names like Jalynn, Cheyenne, and Ryder. Their mothers are young,
bulging out of pre-pregnancy jeans, driving away in shiny compact
cars with Mardi Gras beads dangling from rearview mirrors.
They’re always in a hurry, it seems. They never notice me, the
woman with a toddler in one hand and basket full of books, paper,
and paint in the other, struggling make it inside. They pay
extra each week to have me come here, yet never take the time to
hold the door. Go figure.
I come to share the gift of art with their children, to offer
their young minds a creative form of expression … ideally. In
reality, I come to give the nursery school teachers a thirty minute
break so that they can sit down outside on the terrace, have a
secret smoke, and gossip about everyone else. They get this every
Wednesday in their schedules; I get forty dollars every Wednesday
in my pocket. Not much, but extra money always helps, especially
in the summer, when I am on vacation from my teaching
job and always seem to overspend.
I deposit my two-year-old son Samson into a playgroup with
four other youngsters and head for the three- and four-year-olds.
I read the group a story about colorful fish, then guide them as
they play with paints and brushes in an attempt to recreate the
story’s characters on paper. They giggle and squeal with delight as
they explore the sensation of paint between their fingers, little
round faces full of so much enthusiasm I can’t help but smile. It
reminds me why I chose art education as my college major all
those years ago. This is joy, I think. These children know genuine
joy in this moment. I laugh with them as they rally around me,
and I am not even upset by the fact that I have green and blue
handprints smeared across the brand new secondhand jeans I found
for three bucks yesterday at my favorite thrift store. Oh well, they’ll
be paint jeans now, I think, smiling at the little color streaked
faces around me. So what if they were designer brand and fit just
As I am packing my supplies and preparing to leave, my cell
phone rings, and I know it’s Daniel by the Mariachi band ring
tone he assigned himself weeks ago. I don’t answer because Sherry,
the director of the nursery school, is talking to me about teaching
an extra session next week. Instantly it rings again, the sound only
mildly mortifying. Daniel is nothing if not persistent, so I slip my
hand inside my bag and turn the phone off.
Sherry and I agree on the extra session and say goodbye. I
collect Samson, who is sitting quietly in the toddler room looking
at a big board book. He’s not especially happy about leaving this
colorful place and squirms and fusses in my arms. On the way
out, I notice a large collection of small paper hands, all different
colors, arranged in the shape of one large hand on the window of
Sherry’s office. I pause for a minute to take it in. It’s oddly uplifting
and I try to keep a mental picture of it in my mind as I load
Samson into his car seat and jump behind the wheel of my station
wagon, silently praying, as always, that it will start.
Despite rails of protest over leaving, Samson is now singing in
his car seat, his mood shifting in that speed of light way only
toddlers seem to master. I sing with him as we head across town to
visit my grandmother, Nan, for lunch. Nan’s home is within easy
walking distance of my own, but the heat of a June afternoon in
Calvary, South Carolina, makes a midday stroll out of the ques-
tion. As we pull up in front of the shockingly purple Victorian,
Samson cries “Eat, eat,” a little mantra he always begins as soon as
he realizes where we are. We have spent every Wednesday having
lunch with Nan since summer vacation began, and she’s definitely
the most interesting thing this town has to offer on a sweltering
“Ah, hello, my loves!” She smiles as she answers the door with
an exaggerated bow, taking Samson from my arms and swaying
down the hall as though he were her partner in a ballroom. He
laughs at first but then reaches back for me. He’s already sleepy so
we decide to eat right away.
“You’re in for a treat today,” she says to me as I settle Samson
into a booster seat. “Just wait until you try my latest dish! Had to
go all the way to Greenville to get the right sauce but this old bird
needs to fly the coop sometimes, right Sammy?” She winks at
Samson, who is pulling on his ears. He grins.
“Oh I hope it’s something he will eat,” I say as I scan the room
for a glimpse of what’s to come. Dining with Nan is always an
adventure because she thrives on the exotic. As she begins to lay
out the meal, I am shocked and delighted to see yogurt with cucumbers,
pita chips, falafel sandwiches and hummus. I have not
eaten this type of food in years, but once it was my favorite meal.
“Did you make all this?” I ask, more than a little overwhelmed
by the idea of someone being so versatile in the kitchen. After all, it
certainly isn’t the standard Southern fare of fried chicken, collard
greens, biscuits and peas that line her table for holiday dinners.
“I certainly did!” She smiles as she sits down, tousling my
son’s hair. He smiles at her and his grey eyes are momentarily lost
behind chubby cheeks. I watch as she carefully unfolds a linen
napkin and smoothes it onto her lap. It’s a simple yet elegant gesture
that I try to imitate, but Samson immediately grabs the cloth
from my lap and throws it onto the floor.
“So what’s the inspiration?” I ask as I retrieve my napkin and
place it far from his reach.
“Well,” she begins, “I was poking around on the internet, just
seeing what I could find, when I came across these recipes from
the Middle East. You know most of their dishes are vegetarian,
and I’ve been trying to go that route for years but could never
stick with it. Now I think I’ve finally found food I can give up
We laugh and I am pleased to discover that Samson enjoys
the meal as well. While Nan tidies up, I rock him to sleep in the
same chair my grandmother once used to rock her children, then
her grandchildren and now her great-grandchildren to sleep in. Nan
doesn’t believe in throwing anything away that is still reasonably
useful, even if it is battered, worn, and frighteningly rickety. “Sometimes
it’s the old worn out thing that works the best,” she’ll say.
“Shiny and new might be prettier, but prettier ain’t always better.”
I have always called my grandmother Nan, not Nana like my
sister and cousin do. I do not know why, but to me, Nan just
seems to fit better. I hope that when I reach her age, I have a
fraction of her eclectic style.
She has never cut her hair, preferring instead to wear it in a
long silver braid wrapped around her head like a halo each morning.
She dresses in flowing shifts and scarves, old copper and silver
bracelets—gifts my grandfather, a railroad man, picked up
out West—dangling along her thin wrists. He died before I was
born, but when Nan talks about him, she will finger the heavy
silver locket around her neck and say, “Your Grandfather, he was
perfection.” Inside the locket is a faded picture of a handsome
young man of about twenty, and even now, some thirty years after
his death, her blue eyes will sparkle when she talks about the man
with whom she shared three decades.
I like to think that I take after her, not only in appearance—
for I also have long hair and blue eyes—but also because in this
town, she is like a bird of paradise lost in a flock of sparrows, and
I think of myself the same way. I also thrive on the exotic, not too
readily available here in Calvary.
Nan’s large home is decorated with a mixture of family photos
and random assortments of quirky ethnic statues and masks that
she collects. They are not from travels but from a lifetime of perusing
garage sales and thrift shops, other people’s discarded souvenirs
becoming our family’s heirlooms. As I settle a sleeping Samson
onto the large black couch, I notice an unusual wood carving of a
hand with an eye cut into the center. I ask Nan about this newest
artifact as we sit at the kitchen table, coffee cups in hand.
“Isn’t it just wonderful?” She says. “I was told it represents the
Hand of Fatima.”
I look closely at the small sculpture, which looks like an exaggerated
Iris blossom. A hand, palm facing front, middle three fingers
raised, thumb and little finger bent down in arcs. In the
middle, a large eye stares dully forward.
“I love the Hand of Fatima,” I say. “I remember studying it in
art history. My professor said it’s used in the Middle East to mean
different things. It’s really beautiful.” I can’t stand it any longer. I
cross the room on tip toe as not to wake Samson, and pick up the
hand. It’s surprisingly light. Up close I can see that the carving is
rather crude, as though it were one of many simple sculptures
carved in a single day by some unknown craftsman, a world away,
his wares spread out before him on a colorful blanket at a festive
“Can you believe I only paid a dollar for it?” Nan’s voice is
almost a whisper.
“The Market?” I ask, and she nods, slowly stirring another
cube of sugar into her cup. “You just never know what you’ll find
there. It’s like an adventure.” She sets the cup down, bracelets
jangling. I painted her once as a gypsy, complete with a colorful
turban, layers of shawls and an upside-down fish bowl doubling
as a crystal ball. Hokey, sure, but it had been fun. Nan seemed
genuinely sorry when I no longer needed her to pose.
She has two great loves: the Internet, on which she spends
hours perusing random topics; and The Market, a large mish
mash assortment of yard sales that folks set up on Saturday mornings
in an old parking lot off Highway 25. Occasionally, when I
can rouse myself from bed early enough, Samson and I accompany
her. For nickels and dimes he can add to his ever growing
collection of small cars, and I occasionally find sweet bargains on
clothes that I could never afford to pay retail prices for. I make a
mental note to try and go there with her as my meager wardrobe
flashes before my eyes. I should really update it before school resumes.
I notice Nan’s silver earrings are also shaped like hands, with
little copper hearts and a small stone the middle of the palm. They
have a slight tarnish, obviously vintage, and I am smitten with
them at once.
“I love those earrings! Another market find?” I pour one last
cup of coffee, my only vice.
“No, these came from New Orleans, years and years ago.”
“You went to New Orleans? When?”
“Oh, gosh, let me think,” she chuckles lightly, as though she
almost can’t believe it. “Nineteen forty-four, maybe forty-five.”
It seems unreal to me that someone can have memories from
almost sixty years back, and I pause for a minute, wondering what
I will be reflecting on decades into my own future. Will I be wearing
a pair of earrings that I own now, discussing life over coffee
with some yet to be born child of Samson’s?
I come back to the present. “What were you doing there? Visiting?”
I ask, wondering why I seem to be surrounded by images
of hands today. I glance down at Nan’s for a moment, gnarled
from arthritis and leathery from years spent outdoors tending
her overflowing gardens. They seem almost holy to me, these
hands that have cared for so much and tended so many, from her
children and grandchildren to the delicate blossoms in her backyard.
“You might say that,” she answers rather cryptically, then rises
and walks over to her sink, gazing out the window as she rinses
her cup and places it on the wooden rack. “I was fifteen years old,
can you believe that? Hard to imagine that I was once that young.”
I am about to respond “No” when suddenly there is a rapping
at the door that awakens Samson with a howl. I collect him from
the couch as Nan opens the door for my uncle Johnny. He strolls
in, tool box in tow.
Johnny is a handyman, known around town for his ability to
fix anything in the world that could possibly break. He’s also an
aging hippie, forever clad in his lifelong uniform of a t-shirt and
faded denim cut-offs, long blonde pony-tail trailing down his back.
If you look through our family albums, you’d think he hadn’t
changed clothes in twenty years. He’s not a man of many words,
but a good man who raised my cousin Johnna alone after her
mother went out for cigarettes and never came back. He has something
of Nan’s spirit, just as I do. That he could actually be my
conservative mother’s brother amazes me.
“Grace,” he nods as he enters.
“Hey Johnny. Nan putting you to work today?”
“Somebody’s got to.”
Nan shakes her head. “That leaky tap again. I don’t know
why that thing won’t stay fixed.”
“Cause it’s older than you are, Ma.” Johnny winks at me and
smiles at Samson, who snuggles against my shoulder. “Hey
Sambo,” he tweaks my son’s cheek affectionately.
The clock in the hall chimes four. The hour is coming when
the heat will ease a little and being outdoors will be possible, even
pleasant if we’re lucky enough for a breeze. I say goodbye to Nan
and Johnny as Samson and I head back to our small townhouse.
After playing for a while on the terrace, we step out for a lazy
stroll through the nearby park. Pushing Samson along in his stroller,
I point out birds and butterflies and various other things, and he
eagerly searches for each of them, his eyes wide with wonder. At
the park we see several of my students playing and lounging about,
and they run up to us, alone and in pairs, curious about Samson
and smiling at me. I ask them all the usual “Are you having a good
summer?” questions and they all nod and say “Yes Ma’am.” Most
of the children in Calvary attend Calvary Elementary School, and
because I teach art to all grades there, I know every little face in
this town. Samson watches a few boys throw a ball back and forth,
which thrills him for about a minute, and then we head home for
our evening routine: Dinner, baths, bedtime for Samson, studio
time for me. After a full day, I can’t wait to spend a few hours
alone with my brushes.
My mind is on painting as our home comes into view. Lost in
my thoughts, I do not notice Daniel sitting on the hood of his car
until he raises his hand and waves. I remember the earlier phone
calls and that I completely forgot to call him back, so I smile as he
slides off the car and trots over to us. Samson, who is crazy about
him, squeals with delight, pointing and cooing as he gets closer.
“I was about to give up on you guys,” he says. “I figured you
were out for a walk when I didn’t see the stroller in back.” He
nods towards the station wagon, where I keep Samson’s stroller
when we aren’t using it.
“Stalker,” I tease.
Daniel rolls his eyes, leans over and lifts Samson out of the
stroller. “Hey, Sammy boy,” he says, tossing him high into the air,
a little game of theirs that gives me shivers. Samson screams in
“Stop it!” I say to Daniel, kicking his shin less than gently.
“You know I hate when you do that!”
“But I like it, and Sammy likes it,” he says, tossing Samson up
again, only not so high this time. “So you’re outnumbered Big
Mama.” He smiles as he puts Samson down, holding his hand
while I unlock the door.
Like what you read? The Absence of Anyone Else is a 5-Star Award winning novel available anywhere that sells fine books, and also as a KINDLE E BOOK via Amazon.com