The Steel Bridge by Susan Agar
Janet and Vince were away that weekend, at her sister’s wedding in Upstate New York. “She told me they won’t be here to take me to Mass tomorrow morning.” Hearing this, I thought my grandmother would ask me to walk with her to church, which was across the river and adjacent to the cemetery, but she didn’t. I said that I had brought my bathing suit, and since it was so hot, I thought I’d walk to the town beach and go swimming. “You shouldn’t go by yourself, Sabina. There are troublemakers on the beach sometimes.” So, that complacently warm afternoon, I swam in the river while my grandmother sat on a rock on the edge of the grassy beach, clutching a starched, frayed towel, which I thought must have been as old as my father would have been. She was the only person in sight wearing long sleeves and shoes, the only person over seventy anywhere near the water. The town teenagers were horsing around in a group, listening to Bruce Springsteen on a boom box, but they mostly kept to themselves. They certainly ignored me and barely took in my grandmother, who watched eagleeyed as I swam. I was a strong swimmer, as I knew my father had been and my grandmother was not, and I daydreamed with each long-armed stroke about crossing or joining the ribbon of swift currents in this narrow, anonymous stretch of the Delaware and escaping far away up or downstream or even just to the opposite bank. But this dream was too pale to sustain me swimming alone in the river like that for too long, and I felt sorry for my grandmother, sitting there watching over me in her dark clothes in the heat of the day.
You don’t need me anymore, was what I wanted to tell her. But, “I’ll try to come again soon,” was what I said.
Still, I woke early on Sunday and excused myself from joining her at church, even though she hadn’t asked me to go with her. I said I had to catch a late morning bus, that I was meeting some friends for an early dinner that evening in the city, even though I wasn’t. My grandmother didn’t protest that I wouldn’t even stay for lunch. Instead, she gave me a sandwich to eat on the bus and walked with me to her side of the bridge. “Don’t wait so long next time, Sabina.” Please, Grandma, please. You have Janet. You don’t need me anymore, was what I wanted to tell her. But, “I’ll try to come again soon,” was what I said. I shifted my overnight bag from one shoulder to the other and kissed her goodbye, my bright lipstick leaving a garish trace on the fading skin of her cheek, as I crossed the bridge from the Pennsylvania to the New York side of the river. My grandmother died four months later, in the dim days of a leafless, rainy November. I was supposed to visit again on Thanksgiving, but she died before that, alone in her house. Inevitably, it was Janet the neighbor, delivering groceries she had promised to buy earlier that day, who found my grandmother, seemingly asleep, in a chair in the living room with the shades pulled down. When she didn’t wake up, it was Vince who called for an ambulance, but my grandmother was already gone. Janet then called my mother, who then called me before making all the arrangements for the funeral and the sale of my grandmother’s house and possessions. When my mother asked, I said I didn’t want to keep anything from my grandmother’s house, using my cramped New York living arrangements as an excuse. When she died, I no longer had to shoulder my grandmother’s grief for my father. I was finally able to carry the weight of my own. And I do not regret that I have no material memento of her, because, even after all this time, if I close my eyes, I see her climbing the steep stairs of her house, gripping the narrow rail. I see her crossing the bridge on her frail legs, from one side of that narrow stretch of the Delaware River to the other, to visit my father’s grave. I smell the food she cooked, recipes that she carried across the ocean from her Czech homeland, and I hear my father’s Sunday-afternoon laugh at the kitchen table. This is what I have kept of her, of my father, images that resonate more clearly than any dusty photo or souvenir, indestructible images that are free of the guilt I once felt in her presence. They are my irreconcilable inheritance -these words, these shades.