Liz Ross: Nan

The table was set with the good dishes and silver, the settings Nan used for holidays. There were Easter Bunnies embroidered onto the carefully-folded napkins, sliced lemon in the water glasses. Tulips drooped over the sides of a crystal vase. On the tray attached to the baby’s highchair was a basket filled with chocolate eggs and jelly beans.

“The baby can’t eat candy,” I said. “I told you.”

The baby didn’t have teeth, was practically still bald at three months old.

Nan looked down her nose at me, like a librarian who’d caught me pulling pages from a book.

“Every child loves candy,” Nan said. “Every mother knows that”.

Nan raised two kids of her own, the baby was my first, which made me the rookie.

Nan’s name wasn’t Nan. It was Joyce. Joyce was my father’s third wife but didn’t like to see herself that way. Her own kids thought she was wife number two and there was no point trying to set the record straight. Joyce’s son was in the military and generally on the other side of the globe. Joyce’s daughter hadn’t spoken to her in over two decades.

Joyce wanting to be Nan was a marketing strategy. My parents, and my husband’s, they could be the grandparents, those who might be called upon to negotiate the Diaper Genie or bottle warmer, the ones who’d learn how to swaddle. Nan was branding herself as the sleeker, monosyllabic version, the one who offered festive choking hazards and called it fun.

“Dad,” I said, eyeballing the Easter basket.

He shrugged and offered my husband a glass of viognier. Joyce was used to getting her way and the path of least resistance was well worn.

I felt like a stranger, watching my father and Joyce coo at my daughter. She’d cast a spell over them and they crowded and pinched, their faces orbiting like moons over her carseat as we carried her in through their front door.

“They don’t even say hello to us,” I complained to my husband. “It’s like they’re just trying to get past us on the way to the baby.”

“The wine is good,” my husband said. “You should have a glass.”

This was a thing Joyce and my father did, they plied us with halibut and ribeyes, bottles of wine hand-selected by sommeliers. When I’d been pregnant, Joyce would cook elaborate meals—rack of lamb with mint sauce, veal tips and scallopini, buttery trays of Parker House rolls and fudge-y cakes.

“We need you to eat,” Joyce would say, scooping a second helping onto my plate, “for the baby.”

I felt like a surrogate.Once, just a few weeks after our daughter was born, Joyce and my father offered to come over to babysit.

“So you can rest,” Joyce explained.

I was sticky with baby vomit and breast milk, my face swollen from lack of sleep. I would’ve given anything for uninterrupted slumber. I handed the baby over and shut my bedroom door.

When I emerged, I felt heavier than I had going in, like I was caught in a web or a dream. Down the hall, I heard their voices. They were singing to her. My father’s voice was deep and unfamiliar. I’d never heard him sing before. Padding down the hall in my bare feet, I stopped where I could watch without being seen. Joyce wore sock puppets on her hands and was jigging around our living room trying to entertain the baby.

“Mommy is so funny,” I heard my father say.

I thought I’d misheard him. 

He was holding my daughter like a football, his arm bent under her small body, pulling her awkwardly to his side.

“Daddy doesn’t know how to hold you,” Joyce said, rearranging my baby in his arms.

Later that night, when I told my husband, he didn’t believe me.

“You’re so tired,” he said. “Up is down and down is up.”

“I’m certain about what I heard,” I told him.

“I’ll take the night feedings,” he said, patting my knee. “You need sleep.”

My husband was an assistant principal at a middle school and felt responsible for solving every problem or misunderstanding he encountered.

“Look,” he said, “your dad probably feels bad about how he treated your mom.”

The night I was born, my father left my mother for the woman who’d become wife number two. 

“He probably sees this as an opportunity,” my husband continued.  “A second chance.”

I said nothing. 

“I’m sure he feels bad,” he said again.

The sound of my father singing, the socks his wife wore on her hands—he didn’t seem like someone who felt very bad.

So there we were, for Easter brunch, eating the salmon Joyce had poached and decorated with dill and mustard seed. The baby wasn’t eating solids so I was careful to keep her close. I didn’t want Joyce shoving a roasted potato at her without my noticing.

“Did you feel that?” my husband asked.

Before anyone could answer, there was a loud tearing noise that seemed to rise up from somewhere deep below the floor. The water sloshed in our glasses. Framed photos sloughed from the walls.

“Earthquake!” Joyce screamed.

We shot from our chairs and I grabbed for my daughter. Her face, slick with pureed yams, pressed against mine. I held her and ran for the door.

There was a momentary tangle of limbs, the floor rolling beneath us. I’d nearly reached the door when I felt Joyce’s hands on me, as she took the baby, and pushed past me to get outside.

Around us, the neighborhood exploded into sound, car alarms and barking dogs, the sound of my baby daughter crying.

“There, there,” Joyce comforted. “We got you.”

My husband was checking his phone for information about the epicenter and magnitude.

“Aftershocks expected,” he read aloud.

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