By Molly Dunn
When I think of my grandmother, I think of smoke. She always had a Parliament dangling from her mouth like an ornament. Her house was perpetually filled with smoke, a constant film noir in the middle of Timmins. When I was a teenager, I would visit her house and collect the smell on my clothes to better fit in with the older boys who hung around in the church parking lot at night. It followed her wherever she went; some drew a wide berth around her, covering their noses with their sleeves to convey their displeasure. It didn’t help that she was already difficult to understand and consequently, to get along with. Her voice, ragged and raw from the constant assault of tobacco, turned even the simplest remarks into an attack, though she never let this deter her from speaking. In church, she sang the loudest and ‘Amened’ the loudest while ignoring the sighs and hmphs from her fellow godly Christians. She told me once, when I asked her if she noticed their stares, “Boy, people stared at Jesus too.” For the only thing my grandmother praised more than nicotine was God.
When I was a boy, before I understood why my parents were absent, before I understood the prison the bottle put them in, I was dragged along behind her to church on Sundays while I waited for my parents to rise from their stupor. My grandmother was like a strange, Catholic dragon to me back then. I watched her with curious, focused eyes as she sang the hymns and recited the Apostle’s Creed with the fervour of a fanatic. She never failed to shake Father Malins’ hand after mass and always gave her two cents about the scripture selection and homily. Unlike the other parishioners, he never seemed to mind the cloud of smoke that trailed my grandmother or her proclivity for profanities. Perhaps it was his faith that gave him the strength to overlook her sins. Father Malins was also the only one who seemed to notice me, my grandmother’s quiet shadow. I was nine years old, the year my grandmother had to kick my father out of his own house, when he invited me to be an altar boy, though I wasn’t particularly keen. Church was never about religion to me. It was always about my grandmother. But when she heard Father Malins’ offer, she agreed on my behalf.
“Randall,” she told me, throwing her cigarette down on the ground in the church parking lot as she knelt to face me, “say what you will about these modern mothers, but a boy needs a Father.”
I furrowed my brow in confusion. “But – but,” I stuttered, “I have a father.” I remember only her sigh and the feeling of her cool, ashen hand against my cheek. From then on, I arrived at church an hour early each Sunday to lay out the hymn books and play cards with Father Malins while my grandmother ran her errands.
Even then, standing at the front of the Church during mass rather than in my grandmother’s cloud, I never took my eyes off her. In fact, I had a better view of her from the alter than I’d ever had standing next to her. I could see the glint in her eyes as she bellowed “Glory to God in the Highest” and “Water of Life.” I watched, mesmerized, as she scribbled furiously in her notepad during Father Malins’ homily, preparing her corrections to hand him after the service. I indulged myself occasionally, breaking my stare to observe the hateful looks she received from those around her. She offended in so many ways: her smell, her voice, her devoutness that thinly veiled her condescension. It was impossible for me to understand how they couldn’t see what I saw, how they weren’t in awe of her commitment. It was a depth of commitment I had never given and certainly never received, except from her.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager and found her bible that I realized her commitment was more selective than the word implies. She was taking her afternoon nap, a recent addition to her daily schedule that revealed to me, for the first time, her mortality. I took advantage of this time to look for one of the packs of cigarettes she had stashed throughout the house that I could steal and sell to the kids at school. It was a lucrative business, but one that had to be approached with caution. I feared the wrath of my grandmother the way she feared the wrath of God. I came across her bible during one of my searches through her sitting room drawers. It was the one she carried with her to Sunday service and spread in front of her during her nightly rosary in her prayer room, which was once my mother’s bedroom. Its brown leather was worn from her grasp, its spine broken, proof to all who saw it that my grandmother was a devout woman. I had never read from it before; maybe once when I was younger, but not that I could remember. I opened it with curiosity and the sense that I was intruding. Peering into her bible was like peering into my grandmother herself. It was her most prized and personal possession, the pages no one’s business but hers and God’s.
It was highlighted and marked up more ferociously than my chemistry textbook. Passages were highlighted and underscored, the pages dog-eared and bookmarked. It was clear she had read every word of the book, over and over again. I wasn’t sure why she even kept it; she could recite any passage verbatim when asked. She whispered along with Father Malins as he read the Liturgy of the Word. If he made a mistake while reading, she made sure to correct him. I perused the book, page by page, observing which passages she highlighted and annotated and which she ignored. Some of the boys at school had given each other tattoos with ink and a needle and these words reminded me of those tattoos, inseparable from the person who chose them. I flipped through the thin pages, licking my finger for traction the way I had seen my grandmother do countless times. The words blurred together, more a feeling than a language, and I began to glimpse the faith that fueled my grandmother. The momentum of the feeling stopped as I observed her bold highlighting and underscoring of Leviticus 20:13. It stood out on the page the same way my grandmother stood out in church. The letters rose from the page in thick black ink – If a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. I didn’t allow myself to pause too long on this page. I stuffed down whatever feelings were arising within me and closed its brown leather walls. I picked up the pack of cigarettes that was laying in the drawer and placed the bible back down with a thud.
The bible lay in my hands, even more worn than it had been the last time I had seen it, twelve years before during my search for cigarettes. Two pieces of duct tape held the spine together and the leather had more wrinkles than my grandmother had had. It seemed her faith was the only thing that kept it together all those years. Now that she was gone, pages fell to the carpet and seemed to disintegrate between my fingertips. It all felt so different without her. So empty. The apartment was still littered with boxes, stuffed with her things, marked “Donation” or “Storage.” Her smoke still filled the room, dimming the sunlight that entered through the windows, releasing puffs of dust from the carpet whenever I took a step. Only now, the smell hit me differently. It was no longer fond and familiar, synonymous with my grandmother herself. Now, it was a sinister reminder of chemotherapy and hospitals, of catching her sneaking out of palliative care for a smoke.
It had taken me a long time, too long, to realize my grandmother was an addict too. Not only to nicotine, but to God. They served a purpose and she couldn’t live without them. But cigarettes killed her and her faith killed us.
I felt Will enter the room behind me, ready to carry another tower of boxes to the car. I watched the smile dim from his eyes as they landed on the bible and the flicker of recognition. He knew the story, the one I had told him all those years ago when we first met. When I was hesitant, ashamed. Wordlessly, he crossed the room with brisk, assured strides, wrapped his strong arms around me, and rested his chin on my shoulder.
“You know I never told her,” I said, breaking the silence that seemed to suffocate me. I felt my body tense, bracing itself. I worried he would be angry. I worried he would think I was ashamed of him. He was always so proud. In a strange way, he reminded me of her. I was shocked when he held my hand as we walked down Bloor West, seemingly unaware of the stares. I couldn’t help but remember watching my grandmother from the alter, ignoring the looks from the other parishioners as she all but shouted the Lord’s Prayer. I was attracted to proud people, it seemed, though I couldn’t seem to capture that pride myself. Even when I knew it was my last chance, knew she would only have to live with the truth for a few more hours, I couldn’t bring myself to face her judgement. Their blood shall be upon them. Though the bible said it was God who would do the punishing, I felt she would take it upon herself.
I braced myself to feel him recoil, to feel his anger at being kept secret. But it never came. He turned his face and planted a kiss on my cheek, firm, reassuring, as he always was. “What do you want to do with it?” he asked. It was a question I had asked myself for days. It wasn’t a question of what to do with God’s book. It was a question of what to do with her. I wished I could extract her from the poisonous smoke and poisonous faith, hold her in my hand, just her. But like the tumour on my grandmother’s lungs, my memory of her was inoperable. I could not black out the parts I didn’t like. I could not be selectively committed to her memory.
I removed myself from his strong arms and crossed the room, grabbing an empty box. I placed her book in it and grabbed a black marker from the table. I labelled it “Keep.”
Molly Dunn is a writer and actor at the University of Toronto. Her other work is set to appear in Meat For Tea: The Valley Review. As a queer writer and performer, Molly wrote ‘Keep’ to explore generational boundaries and the implications of having a hero who rejects a fundamental part of your identity. This piece takes up questions like: What does it mean to have to hide? What does it mean to love someone who hates who you are? To hold on to their memory? While this piece won’t attempt to answer these questions, it offers up a space for readers to sit with the ambiguity – at least for a moment.
Photo credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash