The Ides of March, 1991

It was 9am when I got the call. My grandmother had passed in her sleep. I was living in Phoenix and the next morning I jumped a flight to California to be with my grandfather. But I could only stay for the weekend, and come Monday morning I’d be on a plane to Honolulu on orders from the Navy. My team wasn’t scheduled for dive school until late July, but there was a war being staged and our orders were pushed up to 18 March.

Fair enough. My “bitchin’ summer” at Pearl Harbor doing compass swims through West Loch only yards from a hammerhead breeding ground was a bygone fantasy now. But so was seeing my grandmother off: the funeral was Wednesday and I wasn’t going to be there because the war was on full display and we had to be trained post-haste for deployment in the Persian Gulf; trained to plant counter-charges on the same 50-year-old underwater mines our government had been selling to Saddam since they “installed” him in 1957, and now he was showing his appreciation by scattering them all over the Gulf.

And none of us were looking forward to those mines. They were mean, ugly, primitive bastards that looked like medieval maces, with magnetic pins so brittle and corroded you’d piss your UDTs hoping you could stick the detonator in before the currents made you brush against one of them. That’s all it took.

But Bush’s War for Oil was already over by the time we reported for Basic SCUBA, so we never went to the Gulf. The active duty teams were already deployed, and they didn’t need to activate the “pussy reservists” for mine-sweeping duty. That was okay with me, and six weeks later I was back in Phoenix working a minimum wage job at a car wash after the company I was working for (before I got called up) decided to let me go—illegally. Which didn’t really matter because the pricks would be out of business in less than a year: as soon as the Reagan-Bush recession sucker-punched the economy in the throat and the truth behind “Morning in America” came out, the company was down the toilet.

At the end of August I ditched that arid conservative shithole and moved back to California to live with my grandfather. Soon after I arrived, he took me to the grave marker at Riverside National. (14 years later we’d have to replace that marker for one with both their names on it.) Her wish was to be buried with her body intact in a white coffin with lavender accents. Lavender was her favorite color, her favorite scent, her favorite everything. She bought it twice a month from the Avon lady in various forms. She might have washed my hair with it once. But instead of being buried with it, her body was cremated and packed into a cardboard box as if it were a box of MREs, like so many other military wives who were boxed into an obsolete narrative of keeping their pretty mouths shut while their husbands were off playing wargasm for the benefit of corporate welfare queens who couldn’t give a shit about the Land of the Free.®

But Grandma would have none of that. She may have died in her sleep, but she was never asleep in the cognitive sense that was commonly expected of mid-century American women. She had no trouble standing her ground, raising her voice and getting things done. As I looked down at her name stamped on a flat metal headstone, I remembered her story about the time during the Korean War when Grandpa was serving in a M.A.S.H. unit there. The base housing in Manila was infested with wharf rats, and it got so bad she had to cut them down with a machete as they crawled up and down the curtains, eyeing my mother in her high chair—that is, until a kind, elderly Filipino woman showed up with a box of cobras and loosed them in the crawl space underneath the house. Sure enough, the rats began to disappear, but Grandma was even meaner than the cobras: the machete was cleaned off and put back in the kitchen drawer in 2 or 3 days.

I remembered that my grandparents would’ve been married 50 years in December of that year. They were supposed to get married on Christmas Eve in 1941. Pearl Harbor happened on the 7th, they were married on the 12th, and Grandpa was shipped out two days later. Their marriage wouldn’t effectively begin until he came back four years later, and the year after that my mom was born.

Grandma never concealed her utter disdain for organized religion, or, for that matter, the state of Texas. She was raised in a punitive, unloving family of Southern Baptists in San Antonio, and most of the people she remembered there were “shit-asses.” After Grandpa got transferred to El Paso in the late 50s and she had to move there with my mom and uncle in tow, she swore she’d never return. Her advice to my sister and I was always, “Don’t ever go to Texas.” And we didn’t.

And as I stood above her grave that now only contained her ashes in a box, I remembered that Grandpa was standing there beside me. Their marriage wasn’t always the happiest, but they still loved and depended on each other, and it was only after she passed that he realized how much he was lost without her. He started to feel better as his final years approached, but he never met another woman and never fully recovered. Instead, he preserved as best he could the traces of what she had left behind. Every weekend I helped him in the garden, pruning the rose bushes she had raised and nurtured for over a generation. Grandad was an expert photographer and had those roses framed all over the house.

Then I remembered how close we were, my grandmother and I; how bitterly regretful I was that I couldn’t see her laid to rest; how much I already missed her defiant sense of humor, always delivered in a flat Texas drawl; and how she had always encouraged me to do whatever the hell I wanted, as long as it was something that mattered.

So when the election year cutbacks came and I couldn’t get an active duty billet to go to BUD/S—which was just as well because I wasn’t cut out for government work anyway—I dropped out of the Navy and decided to start drinking more. I spent whole days at the Riverside Library discovering the beats, the bums, the drunks, the expats and the existentialists. I smoked cigars, stayed up late, and typed poems and stories. Bad ones. Pretty soon I was feeling better about myself.

I paid Grandpa $350 a month for rent, and for seven years I slept in the same four-poster bed in the same room my grandmother died in. It was good in the beginning. The summer of ’91 turned out to be one of the best I have experienced before or since. I read and wrote voraciously, inherited my grandparents’ love for classical music, and began what would become a great philosophical and intellectual awakening.

And Grandma drifted back to visit a few times. I sensed her unmistakable presence as she stood there in her old room and watched me sleep in her old bed; as I laid there suspended in a semi-conscious void, I knew it was her because the room smelled of lavender. Once, I caught a glimpse of her at the end of the dark hallway as I was coming out of the shower. Every hair on my body stood up, but then I smelled the lavender again.

There’s something to be said for knowing who’s coming to pay you a visit. It’s a bit less startling. When I was a kid, Grandma told me that her Papa had visited her often after he died. She didn’t know it was him at first and almost peed the bed, but as soon as she caught the whiff of his cigar smoke, she knew she didn’t have to be afraid. “That was our Irish luck,” she said. (Papa Lucas had emigrated from Dublin.) So I guess her visits were my Irish luck. Then the luck ran out and she stopped coming back.

And when I woke up this morning 24 years to the day after she passed, I remembered the times when I had pissed her off, and there were plenty of those because apparently I was a bit of a rascal and pulled some nasty stunts. Like the time when I was four and Grandma was sitting on the toilet, and I burst into the bathroom and pointed at her bush—I’d never seen one of those before—and said, “What the heck is that,” and she hissed at me and said “My ankle! Now shut the damn door!” And I ran out and hid underneath her baby grand piano. I thought for sure I was about to get an ass-whipping, but she calmly returned to the living room, called me out from under the piano, and told me it was no big deal—and for Christ’s sake to knock first. Then there was the time when I was playing with the piano and got the idea to loosen all the strings…

And then I fell back asleep this morning and dreamed that I was back in Arizona. I was walking alone in the empty desert with a rattlesnake coiled up in the toe of one of my boots. At sunset I pulled off my boot to let the snake go and it wasn’t angry or scared. It just stretched out beside me, warmed itself in the white sand, and watched me as I put my boot back on. And when the sun disappeared behind the purple and yellow hills, the snake crawled off and disappeared with it. And the whole desert reeked of lavender.

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9 thoughts on “The Ides of March, 1991

    • Thanks so much, and yes indeed it was Mother’s Day there. I was glad to be able to post it then because we’re also English on my grandfather’s side–and better to celebrate our mothers and grandmothers than the knifing of Caesar over 2000 years ago. Cheers and thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Beautiful. I as always, grant you poetic license on some of the facts, but places don’t matter just the message. and not all of your poetry was bad. I still have most of it. If you would like I can post my story. “Plain White Box.”Both story and poem. Yes Lavender and lace. and think god for spell check!!1 Love you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mom. She’s been gone for some time, so my memory may be a bit fuzzy on some of it, or… I just took some poetic license apropos of good ol’ fashioned Irish storytelling! Haha!

      I have the copy of “Plain White Box” you gave me and was actually thinking of posting it here. I may also have your story. Let me dig through my collection of your work and make sure I have it. I’ll keep you posted.

      Love you too.

      Like

  2. Pingback: The Ides of March, 1991 | WELCOME TO AUTHOR SAED ISMAIL H.AWED OFFICIAL WEBSITE.

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