This story is dedicated to my grandparents. My grandmother would have been 88 years old yesterday and my grandfather would have been the same age, tomorrow. They passed away last year, and though the peaceful deaths of very old people who lived long and happy lives is not really a cause for sorrow, especially when they passed on surrounded by their loved ones…I still miss them.
The Cupcake Tattoo
Lacey was always the pretty one. Petite, curly haired, with a slight southern drawl that only added to her charm.
I watched her move among the antiques with a confidence that always seemed to elude me. The store felt awkward to me; even as an adult, with no looming grandparents, I was terrified to touch anything. Lacey was a sure-footed cat, padding between the rows of fragile sundries on delicate paws; I was a big drooly dog, too dumb to realize that my giant snow-shoe paws and rope tail were hazards in such close quarters. I sat perched on a stool, with my hands trapped under my ass, my grandmother’s admonishments still ringing in my ears at twenty-four years old.
Lacey kept glancing up at the orange walls and frowning. When she saw me staring she said only, “Orange.”
I shrugged. “I know. But she loved it.”
“We’ll have to paint over it.”
“Because nobody’s going to want to buy a shop with orange walls.”
“Maybe there’s an eccentric buyer out there who’ll love it.”
Lacey chortled. “Maybe. But the realtor will agree with me.”
“I know. But I don’t want to paint over them.”
“It’ll be a big job.”
“No, it’s not that. The orange walls…they’re part of my childhood, you know? Part of our childhoods. Painting over them seems so…final.”
Lacey’s frown was epic, like the moon eclipsing the sun. “You don’t have to tell me.”
Of course I didn’t. My visits to my grandparents’ store, my grandparents’ house, their lives, were sporadic. A week a year, maybe two, usually with my parents in tow.
Lacey spent her summers here. Every summer. Just her and our grandparents. Her relationship with them was deeper and more meaningful than mine had ever been. She had more right to their love than I did, more right to their memory, more right to decide what would become of their abandoned storefront.
My cheeks burned a little. I fought rising tears.
Lacey turned. She was wearing a sweater that dipped low in the back, showing off the top of her tattoo: a colorful cupcake surrounded by stars. It was so absurd, so whimsical, so ridiculous, that it startled a laugh out of me. A few tears escaped my eyes and raced down my cheeks.
“What?” she asked over her shoulder.
“I’d forgotten about that tattoo,” I confessed, wiping away the tears before she could see.
She smiled, her features softening. “Yeah. Gamma hated the idea of a tattoo, but then when I got it…”
“Yeah, I remember.”
Silence fell between us as we remembered our grandmother: stubborn, spirited, industrious, and ever so proud of her granddaughters. Lacey had her iron will, her piercing gaze, her dark hair. They resembled each other. I was an interloper, a changeling child, round of face and figure where they were slender, tall where they were petite, bumbling where they were graceful.
“So what do you want to take? Have you decided?”
“Nothing?” Her tone was accusatory; her brows drew together in a scowl that reminded me of Gamma.
“I have Gamma’s sewing machine, and her knitting needles. I don’t have room for anything else. “ Lacey had a house; I lived in an apartment, shared with a roommate, and I’m wasn’t even sure how I would fit the knitting needles into our tiny space, much less the sewing machine. I would have taken more–I would have taken everything–but there was no room.
I’m not sure Lacey saw it that way. She wouldn’t look at me, as if I were a traitor.
The grandfather clock in the front of the store bonged softly, marking the hour as five o’clock. The sound was another staple of my childhood, and again I fought tears.
“I have to go if I’m going to make it back to Columbus by midnight. I have to work tomorrow.”
Lacey’s disapproval was palpable. “Will you be back next weekend for the memorial?”
“Probably not.” There were a million excuses: the drive was too far, I had to work, I had school and other obligations. “I got to see them before they died. That means more to me.”
She nodded but didn’t speak. We hugged, but it was prickly and awkward.
As I made my way to the exit, I passed the desk behind the counter where my grandmother used to sit, doing the shop’s accounting. Beside the laptop, taped to the counter so they hung where Gamma could see them, there were photographs: one of Lacey, one of me, other school photos from other grandchildren who were so unfamiliar to me I groped for their names.
And there was a photograph of Lacey’s back, her cupcake tattoo so fresh the skin was still pinker than it should have been. I grabbed the photo and stuffed it into my purse. I’m not sure why I did it. Maybe I was desperate to cling to the memory, knowing there was a chance I might never see my cousin again, after this.
The chimes on the shop door tinkled for me one last time as I stepped onto the sidewalk.