“My son. Where is my son?”
“Shhh, Grandma.” I placed a damp cloth on her brow. “You’re feverish. You have a daughter, remember?”
“Where is my son? What happened to him?” She fidgeted beneath the blankets and rocked her head from side to side.
“She’s getting worse, I think,” I whispered to Gran’s hospice aide.
Mary smoothed my grandmother’s hair and calmed her as one would an infant. “She has good days and bad days. It’s to be expected,” she said to me, then to Grandma, “There, there, Mrs. Hart. It’s okay to let go.”
My throat swelled against a sob and I fought back tears, still unwilling to accept the inevitable. Grandma settled in and began snoring. She appeared lost and confused even in her sleep. I dabbed at my eyes and nose with a tissue and left Mary to keep watch over Gran in the parlor while I went upstairs.
A pile of laundry consumed the center of the cannonball bed in Grandma’s old room. She hadn’t slept up here in five years, and she’d insisted I take it when I moved in with her two years ago. The style of the room stayed frozen in time because the child in me believed that Grandma would continue to live as long as her bedroom remained a testament to her life.
My grandmother’s top-heavy burled walnut dresser still sported her trio of wig-bearing mannequin heads that – I suspected – stared at me each night as I slept. Beside them, necklaces and baubles spilled out from behind the etched glass doors of a cherrywood jewelry box. An ancient television set balanced on a rickety metal stand in one corner and served mainly as a place to collect mail. Heavy brocade curtains blocked out most of the sunlight at the bay window, starving the brittle ferns hanging there. In the closet, Grandma’s enviable collection of handbags and shoes filled one side; my clothes took up the other.
On days like this, when Grandma seemed further from me than ever, I immersed myself here among her most personal possessions. I felt comforted and closer to her spirit, even when I gazed at the incongruous portrait over the bed.
Though my grandmother was as Irish as the Blarney Stone, she posed as a sultry Spanish flamenco dancer wearing a crimson gown molded to her body. Her right arm was raised and hooked over her head, palm out, fingers splayed. Her left hand held a white fan to her side, masking the curve of her waist. A large white flower accented her ebony hair, which was pulled back in a tight chignon. Layers of the ruffled red fabric cascaded from her hips and pooled at her feet.
I climbed onto the bed, its mattress groaning beneath my weight, and met my grandmother eye-to-eye. “Why a flamenco dancer, Gran?” I wondered whether the portrait would stir Grandma’s memory enough to bring her out of her fog, if only for a short time. I lifted the heavy gilt frame from its hook and carried it downstairs.
Mary stared wide-eyed at the painting when I brought it into the parlor. “What is that?” she hissed.
I smiled. “Grandma, as a flamenco dancer. She looks very young in this, doesn’t she?”
Mary rose from her seat to take a closer look. She scanned the portrait, then turned back to Grandma comparing, I knew, the vibrant young woman Gran had been to the now frail woman barely clinging to life.
“Stunning,” she whispered. Mary flicked her eyes at me, and I couldn’t help but grin. No doubt she wondered how a short, dumpy blonde like me could have descended from a sleek raven-haired beauty like my grandmother. I had my father’s genes to thank for that.
“I’ll leave the picture here so she can see it when she wakes.” I balanced the frame on the seat of an overstuffed chair across from the bed. “Maybe it will help her remember, on a good day.”
Mary looked at me, not bothering to mask the pity in her eyes, and motioned for me to join her in the kitchen. “Honey, I think your grandma only has a few days left.”
The lump rose in my throat again, and I nodded in silent agreement.
“If there’s anything you’d like to say to her, say it now, while there’s still a chance she can hear you.”
Unable to speak, I clapped my hand over my mouth and returned to the bedroom. I curled up on Grandma’s bed and buried my face in the comforter, letting grief overtake me. The mountain of laundry tumbled on top of me, and I stayed there until dark.
A commotion downstairs rousted me awake. I flew down to the parlor to find Mary sitting on Gran’s bed, holding and rocking her. From the corner of my eye, I could see the portrait had been turned around so that only the brown paper backing and hanging wire were visible. Mary looked up at me, then at the portrait and shook her head.
“My baby, my son,” Gran wailed. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
My nose tingled and water filled my eyes. Grandma’s sorrow ran deep and it threatened to sweep me away with the tide. I sat on the bed opposite Mary and did my best to comfort Gran, kissing her warm forehead and hugging her to me.
“It’s okay, Grandma. Your baby is safe. He’s safe.”
Gran’s eyes glittered up at me and I held my breath, hoping I’d reached her through the haze of her delirium. “He is?” she asked, her voice laced with the hopefulness and guilt of someone who had once made a tragic mistake.
My heart broke. “Yes, Grandma.” I squeezed the words past sharp breaths. “He is. I promise.”
Mary rose and left the room. Grandma relaxed in my arms and leaned back into the fullness of the pillow, her white curls settling like a halo around her head. “Thank you,” she whispered and drifted off to sleep.
I joined Mary in the kitchen and waited as she regained her composure.
“I thought she was lucid. I didn’t know.” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
She faced me, her complexion red and mottled. “When Aoife woke up, she asked for some tea. It’s been a while since she’s done that, so I thought we were in for a good evening. But before I could come in here to make it, she asked for her glasses, too. I guess she saw the painting and wondered what it was.” Mary stopped and took a breath.
“She put her glasses on and — Tally, I swear to you the look on her face was as if she’d seen the Angel of Death himself standing between her and that portrait. She was in shock.”
I trembled at the image, afraid that Grandma, tethered to this life by the thinnest of threads, had indeed seen Death.
Mary shook her head as she continued, “Aoife started screaming and crying about her son, where is her son. That’s when I realized it was the dementia talking because you told me your mother is her only child.”
“I’m beginning to wonder,” I said, swiveling to look at Grandma. “I’ll leave the painting there for now, but turned around like you have it.” I patted Mary on the arm and went into the parlor.
Mary followed me. “There is one other thing.” She chewed a nail, as if unwilling to burden me with any more news. “When I lifted the painting, I heard something slip down inside it, like a piece of paper. It’s probably nothing, but I thought you should know.”
My curiosity aroused, I knelt before the chair and examined the paper backing on the frame. Perhaps there was a long-lost Picasso tucked behind the portrait, but I doubted it. I stood and lifted the frame from its resting place, turning it side to side. Mary was right – something was sliding around in there.
“It’s probably just an old piece of backing that’s come loose beneath the picture,” I explained, though I didn’t believe it myself.
Mary disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a small box cutter. I balanced the painting facedown across the arms of the chair and made a shallow slit between the inside edge of the frame and its hollow core. I ran the box cutter halfway up the long side and halfway across the top. When I turned the portrait upside-down and shook it, an envelope dropped into view. Mary and I exchanged glances.
I took a deep breath and fished out the envelope. Its sealed flap was embossed with a gold crest and a Latin inscription. The back was addressed “Ava,” rather than the Gaelic spelling of my grandmother’s name. Though I desperately wanted to open it, the letter belonged only to Gran. Mary must have sensed my hesitation because she asked “Now what?” and pointedly stared at the envelope.
“Now I take the portrait to an archival framer and have it resealed so it doesn’t get destroyed.” I returned the box cutter to its drawer in the kitchen, then went back to the parlor to sit vigil next to Grandma.
Mary gathered her purse and medical bag, kissed Gran on the head and urged me to call her if I ran into trouble overnight. Then she was gone and I was alone with Grandma and her secrets.
“Where were you last night?” Grandma asked when she awoke the next morning.
I set a breakfast tray over her lap on the bed. “I was here, Grandma.”
“Your mother was here. You weren’t.”
“I was here, Grandma. That was me.”
“No it wasn’t. I heard Felice.”
I lifted a spoonful of Cream of Wheat to her lips. “We sound the same.”
She swallowed the morsel and muttered, “You sound the same, but you don’t look the same.”
My hope that Grandma would have one of her good days was dimming. Her brogue, which had faded over the years, returned this morning in full bloom – a sure sign she was regressing.
“It wasn’t you,” she pressed. “You don’t know about your uncle. Only your mother knows.”
My hand froze midair and my stomach fluttered.
“She was here and she said my boy was safe. That’s how I know it was Felice. You couldn’t possibly know about my son.”
I wished Mama had been here, visiting her dying mother and fixing whatever was broken between them. Instead, she was sleeping on a street somewhere, her every decision ruled by her addiction to alcohol.
“You’re right, Gran, she never told me.” I lifted another spoonful of the mushy cereal to her mouth. “What did he look like?”
Grandma’s eyes drifted away, carrying her to some distant place in time. “He was the most beautiful child. I held him when he born.” She closed her eyes and was still for so long I thought she’d fallen asleep.
“Did I ever tell you about that portrait?” Grandma opened her eyes and peered at me, then turned her head to fix her gaze on the back of the frame. “That was a long time ago. It was another life. Not the life you know.”
I steadied myself, certain that one wrong word would send Grandma spiraling off into fantasy.
“Bring it here,” she commanded.
“Are you sure?” I pleaded, hoping to prevent another outburst.
“I want to see it.”
I hefted the portrait and carried it to the bedside, then handed Grandma her glasses. She put them on and grasped the frame in both hands, examining the painting, peering into her own eyes. “Red was my color,” she nodded. “And orange and yellow, too. The colors of fire and energy and life. That’s what he always said.”
“No, luv. Your uncle was an infant. He couldn’t speak.” She ran her fingers over the raised brushstrokes of the dress and fan. “I blended in well with the Spaniards because of my dark hair and eyes and how easily I bronzed. Everyone there thought I was Spanish until I spoke and my brogue gave me away.” She smiled and a gravelly laugh erupted from deep inside her chest. “The looks on their faces when I spoke…but he always loved me. Just as I was.”
I set the painting beside the bed. “You were in Spain, Grandma?”
“Seville, for two years with my good friend Clara. We were eighteen and full of adventure and daring. Clara and I thought Spain was the perfect place to go.”
I tried to imagine my grandmother as a teenager leaving Dublin for Seville, which must have seemed far away and exotic. “You met someone?” I prodded.
“Met. Fell in love.” Her smile faded.
“Did he call you ‘Ava’?”
She searched my eyes. “How did you know?”
I lifted the envelope from its resting place on the side table and held it out to her. With shaking hands, she took it from me and ran a finger over the ink. “He wrote this.”
Grandma craned her neck up at me. “Where did you find it?”
I raised the portrait and turned it so she could see the back. “Something was rattling around inside, so I opened the backing and found the envelope.” I set the frame down.
“What’s in it, Grandma?” I wondered if she even remembered after so many years.
“I don’t know. I never knew it was there.”
“Would you like me to open it for you?” I grew anxious; this was the longest Grandma had been engaged and aware in days. I hoped to learn the truth about my mysterious uncle before Gran slipped away into her dream world, especially if Uncle was there, waiting for her. She might never return to me.
Grandma rested one hand over her heart and shut her eyes. “Javier.” She stretched the syllables of his name like a young girl revealing her crush.
“Tell me about him.”
“I was in love. The handsomest man I’d ever seen. I was eighteen. He was twenty-four, the son of a prominent family in Seville.” She breathed deeply and paused, as if willing herself to remember it all. “They were wealthy – old money – and they controlled everything.”
“Did they like you?” Even as I asked, I knew the answer.
She shook her head. “No. I was basura. Rubbish. He was forbidden to see me. But of course forbidden love is the most alluring, the most passionate.”
I blushed at her words, though Grandma appeared unabashed.
“When Javy told his parents I was pregnant with his child, they were furious. They would not allow him to marry me. Clara stayed with me as long as she could, but when her money ran out, she returned home.”
“And you had a son, my uncle?”
She nodded. “I was very sick when he was born. The doctors thought I might die. Javier’s family took me into their house as a public act of charity. But they had something else in mind.”
“What did you name your baby, Grandma?”
Her chin quivered and tears seeped out from her lids. “I called him ‘Matteo,’ but they took him from me before I could nurse. I was too weak.” She trembled and clung to the blankets, her breathing rapid and shallow. “I was too weak to fight for my child. They took him from me.” Her eyes rolled back and she gave a strangled cry.
I rubbed her hand, trying to keep her with me. “Grandma, the envelope. We should open it.” This time, I did not wait for a response. I slid my fingernail beneath the corner of the flap and tore it open. Two black and white photographs fell out, one of an infant in a white christening gown, the other of a young boy astride a small pony.
Inscriptions identified the infant as “Matteo, un mes” and the young boy as “Matteo, cinco años.” An address on five-year-old Matteo’s photo intrigued me: someone seemed to be directing Gran to her stolen child. I lifted my head to tell Grandma the news; she was asleep.
Grandma slept for two days, waking only for an occasional meal. She did not speak or even seem to hear me, and I worried she would be gone without ever seeing her son in those pictures. I began sleeping downstairs, rising several times a night to check on her. Before dawn on the third day, I woke to hear her calling my name.
I switched on the dimmest lamp in the room and went to her bedside. “Yes, Grandma, I’m here.”
“Tally, did I ever tell you about that portrait?”
“Yes, Gran, only a few days ago.”
She breathed deeply, and I waited.
“I never told my parents about him.”
“As soon as I was well enough to travel, Javier’s family sent me back to Ireland.”
“All by yourself?”
She shook her head. “With an enforcer. I was afraid. I was told never to return to Seville.”
I poured water from a carafe into a glass and handed it to Gran, then put my arm behind her back to prop her up. She drank the water and settled into a wall of pillows.
“I tried to forget about Matteo, but a mother can never forget her child. Especially not her firstborn. My parents didn’t understand why I was never the same after Seville. I was too ashamed to tell them.”
I felt my face burn, absorbing her pain. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Gran. You were young and some terrible people took advantage of you. Javier should have fought harder for you and Matteo.”
She shook her head. “He was only a boy.”
“No, Grandma. He was a grown man.” And I wanted to find him and show him the suffering he’d caused.
“You didn’t know him, Tally. He loved me deeply, but he was terribly afraid of his parents. There was nothing he could do.”
My nose tingled again and I could feel a wave of angry tears building. My grandmother seemed to have forgiven Javier, but I did not find it so easy.
“The painting arrived the day before I was to board the ship to America.”
Her words snapped me back into focus.
“There was no return address. But when I opened the package and saw what it was, I knew it was from him.” She motioned for more water and drank what I gave her.
“I don’t understand the painting, Grandma. Did you dance flamenco?”
“No. I was fascinated by it. Javier took me to flamenco cafés as often as I asked.” Grandma smiled, her eyelids fluttering. “I tried to mimic the dancers’ graceful poses, and he told me I was the most beautiful dancer he’d ever seen.”
“So he sent you that painting, to let you know he was still in love.”
Grandma bowed her head. “But it was too late.”
I rubbed her fingers between mine, and she continued, “I left one suitcase behind and brought the portrait with me instead. When I married your grandfather, an old-world German, he thought the painting was vulgar. He refused to allow it to hang in his house. I kept it in the attic until he died.”
“And then you hung it above your bed?”
She nodded, a tiny smile of victory playing at her lips. “It’s been there ever since.”
“He didn’t know the story, did he?”
“No. I never told him. Your grandfather loved me, but he didn’t care to think of me as a woman who had a life before him, let alone a previous lover.”
“But you told my mother.”
“I had to tell someone. It threatened to burst from my heart every day I kept it hidden. I confessed it to her when she was sixteen and beginning to take an interest in boys. I warned her what could happen if she wasn’t careful. But then I did a terrible thing, and she has never forgiven me.”
“What, Grandma?” I asked, afraid to hear what had destroyed her relationship with my mother and sent Mama to seek refuge in a bottle. What if I couldn’t forgive her, either?
My grandmother shuddered. “I swore her to secrecy from her father. Felice and her father were very close, so to keep a secret from him was a knife to her soul. I never should have asked. I never should have told her.”
“But she kept the secret?”
“Yes, and she used it against me many times while he was alive. Always threatening to ‘tell Papa about the baby’ if I didn’t give her what she wanted. And I gave in. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he might have forgiven me.”
“For what?” My hackles rose again. “Grandma, you didn’t do anything wrong. All of those people mistreated you.”
“And I deserved it. What sort of mother lets her child be stolen away?” Tears formed rivulets down her cheeks. I wiped them away with a tissue before dabbing at my own.
“You didn’t deserve it, Grandma. No one deserves that.”
“She said to me once, when I tried to punish her, if I gave away her brother, what was to keep me from giving her away, too?”
“She was cruel.”
“She was afraid. And hurt. She never had the chance to know her own brother. And she realized her mother was not who she thought. Only her father could be counted on, and, thanks to me, she was keeping secrets from him.” Gran filled her chest with air. “I destroyed my family by telling my secret. I’m a terrible mother.”
“No, Gran.” I clenched my jaw to keep from crying. “You’re not.”
Grandma was silent for a long while, shaking her head every so often as if reliving the moment that changed her relationship with her daughter forever. She turned to me. “Tell me, what was in the envelope, luv?”
“These, Gran. It’s Matteo.” I handed the photos to her, hoping she wouldn’t turn them over and see the address written on the back of one. She reached for her glasses and settled them on her nose.
“He’s just like I remember.” Grandma pressed the infant’s picture to her lips. “To think I never knew these were hidden in the frame all those years.” She turned them over and saw the writing.
“Do you know that address, Gran?”
“No. It’s been too long, but I don’t think it’s Javier’s.”
“Is it his handwriting?”
“Sure, and I would recognize it anywhere.”
“Maybe he was trying to tell you something.”
“Of course. I should have known. He loved me.”
My throat tightened. “I’m sorry, Grandma. I wish I had found those years ago.”
She reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Tally, sweetheart, you found them just in time.”
I held Grandma’s hand in mine until she passed at dawn. New light crossed the parlor and settled on the portrait, bringing life to the dancer’s eyes. Her bronze skin glowed against the flame-colored dress, and for a moment I met my grandmother as a young woman, full of life and dreams of a future with the man she loved and their child.
I turned to gaze at Grandma where she lay. She held the photos of her beloved son to her heart, and her face was soft behind a smile of peace and contentment. Grandma’s hand was still warm, but her spirit had fled. And I hoped that if Javier had gone before her, he stood waiting to greet his fiery Irish lass at Heaven’s gate.