Your birthday is my half birthday.
I remember painting rocks together on the front porch, the too-bright yellow paint of your house chipping and flaking to the ground like flecks of sunlight near the tire swing hanging from the craggy tree out front. That tree hunched just to the left of the screened-in kitchen door you stood in, smiling to wave hello, as our station wagon crunched up the stone drive.
To the right of the door, Red Riding Hood, a ceramic cookie jar my father painted, glistened next to a window full of cakes you made from scratch. I liked thinking about the word “scratch” and all those cakes on the clear glass stands under fancy lids. I remember you in the kitchen most of all, the sweat on your forehead beading and dripping as you opened the oven to peek inside.
I remember the Easter we got real baby chicks in our baskets and brought them to your house. We watched them swim in the porcelain, claw-foot tub upstairs. Then, when they were old enough, we carried them carefully to the pond where they were dragged under, one by one, by a giant turtle. But mine and Matt’s—the chicks we named—those two always remained until there were only two. And of course they were ours, according to our mother.
Dad taught us how to flick crab apples at the Holsteins across the street. Did you teach him that? Not much separated us from them: a dusty road, a makeshift wooden fence, a pile of reddish-green dented apples and freshly whittled branches. I shouldn’t have enjoyed flicking the crab apples across the fence so much—a violent act. Anyway, I was better at painting rocks with you.
Later, you’d call us to dinner from the kitchen with the strawberry wall clock and the strawberry plates. I remember picking at Formica flecks in the white and green table, cozying up to you, sneaking the top side of my hand just so to brush against the soft, fleshy underside of the skin that hung from your arms. I touched you there furtively—it was so satisfying—as often as we sat at that table; only once did you ask me to stop.
Sometimes, I explored the rest of your house. The keys you kept in jars. The paint-by-numbers you’d completed and hung so proudly. There was a Norman Rockwell painting on a plate in one of your cabinets. Those cabinets, in your modest family room, turned out to be worth a great deal of money. My mother houses the cabinets now; I kept the strawberry plates, the strawberry magnets, the glass cake stands, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Rockwell plate. The cabinets used to stand in your living room with the wood stove. There were “his and hers” armchairs; an ottoman; a police scanner; and the bright ochre, matching fishermen lamps my dad painted for you.
The Rockwell plate portrays a little boy pulling down his pants for the doctor. The doctor is preparing a shot. When I saw that plate in your cabinet in the family room between the kitchen and the spare room, I always wanted to touch myself. It turned me on, the vulnerability. Vulnerable like the cows at whom we aimed our apples. Vulnerable like the chicks drowning, massacred, in the pond. Vulnerable like Red Riding Hood making her way to Grandmother’s house through the thick forest. Vulnerable like all of us with our secrets. Everything I kept from your house, Grandmother, represents a kind of vulnerability. Every memory. Even the strawberry decorations, so juicy, they look like a beating heart—open and raw and pumping blood. The glass cake stands, so breakable. I do not want to bump the table they rest on, now, even in my own home.
There were the pieces of leather you saved for my dad—your middle child—from when you worked at the purse factory. M. T. Initials. Brands from cows. Their searing pain turned into your labor; you were told to cut the letters out, but you snuck them home in your handbag. You knew the difference between beauty and waste. The pain turned into garbage, turned into art, turned into a gift, turned into a memory. Why did you give them to my father—and not your other children? What did they mean to you?
Perhaps only certain people will appreciate the gift of a letter. It’s the beauty of the alphabet, strewn haphazardly, in discarded leather squares. The burn of the letters as they form words, as they form memories. Eventually, the leather became water-damaged in the attic, those burned letters, and had to be thrown away before I knew about them, before I could keep them and covet them. All those letters. Thrown away.
Like the love letters you destroyed, Grandmother. When you were sick, you asked your daughter, my Aunt, to buy a shredder. One by one, like the baby chicks, you fed pages to the abattoir. I would not have judged you, Grandmother. I would have snuggled against you and begged to hear the words. And begged to hear the letters, one by one. What did you want to keep from us— from yourself?
If it was an affair, I forgive you already. If the letters included intimacies from my Grandfather, I celebrate your romance. You were a woman and a wife long before you were my Grandmother. I would have loved to know your secrets as I loved to touch the delicate flesh inside your arm at the dinner table. Your soft spot.
I feel those letters hiding, burning, in the belly of the wolf. Now, they are pulp, digested. Now only the secret remains—not the leather letter nor the paper ones. No letters should be destroyed, Grandmother, especially not love letters. Especially not letters seared into our hearts like brands in a cow’s flesh.
I touched myself all the time at your house, Grandmother, thinking of that boy on the plate. It wasn’t the boy himself who captured my interest; it was the boy exposed, defenseless. It was a love letter to myself. Meanwhile, in another part of the house, you were there, reading your letters before hiding them one by one by one.
Megan Taylor-DiCenzo earned her MFA from Goddard College in VT. She currently teaches English Composition at a two-year college in Upstate NY. When she's not grading papers, she can be found wandering craft stores, listening to The Notorious BIG, and going on adventures with her wife. She has a handful of publications out in the world in places like Cactus Heart Press, Apple Valley Review, and Entropy Lit Mag.