My grandmother always wore nightgowns around the house. Most of them were the kind that looked like knee-length tee shirts from airport gift shops with cartoon buildings or bridges or taxis on the front.
“I’m going to change into my robe,” she used to say when she got home from work, referring to one of the nightgowns folded up in the dresser near her bed. I never understood why she called them robes when they were nightgowns and I always argued with her about it.
“Betty,” I would say, because she didn’t allow me to call her Grandma to her face, “It’s not a robe! It’s a nightgown!”
We always disagreed about things like that. We would argue during dinner and over bowls of chocolate pudding we made from a packet of powder and a pot of milk on the stove, looking things up in the dictionary and on the internet to prove each other wrong. My mother and my older brother, Nick, were usually not home during our arguments, so we would go on and on, yelling across the house about something that would eventually become irrelevant. Sometimes we would go for weeks without talking because we couldn’t agree about the spelling or meaning of a word. We’d tiptoe around the house and avoid each other in our respective rooms until one of us gave in.
“I’m the one wearing it so I can call it whatever the hell I want,” she’d say out of the side of her mouth with a cigarette pressed between her lips, and finally, we’d agree to disagree.
The nightgowns in Betty’s closet might have been the only thing she had in common with other grandmothers. She was different, as my friends used to say when they came over to our house. When people met Mom, they always stared at her, saying they couldn’t believe she was old enough to be a mother.
“She looks like she could be your older sister,” they’d say, because her skin was smooth and she usually wore too-tight clothing that belonged in the drawers of my dresser. But I was more fascinated by Betty and her outlandishness. Her hair was always cut into a boyish brown crop with bold blonde streaks around her face. She essentially wore the same outfit every single day: jeans with a solid colored long-sleeve shirt and a vest. These were no ordinary vests, though. They were colored with quirky patterns or embroidery or beads that made strangers stop and speak to her wherever she went. In the mornings, she sprayed the inside of her wrists with a black bottle of Fracas perfume, got into her silver Jeep Wrangler—the least grandmotherly car at the dealership—and went to the casino where she dealt cards at a green poker table.
When I was in middle school, I’d take the school bus to the casino some afternoons so we could drive home together. I tried to be sly when I walked through the tunnels of slot machines, their lights blazing blue and red and gold all around me. I loved the incessant ringing of music and pressing of buttons and clinking of coins as I passed through clouds of cigarette smoke and rows of people with their lifeless eyes glued to the flashing screens. I loved it because it made me feel like I was breaking the rules, sneaking around between blackjack tables and wheeled carts filled with alcohol, but I would never get in trouble there anyway.
“They know me,” Betty used to say. “If Security ever tries to tell you you’re not supposed to be here, you tell them you’re with me.”
It never occurred to me that dealing cards was not a “normal” job for a grandmother. Most of my friends’ grandmothers at the time didn’t even have jobs, but I already knew that she was not exactly normal.
“Ready to go?” I’d ask when I walked into the Poker Room with my backpack slung over one shoulder.
“Abso-fuckin’-lutely,” she’d say, glossing her smiling lips with a shade of mauve.
That was one of her signature phrases—Bettyisms, as she and Mom called them—that I always wish I had written down. I could have filled a whole notebook with Bettyisms then, but now there are only a few that I can remember. One of my favorites was, “I was an English major,” which she often said to rationalize in some way the strange things she did and said. I remember asking her once why she could say swear words even though I wasn’t allowed to, and all she said was, “I was an English major. When you read James Joyce, you can swear all you want, too.”
For the most part, we drove home without any background noise, but sometimes we listened to one of the cassette tapes she kept in the backseat of her Jeep. Her favorite kind of music was opera, but there were a few old pop or rock tapes hidden at the bottom of her collection. My favorite was The Best of Carly Simon; sometimes I’d rewind the tape deck over and over just to listen to “You’re So Vain” again. During our drives, when we weren’t singing in unison and out of tune while Betty blew smoke out of the cracked window, we talked about books. On some Saturdays during the four years we lived together, we spent hours at the bookstore: Betty in the mystery section stocking up on James Patterson novels and me carrying the list of titles she wrote for me on the back of a crumpled cash-out voucher from the casino. With Betty, I could do things I couldn’t do around Mom, like replay a song five times or talk about Holden Caulfield and Ponyboy Curtis as if they were people we both knew in real life. She was killed during the fourth year that we lived with her, and even then, the police found a book with a dog-eared page in her blood-soaked bed.
Mom, Nick, and I moved in with Betty when I was eleven and we lived with her until the day she died when I was fifteen. At first, we all spent a lot of time together, and sometimes Betty would take Nick and me on day-trips to eat French food downtown or thumb through crates of old albums at the flea market. Once Nick got to be in high school, we started seeing less and less of him around the house. While he was working late shifts at his two part-time jobs after school, Mom always seemed to be quitting one job and starting a new one. For a brief time, she worked at the bookstore at the mall and would come home with plastic bags filled with books for Betty and me. Later, she worked as a makeup salesperson for Avon, and the bathroom counter I shared with her started to look like the pages in the catalogs she was supposed to give to potential customers.
“Your grandmother is a free spirit,” Mom told us before we moved in with her. “She’s been on her own for a long time and she won’t change for anybody.” She told us stories about Betty’s days as a hippie, doing drugs and throwing all her bras into burning trashcans in the streets of New York City. She was 64 when we moved in with her, and even then she jokingly referred to her prescription Ambien sleeping pills as “Quaaludes.” When I asked her what Quaaludes were, she said, “’Ludes were my best friend once. Hell, they were everyone’s best friend.” In the early 70’s, when Mom was still a kid, Betty said she was going to hitchhike from New York to San Francisco. She took off in what I can only imagine to be a Volkswagen bus, and Mom and her brother Paul were left with no supervision in houses where the kitchen counters were littered with pills and powders. By the time Betty came back, a year had gone by and she caught Mom and Paul smoking and stealing the car she left parked in their driveway. Paul had to sit on a stack of old phone books just to see over the wheel.
I only knew of Betty from the stories Mom had told me over the years, and I was already nine years old the first time I ever really spent time with her. I never knew why it had taken us so long to be a part of her life, but we had spent years moving from town to town while the rest of our family became strangers to us. I remember nervously sitting across from Betty on a peach colored leather couch in her living room that day. She had three tiny Chihuahuas who scratched against the sliding glass door underneath a row of bright red strawberry-shaped hummingbird feeders. It was almost the end of the summer, and she was wearing a corduroy vest with a red long-sleeve shirt underneath. In the middle of the shirt was a silver shooting star made out of plastic rhinestones that fit just perfectly between the sides of her half-opened vest.
“Hey, kid,” she said. “Want to make yourself useful and help me do something important?” Still feeling shy, I nodded without saying a word. She went into the other room and came out again with her ironing board under one arm and a stack of long-sleeve shirts in the other.
“What are we doing?” I finally asked.
“Bedazzling some shit,” she answered as she pulled out a plastic bag full of iron-on rhinestone patterns like the one on her shirt.
It was two years later when we moved in with Betty and her Chihuahuas for good in a four-bedroom house with pink walls and a bright blue door. Soon after, she and I developed our nightly routine of eating instant pudding while we watched game shows and laughed until we cried.
“You two are becoming more alike every day,” Mom said, passing through the living room on her way to a date or coming home from another job interview.
“We’re not becoming alike,” Betty would say. “We just are. We’re like two peas in a pod.” I laughed and she winked at me.
Two weeks before she died, we were watching the news segment that always aired before Jeopardy when we heard a story about a man who had killed himself. Betty was wearing one of her only long-sleeve nightgowns; it was made of dark green terry cloth and it was so long it covered everything but her ankles and feet.
“That’s a damn shame. He hung himself,” she said in her raspy voice as she painted her nails with clear gloss on the couch.
“Did you know it’s actually hanged?” I said. “It’s supposed to be, ‘he hanged himself.’”
“That’s impossible,” she said, pulling out the dictionary and carefully flipping through it with her wet nails, trying not to let any pages stick to the polish. “I was an English major.”
“I’m telling you, Betty. It’s true,” I said, amused. She told me to double check on the internet and print the pages out so she could read them for herself with her glasses on. Although every website we found suggested that I was right, she still refused to believe it, so we started screaming at each other.
“Hanged is not a fuckin’ word, goddamn it!” she said before she went into her room and slammed the door shut. We gave each other the silent treatment for over a week, as our boxes of JELLO pudding sat unused in the kitchen cabinet and she watched Jeopardy alone with her legs crossed on the couch every night at 6:00.
“Maybe it’s just a weird word,” I said, growing tired of missing our nights together, although I would never admit it. “So in a way, we’re both right.” I was too stubborn to pretend that I was wrong, and she was too stubborn to acknowledge that I was right, so as always, we just slipped back into our usual pattern as if nothing had ever happened.
A few nights later, Nick and I woke up to a series of screams coming from Betty’s room, echoing through the dark house as the dogs hid beneath the coffee table. I was the first one to find her, on the floor beside her bed—and Mom standing over her in a bloodstained tee shirt. When Betty died, of course, she did not die the way grandmothers are supposed to die. It wasn’t until I was sitting across from an officer at the police station that I finally understood that she didn’t just die. She had been murdered. After over fifteen hours of interrogations and tape recorders and fingerprints while the police searched our house for evidence, it was decided that Mom was the one who killed her with a knife that was never found. A motive was never found, either.
In the months that followed the murder, I couldn’t fall asleep with the lights off. Every time I was alone in the dark, I could see her there, lying motionless on the floor of her bedroom again. When I closed my eyes, it felt like I was standing in front of Mom all over again, her hands red with blood as I tried to understand where all of it had come from. I slept in Nick’s room for a month before I could finally fall asleep by myself, but even then, the lights stayed on and the door stayed locked. The nightmares continued even when I had made enough progress that I could sleep alone. When I finally fell asleep, I always woke up in the middle of the night after hearing the screams and seeing the blood. Two facts remained the same in both the nightmares and reality: Mom was always alive and Betty was always dead.
Therapists and friends told me that someday the nightmares would turn to dreams and I would see Betty again the way I used to see her when she was alive, but I was already struggling to remember what she had been like. During the first few months, I realized how hard it would be to adjust to the world without her by my side. I was in a department store fitting room when “You’re So Vain” started playing and I felt my body go numb, falling to the ground with only one of my arms through the sleeve of a shirt. The truth was that it was too hard to remember the good parts of her life—and of my life with her—because of how it ended.
The terror I felt the night she died was so powerful that I couldn’t feel anything else when I thought of her, but as time went on, there was no choice but to move forward. I started sleeping with the lights off and trying to remember the good parts, although it took over five years to be able to remember them without crying. When I went to college two years after her death, I majored in English and read James Joyce like she had. I kept the worn copy of The Outsiders that she bought for me on one of our Saturday morning outings in my dorm room, although I could never bring myself to read it again.
I couldn’t make sense of what had happened to her then and today, I still find myself staying up nights asking the question that will never be answered: why? The seven-year anniversary of her death is approaching now, and this time of year always makes me think about the hardest parts of losing her. In the past, I’ve had nightmares almost nightly during the weeks before and after the anniversary. Often, they are the kind of nightmares that wake me up instantly, jolting me back into reality where I am scared and sweating alone in my bed, not back in my old house with Betty’s body in front of me. Most nights around this time, I don’t like to fall asleep in the dark, so I sleep with twelve feet of white Christmas lights strung up against the wall beside my bed.
One night recently, I finally had my first real dream about her. It took place, like all of the nightmares before it, inside our old house with the pink walls where she died. The difference was that Mom and Betty were both alive, and there were no screams or bloodstains. In the dream, the two of them lay in Betty’s bed together as a small dog slept at the foot of the bed on a cushion. I opened a door to walk into the room, and a light beamed across the bed from behind me as the dog jumped up and barked at me. I couldn’t see Mom because she was somewhere beneath the blankets, but I could see Betty now as the light shone against her. She was lying in the bed in her long-sleeve green nightgown, looking how she used to when she went to bed after one of our TV shows had ended or one of our arguments had just begun. She lifted her head up, turned to me, and said, “Can you turn off the light?”
I woke up and looked at the string of lights glowing on the wall for a long time, wondering how it had taken almost seven years for me to find her again. I wanted to know what had changed, why I was never able to see her that way before. The anniversary this year will come and go like it always does, taking me further and further away from the night she died. But somehow, I feel a little bit closer to her now, like I can see her more clearly as time continues to separate my life from hers. Each year, I send five balloons into the sky with a letter tied up at the end of the ribbon. The letters always contain something I wish I had said the day we scattered her ashes. In her will, she asked us to spread her ashes in the desert, because she had fallen in love with the Southwest years earlier on a trip with her fifth and final husband who died before I got to know Betty.
About a week after her death, some family members got together at the top of a dusty hill to scatter the ashes. Everyone spoke out loud to her, saying things they wished they had said when she was still alive; I was the only one who didn’t say anything. As I listened to everyone speak, I wondered how it could be a funeral if there was no body to bury. I remember watching Nick fall to his knees in a blue button-down shirt, how helpless I felt seeing him cry for the first time in my life. I tried to picture Betty in one of her nightgowns again, or maybe in a vest with one of her rhinestone shirts. All I wanted was to see her the way I used to, but I could only see the blood on Mom’s shirt.
I didn’t want anyone to know that I was afraid of letting the ashes go and watching all those tiny pieces of her become a pile of dust in the desert. I was so full of regret, thinking only that I hated how I had wasted my last weeks with her all because of an argument that didn’t matter anymore. I had written down exactly what I wanted to say at the funeral, but I couldn’t even bring myself to take the piece of paper out of my back pocket. It was a short note that didn’t ask the kinds of questions everyone else was asking that day. It said something like:
I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you for almost two weeks because of the word “hanged.” I hope you aren’t still mad at me.
While the others stood there asking how her wonderful, beautiful life could have been taken so suddenly and so violently, all I could do was cry with a selfish note in my pocket. Now, each year, I write down the questions I never got to ask and hope that someday I’ll find the answers. I can still remember how the wind picked up when it was finally time to let go of her, how the strands of my hair whipped the back of my neck as I watched the ashes swim away in the air. All these years later, I can almost see her standing there with us now, trying to light a cigarette behind Nick in the wind with the green sleeves of her nightgown rolled up over her small wrists. With her wrinkled hands cupped around a plastic lighter, she would have said, “But hanged is not a fuckin’ word.”
Kristi DiLallo is an MFA candidate in the Writing program at Columbia University whereshe is writing a memoir about this experience and how it has shaped–and continues to shape–her identity. She is the Online Nonfiction Editor of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Her work has appeared online in The Feminist Wire, BioStories Magazine, and is forthcoming in Modern Loss.