It was July of 1987. I know this because that is when the Oliver North trials were shown on the huge console television in my grandmother’s den and also, I suppose, everywhere else in America. I was eight years old and had flown in to keep my grandma company while my grandpa was away.
I remember the flight vaguely. It left Amarillo, Texas and connected in Dallas for a direct flight to Chicago. I had flown before but never by myself. It seems this should have made the flight more notable, but it just didn’t. Some friends of my parents met me in Dallas and made sure I got on the correct flight to Chicago and that was it.
The trip was billed to me as a pilgrimage; a service mission of sorts. Grandpa had to help my aunt with some business in Alaska, and grandma, for inexplicable reasons, couldn’t or didn’t want to be alone. I needed to go, connect, bond with her. This thought intimidated me as my grandma was a mysterious creature, ethereal, ageless, only grounded by the smell of nicotine and coffee that seeped from her pores. She was part Miss Havisham, part Amelia Earhart; intense and passionate, but driven and daring. She was a piece of art – her accessories overwhelmed and intrigued me, large and striking. She was somehow soft and silky but fiery and powerful simultaneously. She floated around, her body hidden in large, flamboyantly-colored muumuus, her snow-white bob framing her face. I wanted to hide from her and perform for her all at once. It felt like victory when she drew you into her folds, wrapping you in those familiar smells, making you feel like you two had become one.
And so we played Uno in grandma’s den. We went swimming at some friend’s above-ground pool and I went bowling for the first time, but mostly we played Uno. The afternoon would come and grandma would say it was time to “stretch out” for a bit. She would get a drink, lay out on the “davenport”, light a cigarette, flip on the TV for background noise and one of us would deal. Initially, we would just play the game and I was focused on winning. Grandma was not one to make the game easier just because I was a kid. We played using the house rule that forced each of us to keep picking up cards until we found one we could play. Because of this the game would shift back and forth with one person winning and the other abysmally losing, dropping cards as the hand became too many cards to hold. Then slowly it would flow back in the other direction as the other person picked up cards. In this way, the game found a rhythm, a back and forth pulse, and also made it last much longer. Each time a game would end we’d deal again and grandma would get another drink. The games moved into slow motion and she became my case study. I watched the flick of her wrist and the pinch of her finger on the match as she lit one cigarette after another. As she smoked, I would watch her hands, studying them. She had a habit of rubbing her thumb and fingers together and this intrigued me. She looked like royalty, lying on her side with a small smile on her face. As she waited for my play she would glance at the television, shaking her head or muttering something as Congress interviewed Mr. North in his green khaki.
As the light faded from the room and evening came, grandma would eventually nod off, waking with a start a few minutes later. She would make a harsh noise or say something about me making her wait too long and then she would take her turn, try to rouse herself and beckon towards me. At one point when she dozed off, I summoned up the largest amount of passive-aggression I possibly could and took the opportunity to deal myself all of the wild cards. When she woke up, she acted surprised at the amazing odds of this occurrence and, to her credit, didn’t admonish me.
But finally the alcohol and the dullness of the afternoon combined to bring grandma into a deep slumber. It was dark outside by this time and her thick, deep snoring intimidated me too much to try to wake her. Bored by the cards, I found myself paralyzed in my grandma’s den, unsure of what to do. The house was strange, with its rusty water and unfamiliar sounds. I was scared to go to a different room, sure grandma would wake up and wonder where I’d gone. The unknowns of the situation were unsettling. And so I sat there, on the floor next to the coffee table, watching Oliver North testify to the soundtrack of my grandma’s breathing, waiting for her to wake up.