by Vinessa Anthony DiSousa
My first tooth fell out on the last night of Grandpa Renzo’s wake in the late summer of 1978, four days before the start of second grade. Not a spindly bottom tooth like most kids lose first, but a fat top front one.
In the viewing room of Maroni’s Funeral Home in Jersey City, I searched for my parents, fighting a maze of black fabric and cigarette smoke. I was small for seven, the hem of my knee-length dress kissing the cuffs of my ankle socks, slips of conversations hitting my ears like raindrops: “…except his horse didn’t win,” “…that’s not how she told it to him.” My twelve-year-old brother Michael was busy directing my cousins in a spitball shoot-off aimed at the legs of the mourners gathered in the hallway. I fingered the hole in my mouth, still stringy with blood, memorizing the feel of emptiness and tamping down the sensation that this was my first step toward ending up in a box like Grandpa Renzo.
Apart from the crowd, by my grandfather’s motionless liver-spotted head, stood my grandmother, Nanny Ria, easy to pick out in her bright blue dress and matching pillbox hat. She held a long wooden cigarette holder in the V of her two fingers, her arms straightjacketing her slender waist, her head held high, her eyes hidden behind a square of black netting.
I made my way to her and held out my hand. My tooth lay nestled in my palm, shiny in the spotlights, bubbles of spittle clinging to the enamel like tiny rainbows.
Nanny Ria lifted her veil to get a better look, blinked twice, and inserted the cigarette holder between her lips. Then with two fingers—the same two fingers with which she sometimes nipped a five-dollar bill from my grandfather’s pants pocket while he lay passed out on their sofa—she took my tooth, leaned over Grandpa Renzo, and placed it on the inside ledge of the coffin lid, where a smattering of my grandfather’s favorite things had been displayed. Flanked by a small bottle of Dewar’s and his American Legion patch, my tooth was set to join Grandpa Renzo on his way to eternal rest.
Palming his lucky Kennedy half-dollar from the display, Nanny Ria slipped the coin into my still-extended hand in trade. She released an elegant puff of smoke from the corner of her mouth, and said, “We’ll tell them we lost it, Kitty. This way, you get paid twice.” Then she smiled brilliantly, displaying her wonderful, slightly overlapped teeth, before she turned to greet a friend of Grandpa Renzo’s from the bar where he had spent most of his time. It was our first secret.
The next day, after the funeral and repast, Nanny Ria came to live with us. My mother, still in her mourning dress, was dispatched to my grandparents’ house on Maxwell Avenue in Jersey City with a list from Nanny Ria. Nanny Ria never went back. Not to clear out Grandpa Renzo’s things. Not to pack up her china. Not even to take down the curtains before the renters moved in.
Downstairs, in our makeshift playroom, my father covered the concrete floor with an area rug and screwed a metal bar into the wall where Nanny Ria hung a few housedresses and her fall coat, directing Michael to stack the boxes with her good clothes in the garage. She did up the couch in pink bedsheets, over the plastic furniture cover, and used an old toy chest to store her underclothes, refusing my mother’s offer to collect her bed and dressers from the house.
“I don’t want to lie in bed all day, Ruth. I’m sixty-three, not an invalid. The couch is fine. At least like this, I’ll feel ‘up.’” My mother had my father retrieve the bedroom set anyway and store it in the garage. Every few months she would suggest moving it into the basement. Nanny Ria always refused. My father parked on the street.
After dinner, I went downstairs to help Nanny Ria finish unpacking. She had changed into a checkered housedress with a Peter Pan collar and set her fiery red hair in pink foam rollers. Alongside the miniature refrigerator my father had borrowed from a coworker we stacked her books: the Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon on top, the textbooks from her short stint in nursing school in the middle, the Bible and a book called Twelve Steps, with GOD=Group of Drunks scrawled on the inside cover, on the bottom. She laid a doily on the top level of the coffee table that had belonged to her father, and placed her statue of St. Anthony—the Finder of Lost Things—in the center while I arranged a shrine of her pens, writing paper, and eyeglasses around it, forming a colorful garden out of the stack of shiny coins that she said helped her count the years since her last drink. On the second level, we placed a carton of cigarettes, a silver-plated roll lighter with My Maria inscribed on the casing, and a stack of plastic cups she had salvaged from cough medicine bottles to hold her “nervous pills.”
When we were done, she allowed me to look through her special set of photo albums. The faded photographs in the first album were taken when Nanny Ria was an “ingenue,” her auburn hair a jumble of curls. One was of her at a beach in a long-line bathing suit with big bows, sitting atop Grandpa Renzo’s bare shoulders. Another, which I adored, was taken while visiting her brother in Los Angeles. For the picture, Nanny Ria had climbed into a large bassinet on the lawn, a baby’s bonnet perched on her beehive, a bottle of vodka standing in for milk, one tanned high-heeled leg pointed in the air, her eyes scrunched, and a wide, toothy grin conveying her laughter. My mother, a chubby toddler, was visible in the background, red-faced from the heat.
The second album was the real treat. It showed Nanny Ria at various stages in her adult life modeling outfits she had hand sewn. My favorites: a pink flare dress with sheer overlay; a baby blue A-line dress with matching gloves, shoes, and pillbox hat; and a flowered silk kimono with bright yellow piping. In every photo, Nanny Ria stood posed in her living room on Maxwell Avenue, one elbow resting on the baby grand. Her head was tipped forward so she was looking up through heavy lashes—a trick she said she stole from the Hollywood starlets of the ’30s—and she wore an enchanting smile, as if she knew a secret and just might tell you if you came a little closer.
Seated cross-legged on the scratchy carpet, the album open at my feet and her makeup mirror in my lap, I tipped my head forward and attempted to imitate her smile.
All I saw was a glaring hole in my front teeth. I clamped a hand over my mouth.
“That’s the way life is, Kitty,” Nanny Ria said, watching me through a shroud of smoke. “Just when you jump for joy, someone moves the ground.”
Two months after I lost my first tooth, Nanny Ria lost hers. It was a lower molar and it fell out while she was eating a buttered roll—the only food besides milk I ever saw in her refrigerator. Nanny Ria cried when she saw it.
We passed the tooth around, the whole family puzzled as to how it could have happened, as the roll was a fresh one my father had bought at Marvin’s Bakery and not the rock-hard, week-old ones my mother made into breadcrumbs and in which she fried chicken. The tooth was fractured through the crown, specks of blackish blood on the roots. Michael said it looked like the kind the merchants at the Saturday flea market strung on chains and claimed were real animal teeth that could bring you luck.
The next day, learning my mother would be driving Nanny Ria back to Jersey City to see her dentist, I faked sick.
“Geez, Daffy,” Michael said, mocking the lisp that had appeared with the loss of my tooth. “You’re gonna have to go to school sometime.”
Before the weekend, Sister Agnes had sent a note home to my parents. During recess, while the other kids played tag on the blacktop, I would be kept behind to practice words I thought I had mastered in first grade—Jethuth, thavior, thuffering—in preparation of receiving the sacraments of reconciliation and first communion. A trip to Jersey City seemed a much better deal.
“I’ll go tomorrow.” I coughed for effect, then scurried downstairs to watch Nanny Ria get dressed. She put on an emerald green pantsuit produced from one of the boxes in the garage and sparkly pink lipstick, and tied a multicolored scarf around her red hair—the color which so obviously thumbed its nose at age, it caused the gray-haired busybodies at St. Ann’s bingo to shuffle their pennies onto their cards and switch tables.
Although only a twenty-minute drive, Jersey City was nothing like the suburb where we lived. There, lean multilevel houses flanked by tight alleyways lined the streets, and no one had a lawn, but rather squares of green cement cordoned off by chain-link fences. The curbs were high, the gutters dirty, and once, on Newark Avenue, I saw a stray dog eating from a metal garbage can in front of a butcher shop.
The dentist’s office was in a townhouse on a side street next to a delicatessen with loaves of fresh bread piled in the window. My mother parked the car and we marched single-file down a flight of concrete steps to an entryway with a smiling plastic tooth on the door. In the waiting room, my mother and grandmother took the only chairs, and I sat on the linoleum floor and flipped through an old issue of Highlights, the puzzles already solved in smeared ink. After a few minutes, Dr. Klein appeared. He stood slightly taller than my grandmother in her stacked heels and had thick, dark hair. He gave Nanny Ria a big hug, murmuring, “Maria, my sympathies about Lorenzo.” He repeated his condolences to my mother who nodded but remained seated, out of hug’s reach.
“Benny, this is my granddaughter, Katherine,” Nanny Ria said, her hand extending outward like the hostesses on The Price Is Right.
“Kitty,” I beamed.
“Well, ‘Hello Kitty,’” Dr. Klein laughed. Nanny Ria joined in, her long fingers patting his forearm and remaining there. From the pocket of his lab coat Dr. Klein produced a choice of lollipops: green, purple, or red. I looked back at my mother for permission. She hadn’t moved, her beige church coat still buttoned to the throat.
“Go ahead,” Nanny Ria said, prodding me forward. “And say ‘Thank you’ to Benny.”
“Dr. Klein,” my mother corrected.
“Thank you, Benny,” I said, and Nanny Ria grinned. I didn’t look at my mother.
The green and purple lollipops were slightly broken in their plastic sheaths, so I chose red. By the time I unwrapped it, Nanny Ria and Dr. Klein had disappeared into his office, her distant laughter electrifying the air, the color of my candy matching the flush that overtook my mother’s face.
The next tooth Nanny Ria lost was a few weeks later, and this one we—she and I—knew was loose. Lying on the downstairs sofa, one bare leg dangling off the side, she jiggled the tooth between her thumb and forefinger as we watched game shows on the thirteen-inch portable television, her cigarette burning in the awkward clay ashtray my brother had made at Boy Scouts. The tooth finally gave way during a game of gin rummy we were playing on a shoebox placed between us on the couch. I put down gin and Nanny Ria put down an eyetooth.
She did it calmly, with no change of expression, then folded her cards, laid her head back against the paneled wall, and closed her eyes. I wasn’t sure whether to call for my mother or shuffle the deck. When she showed no sign of moving, I ran upstairs. My father ordered me to stay put while my mother went to check on her.
After that my mother and Nanny Ria went to see a different dentist, right in town, one who took Medicaid. Nanny Ria didn’t bother putting on the emerald pantsuit for this one. When they arrived home, she immediately went downstairs, while my mother pulled the calendar of family appointments from the kitchen drawer and wrote Mom Oral Surgery on the second Monday of the new year with a shaky hand. She still had to make dinner and set up folding chairs in the living room for the Color Me Beautiful makeup demonstration she hosted once a week, but she didn’t move from the counter, her fingers worrying the edges of the datebook, her eyes focused on a spot on the wallpaper.
Seeing the downturn of her soft features, I asked, “Are you sad, Mommy?”
She dropped the calendar like a hot spoon, then shut the drawer and hurried to the refrigerator. “Oh, Kitty,” she said, cupping my chin as she passed. “Who has time for sad?”
That night, Nanny Ria asked me to sleep downstairs with her. My father shot my mother a look across the dinner table when I asked for permission. She was careful to keep her eyes fixed on her meatloaf when she said yes.
I cleaned my plate, even eating the peas I usually hid under the mashed potatoes. It was the first time I was allowed to stay downstairs overnight. The year before, Michael had held a sleepover in the basement for some friends and made it clear I wasn’t invited. “Some things are for older kids,” my mother explained, stroking my head as I cried into her warm lap. “Your time will come.”
A sleepover with Nanny Ria was even better than the one my brother had hosted, and I made sure to tell him so. Michael rolled his eyes and went back to his room to play Connect Four against himself. He didn’t spend much time downstairs anymore. He said it smelled of cold cream and cigarettes and that the music Nanny Ria listened to—Jimmy Roselli, Roberta Sherwood—was ancient and depressing. I liked the smell. I liked the music.
For the sleepover, my mother lent me my father’s old sleeping bag from when he hunted as a teenager. It smelled woodsy even though he had given up hunting after his time in the army. Nanny and I played gin rummy and ate candy while she chain-smoked, the gray haze drifting up to hover just below the ceiling. When it got late, she shut the lights and we watched Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? which was kind of funny until they put one of the chefs in the oven. She didn’t mention the dentist visit.
Around three a.m., I woke, scared, unsure of where I was. Illuminated in the blue light of the television, Nanny Ria was stretched long across the couch, her slender hands folded on her chest like a mummy, the veins prominent worms of blue and green. Still thinking about the “cooked” chef, I crept over to check if she was breathing, placing my hands below hers, feeling the sharp bones of her ribs, the gentle thumping of her heart. Before I could return to my sleeping bag, she peeked an eye open and smiled, a lovely minute pulse of her lips.
“I was worried about you,” I said.
“You should stay with me every night,” she told me. “So you never have to be alone.”
It was my job to collect the pills. I would line up three cough medicine cups—marked M for morning, A for afternoon and N for night—in a small wicker basket and take them upstairs to be filled. From a shelf in the bathroom closet, my mother gathered two fistfuls of brown medicine bottles and counted out Nanny Ria’s daily dose of nervous pills. When she was finished, I delivered the basket. “Why not do the whole week?” I asked my mother one time. “She just needs today,” she said. “More than today is dangerous.”
Even with her cat-eye reading glasses, Nanny Ria had trouble distinguishing the markings on the small containers, and they slipped easily through her fingers. At least once a week, she would knock over one of the cups, the pills rolling to various dark corners of the room. We would crawl around on our hands and knees praying to St. Anthony, “Please come ’round, something is lost and can’t be found.” Occasionally, despite St. Anthony’s help, one would remain lost.
“Sneak me a new one, Kitty,” Nanny Ria would say, squeezing my hand, her skin as cool and creamy as milk. “Your mother’ll think my screws are coming loose and send me away again.”
Taking the stairs two at a time, I would recite, “Yellow oval,” or “blue square,” or “white circle,” slipping into the bathroom while my mother was busy in the kitchen. No matter how many times I tried to memorize the names on the bottles—Darvon, BuSpar, Seconol, Elavil, Valium—they would slip out of my mind like the pills through Nanny Ria’s fingers.
There were other secrets. Stashed facedown beneath St. Anthony was a black-and-white photograph. Anytime Nanny Ria used the bathroom in the hall, I would sneak the picture out and examine it. In it, Grandpa Renzo, drink in hand, leaned on a shiny finned car, dapper in his well-cut suit, tilted fedora, and polished spats—“Champagne taste on a beer budget,” Nanny Ria would say. He was young and much thinner than I had ever seen him, his thick lips flaunting a jaunty side-mouth grin.
I hadn’t known my grandfather well—the few memories I had were beginning to fade—but I could remember the way he smelled and how his bald head looked shiny in the light. Sometimes he fell asleep at the table while we were having dinner at the house on Maxwell Avenue, and his body slumped sideways, teetering on the edge of the chair. After we finished, Nanny would say, “Just leave him there, he’ll sleep it off,” snatch away his drink, and shut the lights. The one time I had been allowed to visit him at the hospital, his belly was puffed up like a balloon, the whites of his eyes the color of lemonade.
The hidden photograph enchanted me—the hint of love and loss it held. I wanted to know more, but I didn’t want to upset Nanny Ria by asking. I didn’t know then that mental images wouldn’t last forever, that you needed people to talk about the dead, to invoke their memory in order to keep it alive. One time I worked up the nerve to ask about the day they had met. Nanny Ria looked up at the ceiling for a long time like I did when I was trying to do addition in my head, then finally said, “I wish I could remember,” and turned to face the sofa cushions.
Our weekend sleepovers were a regular thing by then. One night, when she had drifted off during The Love Boat, I lifted St. Anthony to retrieve the photograph, and almost lost my hold on the statue, shaking it in the process. From the hole at the base, a collection of blue, yellow and white pills spilled out. I bit down hard to silence my surprise. I knew I should tell my mother. The fact that the pills were hidden, and Nanny Ria had lied signaled something bad, but I didn’t know what. I didn’t want my parents to send her away. I put the pills back. I kept her secret.
As Nanny Ria’s oral surgery appointment neared, her hands often shook, ashes tumbling from her cigarette to the carpet. Two more of her teeth fell out, the blank spaces at odds with the elegance of her face. She no longer cried when it happened. The dentist had warned her that a few of her teeth were cracked and could fall out before they were removed. She took up the habit of talking with her hand covering her mouth.
At dinnertime, my mother would descend the stairs to invite Nanny Ria to join us. Nanny Ria waved off the invitation and later the plate of food my mother offered. Even the rolls my father brought home remained uneaten.
“You need your strength, Mama,” my mother said. “You’re getting too thin.”
“Don’t talk out the back of your head, Ruth,” Nanny Ria said, pointedly glancing at my mother’s midsection.
After dinner, while I watched Michael play Pong on the console hooked up to the living room television, my mother and father convened in the darkened kitchen to whisper about things we weren’t supposed to hear.
“What if the surgery brings on another breakdown?” Pacing the kitchen, my mother looked younger than her thirty-three years, more like the pudgy, dark-eyed child I had spied behind Nanny Ria’s legs in photographs. “I can’t make those kinds of decisions again,” she said. “Look how the last ones turned out.”
“It’s not your fault, Ruth. You can’t know for sure if the electroshock treatments brought this on,” my father said, guiding her onto his lap. “Maybe it’s just age.”
I looked at Michael to see if he was listening. “What’s electric shock?”
Without taking his eyes from the television, he said, “It’s like when Bugs Bunny tricks Elmer Fudd into pulling a lever, and lightning shoots through him.” I rolled this around in my head, recalling Saturday morning scenes of Elmer Fudd being jolted into the air, his skeleton glowing, his body disintegrating into a pile of ash like one of Nanny Ria’s Virginia Slims.
Horrified, I searched for signs that Michael was teasing me—a wink, a barely concealed smirk—but his attention stayed fixed on the electronic ball making its slow journey across the screen.
The morning of Nanny Ria’s surgery, before I left for school, I stood by the couch as she slept and said a prayer to St. Anthony. He wasn’t the right saint for the job, but he was her favorite. Just as I turned to go, she opened her eyes.
“Promise you’ll be OK?” I said.
Her shaky hand squeezed mine. “Promises and a quarter will get you a bus ride to Journal Square, Kitty.”
When Nanny Ria returned, only my mother was allowed downstairs. She said Nanny Ria was lethargic from the painkillers, that her mouth was full of gauze, that she wasn’t up for visitors, that the dentist had said it was worse than he had realized. That instead of a few, all of her teeth were gone.
I moped around, wavering between grim imaginings of how Nanny Ria might look and practical musings: How would she eat her rolls? Would she still need her toothbrush? When I was supposed to be doing my homework, I wrote notes to Nanny in crayon and cut hearts out of paper, but they always ended up crooked. Hanging upside-down off the couch listening to Barry Manilow through headphones, Michael shouted, “Why are you doing that? Some girls from your class are outside playing hopscotch. Just go play with them.”
I peered out the picture window. The snow had melted, and the three girls were taking turns hopping across a chalked board on the sidewalk outside Dr. Calabrese’s house. What if I asked to play and they made fun of how I talked? I breathed on the window and wrote Hi in the condensation, then quickly wiped it away with my sleeve and looked toward the basement door. What if Nanny Ria called for me and I wasn’t here?
I went back to my paper heart, struggling to round the edges, the heart getting smaller and smaller, red construction paper scraps piling in my lap.
On the second night of the fourth week after her surgery, Nanny Ria called to me to watch Little House on the Prairie with her. Forgetting my careful avoidance of s-words, I chirped “Thure!” During the commercials, I snuck glances at her. The gauze was gone, but her mouth was still swollen, her jawline yellow with fading bruises.
Despite this, Nanny Ria’s mood was infected with a giddiness I had never before witnessed in her. She said the dentist was fashioning her a set of false teeth even better than her real ones—straight, white, plump teeth not worn down by age or yellowed by cigarettes and drink. They would make her whole again and give her the push she needed to reclaim her life. She would return to Jersey City, and take back her house on Maxwell Avenue. She’d paint every room pink. She would call on Dr. Klein or another of her admirers to escort her to the Canton Tea Garden. She’d go to bingo at St. Ann’s and shop for dress patterns on Newark Avenue. Her hands now shook with an energetic hum, abuzz with preparations.
Our sleepovers resumed. I helped rescue her boxes from the garage and she laid out her cherished clothes for me to model: vibrant dresses that pooled at my feet, silky elbow-length gloves that cupped my shoulders, and bold hats that dripped stiff netting. In Nanny Ria’s wardrobe, my gapped teeth suddenly appeared chic, à la Lauren Hutton.
When we got to the box of scarves, Nanny Ria threw a red silk scarf over her housedress, put on Glenn Miller and showed me how to dance the Charleston. She taught me to walk with a book on my head and make a tourniquet, and had me memorize the Serenity Prayer. We watched Lou Grant and The Rockford Files and CHiPs, and every time Erik Estrada would appear in the opening credits she would say, “He can put his shoes under my bed anytime.”
It took four more weeks for the swelling to vanish, and when it did, her lips folded inward and her cheekbones jutted out, shadows settling into the hollows. I thought, if possible, the change in her features left her even more beautiful.
Sunlight flooded the normally dim basement the afternoon Nanny Ria returned with her false teeth. The dentist had fitted the dentures in his office, but Nanny Ria had refused to look, not wishing to view her new appearance in front of strangers. Now, seated in front of her three-way makeup mirror with the half-moon lights along the side, she opened the plastic case. The teeth were slightly off-white, the ridged gums a polished bubble-gum pink. I ached to try them on as well, but my mother’s firm grip on my shoulder kept me from asking.
Nanny Ria took a deep breath and carefully placed the teeth inside her mouth. Her posture ramrod straight, she turned left and then right to inspect them from all angles. She pursed her lips, stretched her mouth wide and wiggled her jaw from side to side. Then she turned to us and her face sagged as though pulled down by strings. The teeth were large and clunky and made her mouth stick out, like she had something in there too big to swallow.
“They will take some getting used to, Mama,” my mother said.
I expected one of Nanny Ria’s smart-mouthed retorts, but all she said was “Ruth,” my mother’s name emerging lispy and gargled. Even her vibrant red hair seemed to lose its sheen as her eyes glazed over and she rose to lower the blinds.
I spent every night with Nanny Ria while she waited for her second set of dentures. Kneeling at the coffee table, I would do my homework while she watched Magnum, P.I. or The Greatest American Hero until I was ready to practice the questions I needed to know for first holy communion:
What is the Eucharist? The body and blood of Christ.
Who can receive the sacrament? Anyone in the state of grace, who has cleansed themselves of sin.
She coaxed me through the s-words—the ones Sister Agnes always corrected, the ones my classmates laughed at behind their hands. Nanny Ria never made fun of my lisp.
In the afternoons, before leaving for her new job at the makeup counter at Bamburger’s, my mother would come downstairs, bringing flyers for the local bingo, for church groups, and knitting circles. “Your life is here, Ruth, not mine,” Nanny Ria would say, handing them back.
My mother would try to interest her in going to the movies or out to dinner with friends, but Nanny Ria always declined. She had left her house and all her friends behind, and didn’t want to make new ones or have the old ones visit. She didn’t want them to see her this way, living in a basement, sleeping on a couch, wearing a housedress. Without teeth.
For my eighth birthday, Nanny Ria gave me a secondhand cot. My mother helped dress it in pink sheets that matched Nanny Ria’s. My father stood on the steps watching, then shook his head, rolled up his old sleeping bag and stashed it away.
That night, after gorging myself on birthday cake, we played sick. I snuggled next to Nanny Ria on the couch, folded into the crook of her arm, my Baby Feels So Real doll squeezed into the crook of mine. We pretended to take our temperatures with one of my mother’s knitting needles. Nanny Ria first, then me, then my doll. During the third go-round, I pushed the “thermometer” into the doll’s sealed lips too far and out squirted a thick jelly. Nanny Ria laughed hard, a rare and wonderful sound, her eyes screwed tight, tears rolling down her cheeks, her barren mouth as open and reckless as I had ever seen it.
The morning of my first holy communion, Nanny Ria received her second set of dentures. For this set, she had found a new dentist, a younger man with weekend hours and a television in his waiting room. He had assured her that he could make her a set that looked natural and wouldn’t cause her pain. For the last three weeks she had been preparing, dragging boxes in from the garage, washing and pressing dresses, remolding hats, polishing shoes, wondering out loud what this one or that one from Jersey City had been up to. “We’ll see after I get my teeth,” she said to my surprise when I asked if she was coming to my communion.
“Kitty, did you try on your shoes?” my mother asked, grabbing a tissue to dust the blind as we waited for Nanny Ria to model her new teeth. “And take off that nail polish. I don’t want Sister Agnes reminding me about the rules again.”
I nodded, half-listening. From my perch on the arm of the couch, I could see Nanny Ria’s reflection in her makeup mirror, the quiver of her lips as she removed the lipstick she had applied for the dentist appointment. With her fingertips, she lifted her new teeth and fitted them into her mouth. She turned her head to the left, then to the right, then tugged out the teeth and returned them to their plastic case. They were the same as the first—too shiny, too awkward, too false.
“Nanny,” I said.
She covered her mouth with her hand, waving it off like it was what she had been expecting. “Do good, Kitten,” she said, handing me one of her special hand-sewn handkerchiefs and ushering us to the stairs.
I turned back. “You’re not coming?”
Nanny Ria looked to my mother.
“Nanny’s not feeling well, Kitty. She needs to rest,” my mother said. “We’ll take pictures to show her.”
When it was time to leave, my father went to wait in the car, periodically beeping the horn to signal my mother to hurry us. My brother stood in the living room scratching under the collar of his dress shirt, watching television and guzzling soda and Pop Rocks.
“Take my picture.” I shoved my father’s Polaroid at Michael. I had carefully constructed an “outfit,” like Nanny Ria had taught me—dress, crown, jewelry, gloves, shoes—and I wanted to capture it for her before anything could ruin it. With a deep sigh, Michael put down his soda can and took the camera. Squaring my shoulders, I rested one elbow on the television set, tilted my head forward and looked up through my lashes.
My brother snorted. “Smile, little Ria,” he said, and snapped the photograph. The picture emerged wet and blurry, and he fanned it in the air out of my reach.
“Michael, turn off the television,” my mother called from her bedroom. “Kitty, grab a sweater in case it’s cold in church.”
“OK,” I yelled, but instead, I decided to show Nanny Ria my dress. Photographs were wonderful, but they weren’t the same as having the person in front of you.
I ducked downstairs, the door banging against the wall in my haste. The basement was almost dark, the only light a soft yellow glow coming from her Tiffany lamp, the television unusually silent. I didn’t see Nanny Ria at first. Then my eyes adjusted, and I spotted her on her knees near the couch, a pill cup in her hand. “Oh, Kitty, I spilled them again,” she said, holding out her palm. Three pills lay in her hand, two less than her afternoon dose: yellow oval, blue square.
My body stiffened, my heart hammering. I forced myself to not look at the statue of St. Anthony as I joined her on the floor. I searched near the television stand, behind her books, under the coffee table, dustballs attaching to the delicate lace of my hem, fallen ashes smearing my stockinged knees.
“You’ll be late,” Nanny Ria said. “Better just run upstairs and get two more.” She held out the cup to me. Through the ceiling, my mother’s heels clicked toward the bathroom. Stalling, I dropped down to do one last search, my hand blindly patting the cold concrete under the couch.
“Kitty—,” Nanny Ria began, the rest of her words smothered by the blare of the car horn. I jumped up, my shoe knocking the underside of the coffee table, her sobriety coins rolling in every direction, the hand she used to hide her mouth shooting out, bracing St. Anthony before he tumbled to the floor. We locked eyes, and her mouth fell open. She knew my secret: I had found her secret.
“Forget it, Kitten.” She smoothed the sleeve of my dress, her other hand still clutching the head of the statue. “You have to go.” I ran up the stairs.
Seated in the front pew at Our Lady of Sorrows, I twisted my plastic rosary beads, fraying the string between the cross and the glory-be as Father Donovan recited a blessing. I was frightened, for Nanny Ria and for myself, for what might happen if I didn’t tell and for what might happen if I did. I had made my first confession the week before, but had omitted telling the priest my secrets with Nanny Ria, not sure that they counted as sins. But now I knew they did. Our secrets were lies. Lies were sins. We weren’t to receive communion with sin on our soul. Sister Agnes had made that clear. Sinners, she had taught us, go straight to hell.
I felt overwhelmed by my satin dress, stifled behind my veil, the crown pressuring my scalp, my eyelashes heavy with tears. When the congregation stood to say the Our Father, I slid past the other girls in their fluffy white dresses and down the side aisle to find my mother in the back, where the families were seated.
“Kitty, what’s wrong?” she whispered.
“Nanny Ria,” I choked. My mother kneeled in the aisle, my veil the partition, and I confessed everything, the words tumbling out as the organ music rose and filled the church.
“It’s fine, sweetheart. You go back to your seat,” she said when I was done, hugging me tight. “That is not your responsibility. This is your day. It’s not about Nanny Ria. Everything will be fine.”
I blotted my eyes with Nanny Ria’s handkerchief, and returned to my seat. I had cleansed my soul to receive communion. I believed everything would be all right.
When the ceremony was over, we processed to the church courtyard for pictures. Only my father and Michael were there.
Nanny Ria stayed in the “facility” for six weeks. When she returned, her hair had grown gray at the roots, her face and belly were puffy, and she wore a baggy navy tracksuit in place of her usual housedress.
Sitting hunched on the edge of the couch, her arms crossed, her hands clutching her sides, she looked like other kids’ grandmothers now, but smaller, dulled, like a faded photograph of her former self. “Do you have time to watch Little House?” she asked.
I nodded, and claimed my old place in the crook of her arm, our weight shifting the plastic beneath the sheets, the skin of her neck cold and loose against my forehead. The episode was one we had seen before, about the Ingallses helping the blind school students travel to Walnut Grove and a new life.
“Can you stay for M*A*S*H?” she asked as the littlest Ingalls tripped her way down the hill during the credits.
I knew I couldn’t stay with her like I had before, but I wasn’t ready to leave her. “OK, but then I should go up.”
Nanny Ria nodded and we turned back toward the screen. At the familiar strains of the M*A*S*H theme song, her soft hand squeezed mine, the other reaching to cover her sunken mouth, both of us knowing it would be over too soon.