“Make me look purdy,” my grandmother says in the bright glow of a crisp September morning. The word “purdy” falls off her lips in the same nonchalant way that Pap-Paw used to expel a plug of Red Man into the spittoon next to his easy chair. We’re sitting in her Pepto-pink bedroom surrounded by a collection of medical contraptions: a bedside commode, a nebulizer that she calls her “peace pipe,” and a humming, spitting oxygen tank that has become comfortable background noise in the old bungalow that Pap-Paw built at the mouth of the holler after the war.
Ha-Ha is eighty-six and bedbound, all of ninety-five pounds of her, ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis and COPD. It’s been years since Pap-Paw died—four, to be exact—and although she can’t remember much now, she’s never lost count of the days since he passed. Once, in a Steno pad, I found a note she scribbled after he died: “You been gone eight months. I cry every night. We was so happy all them years.”
For forty years Ha-Ha’s robust frame—built strong and certain like the old blue-green mountains just outside her window—has been disfigured by arthritis. It started with her finger, turned “as crooked as a jay bird,” then her knees and spine. When I’m far away and thinking about Ha-Ha, I see her as she lives in my memories: silver-haired, stringing beans and watching Days of Our Lives in a chair next to the woodstove. She is mangled but beautiful—an ancient, twisting oak in the forest—and like all old things that live in the mountains, she’s learned to adapt. When she’s done with her work, she stops to pull a tube of lipstick out of her blue-zippered makeup bag. Using the mirror from a compact of pressed powder, she dabs it on her lips, contorting her face in a way that makes me giggle. She hands me the lipstick and I dot it on my lips, too. “You look purdy, Sis,” she says, and we sit silently together in that room, unaware of the time that’s slowly ticking away, bound together by the idea that we’ll always be just as we are right now: grandmother and granddaughter, watching our soap operas in red lipstick. Pap-Paw walks in the room wearing work boots and a crisp cotton button-up, and he kisses Ha-Ha on the forehead. “Look at you, old girl,” he says to her. My grandfather is reserved, but when it comes to Ha-Ha, he’s unable to conceal the pleasure that flickers in his cheeks.
These days, Ha-Ha gazes at the old black and white picture that hangs on the wall at the end of her bed. In it, she’s wearing red lipstick, a polka-dot dress, and pumps that expose the tips of her toes. Pap-Paw stands by her side in his Air Force blues. The Appalachian foothills rise up around them, a cloak that shields them from the world. They aren’t yet aware of time, of the inevitable. They are young and healthy and in love, and as far as they know, she’ll always be Garcie, and he’ll always be Gene, and they’ll always be this version of themselves at the mouth of the holler off Hallburg Road.
Now, sixty-some years later, she wants to look pretty again. In preparation for today, she asked my aunt to buy her mascara and blue eyeshadow. Her whiskers have started to bother her, so I reluctantly packed up my wax pot and drove down route 77 from Ohio while a knot formed in my stomach. The truth is, after almost thirty years of loving my grandmother, I’m not ready to touch her face.
I sit on the edge of her bed and take a look at her in the electric light of the morning sun. “It’s not good, is it?” She asks, wide-eyed, as she waits for me to proceed.
I can’t breathe. Here she is, my Ha-Ha, all of her, right in front of me: the deep wrinkles in her soft yellow skin; her hazel eyes reflecting the tree limbs from just outside the window; the coarse hair poking out like wild ramps under her chin. I think of the corn in Stan Campbell’s garden down the road. It grows unnoticed every summer until one day I look at the jungle it has become and say to myself, “Wow, where has the time gone?” I stare at Ha-Ha’s face and take in the changes that I’ve refused to acknowledge. As I run my fingers across her skin, I’m lost in the intensity of now. I hear the familiar sounds of a cardinal chirping from its perch on the windowsill and a semi’s engine brake screeching down the interstate that was carved out of this quiet valley forty years ago. On deep black nights, I watch far-away headlights flicker with the fireflies as people from all over the country blindly whiz by this sacred place where my grandparents hoed roes, hung clothes, hauled water, and bathed babies. The place where they canned ’maters and ’taters, woke up at 5 a.m. for Sunday school, loved, and somehow, between all the tasks that made up a day, got old. The place where Pap-Paw, riddled with tumors, took off his work boots one day, kissed Ha-Ha on the forehead, and lay down to submit to the inevitable. Now, I feel myself succumbing as well.
I work on Ha-Ha’s face with conviction. I reach for the wax and start spreading. She closes her eyes as I start pulling hairs, moving swiftly across the velvety folds of her skin. After each pull, I look at the hair caught in the wax, the roots glimmering black like soil-covered radishes fresh from the ground, still warm and moist from the nourishment they received while planted in her body.
“You okay?” I ask.
She opens her eyes and laughs. “I guess,” she says. “I’m tough.”
When I’m done waxing, I pour toner on a cotton pad and smooth it over skin. She reaches both hands up and feels her face. “It it really me?” she asks.
Then, she pulls out the old, familiar blue makeup bag. Somehow, I know this will be the last time. “Don’t make me look like Tammy Faye,” she says with a deep, guttural laugh. Her lungs are filling with fluid again.
I line her eyes in black and smooth navy-blue eyeshadow over her paper-thin lids. The mascara is difficult to apply; as she looks up, I coat the ends of her short brown lashes with the thick black liquid. The whites of her eyes shine against her well-worn face. I tell her to grin so I can brush rouge on her cheeks.
“Don’t forget the lipstick,” she says as she passes her tube into my hands.
I feel my throat catch. “Wait a second,” I say. I go to the bathroom and find my makeup bag. I pull out my lipstick, purchased for way too much money at a department store cosmetics counter. Every morning, I pucker my lips in front of the bathroom mirror and apply it before I leave for work. On the best days, my husband kisses me on the cheek and tells me how pretty I am. I go back in Ha-Ha’s room and sit down on the bed. “Pucker up,” I say. She does, making the silliest face she can, and we both laugh. Carefully, I dot color on her lips—the top first, then the bottom, momentarily restoring all that’s been lost through time. Instinctively, she rubs her lips together, remembering after all these years the vestigial motions of primping. I pull out a mirror and hold it in front of her face.
“Well golly,” she says, her eyes moistening over. “I guess I’m still me.”
I toss my lipstick into her makeup bag. “Keep it,” I say. “You’ll need a touchup one of these days.” The pain burns my throat. I know I’m lying to myself, but I leave it anyway.
One month later, I receive a call in the middle of the night. Ha-Ha’s sick. The words “sepsis” and “heart attack” and “hospice” are tossed around like the leaves outside my house as autumn finally commences. I know I could stay here, let her live on in my mind like the lipstick I left in her bag. But this time I’ll accept the inevitable. I’ll pack my suitcase, drive back to the mountains, sit on the edge of Ha-Ha’s bed, feel her soft, warm hands in mine, and embrace time as it slips away.
Brittany Rogers lives and writes in Northeast Ohio, although her heart belongs to the hills of West Virginia. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program at Kent State University and teaches at Herzing University in Akron, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Still: The Journal and the ECC Literary Anthology. She was nominated for a Best of the Net award.