SOMEONE ON THE CEILING
Charlotte Cohen is an award-winning short story writer, essayist and poet, whose work has appeared in a wide variety of South African publications since 1973. She is a regular contributor to Jewish Affairs. This story was first published in the SA Jewish Times Rosh Hashanah Annual, 1994.
I loved visiting my grandmother when I was a child. The reason was simple. She spoiled me rotten: She took me to matinees. She played rummy with me. She made me French toast and she let me dress up in her evening clothes … and she would tell everyone how wonderful I was - in front of me!
x x x
As fate would have it, I came to live next door to my grandmother in my late teens. She still continued to speak about me in front of me, but now, her comments were always directed to someone on the ceiling. …
When I walked in, she would turn her eyes upwards and say: “Another new dress! She’s got a wardrobe full of clothes! Does she need another new dress?!”
Once when I said I didn’t know what to wear, my grandmother looked up to the ceiling and remarked dryly: “If she
only had a black dress and a white dress, she’d know what to wear.”
The news of my impending marriage was met with great misgiving: “She can’t cook! She can’t sew! She can’t clean! All she can do is dress up!’ she informed the ceiling. “Well, I wish her luck!” she said. “And I wish him luck” she ended ominously.
“Who are you talking to?” I demanded. “I hate it when you do that! … When you talk about me, in front of me – to someone who isn’t even there!” And with that, I flounced from the room.
x x x
Once I had children, there was no end to it: A steady barrage of criticism and complaint preceded them wherever they went. …..
‘Those plastic pants are making marks on his legs” she berated as she pulled the nappy from out of the pilchers.
“Don’t do that!” I would say as I pushed the nappy back into the pilchers, “The mattress is getting wet!”
“But it’s making marks on his legs!” she would go on arguing.
“And its making the whole cot wet! …. Anyway,” I sighed, “how did you keep your babies dry?”
“We changed the baby’s nappies!” she retorted, “We changed their nappies!”
She looked up at the ceiling. “We changed the baby’s nappies!” she told it, “We didn’t pickle babies in pee!”
As the children grew older, her remonstrations continued:
“The child is half naked! She hasn’t even put a jersey on him! The child’s got no colour! …He’s turning blue!”
“You just said he had no colour,” I said, “Now you say he’s turning blue. Well, blue’s a colour, isn’t it?”
My grandmother looked straight up at the ceiling. “She thinks she’s so funny!” she said, “If she would rather put a jersey on the child instead of always trying to be so clever, we’d all be happy!”
x x x
One never knows when it is the last time we will experience something; there seems to be no transitional period in our lives. It is usually one event that suddenly catapults us from one stage to another; one event which changes our lives forever .....
……. Life irrevocably shifted gear for me with the death of my mother.
I was thirty-something. My grandmother was eighty-something.
I had lost a mother. She had lost a daughter.
There was no one else to break the news to her. I did what I had seen a family doctor do many years before. To allow her a few minutes in order to be prepared for what was to follow, I told my grandmother that my mother had taken a turn for the worse. “I’m going to phone the hospital now and find out how she is,” I said.
I went to the phone and pretended to dial a number. I came back, put my arms around her and said softly, “Granny, she’s gone.”
In that imperceptible moment before I felt her small body sobbing in my arms, whilst I, in turn, wept on her shoulders, she seemed to sense that what I had done, had been done in order to protect her.
…. In that same moment, just as a baton is passed from one relay runner to another, we both knew that the reins of responsibility carried by my mother would be handed to me.
My grandmother never spoke to anyone on the ceiling about me again.
x x x
You know, very often the thing that irritates us the most, is the thing we miss the most.
I missed it – and still do. You see, my grandmother’s remonstrations had kept me securely in the role of a ‘child-woman’. Suddenly I had been catapulted into a pit-stop between a husband and children on one side and a frail, elderly grandmother on the other. I had been hurtled forward to occupy my mother’s place as an intermediary between four generations.
x x x
They say children never listen to their elders, yet never fail to imitate them.
The Beatles had a profound effect on male-gendered children, no matter how young. Straggly shoulder-length hair had replaced the traditional ‘short-back-and-sides.’ I was incredulous when my son returned from school.
“You didn't have a haircut!” I exclaimed. “I can’t believe it! You’ve been warned that if your hair is more than three centimetres over your collar, you’re going to get into trouble!”
“No, I’m not!” he said, “You see, if I tuck the back of my hair into my collar, and push my fringe into my cap, no one can even notice it. Anyway, I think it looks sexy.”
“Sexy!” I exploded, “What are you talking about?! You look absolutely disreputable!”
I rolled my eyes upwards in total exasperation. “Can you believe it?” I asked, “I gave him the money to have a haircut. But did he go?! No!! He actually wants to look his worst! And he’s been warned! He’s going to get into trouble! But will he listen? No!! He’s so stubborn; one might as well be talking to the wall!!”
My son stopped in his tracks.
“What do you mean, ‘One might as well
--’? You are talking to the wall! And I hate it when you do that! ... when you talk about me, in front of me, to someone who isn’t even there!”
And with that, he turned on his heel and marched out of the room.
In the silence that followed his exit, my grandmother’s face was implacable. Not a muscle moved. It was her expression that reflected more than anything else her great satisfaction that I had finally become acquainted with her special friend who lived somewhere up there on the ceiling.