I sat at the kitchen counter, pounding the yellow dough. My feelings poured into my task; I didn’t care that the dough was sticking, or that the cookies would not be done in time. I’d always bottled up my emotions, and I’d always been a little obsessed with perfection. When I was little and sat in the corner pouting, my mother would encourage me to “hit the pillow.” Pillows were not good enough anymore. I had graduated to butterscotch-cookie mix.
I really didn’t want to be pulverizing bits of egg and flour that day. I wasn’t concentrating on the contours of the dough, or the bits that clung to my hand. My mind was elsewhere - with my grandfather. The butterscotch cookies were for him, and that day he possessed all my thoughts. In fact, this had been the case over the past two weeks because Nono was not where he belonged, at home in West Roxbury, smoking and waiting on Paws, his beloved, sluggish basset hound. Instead, he was in a frigid waiting room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, awaiting an apathetic physician who had been sent to answer the questions of a dying man.
Nono had cancer. It may have been obliterating his organs for as long as two years, when the very same ailment claimed his wife. It was ironic, really. She had died from smoking, and even with this warning, so would he. So, for my dying grandfather, I stood at my kitchen counter, mashing butterscotch dough. At one point I had hoped to give him a get-well present. Now, all I had to offer was the comfort of a forbidden sweet. I felt too many emotions to discern one. My stomach was a knot, but not for him. It was the epitome of humanity. He was leaving, and I was livid.
The kitchen door opened, and my mother strode in towing our dog, Remus. She was wearing her purple scrubs, and Remus was wearing a coat of mud. They bore the same look of exhaustion but Remus’ was only skin-deep. A quick nap in front of the heating vent would not restore my mother. She grinned when she saw me.
“Laura! Great! I’ll bring the cookies down to Nono tomorrow!” Her eyes shone; she was so eager to please him. Sure, he was dying, but she’d always been that way. She would let him break the rules: smoking in the bathroom despite my brother’s asthma, letting him rule the roost with no regard for her feminism. I could not understand how a relationship could be based on the wishes of one person.
“He loves butterscotch cookies! Thanks for doing this, Laura! I really, really didn’t have time, today...” her words faded. It was almost comical how all her sentences had ended in exclamation points until the smile slid from her face as she remembered why Nono needed cookies in the first place. It seemed time to vacate the area.
“Do you want to finish, Mom? I have a load of homework, and you could eat all the dough.” I really did have homework but still, it was not my smartest move. When Mom was upset, she was irritable and sensitive, not her most flattering mood. To make matters worse, I realized that my comment about nibbling the raw dough was fruitless. Her body shut down when she was stressed. Nausea, collapsing knees, and loss of reality were familiar to us. She was very unhappy, and I wasn’t helping. So, she responded in an equally inconsiderate manner.
“No! Laura! You have to be able to take 30 minutes out of your day to throw cookies in the oven for your grandfather! Because you know what? You won’t have many more chances!” And with that, she marched down the hall and slammed the bedroom door.
I never said it was nice that all her sentences ended in exclamation points. Sometimes her words stung.
The next time Nono dominated my thoughts was a week later. Dad had graciously made dinner for the four of us. It was a complete role reversal. Yes, Dad cooked, but Mom was the manager. But when Mom was fragile, Dad always came through. It’s funny how tragedy can transform people.
Sam was blabbering about a political cartoon he’d seen. It might have been funny if we’d seen it, but Sam was oblivious to our blank stares. As he got to what seemed like the fourth useless punch line, Mom broke in.
“Nono’s scheduled for surgery on the tenth.”
“Mom!” objected Sam in a high voice. “You said that I can’t interrupt you!”
Confused, she glanced at him. Through the fog that clouded her head, it seemed that she understood. “Oh. Of course. My apologies.” She turned inward again.
It wasn’t that Mom was living in her own world that startled me; I had anticipated that. But I hadn’t realized she could look so lost. Her brown eyes had grown large and innocent, as if convincing herself that none of this was
real. I saw her picking at her broccoli, which she usually consumed in mass amounts, and I made a resolution: the next time Mom drove to West Roxbury, I would go with her. I would see my grandfather, because from the way that my mother’s hollow eyes stared at her plate, I realized she was right. I wouldn’t have many more chances.
After dinner, I cast aside my homework. I would just have to finish in the morning; there was no way I could conjugate Spanish verbs with such a burden on my heart. I sat at my desk to face a blank piece of notebook paper. There was a strange urge in the pit of stomach that I couldn’t ignore. I needed to capture Nono on paper, to have him in tangible form before it was too late. I laid my head on my desk, thinking. Nono and I had never been close. When I was little, he had frightened me; I was timid, and he was a patriarchal Italian grandfather with a voice that could silence Boston. We’d never spent much time alone together.
In desperation, I closed my eyes and swam through my memory. I remembered how he would talk taxes with my mother as I heard the same stories from my forgetful grandmother. I could feel myself sitting in his office chair, playing on his computer with my cousins. There was cigarette smoke hanging in my clothes and hair, sweeping around the ships mounted on the wall. I recalled how he’d crafted them, and how he’d listen to opera music while he watched the Red Sox. My throat constricting, I picked up a pen.
I hadn’t been counting on seeing Nono until the following week, but my opportunity came two days later. I can’t say I was thrilled. Yes, I was drawn to West Roxbury, but there was also a force holding me back, whispering menacing thoughts in my ear. Nevertheless, I drove with Mom on a dreary Thursday, homework not quite done.
We arrived just past seven and I gathered my textbooks as I got out of the car. Mom walked into Aunt Ellen and Uncle Richard’s apartment, which occupied the first floor, and I struggled up the stairs with my books, listening to Mom exchange reports with her sister.
“Jude, Michael decided that he was going to the appointment again! Richard isn’t completely incompetent, you know. We know how to take care of Dad, too.”
“He can’t help it, it’s just how he copes ...”
I ignored the conversation. I couldn’t bear that my family was falling apart. When I reached the top of the stairs, I eased open the heavy door, announcing myself.
“Nono! It’s Laura. Mom’s downstairs!”
“In here, honey.”
I followed his voice into the living room. It looked so different. Three years ago, the teal rug would have been spotless, the ashtray filled, and my grandmother’s chair occupied. Now, all I could see was the wan man sitting shrunken in a gray armchair. He looked different, too. The cancer had taken his body’s healthy promise. He grinned uncomfortably. He was a powerful man stripped of his pride.
I smiled weakly and gave him a kiss. He held my hands as I moved away, bringing me back. His eyes asked me a thousand questions, and I hope my own gave him answers. I don’t know if they could; they were filled with cloudy tears.
“There, Laura. Sit in the Queen’s Chair.” It was Nana’s chair, identical to his. Without breaking eye contact, I sat. Our hands lay stretched across the table between us.
With my free hand, I reached down to my pile of homework on the floor. I unearthed a Ziploc bag that flaunted a summer theme and handed it to him.
“I made cookies,” I said. “They’re butterscotch, because Mom said that’s your favorite. She forgot to bring them a few days ago. I’m really sorry, but they’re a little crumbly.”
“Thank you, honey.” He patted my hand, and took out two. He offered
me one, and I accepted. As I sat there, the cookie untouched, I was desperate for something to say. Nono, chomping away, seemed content, but I’d never understood the beauty of a comfortable silence. I blabbered to fill it.
“So, Sam wanted to come today, but he had a make-up game. You know, the weather’s been awful lately.” It was undeniably pathetic that I was resorting to small talk. How I wished I had something to say. I had so many questions, so many feelings. And when he looked at me, with the same piercing eyes that I saw in Mom and Sam every day, I couldn’t hold my composure.
And I began to blubber in Nana’s chair, my eyes reddening and my nose swelling. Nono didn’t do anything. He just kept staring at me, offering me, in turn, all of his answers.
“Laura, eat the cookie.”
That was all he said, but I was so perplexed that I did as he commanded, the crumbs mixing with my saliva. I ate the entire cookie before I looked up again. He smiled at me, a real smile this time.
“Wherever I go, wherever you go, I will always be there. And I will smile, because I will always be proud of my granddaughter ... my Laura.”
I was crying again.
“Why didn’t I ever get to know you?” I moaned.
He leaned to me, across the coffee table. “Because it’s impossible to get to know a person if you already do.” He kissed our hands, still intertwined, and smiled again. I did too.
“I love you.”
Silence swallowed all our words, and we sat in peace.
Mom came up later, and found us still this way.
“Daddy,” she said, her eyes meeting his, then mine. He handed her a cookie.
“Nono,” I said. She came to sit with me in Nana’s chair, and took my hand. We both cast loving looks at a man who was never perfect, but was ours, nevertheless. Together, we formed a chain, which would connect us wherever any of us went. And I could always make butterscotch cookies to bring us together again.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the December 2006 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.