FOREBEARS Write a story about your ancestors.
Stories About Not Being Afraid of Ghosts
It is the last year of my great-grandmother’s life, and she believes that she was born into royalty. She tells me of her girlhood in a Spanish castle, bare feet skidding across ancient stones and running grooves into the corners of the hallways. My great-grandmother is beautiful, with big almond eyes and dark skin that always seemed sun kissed, even in winter. She tells me, giggling like a schoolgirl, that she had been taught how to smile by her lady-in-waiting, a small Spanish girl from Cadiz. The houses there are white and the ocean is always grasping at the sidewalks. She and her lady-in-waiting would sit in front of the mirror and smile together, over and over and over again, until the melon of her lips burst so red and sudden across her mouth that everyone in the room stopped talking to stare at it.
“That’s how I met your great-grandfather,” she whispers, tender as a ragdoll on her bed while the sun slips in through the window and kisses her. “I saw him across the marketplace when I was buying fruit. I smiled at him and he gave me the fruit for free.”
I don’t know if this story—or something like it—is true. I don’t know if any of the stories she has told this year are true. I have built my great-grandfather out of the photographs he has been edited out of. My great-grandmother stopped speaking of him when he died, put his things away and never looked too long at my brother, who has my great-grandfather’s chin.
History says that my great-grandmother was a dancer, but she never talks about that. She never talks about anything except the way the trees grew outside her window at the palace and the sound that fingers made when plucked against the strings of her mother’s harp.
“Do you speak Spanish, Grammy?” I ask, sitting on the edge of her bed while she pushes a spoon through a murky bowl of soup.
Her eyes don’t entirely focus when she looks at me. “Heavens no, girl,” she laughs, faintly chastising. “Who on earth would understand me?”
There is a painting in my grandmother’s basement of a red-haired man. He has dark eyes and flushed cheeks, a faint but definite smile playing along the edges of his lips. He was painted with love. He is not my great-grandfather.
“That was Uncle Edward,” my grandmother tells me as she bends over to pull fresh cookies out of the oven. “He died before I was born. He was very dear to my parents.”
We love our dead in direct proportion to how little we speak of them. I have never heard my grandmother say her dead son’s name, nor heard any stories in which he was present. The year he died is absent from all our remembered calendars. I only know that I used to have an uncle because once, when he was very drunk, my father forgot that his brother was dead.
So I am surprised to find this painting. We do not hold on to our dead.
“Whose brother was he?” I ask my grandmother.
She hums thoughtfully, pulling her oven mitt off her hand and dropping it onto the counter beside the sink. She pokes at one of the cookies to test the temperature. “My father’s,” she says after a minute, sliding a cookie off the baking sheet with a fork and handing it to me on a napkin. “He died before they were married. I don’t know much about him, dear. My parents never said.” She waits, hands on her hips, until I take a bite. “How’s it taste?” she asks. My grandmother saves voicemails so that she can hear our voices when we are far away.
“Delicious,” I tell her, and she kisses my forehead.
“Did Grampy have a brother?” I ask my great-grandmother when she finishes telling me the story of how she escaped Spain wrapped in a rug like Cleopatra.
My great-grandmother blinks at me. Dust catches the sunlight and swirls over her head like a faded crown. She runs her hands down the worn surface of her blanket, humming the way my grandmother does when she is putting off an answer. “Yes,” my great-grandmother says at last. “Eduardo.”
“What was he like?”
She smiles her melon smile. “He was beautiful,” she tells me, and lays back against her sheets, beaming at the ceiling. “He worked in the palace kitchens. I loved him very much.”
“Did you love Grampy as much as you loved Eduardo?”
“I loved Grampy because I loved Eduardo,” my great-grandmother says, but refuses to elaborate.
There is a trunk in the attic with the letter “E” scripted in embossed gold in the place where the lock should be. Thick lines of dust cling to all its edges. It’s empty inside except for a few papers and a photo album.
The letters are all addressed to Eddy and signed all my love. I don’t know what my great-grandmother’s handwriting looks like. These letters could be from anybody. But there is a certain twist to the prose: “I think of you daily,” the woman writes, “I think of you the way the ocean thinks of the shore when the tide is out.”
My grandmother speaks of a Spain she’s never been to with the same nostalgia, the same artist’s eyes. She holds her breath before she speaks so that the words rush out like waves.
The last letter is dated in December. It begins, “My mother tells me you’ve been sick.”
My father says he doesn’t know anything about Uncle Edward, either. He says my great-grandmother painted his portrait and that was all she had to say on the matter. My father knows better than to ask a crazy woman for secrets.
“Did we come from Spain, originally?” I ask then, not sure what I want the answer to be. I used to dream of being a princess.
He laughs and ruffles my hair. “No,” he tells me. “I’m pretty sure our ancestors came from France.”
“What happened after Grampy gave you the fruit?” I ask my great-grandmother. It is not the last time that I will speak to her, but it is getting close.
My great-grandmother is seated by the window, ensconced in a chair that seems to swallow her. She used to be a dancer, but all of that muscle is gone. She smiles out at a landscape that I can’t see. I don’t know where we are—where we must be—when she reaches out to take my hand and murmurs, “This is my daughter. Isn’t she lovely? Doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, of course. Kids these days have no respect for their cultural heritage.”
After a beat of silence, my great-grandmother cuts me with a look. “Don’t be rude,” she hisses. “Say hello. Curtsy.”
I curtsy. I say, “Encantada.”
We are in a castle. Somewhere in the marketplace outside, a young man is selling fruit alongside his beautiful brother. My grandmother is well-loved by the sun and by a peasant girl from Cadiz. We have mouths like melons, red and bursting.
“Encantada,” my great-grandmother repeats, almost a song.
Encantada, encantada, encantada.
The year after my great-grandmother dies, I stand outside the Royal Palace of Madrid. The sun is setting. She must have come here once and remembered it, I tell myself, startled by how close her descriptions had come.
From a small stall on the side of the road, a dark-eyed Spanish boy with flushed cheeks offers me an apple.