She would make tiny sandwiches with the crusts cut off when she knew we were coming, opening cans of smoked salmon and crab. She must have made another sort of sandwiches because at the time my little sister would eat neither of those things, not even on white bread, which we never had at home, with the crusts cut off. I don’t remember. I do, however, remember her staircase.
Margaret was not our grandmother, except in every way which mattered. She was one of those family peripherals, the only employer who would hire my father and his long hair when my parents drifted into the valley where they would set their roots. For years he worked in her nursery, tending the greenhouses as the soil stained his hands dark and gave him a vague and permanent biting aura of fertilizer.
Or maybe that’s a different memory, tumbling down this staircase.
She more-or-less adopted us, the hippies with the two little girls bumbling along behind like kittens. Margaret had Money, that’s how it was always explained to me. She would buy us girls each our One Nice Dress every year, and we would take an awkward, grimacing photo to thank her. She would send us each Money at our birthdays, and Christmas. She was so organized about her gifts that the year she died in the summertime I received a pair of earrings from her posthumously for my late-fall birthday.
But the thing I remember is the staircase.
Upstairs in Margaret’s house was meant to be a children’s wonderland. There were shelves at our height, toys and games. After tiny-sandwich lunch we would be sent up to entertain ourselves while the grownups chatted. So long as the door at the base of the stairs remained closed, we could do as we liked.
The only game I can remember is the Stairs Game.
We didn’t have stairs in our house. Houses. Anywhere we stayed. Our house was small, neat but small, a book would describe it. on the West Coast, there are not so many older houses looking for tenants as in the Midwest, the East. So our houses were newish, past midcentury, furnished with an assortment of lightweight secondhand things and one huge old dresser my parents found somewhere. Single-story.
The Stairs Game consisted of running to the top of the carpeted staircase and then sliding down on our rumps.
That’s all. If it were a video game, it would have many levels. The Slow Slide. The Slide Race. The Howmanybumps Slide. The No-Feet. The Just-Feet. I’m sure the grownups knew we were alive mostly as a series of thumps and shrieks. I have an exceptionally clear memory of my mother appearing at the bottom of the staircase, framed by light, and shaking her head twice, slowly, before closing the door again.
When I purchased a house, I knew it needed stairs.
I have no children, and I’m unlikely to. Carrying my dogs up and down the stairs as they age is an ordeal. Getting up and down the stairs myself, after a race or a particularly hard day at the gym, can be an ordeal too. But the stairs are there, in case I need to slide down them, and at the bottom have a tiny salmon sandwich with watercress on white bread with the crusts cut off, that I have made for myself.