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Pandora's box Add to ...

Icall my mother's mother Grammy. I'm still not sure what her real name is, and I've always felt too embarrassed to ask any of my siblings if they know her full name, which I'm quite confident they do.

It's entirely possible that her name is Abby, but I've questioned whether that's a false assumption pulled from the remnants of memories from my Grammy's bathroom.

Her bathroom smelled strongly of rosehip soap and baby powder. I remember it wasn't an altogether unpleasant smell. As a little guy I was fascinated by the many containers that held secret things old ladies used to make themselves smell and appear older.

I liked her collection of magazines and Sears catalogues, which gave me a glimpse of mature women in their underwear. I was also compulsively drawn to reading advice columns.

I felt a voyeuristic thrill in reading about the problems of adults. I liked that at times adults came upon situations so baffling to them that they needed the intervention of this woman Abby. She seemed to possess information ranging from the exact temperature required to cook the perfect turkey to whether or not your husband was sleeping with the neighbour's wife.

To me Abby represented a sense of order in what I was already beginning to suspect was a chaotic world. So I admit, it's quite possible my Grammy's real name was not actually Abby.

Grammy doted on me. I was little, cute and apparently funny. She liked to drive me around in her Ford Country Squire station wagon and regale me with stories of her childhood. I remember the pleasantness of her voice, the back window rolled partially down, standing on the back bench seat facing out the window with my small hands clasped over the top of the wind-cooled glass.

I don't have a lot of childhood memories - at a later age I unwittingly traded in a great many of them to recreationally sniff airplane glue. But every so often, especially in the fall, I'll catch a faint breeze off the open window of my car that jars loose those particular memories, and I'll hear that pleasant whisper describing life on Locust Street.

In the early 1990s, after I had blown all of my money on a potentially suicidal intake of heroin and crack cocaine, I found myself standing in the bedroom of the house with the rosehip-smelling bathroom. I stared in the vanity mirror atop the dresser and saw my own wild, frantic eyes looking back at me. Abby sat silently in her front living room waiting for my uncle to arrive so he could escort me out of the city where I had grown up.

I had developed a tremor in my hands, partly from the drug withdrawal I was experiencing, but perhaps more from the disgust I had for what I was about to do. I remember lifting the cool ceramic lid covering the contents of the jewellery box, and the imperceptible "don't" that I whispered to myself before my hand closed over the crumpled $20 bills inside. I furtively hid them in my pocket.

I pretended to come out of the bathroom so she wouldn't know I had been in her bedroom, and I sat in silence in the living room until my uncle arrived. I knew when I walked out that door without being able to look her in the eyes that she'd known I'd been in her bedroom. Any remaining bit of dignity I'd possessed had been abandoned in her heavy old jewellery box.

Shortly after, I sat across from my uncle in a diner that stank of stale coffee, cigarettes and despair. He quietly placed a small sum of cash on the table, cleared his throat and informed me that I would not be welcomed back by any of my relatives until I had gotten help. None of them wanted to watch me kill myself, especially not Grammy, he said. Before I took the money I had to agree to not come home.

I agreed, and did not return until I had been clean and sober for several years.

The passage of time is often unkind. Grammy began to show early signs of dementia in her 80s. My mother called me in December to tell me the doctors did not expect Grammy would live much past Christmas. The slight strain of sadness in my mother's voice reminded me she was not just talking about my Grammy, but of her own mother. Before hanging up, she asked me to think of something I'd shared with Grammy, just her and I.

In the late 1990s on a fall afternoon, I stood outside a church for my sister's wedding. I was wearing a suit. Grammy tearfully told me she had hardly even recognized me, that I had grown into a handsome gentleman.

After we hugged, I folded my hand over the open palm of her wrinkled hand and pressed several crumpled $20 bills into it. I closed her hand over the bills, and before she could protest I shook my head and said, "Please ... for me."

For a moment she stood perfectly still, then nodded, and in quiet acknowledgment closed her hand, knowing exactly how much money I had given her, and knowing exactly what she was allowing me to buy back.

Joshua Henk lives in Toronto.

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