Grandmother Doris, who wasn’t really my grandmother, grew the nicest peonies and they always bloomed just in time for Memorial day. She lived in a two-story Victorian on the bad side of the city. It wasn’t the bad side when she moved there, but the world changed around those white walls with intricate cutouts of laced wood. My grandfather Cyril lived there with her for awhile before he died. No word was mentioned to us children of their type of relationship, just that she was Grandmother Doris if we wanted her to be.
The house was surrounded by gangs and cracked streets and a chain-link fence. Inside it was a fragile world of ceramic figurines in glass cases. There were Persian rugs and caged bird that always squawked when you came near. The wooden floors creaked under all those rugs, and it smelled like something musty and distant. Oval photos on striped wallpaper showed the faces of staring bygones. The only object we were allowed to touch in the front parlor was an electric organ. It had knobs and pedals and white and black keys that echoed with watery fusions and beats.
Grandmother Doris owned two little Chijuajuas that snarled and yapped when you entered the kitchen. Into the cellar they’d go, whining and crying like babies. And they were her babies. Our visits were their minor inconvenience in an otherwise splendid existence of cutlets and constant petting.
After a bit of chat, we’d all go to the backyard. It rolled down to a string of peony bushes: snowballs of white, pink and blush red and candy cane stripes. They smelled like old perfume, not the strong Chanel my mother dashed onto her neck before get-togethers, but a soft humid fragrance of long agos and wilting memories. Doris would fill three plastic buckets with blooms, then we’d head off to the graveyards.
Three women—my Aunt Kathleen, my mother and my faux-grandmother Doris—led us past stone markers, across hillsides, past graves untouched and overgrown with weeds, past large monuments with engravings caked in lichen, to one little stone marker for a sister long ago dead, to their aunts and uncles, and finally their mother and father. They pulled out iron vases and filled them with peony water, then the peonies themselves. Once a live thing in bright sunlight along a metal fence, now death for death in an iron vase.
Then we’d pray.
Our father who art in heaven . . . For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever . . . Hail Mary full of grace . . .
We knelt in the sitting room of the dead, our thoughts attuned to our prayers, our voices singing together in watery beats. It was hard for us children to remember what we didn’t know, with our not-real grandmother and memories of people dead before our first breath. But it felt like we remembered something. Part of it was ours, but we couldn’t really touch and know for sure.