She worked without letup for years, because there was no one else, and because someone had to put food on the table and keep a roof over the heads of three children after her alcoholic husband died of a heart attack. One of these children was my mother. And so my grandmother found work selling hosiery and women’s undergarments to shops in northern Ohio and southern Michigan, driving all week between small towns and big, the trunk of her car filled with samples, a thick order book on the seat beside her. I learned early the difference between corsets and girdles.
Until one day, exhausted, she fell asleep at the wheel of the Nash Rambler and drove off a country road into a dry creek bed and smashed the lower part of her face against the steering wheel. This was long before seat belts and air bags. And three grave diggers working nearby who had witnessed the accident pulled her from the wreck and got her to a country quack who did a bad job of stitching up her wounds, so that for the rest of her life her jaw was cross-hatched with suture scars.
And after she recovered, she took a job selling home furnishings at a large department store on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, working nights and weekends, offering drapes and sofas and carpets. And she told me that sometimes the store advertised a once-a-year sale at “rock-bottom” prices: Inventory Clearance—Everything Must Go. And management told her to raise the prices of almost every item on the floor for the clearance, and when she objected, they threatened to fire her.
Much later, she was doing a brisk business on a Friday afternoon near the end of summer when she sat down suddenly, and chose not one of the easy chairs but the floor, and asked for a glass of water and when they brought the water, it was as if she was drinking darkness. And while they waited for the fire department to arrive, her eyes began to wander from one face to another without recognizing anyone. And as I write this, decades later, I would do anything to bring her back into the light for even a minute, risk everything to get her past the mysterious boatman with his empty barge, past the three-headed dog, past Hades and his wife, past the legions of shades.