“Hettie!” I waved until I got in her line of sight. “Your shoes!”
Gripping the soft frame of her white hair, as if to catch her balance, my friend un-Velcroed her sandals and thanked me. “I almost forgot.”
As we crossed the threshold, a woman stood from the cushioned wood daybed. She looked rather more like a small child unfurling herself from the arms of a parent than that of a mother pushing away her oldest daughter.
“My aunt,” Sugar signed, jutting her chin and pursing her lips–the manner of ‘pointing’ that is not only Deaf but Thai–in the direction of the half-grayed woman, who was reaching for the standing elder lady. And then, “She is my grandmother.”
We–the grandmother, Hettie, and I–observed one another. As if the distance between us was one of small planets than humans in a house.
The woman’s brown skin was roped: with veins and wrinkles and bones. Her crochet tank sported a safety pin, and the burgundy wrap skirt she wore, I had seen before in the city I called “the Land of Malls”; it was the sort tourists picked up for relatives or donned if they flattered themselves hippies. But here, it belonged. Her lobes were stretched out into an indulgent eggish shape from the golden bauble earrings. Though almost twenty years older than Hettie, the grandmother speared her hair in place with a bejeweled clip, her hair the color of storms. Above all, the little hands, smaller even than Hettie’s, could not sign. Only bless and grip.
When she began exclaiming with one-toothed smiles, we knew we were welcome. Hettie, however, was the star. She was seized and smothered in kisses and made to sit on the daybed while I knelt next to Sugar and admired the gold enameling, the dark wood paneling, the fading photographs on the wall: of Buddha, the royal family, various monks.
The grandmother grabbed Hettie’s khakied knee, speaking in loud fast Northern Thai. Hettie looked at me with a discreet measure of desperation. I looked at Sugar. Sugar looked at her mother. The mother looked at her mother. A translation scurried back down the lines, and I signed some garbled ASL to Hettie: “She wants you to stay forever.”
“Okay,” she signed and patted the grandmother’s tiny hand. Then attention diverted, Hettie gestured at a strange contraption of wood and white string off to the side of the room. She seemed to ask, “What’s that?”
With a quickness I had never seen in an eighty-nine-year-old, the grandmother planted herself bum-down on a floor cushion, one leg frog-positioned to her left, and began to rig the rickety spindle.
“Mother, you don’t have to do that now,” Sugar’s mother seemed to be saying in Thai. But her mother ignored her, fixated on her task, as was Hettie.
Round and round, the spinning wheel went, until the pin slipped, again and again. The grandmother would fiddle with the plastic ties and re-knot the glitchy hemp string. If one knot caught on the pin, she would loose another piece from the spinning periphery and clip it with red Walmart scissors as massive as the Fates’ shears in her hands. Everything was “so Thai,” as a friend of mine would say: the haphazard octagonal wheel that spun with a fricative whir, the red plastic ties that looked as if they’d been swept off the floor and reused, the tangled string winding around and around the slipping pin. But still the cotton became thread.
As the grandmother worked and Hettie watched, both sitting small and still on the floor, I thought I saw the sort of childishness in them that one sees in old men as they sleep. Perhaps in the relaxed state of merely Being was the true font of youth.
Sugar’s mother prevailed upon her mother–finally–to put the thing away, and we stood to leave. After Wai-ing to the aunt, smiling at them all until our cheeks hurt, we clambered back down the steps of the lofted home and tripped back to the other house in our barely-fastened shoes.
“Wow,” I said, once we were in the privacy of the guest room.
Hettie swept white hair out of her eyes, crystalline, focused. She looked so young to me. “I don’t think I’ll ever wash my face again,” she said.
Covering my mouth the Thai way, I laughed.