My grandparents have come over to show us their new, ‘57 Chevy, smooth yellow, with glossy chrome trim. The San Fernando Valley heat rises off the sleek fins, as we stand at the curb and marvel. My parents and sisters and I look like any suburban family. With our bright shorts and sunglasses, you could match us with any of the tract houses in “Storybook Lane,” where the floor plans repeat every fourth house. My grandparents don’t fit. Grandpa wears rumpled wool trousers and a long-sleeved shirt, while Grandma has on a worn flowered dress with a handkerchief tucked into the bosom.
She doesn’t approve of anything he does, but this extravagance has her really steamed. Grandpa, a solid man with a perpetual smirk and breath that smells of old cigars, lets us touch the white vinyl upholstery, roll the windows, and switch the radio to KRLA Top-40, while Grandma grumbles.
“Our legs vil stick to dat seat in dis heat,” she says, as if it were a slow death by a tropical disease. We ignore her as we explore the new Chevy.
“If he plays da radio ven vere driving, ve’ll get in an eccident.” When no one responds, she adds, “Dat’ll be da end of us.”
When we cram in for a test-drive, Grandma turns away. My father calls, “Come on, Ma, come with us!” He calls her Ma, although she’s my mom’s mother, and never raises his voice no matter how irritating she gets. I figure this is because he’s not related to her by blood.
Grandma glances back, and I see the flicker of a half-smile on her face. It would be fun, wouldn’t it, to squeeze in with your grandchildren in a new Chevy and careen around the block with the radio blaring? I think I see that on her face, but she smoothes her hair, and adjusts her face into a scowl. “Youse kids go if you vant. Hev a good time.”
After lunch when my friend, Bonnie, comes over to ask me to play, Grandma hollers, “Vere are you going?”
“To ride bikes.”
“You just ate. You desn’t go till you digest.”
“That’s swimming, Grandma, that can give you cramps. We’re bike riding, and I hardly ate anything.”
“You didn’t eat a helty lunch?”
“I am healthy, Grandma.” I glance at the screen door. Bonnie stands on the porch, out of Grandma’s view, her arms raised like claws, her teeth bared, “EAT HELTY,” She hisses, then clutches her side, giggling.
“I gotta go.” I try to keep a straight face.
“Take a jecket. You’ll get cold.”
“No, it’s hot out,” I say, knowing it’s useless to argue. Bonnie does a polar bear imitation on the porch, shivering. “Only NINETY DEGREES today under all this FUR,” she growls.
“Anyway, exercise is healthy, Grandma! See you later!”
She nods, but I know she’ll have the last word, “If you dunt get exxersize, honey, you’ll get fet, like your modder.”
I slam the door. Bonnie waddles on the porch, her hands circling her belly. “OY, I VISH I GOT SUM EXXERSIZE,” she moans.
I hear my mother yelling from inside. I know she heard Grandma say she’s fat and now they’re going to go at it.
We push our bikes down the driveway, then hop on and start to pedal. Bonnie passes me, her hair flapping behind her like a flag. She balances on her seat, then shoots both hands out to her sides.
“Look, Ma, no hands!” she screams.
I hold on tight to both handlebars. If I let go, I know I will fall.