Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Speaking Up
by Robin Bradford

There is a sadness in objects that no longer have an owner. What is this jar of assorted and half-rusted nails if it is not my grandmother's? I toss it in the big black garbage bag that my mother handed me. She dreams of filling two packages of 30 bags; she would cram in the furniture if she could, along with my grandmother's paperback histories of Russia and Oklahoma and assorted yarns and hooks. My mother makes a pile on the table of the stained glass tools and supplies as if these alone are saintly and valuable. She has me keep calling the phone number my grandmother carefully wrote out and taped to the handle of her soldering iron: The Stained Glass Shack. Their line is busy. I look at the phone number in that familiar handwriting and think: that handwriting has died, too.

My mother is planning a garage sale for next weekend, after I've gone home. My Mom's high school chums, traveling in a pack like the shy girls they once were, will come next week and tape prices onto my grandmother's belongings. They will argue over whether it is better to go high or low. You can always go lower, one of them will say.

I am back to the jars that contain assorted useful things. Green rubber bands soiled by the newsprint of the papers they arrived stretched around. Flattened-out twist-ties striped red and white. There are also scraps of foil folded to store easily against the inside of the cabinet. And plastic bags, washed out and dried, air pushed out, folded, some turning yellow because they have been saved so long. What did these bags keep fresh -- a sandwich that my grandmother fixed for me when I was ten?

I guess we can save some of those for the sale, my mother suggests when she sees me slowing up. For shopping bags.

So I save some, the lucky bags, maybe only half of the total that belonged to my grandmother, the lucky half that will have the new life she planned for.

My mother views this clutter, these drawers of neatly folded dishtowels, twenty year-old suitcases that look brand-new, the row of square-toed shoes from the seventies that my grandmother thought might come back, as proof that her mother was insane. So she is angry at it, all of it. She picks up a handful of knitting needles and crochet hooks in shiny metallic colors and throws them into a cheap glass vase.

Jesus! I guess they'll sell.

We set two boxes by the door: one that I will send home containing things useful, beautiful, or to remember her by. And one for what we will keep. This is a small box. My mother and I agree that we will save these things because someone has to. But we will not look at them today because there isn't time, and since she will store them in the attic we will not look at them any time soon because they are just too hard to get to. My mother wraps up for me a glass bowl with feet which I have never seen before but she remembers filled with cucumber salad. I also keep for myself a compact that still has powder in it which, again, I have never actually seen my grandmother use. It smells good.

You'll want to replace that powder, my mother suggests. God knows how long it's been in there.

I save my grandmother's white plastic nurse pin with her name in black and the one white old-fashioned nurse's cap she kept which now, unstarched, looks more like a cross between a diaper and a handkerchief. And a shawl that my grandmother must have gotten in Mexico with silk embroidered flowers and long white fringe. I cannot imagine her wearing it. I cannot imagine anyone wearing it in Oklahoma.

Hours later, we are almost finished. We pull two cans of Coke from Gram's refrigerator and when I drink mine, fizz burning down, I imagine how it would have felt in my grandmother's throat. How she would have looked forward to its sweetness and chill. My mother hands me my grandmother's purse.

Here, why don't you go through this goddamn thing, she says.

That morning, I had revered each of my grandmother's belongings. Now I am worn down and eager with curiosity like a thief sorting through loot. My mother drags a trash bag closer to me as I pull out my grandmother's wallet. I throw away her purse-size Kleenex, half a roll of Lifesaver's, a pen advertising an insurance agent, and her scratched sunglasses. Then I chuck my grandmother's purse, ugly and striated with wear, not even real leather, into the gaping black trash bag.

The only thing left is her wallet. I pull out each thing and examine it: a folded-up index card on which my grandmother recorded every medical condition she had since 1970 and each drug prescribed for its alleviation. I show it to my mom because I know it will piss her off; she crumples it, tosses it at the bag, and swears. I throw away photos of me because we already have them somewhere and these are worn soft around the edges. I toss identification and membership cards to all sorts of organizations. For someone who knew no one and did nothing, my grandmother was very involved. I have an easy wrist motion going for the toss; it reminds me of throwing horse shoes when you've finally got the hang of it. And then I pull out a rectangle of clear plastic taped around a yellowed newspaper clipping: it is something from Dear Abby or one of those columns.

"Yes, I do know what you are looking for . . . ," it begins. It is a quote that goes:

In Germany, the Nazis came for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak up because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I was Protestant so I did not speak up. Then they came for ME. By that time there was no one to speak up for anyone.

I had read this quote before somewhere, maybe in this very same column of the newspaper, but I never knew my grandmother carried it with her everywhere she went. I held it up like a clue to knowing her.

What's that? my mother asked.

Oh, nothing, I answered, returning to the wallet with efficient-looking interest.

I added the clipping to a little pile of things I was saving to put in my suitcase.

Then we carried out the two boxes and the stained glass supplies. My mother drove a maroon four-door thing with velour seats and a trunk that popped open on its own. The boxes didn't scoot easily on the seat and the trunk was too small to hold much with the box of emergency repair tools some boyfriend must have given her. So my mother stood on one side of the car and I on the other, scooting and pushing the boxes into the ideal place.

Goddamn that woman! my mother muttered, like Gram was still here trying to mess with her.

Finally she was satisfied that everything was secure. Crawling back out of the car, I hit my head on the metal door frame. It felt like someone clubbed me with a brick. Rubbing it, I was amazed that a bump had already formed.

Oh, honey! Let me see! my mother cried, scurrying around to my side of the car.

GOD DAMN IT TO HELL LEAVE ME ALONE! I yelled at the top of my lungs in the parking lot of my grandmother's quiet senior citizens apartment complex.

I could swear it made the pain in my head feel better.

I had never been the one who did the yelling before. I was crying like always, but it was different because I was also yelling.

Mom, just don't say another word about Gram, all right? She's dead. She can't hurt you!

She looked at me like I'd gone off. She said softly, All right, let's just get in the car.
Robin Bradford
is an O. Henry Award-winning short story writer. She works as communications director for a nonprofit that provides affordable housing and lives in Austin with her husband, four-year-old son, two cats and a dog.