My grandmother believed in magic, and I loved her for it.
She lived in a small cabin in the woods, accessible only by a long dirt road marked with bright yellow “No Trespassing” signs. She wore her auburn hair long and loose, and her favorite shade of lipstick turned her lips the color of an overripe nectarine. She gathered flowers at sunrise, and filled her modest house with bunches of sage and lavender candles. She sat out on a picnic blanket at night and stared at the moon, and at dusk, she sang for the fairies. You couldn’t convince her they weren’t real.
“Happy nature, happy home,” she’d say.
And I’d nod, bobbing my tangled head up and down to the rhythm of the crickets chirping.
These days, I think we might call her an eccentric, or maybe even crazy. But to me, she was perfect. Some people just aren’t meant to be tamed.
I used to stay with her during those long, hot summer days when my parents were at work and I didn’t feel like being alone in a sweltering house with only the TV to keep me company.
“You’re the only kid I know who doesn’t like cartoons,” my dad told me once.
“I like making up my own stories,” I’d replied.
I guess people would probably call me an eccentric, too, at that age. And probably at this one. I learned a lot from my grandmother.
I remember one particular August day. I know it was August, because I remember the humidity, the gold slant of the sunlight, and the high cornstalks in the neighboring fields. And because school was about to start. My grandmother and I were sitting in her back garden, which she’d let go pretty much wild, on a worn-out plaid blanket. The sun hung low and heavy in the sky, casting shadows through the trees.
“You excited about school?” She asked me this as she wove a crown of purple clover flowers.
“I guess,” I said. I lay on my belly, propped up on my elbows.
“I only got to about the sixth,” she said.
I sat up. “Really?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She finished the crown and placed it with a flourish onto my head. “There wasn’t much call when I was your age for girls to finish school,” she said. “My daddy needed me home to take care of us.”
“Couldn’t he do that?” I asked. “Or your mom?”
“There was only my daddy and me,” she answered.
I waited for her to add more, but she stayed quiet. So I took a deep breath and asked, “Where was your mom?”
She took a moment, straightened her legs out in front of her, and said, “I don’t know.”
And then she told me a story.
When I was a little girl, she said, about eleven years old, my mama changed. It was like she forgot who she was, she said, and my daddy didn’t know what to do, and so it fell on me to be daughter and mother both. He told me I had to leave school, and I did. He was not a loving man, she said, but he made sure there was money to put food on the table and shoes on our feet, and I made us dresses out of old sheets and curtains, and our small life was enough. And at night, she said, I sang my mama to sleep.
And one day, she said, I came in from the vegetable garden, and she was just gone. Couldn’t find her anywhere, and neither could anyone else, though we searched through the night and into the next day. And eventually people stopped looking, she said, even my daddy. And my mama never came back, she said. And after a while, people seemed to forget she ever existed at all.
“Wasn’t your dad sad?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” she said. “And so was I. We stayed sad for a long, long time.”
“Don’t you want to know what happened to her?”
“I do,” she said. “I wish I knew, and I wished it before I fell asleep every night for years. But you can’t live your life just wishing.” And then she added, “Believe me, because I’ve tried.”
“Does my mom know?”
“No,” she said. “No, I never told her, because I didn’t want her to be sad for me.”
“Why’d you tell me, then?”
“Because you’re my brave and smart granddaughter,” she said. “And because you asked.” And then she took my two hands in hers and said, “But don’t you be sad for me.”
I squeezed our hands together and said, “Okay.”
We stayed quiet for a long time after that, and watched the sun set through the tree branches. I picked at the blades of grass around the blanket, pulled them up and arranged them in a neat row. My grandmother hummed to herself. Just when the dark began to settle around us, she said, “I think things happen they way they’re supposed to.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s a special kind of magic, the way the world comes together.”
She stood up, and I did the same. As we folded up the blanket, she told me what she meant.
If I’d stayed in school, she said, I wouldn’t have been at the grocery store the day I met your grandpa. And if my mother hadn’t left us, I would have been in school. See, he worked there at the grocery store, she said, and I’d dropped a bag of flour all over the floor, and he helped me clean it up, and that was how we fell in love, just like that, in less than a minute, covered in flour, both of us. Like snow, but in the middle of summer.
And, she said, if I hadn’t met your grandpa, I wouldn’t have your mother, or you. I’m right where I need to be, she said, and I never even knew I was heading there, but here I am, she said, and that feels an awful lot like magic.
“But that’s not magic,” I told her. “Those are all just things that happened to you.”
“You can see it that way,” she said. “Or you can see that all of those little pieces came together just as they were meant to, and that takes the sting away when the things that happen to you are bad.”
“My friends say magic isn’t real.”
“You listen to me right now, Ellie Jay,” she said. “A lot of people are going to tell you a lot of things you love aren’t real. You don’t listen to them. You listen to you.”
And it’s funny, because even now, all these years later, me sounds a lot like her.
I visited her once, years later, when she was in the hospital. I was her last visitor, as it turns out, and we sat together in her room, hand in hand.
“I sure would like to go home,” she said.
I answered by way of a sniffle.
“Why are you crying, little girl?” she asked me.
“Because I’ll miss you,” I said.
“Did you know,” she said, “that when caterpillars go into their cocoons, they turn into goo before they become butterflies?”
“I didn’t know that,” I told her.
“That’s what I’m doing now,” she said. “I’m turning into goo. I don’t much like it, but I know it’s just so I can become something else. Just like magic,” she said. “I wonder what I’ll be.”
“Something amazing,” I said.
“Just like magic,” she said, and squeezed my hand.
And honestly, I think she was right, and I love her for it. Life is a lot like magic, only you have to choose to see it. It brought my grandmother to me, and me to her, and who knows where else it might lead me. But I do know one thing. Wherever that is, it’s right where I’m meant to be.
Thank you for reading! This is the eighth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.
Here are the first seven stories, if you’d like to read them:
And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!
The next story will be posted at the end of September.