Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
“I’m dying,” says my grandmother.
“Dying where?” I ask. “I’m coming. Don’t go anywhere before I get there.”
“I have to go,” says my grandmother.
On December 26, 2018, my grandmother, Gertrude Mark, died somewhere.
If this were a fairy tale, I’d go look for her.
My hair has been going slowly white since I turned eighteen. I color it brown, but a few months ago I decided to grow out one strand. Like snow. Like the cold, bright path I would take to look for my grandmother if this were a fairy tale. But it’s not. This is America, and my grandmother is dead.
When my mother sees the strand she begins to cry. “I hate it,” she says. “I just hate it.”
In Italo Calvino’s retelling of the 1883 Italian fairy tale “The False Grandmother,” “a mother had to sift flour, and told her little girl to go to her grandmother’s to borrow the sifter.” In other versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the mother sends her daughter to grandmother’s with a loaf of hot bread and a bottle of milk. Or cake and a bottle of wine, because grandmother is ill. Whatever the version, there are always woods between mother and grandmother, and the woods are thick with wolves. There is undergrowth, a rising moon, and the unsolvable riddle of choosing a path of pins over a path of needles. Like a house that gets smaller and smaller behind you, the mother vanishes from the tale once the story opens into the woods. And Little Red Riding Hood, like a streak of blood, is the trail that connects a gobbled-up grandmother to the barest trace of mother. I don’t read “Little Red Riding Hood” as a cautionary tale of what can happen to a little girl who strays from the path. The path to grandmother (like any good story) is by its nature a stray, it’s rooted in stray-ness. And even Little Red Riding Hood, her name alone, is marked by gerund: a verb disguised as a noun, a riding, a going away. I read the story instead as a tale about the wild space between grandmothers and mothers, and the child that grows there. In the Brothers Grimm version, “Little Red Cap opened her eyes wide and saw how the sunbeams were dancing this way and that through the trees and how there were beautiful flowers all about.” The space between mother and grandmother is where the light comes in. It’s where Red glows reddest.
My mother laughs at me in my grandmother’s living room for pretending to feed a baby doll my grandmother has just given me. I am five. It’s my first memory of anger and shame. “You ruin everything,” I say to my mother.
In Kellie Wells’s “The Girl, the Wolf, the Crone,” the mother (“a soon-to-be-old woman”), who has a “loaf of bread always sitting in her hands,” tells her daughter (Little Miss Red Cheeks) that she knows a “sickly wolf who would like nothing better than to receive stale bread from her.” It’s a genius twist. The mother tells her daughter to be careful because the woods are full of old women who miss the feel of bread in their hands. The girl is barely on her way when she sees “a crusty old woman with a face like a fallen cake” who is after the wolf and the bread and Red because Red’s mother once “pinched the loaf” from her and “the embezzlement of fertility necessarily exacts a stiff tariff.” The old woman (who speaks a mix of feral and ancient, and, as it turns out, is the girl’s grandmother) eats the wolf, who “unzips his coat and drags his body dutifully into her mouth.” Then she waits for Red and her bread, and then dear grandmother eats the girl and the loaf, too. If menopause comes after menstruation, then what comes after menopause? In Wells’s retelling it is something wild and primordial and hairy and ravenous.
“A pagina,” says my five-year-old son to my seven-year-old son, “is a cave covered in fur.” Good enough, I think.
When I was a child I was told by a teacher that if you put a piece of challah bread under your pillow, go to sleep, and then wake up at midnight and look in the mirror, you will see yourself as a very, very old woman. And I did. And I saw my very old face, though I’m not sure whether I actually saw it or whether I only remember seeing it. What I am certain of is that the very old face sees things. I wish to look out through that face. Even if it isn’t yet mine.
In fairy tales, you can open up a wolf and find an old woman. Or you can find an old woman deep in the woods in a hut that dances and twirls on chicken legs. Or sweeping with a broom made from the hair of the dead. Or living in a house made of bread with sugar windows and a roof made of cake. Or deep in the sea where no flowers grow, with her great, spongy breasts covered in fat water snakes. When you find an old woman in a fairy tale often she is tucked deep inside the folds of an underworld. Somewhere the psyche grows intuition like wild mushrooms.
For most of my life, my favorite activity was to talk to my grandmother. She and I would verbally line up every member of our family and go at them one by one. Subjecting each, without their knowledge, to deep analysis and Freudian cures. Looping and unlooping. Around and around we’d go. When my grandmother got to the heart of one of our relatives, she’d squint her left eye as though she were looking through a crack in the air. I wanted her soft wrinkles. I wanted her furrowed brow. When I was a child I wanted to be old.
At the end of Angela Carter’s “In the Company of Wolves,” grandmother’s old bones clatter under the bed like a haunted wedding bell. The girl lays the wolf’s “fearful head in her lap,” picks the lice from his fur, and imagines eating them “as he will bid her.” It’s a reception in a deathbed: half funeral, half wedding. It’s a grave of love. “Since her fear did no good,” writes Carter, “she ceased to be afraid.”
In my grandmother’s final hour, her room was crowded with people even though it was only my stepmother and my father who were actually there. “She was moving people around,” says my father. “Pushing some out of the way, and pulling some closer.” My father is a doctor. “I could give you a medical explanation …” His voice trails off, taking science with it. In this moment he is more a man with no mother than he is a doctor. And now that the world has run out of his mother, he wants to believe another more beautiful world has run in.
My father doesn’t say, “Grandma died.” Instead he says, “Come home.” I feel dizzy and fortified and fragile all at once. It is as though I am giving birth in reverse. As though I now have a new, thick lining of grandmother inside me, a hard soft thing. “Why is grief,” writes Gertrude Stein. “Grief is strange black. Sugar is melting. We will swim.” Grief is the rat-a-tat-tat of a hungry wolf.
I dream I am flat on my back on an examining table. The doctor rubs a clear, cold jelly on my belly and glides a small rectangular box across me. Look, says the doctor. The waves of the sonogram echo as they hit a dense object, such as organ or bone. Such as my dead grandmother who smiles in a small wooden boat. She is the size of an almond. Instead of a heartbeat, I hear a gentle splash. Her oars dip into my grief, which is now a lake inside me. The lake looks sweet and thick and dark. “This Water Water,” says my grandmother, “has the strength of one thousand old Women Women.” I look at the doctor who is now my five-year-old son. He wants to know why I named him Eli. Around his neck is a bright pink stethoscope.
After the wolf in “The Story of the Grandmother” kills grandmother, he puts her flesh in the pantry and a bottle of her blood on the shelf. “You’re a slut,” says a cat, “if you eat your grandmother.” The cat never speaks again, and rather than reply, Little Red Riding Hood takes off her apron, bodice, dress, skirt, and stockings, throws them in the fire, and climbs into bed with the wolf. She outsmarts him by untying the wool rope the wolf tied to her leg and tying it to a plum tree. She outsmarts the wolf because she now has grandmother inside her. But in Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood,” the wolf not only devours grandmother, he gobbles up Red, too. Instead of a huntsman, a moral follows: Be careful whom you listen to. Tame wolves are the most dangerous of all.
At the funeral, the rabbi hands me a pamphlet: How to Explain Death to Children. He loved my grandmother, and he smells like old rain, and he is missing teeth. Every Friday night he called her before sundown to let her know the exact time to light the Shabbat candles. I look through the death pamphlet. Item no. 7 is this:
Do Not give stories and fairytales as an explanation for the mystery of death. Never cover up with a fiction or a confusing interpretation that you will someday repudiate. For example, to say that “your mother has gone on a long journey” is to give the impression that she may someday return.
We light Shabbat candles. My son Eli looks into the flame. “I see Grandma Gert in the brown part,” he says.
“Unhealthy explanations,” according to the pamphlet, “can create fear, doubt, and guilt, and encourage flights of fancy that are far more bizarre than reality.”
“Grandma Gert is dead, isn’t she?” says my seven-year-old, Noah. A week earlier, he had given me clear instructions: “If she dies, never tell me.” “She is dead,” I say. I am empty of poetry. She’s just dead, I think. I am the most boring mother on earth. I scan my imagination, and the only thing I can find is the part where Noah never knows for certain whether my grandmother is dead or not. Like a white spot on his consciousness. And I begin to think about what might grow in this spot. A cold, empty, nameless thing. He should not have this spot. So I say it. “She is dead.”
I comb many fairy tales for mourning rituals, but there are few. Death is often a spell to be broken, so to mourn as though death can’t thin back into life isn’t—in a fairy tale—realistic. Also characters in fairy tales are never quite conscious. It’s our consciousness that wakes them up, which is why the stories are so susceptible to retellings. Even in the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White,” after the dead princess is unlaced and combed and washed with water and wine, the weeping dwarves cannot bear to “lower her into the dark ground.” Instead they put her in a glass coffin, carry it up the top of the mountain, and watch her body through the glass not decay. Snow White’s glass coffin is the magic mirror her wicked stepmother has really been after: a magic coffin, a coffin of youth. When the prince shows up, it’s not Snow White he asks for, but the coffin. “Let me have the coffin. I will give you whatever you want for it.” The prince doesn’t want Snow White or to solve the mystery of death. He wants the undying body.
My father covers all the mirrors with bedsheets to prepare to sit shivah. In the bathroom, I pull a small corner back expecting to see my grandmother’s reflection, but instead I just see my own.
After the funeral, we return to my grandmother’s house, where she lived for sixty-seven years. She is nowhere to be found. It’s barely been one day, and already the living room is windy and stale. “Where the hell did she go?” asks my brother.
For $6.99, a pattern for a three-headed Little Red Riding Hood Topsy-Turvy doll is available on Etsy. Flip Little Red Riding Hood over, and she becomes Grandmother. Reverse Grandmother’s bonnet, and now she’s the wolf. I can’t sew. Nor can I successfully follow a pattern without, well, straying. But as I imagine turning this doll upside down, then right side up, then inside out, I begin to realize that Little Red Riding Hood is a shared wolf song sung by a girl, an old lady, and a beast, about straying, and hunger, and dying.
At the funeral, the rabbi rips my father’s shirt. It is a long tear down the left, over the heart. A frayed arrow pointing at my father’s nipple because my father’s mother is dead. I have never wanted to not die as much as I have since my sons were born. In the last photograph I have of my grandmother, she is sitting between my sons like twilight smiling in the middle of two dawns.
My sons don’t ask me where my grandmother is now. Instead, I ask them. “She’s right there,” says Eli. He points behind me at a bookcase where I keep all my old journals and the books my husband has published. I turn around. “There?” I ask. “Yes,” he says, impatiently, “right there.” He checks for himself. He feels sorry for my inability to see, and then he puts his little hand on my shoulder. “And also,” he says, now soft with charity, “everywhere.” I’m thinking maybe he should rewrite the death pamphlet. No. 7. Close your eyes. No. 8. Now open them. No. 9 Now look inside.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.