Shimmering heat rose from the roadway, watery, as if sailing on the rippling waves of a shallow sea. I placed my hand on sleeping two-year-old Kami’s stomach, the rhythm of her breathing synchronized to the sound of the Greyhound bus rolling over rough highway.
Was that really her name? I’d changed it to be rid of my family, including Grandma Elsa, for whom I’d named her.
As the miles grinded behind us, thoughts of my grandmother surfaced from a deep well of emotion. Noticing my reflection in the window, hazy from the sizzling heat beyond, I saw Grandma Elsa gazing back at me, a young woman again – blonde hair, sharp Scandinavian nose, and sapphire eyes mirroring each other across time and space. Drowsy, I floated on waves of memory to Grandma’s Chicago apartment, when I stayed with her through the final weeks of Grandpa’s life.
I’d been working at the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, answering phones and typing up contracts for a company selling radio spots for national stations. I took the subway home to Grandma’s 1920s-era apartment building, a quick walk from the station. When I rang the doorbell above her mail slot, she pressed the buzzer so quickly I knew she’d been standing there, waiting. I walked up the red-carpeted, squeaky stairs as I had done all the years of my life, greeted by the scrumptious aroma of her famous cardamon bread, or roast-beef dinner warming the chilly stairwell.
Every evening, the same greetings.
“Hi Grandma!” I walked through the door she’d left ajar, grasping the old-fashioned glass doorknob to close it behind me with a metal click.
“Is that you, Annie?” Grandma called from the kitchen in her sing-song Swedish accent.
“Uh, yeah, Gran. Were you expecting someone else?” I crossed through the dining room to the kitchen to kiss her cheek.
“I hope you like supper,” she always said, as if I could possibly not.
We ate in her kitchen. I liked it that way, warm and cozy. Grandma talked about Sweden.
“When did you leave, Gran?” I’m sure I’d been told, but had never listened.
“1916,” she quickly answered. She smiled, buttering a slice of limpa, a dark bread with tiny pieces of pickled orange rind. “I was twenty-one.”
“Why did you and grandpa leave Sweden?” I too buttered a slice.
She looked off into the past somewhere above my head, dabbing a drop of gravy off her chin. “My mother told me to go,” she firmly said.
“Ahhh, It’s a long story.”
“We have time.”
She put down her fork and placed her hands in her lap. “There were no yobs in Sweden,” she said, ‘j’ pronounced ‘y’ in Swedish. “Everybody was poor. My mother didn’t want me to go, but America was a chance for a better life.” She cleared her throat. “Your grandfather Yohn offered to pay my way. I met him when I was sixteen. He came to the house before he left for America. Two times,” she added.
I knew Grandpa John had paid her passage, assuming they’d been in love. The way she told it now, I sensed romance may not have been the basis of their marriage.
“You mean you only met John twice before you saw him again, in America?”
“Ja, Annie,” she said defensively.
“Sssoooo, then it was an arranged marriage sort of thing.”
“No, not like that.”
“Grandma, it sure sounds like it.”
“No. It wasn’t. He was okay. I liked him. He was very handsome.”
“You wanted to leave Sweden?”
“Well, no.” Grandma wouldn’t look at me. I let it go and we ate in silence.
During dessert I asked, “Why don’t you go home?”
“Oh, I could never do that.” She didn’t sound too convincing.
“Why not? Your sister is still alive.”
“Pshew. Don’t be foolish.” She batted my suggestion away with a swipe of her napkin.
Grandpa John died in November 1982. He was ninety-one.
I stayed until Grandma moved into a retirement home in Rockford, Illinois, catering to Swedish elders. We continued our routine in the kitchen I’d be heartbroken to leave. One Friday evening, preparing dough for her coffee bread, out of the blue she revealed a shocking secret.
“On my way to America, I fell in love,” she blurted, vigorously kneading dough.
I was stunned. I had never heard this before.
“Wow! Why didn’t you marry him?”
“Your grandfather paid my way. I was debted to him.”
“Grandma! Couldn’t you have just paid him back, or something?”
“No!” she firmly said. “I had a yob in Chicago anyway, as a governess on Lake Shore Drive. Anders was going to Minnesota.”
“These things happened,” she said softly. “We yust accepted it.”
Grandma explained that her emigration to the U.S. began in Stockholm, where they’d met. Pink bloomed on her cheeks, and her smile stretched her old face into a shadow of the beauty she’d once been. They were there for two months, waiting for delayed paperwork for passage on the ship. Once aboard, the voyage took two weeks. “So, we spent every moment together,” she confessed.
I almost asked if she ever loved my grandfather, but didn’t dare.
Back on the bus, I imagined Grandma Elsa at the retirement home looking through old photographs of Anders. I finally understood her, woman to woman. I wondered if she knew why I’d distanced myself from my family. Did she regret not running off with Anders, where maybe their grandchildren would have been safe?
Elsa was the only member of her family to leave Sweden. She went home to visit twice when I was a kid, alone, without Grandpa. She packed her blue American Tourister suitcase with her American clothes and gifts for her mother and sister. The same blue suitcase now stored in the bowels of the bus – the only thing I had left of her.
I looked at my sleeping child, the purpose of my life, her eyes fluttering in a dream.
Kami, I’m lost, I said
Though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the interstate highway
They’ve all come
To look for America
--Simon & Garfunkel, “America”
I looked at Grandma’s reflection mirrored in the bus window. Across the miles that separated us, which meant nothing now, I confessed my deepest secret. I’ve been terribly alone with Little Elsa, Grandma. I’m sorry I changed her name, forsaking everything I’d ever known, even you. Yet, here I am, taking her “home” to my sisters; it’s where we go when we’re lost. Isn’t it?
I pictured Grandma nestled in her chair, snowy-white head cocked, ear to the sky, catching my words on waves of shimmering echoes. Annie, you are not alone, I heard her whisper. In the transition between past and present, I replied, I still love you.
I opened my eyes. Kami was awake, watching me. “Hi, MommStroking her sunshine hair, I smiled. “Hello, Little Elsa.”