That last summer, whenever Gramps looked at the photo of Mimi, his eyes would fill with clouds. He’d rub the silver with the cloth he used on his glasses as if it had tarnished before placing it reverentially back on the sideboard next to Mimi’s collection of boxes.
I loved my grandmother’s collection. When I was little, Mimi would take off the lids and mix them up, and then she would ask me if I could match each top with the right bottom. Some were easy, like the delicately carved elephant she had found at a garage sale. The lid was the elephant’s head, and its stubby legs made the base. But some lids could fit more than one box, and then Mimi would say in her sing-song voice, “Now, Laurel, use your good-looking eyes. The bottom is as important as the top, you know.”
Most of the boxes were empty, but a few had an odd assortment of trinkets waiting like an Easter egg surprise. In the bright green box, there was a tiny naked baby Jesus. I knew he was from the Three Kings cake Mimi baked every Christmas, a tradition she’d brought from Spain. When I asked Mimi where she had got him, she cradled the Jesus in her palm and said, “He is from the last Three Kings cake my own Mimi baked. My sister Louisa found him and gave him to me.” And Gramps added, “Probably the only time that sister of yours found Jesus.” Mimi rolled her eyes and said, “Hush Tommy, not in front of the grand-baby.”
The long, thin box covered in raised dragonflies held Gramps’s dog tags, and the round box with a seagull on the lid had what looked like pirate treasure- thirteen gold coins stamped with stars around the rim. When I first took them out and counted them into piles, Gramps smiled and said, “Make sure you don’t tell anyone about those, Laurel. Your grandmother stole them,” and he winked. Mimi sucked her teeth and said, “Take no notice, Laurel. They are from when I worked in the launderette. I didn’t steal them. I just forgot to give them back. I found them in my pocket long after leaving that job.”
My favorite box was a black lacquered square with an intricately painted pattern of a dragon. Inside this box was a bunch of keys. Whenever I opened that box, Gramps would smile and tell the story about how he’d met Mimi.
Gramps was sunning himself on the roof of his block of flats when the fire door swung closed, trapping him. He looked down and saw Mimi putting out the bins from the launderette. Gramps called down to her, and although she would say later she thought he was mad, Mimi took the keys he threw down and let herself into the building. “She rescued me that day,” Gramps would say, and then he’d add, “It was just like the story of Rapunzel but in reverse. The handsome prince rescued by the beautiful princess, and she even had a mother who was a witch.” At that point in the story, Mimi would throw something at him: a cushion, a tea towel, or sometimes her shoe. “She was the most stunning woman I had ever seen,” he’d say, and Mimi would laugh and call him daft, but she always looked as pleased as bunting on fete day.
I loved that story. But one day, when Gramps said his mother-in-law was a witch, Mimi didn’t throw anything. Gramps asked her if she had finally seen the light about her mother. Mimi laughed and said, “My mother never wanted me to marry you. She said I should have married Romeo but he wasn’t English, and I wanted so much to fit in, so I married you.”
“Ha, very funny,” Gramps said, but he didn’t add anything about living happily ever after. The following month, Gramps got a phone call from Mr. Jones, who owned the local corner shop. He told Gramps that Mimi had given him counterfeit coins. It turned out that Mimi was trying to use her old laundry tokens to pay for her bread and milk.
That was how it started. Soon, Mimi was calling me Louisa, believing I was her dead sister, and when I asked Gramps what was wrong, he said, “Oh, Laurel love, it’s just that Mimi’s mind has put the wrong lid on the wrong box but inside she’s still your Mimi. What’s inside hasn’t changed.”
Dementia is a terrible way to lose someone you love; it’s like they’ve died, but their body is still there, so you can’t mourn. Gramps insisted on looking after Mimi at home no matter how hard it got.
I had just finished my ‘A’ levels, wondering if I’d done enough to get the 3 C’s, the conditional offer I’d been given by Haven University, when the accident happened. Mimi had been found wandering the streets in her nightdress, and the police had taken her to the hospital. She was being treated for hypothermia. On his way to see her, Gramps lost control of his car on a steep bend; the police told us he’d been speeding, going sixty in a thirty-mile-an-hour area. He died in the ambulance. When my mother told Mimi, it broke her heart again when all Mimi said was, “Who are you? Where’s Romeo?”
With Gramps gone, nobody was left to look after Mimi, so my parents put her in a care home. I got my results the day we moved Mimi in. My mother was telling her how proud she was that I’d be going to Haven University. I was arranging her box collection on top of the dresser when Mimi said, “Louisa, I know you’ve come to take the Jesus, but I’ve given it to Tommy to keep him company until I’ve finished my shift.” And when I looked in the green box, it was empty.
NOVEMBER 2023 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Adele Evershed was born in Wales and has lived in Hong Kong and Singapore before settling in Connecticut. Her prose and poetry have been widely published. She has been nominated for the Best of the Net for poetry and the Pushcart Prize for poetry and short fiction. Finishing Line Press published Adele's first poetry chapbook, Turbulence in Small Places, in July. Her Novella-in-Flash, Wannabe, was published by Alien Buddha Press in May. Her second poetry collection, The Brink of Silence is available from Bottlecap Press.