Grandmother let me help her set the table. Billy pulled out the leaf to make it bigger when there were lots of people. "We will use the linens for the guests — our best tablecloth, Ellen."
I enjoyed polishing the silver with the bluish cream and the soft blue cloth. She set up my work shop on the porch at a table covered with newspaper. This way I could smell the ocean, hear the seagulls squawking, and watch the boats going by. I counted the boats, forgetting to work.
"She's dreamy, Esther," I could hear her telling her sister in whispered tones on the black phone in the kitchen. I could imagine great aunt Esther saying something creepy about me. Mommy used to turn up her shoulder when Aunt Esther came to town. She had the same look when we ran into Mr. Wicker, her boss at the bank, when we met him at the grocery store . "Mr. Wicked" was her name for him. She said that to her friends in her quiet voice.
I remember only pieces of the day it happened. My neighbor Sarah, in the middle of balloons the scary clown was shaping into animals. I snuck an extra piece of cake when nobody was looking, as sugary treats were new to me. When I saw the policeman talking to Sarah's Mom, I thought I was in trouble for my theft. His big hand felt like sandpaper as he guided me to the fancy living room where no kids were playing. Sarah's Mom stood behind the purple chair, it's edge too plump for her fingers.
I do remember my grandmother coming to Sarah's to get me. Policemen held on to her and the clown bumped into her. "Accident. Hospital. Heaven."
I think I heard those words, or maybe learned them in the meetings I had with the nice lady who lived near grandmother. In the year since it happened, I saw the lady a lot. "Ellen" she would say to me, when I couldn't look at her, "Tell me how you feel." I loved Gam so much, I was afraid to tell the lady how sad I was. How much I missed Mommy.
The day my grandmother agreed to a nickname was sunny. We had come to the porch to play cards and watch the ocean. "Gam. I want to call you Gam," I said, looking at the ocean. She pulled back her lower lip and said. "Ellen, Gam it shall be!"
Gam turned little things into a celebration.
"How many flowers are on that tree?"
"Who cares if the recipe says cinnamon? No need sending Billy out for that."
Billy lived next door. One of the Gilligans. They had a lot of kids. He went to a special school. Gam paid him for the chores she needed done since Grandpa died. Gam's voice changed when Billy was around. She left spaces like Reverend Miller did after his stroke.
Gam and I brought dinners to the Millers. She would leave them on their doorstep. She let me clang the hanging bell on the door as a signal. Even though Gam was sad Reverend had to retire, she still played word games with me on the sandy road to their cottage.
"Let's pick new names for everything we see, Ellen."
"The gifts of sight and speech ... and your imagination. Use them! Enjoy them!"
Miss Dixon didn't like Gam's games. She called Gam into school to meet with her. I wasn't allowed to go, but I knew it wouldn't be fun. Miss Dixon didn't like fun. Or me.
"Esther, she wants her to color between the lines," Gam said, not bothering to whisper.
I was kind of confused because I was good at coloring. Even Miss Dixon said so.
Then Gam started whispering again. I tip-toed through the hall, careful not to step on the noisy floor board.
"Not one word of sympathy about my Julia. Nothing." Gam got quiet. I think she was crying. Julia was Mommy. Oh how I missed Mommy! I stood still as a statue. Mommy used to be little like me. It was hard to picture Mommy jumping rope or coloring.
I wanted to ask Gam all about Mommy, but I didn't want to make her cry, like Miss Dixon did. But Miss Dixon didn't ask about Mommy. I knew that made Gam sad. Everything about Mommy made us sad.
The next day I asked Miss Dixon if she liked my coloring.
"It's good, Ellen. But we're doing subtraction now."
When we got to poetry, Miss Dixon told me to sit down and study it better. I had said sparrow for bird and violet for purple. I remembered that Miss Dixon wasn't Gam.
That evening Gam and I played cards on the porch. The waves were big and loud, and the birds were squealing like crazy. Gam lifted her tea cup and smiled at me."I dropped off the peach pie we made to the Reverend today. Mrs. Miller told me she didn't feel up to planning a birthday party for him. I'd said we'd do it, Ellen."
Just then, a big white bird landed on the porch railing. It was as big as me, and had a pink tail. "Our first guest, Ellen! A spoonbill!"
After Gam read me a bedtime story, I crept over to my encyclopedia, to look up spoonbill. It wasn't a made-up name. There was a pretty picture of it. I needed to get things straight for Miss Dixon.
Gam walked me to the Millers more than usual, to ask about the party.
One windy day, we passed Danny Gilligan, Billy's older brother, opening the car door for his mother, just like the movies. He wore bright red sneakers that came up to his ankles. They had a white star near the top.
"I wish I could drive a car. When I get bigger, I will."
"Don't wish your life away, Ellen. There is a time for everything."
"No ... church ... people, " Reverend said to us. Mrs. Miller's face got red like mine when Miss Dixon corrected me. "He doesn't want to exclude anyone. Or make you work too hard," she said to Gam.
"Then we'll have a small luncheon. We'll invite the Gilligans and my sister, Esther."
Oh no, I thought. Aunt Esther could ruin anything. Later that evening, I was happy to hear Aunt Esther couldn't make it. Then I felt bad because she was Gam's sister. And Mommy's aunt.
The day of the party was sunny and bright. Billy came over early to pull out the leaf to make the table big enough. Gam and I put on a light brown table cloth with pretty yellow flowers.
I folded the linen napkins and placed the silverware I polished where Gam had taught me.
Billy opened the windows. He had put in the screens earlier that week.
Gam and I baked a big square birthday cake for Reverend Miller.
The Gilligan family were our first guests. I was disappointed that Danny couldn't come. His Mom said he had to work. Danny was nice to little kids. Billy told me Danny's job was with kids, when he wasn't in school.
Mrs. Miller pushed her husband's wheel chair up to the table. She asked Gam to sit down and relax. "You've done enough. Sit down and enjoy this fine food," she said.
We said grace and began to eat. There was a knock on the front door. Billy answered it.
I noticed Danny's sneakers as he walked into the room. He had a big red bulb on his nose, and a costume like a clown. I thought of the clown the day Mommy died, but remembered it was Danny. He said hello to everyone and waved his squirt bottle.
Gam screamed and pushed away from the table. She let out a sob so loud, it nearly broke my heart. Her shoulders shook as she put her hands to her face. "Julia," she said through her hiccups.
Mrs. Gilligan led her family from the table. Mrs. Miller put her arms around Gam.
"I'll read you a story, Gam. I'll make you tea," I said.
Mrs. Miller looked over at me, and I knew it was time to be quiet. I listened to the noisy seagulls outside. I made up stories that they told each other. Stories I would tell grandmother later, when her shoulders stopped shaking.
I could picture Gam in her porch chair smiling, drinking tea, sitting up straight and still.....still, like the spoonbill who visited us before the party.
Edith Gallagher Boyd is a graduate of Temple University. She lives in Palm Beach County, Florida.