer fun. I didn’t want to leave friends behind for the twenty-one summer days they’d spend smearing baby oil on their shoulders, drinking weak beer and hooking up. It wasn’t missing my friends that made me resent the trip, it was worry that my friends might not miss me. Upon returning I wouldn’t be part of the inside jokes. Belonging was always tenuous for me, a kid who went to five elementary schools, moving regularly until my mom discovered where she wanted to be, a California beach town. In high school, I went along with all group decisions. Cut class? Why not. Watch the door while a “hilarious” friend pooped in the Burger King sink? Of course. Eat mushrooms? Sure. Yell out the car window at pigeon-toed, awkward Dara, mangling her name, taunting her for no reason other than covering up my insecurities? If it meant not getting culled from the pack, absolutely.
My single mom, sick of me sneaking in at two a.m., getting bad grades, and slamming doors, wanted her own summer life. So, off I went to Florida. The trip kept me out of trouble and ostensibly made my grandmother happy. I was not a kid who would get up to messy business on my own. I needed cohorts. At Grandma’s, I was mostly quiet and bored. I picked at my skin, played with my hair—styling, braiding, cutting progressively shorter bangs with nail scissors. I read Agatha Christie books, ordered ice tea and tuna sandwiches by the pool at the Miami Sheraton where Grandma ran the Kid Klub.
Though I’d long since outgrown Grandma’s size 4½ shoes, at her home, I loved to stare at them, pumps, flats, sandals with kitten heels, patent leather, red canvas, all lined up in her shoe rack, which amazed me. A shoe rack! At our house shoes were abandoned by the couch or the back door. Grandma’s home was clean, buttoned up. While my mother favored Indian bedspreads tacked to the ceiling, paperbacks by Peter Benchley, Xaviera Hollander and James Michener splayed on the furniture, and overflowing ashtrays, my grandma raked her white shag carpet so it stood tall. Grandma made her bed every morning, crisp with her cheery yellow chenille bedspread. She taught me how to cocoon pillows inside the spread, how to smooth the surface with the palm of my hand. When I’d left for Florida, my mom’s waterbed was leaking. She’d accidentally lost the cherry on her joint and burned a tiny hole through her sheets and the plastic.
Grandma and I quickly fell into a rhythm, movies on Saturdays, the pool every day, dinner—mostly cottage cheese, chicken salad and Sara Lee banana cake—served on her breezeway, and TV at night. Grandma went to bed early and I’d stay up to paint my toenails, watch David Letterman, read her Time Life book collection: This Fabulous Century, and snoop through the medicine cabinet, her small desk. I excavated the drawers, examined bills: Florida Power and Light, Burdine’s Department Store, State Farm. I held her letter opener, dagger shaped and heavy. It seemed so civilized, a tool for opening a letter! I felt the faint stirrings of aspirations…shoe rack, letter opener, smooth bed.
It must have been in her desk that I found the pot. Tucked into an envelope from my mom who thought my grandma might enjoy getting stoned. Why? I don’t know. Maybe Grandma had glaucoma. Maybe it was oblique criticism. Maybe Grandma had gotten a contact high the last time she was in California. My mom always talked about contact highs. Me, our dog, Grandma, we were all susceptible and my mom thought it was far out. Whatever the reason I do remember my mom sending joints in a letter, and I was happy to be the recipient in the first few days of my visit. After dinner and the news and a sitcom, after Grandma went to bed, I’d take a few hits and get more banana cake. David Letterman dropped stuff off a five story building, read his top-ten lists, had a Monkey cam and a dog that attacked a vacuum cleaner. I’d get another slice and flip through the Time Life books, past pictures of breadlines and the Viet Nam war, Woodstock and the stock market crash of 1929, Twiggy and Richard Nixon. I’d go for more cake, flatten the shag carpet lying on the floor and staring at the Picasso print my grandma had over her desk.
The Tragedy was from his blue period. A family mourned on a beach. Licking frosting off my fork, I would stare at the mother and father who stared at the cold sand, and I’d think about what it must have been like for my grandma to lose a child to spinal meningitis when the girl was only four. She fell sick with a fever on Friday and was dead by Sunday. Grandma was only twenty, just four years older than me. I’d heard the story once from my mother, never from my grandma. The print was unbearably exquisite. It was torture and beauty. The father and mother draped in heavy dark clothes. The flat sea, their bony feet. My petite, dark-eyed grandma who touched up her roots every three weeks and wore baby doll pajamas with terry cloth slippers at the breakfast table, asleep now in her queen bed in the other room. Imagining such intense pain, holding the letter opener, shuffling through her bills, shaking the box of Doan’s pills from her medicine cabinet, I let my ears fill with my own dramatic tears. Awake and alone, roaming her house I didn’t even know I was lonely. I didn’t know that I was using her story, using Picasso and the pictures of the Dust Bowl to explicate my awkward fears. Was I normal? Would I ever be loved? I did this nearly every night. And in the morning, if Grandma was disappointed that there was no banana cake to enjoy with her coffee, she never said a thing.
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup butter
2 eggs, separated
2 bananas, crushed
½ cup sour milk
1-2/3 cups pastry flour
1 T baking soda
¼ t baking powder
½ t salt
½ cup chopped nuts (optional)
Heat the oven to 350° F. Butter and flour two 8-inch cake pans. Cream together the butter and sugar, then one at a time, mix in the egg yolks, bananas, and sour milk, stirring after each addition until combined.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients (and the nuts if using) to the wet ingredients and stir to combine. Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, and fold into the batter. Divide the batter evenly between the pans, and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until done.
Cream Cheese Frosting
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 T sour cream
¼ cup honey
Blend in a bowl and spread on the cooled cake. Decorate with toasted pecans.