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Grace was in my life before I was. My folks and three brothers moved into the compact, brick house next to her and Mac’s sprawling white one with dark green shutters while I was still in my mom’s belly. The day I was born, Grace asked Mac to drive her to the hospital so she could meet me. She brought me tiny pink booties and a hat she’d knitted. I still have them somewhere even though I don’t have her, except for here, in the space behind my breastbone.
I think I remember her petting my head on my first day ever and part of me recalls her saying I was special, that I’d do great things if I survived. Now why would she tell a baby girl a thing like that? What did she know of the future? Mine?
I came to find out Mrs. McAlister, later she became Miss Grace or Gracie if my mom wasn’t around, knew pert near everything. For instance, she could make lace. She called it tatting, but it looked lacey to me. She’d grip the tatting needle in her blue-veined, age polka-dotted hands and as she worked, her knotted fingers were a blur—all white thread, metal, and speed.
Gracie was telepathic too, like that Kreskin guy on television. She always knew what I had a hankering for. Stewed tomatoes over torn-up white bread, no crust please. Or tapioca pudding. She always laid Saran Wrap on its surface while it cooled so it wouldn’t develop a skin. Inch thick tomato slices with salt and pepper or wilted lettuce with tiny green onion hoops doused with bacon grease dressing. The dense cloud of congealed fat in a Maxwell House coffee can never failed to gross me out, but when Gracie warmed a lump of it in her cast-iron skillet and splashed it with cider vinegar, it sure tasted wonderful. Tangy. Especially on leaf lettuce we’d torn from her garden that morning while it was still damp with dew. Every time I took a bite, my taste buds fairly stood at attention.
“Chew with your mouth closed, Pet,” Gracie’d say.
“I’m trying,” I said with eyes shut tight, “but my tongue’s doing a jig.”
Grace reminded me of a scarecrow that someone topped off with steel wool. If she didn’t sleep with her hair wound around prickly curlers, it resembled dandelion fluff. Her eyes were the color of dried cornflowers by the side of the road, had the grey brown tint of gravel dust and everything. Whenever we ventured out in her backyard to sniff the peonies and flick the ants away, if the sun shown just right, I could almost see through her. Least, it seemed that way.
“Why don’t you move into an old folks’ home?” I asked her that once after Big Mac passed. “Your house is giant, way too big for just you.”
She rested her hand on my shoulder and waited until I met her gaze.
“Who would look after you, Pet?” She always called me that.
“But what if you die and I’m the one who finds you? I’ll be scarred for life.”
She swatted the air between us. “Pee shaw,” she said. “Don’t you go talking like that. The Lord won’t take me until you don’t need me any more.”
I grinned. “Guess you’re gonna live forever then.”
She dug at something in the corner of her eyes then framed my shoulders with her arm.
“Let’s go inside and get some buttermilk, Pet.”