SO, HERE WE ARE
I lift my bicycle onto my shoulder and carry it up the wooden steps to my grandmother’s porch. I’ve traveled on the train from Portland and ridden the ten miles from the station to her house in a drenching rainstorm. It’s nearly dark. My shoes are literally filled with water. I can see my grandmother and her Fijian caregiver, Lafiti, in the kitchen. My grandmother is looking through a phone book and appears upset. It’s like viewing a silent film from within a film. The women don’t see me. I watch them for several long minutes. I’m shivering. I can’t bring myself to knock, don’t know why. Maybe it’s just easier to remain behind glass, peering in. Water is running from my bike helmet onto my neck. Finally, I tap on the sliding glass door, and they both look up at once. Lafiti shuffles over to let me in.
My grandmother squeezes me into a tight hug, admonishing me about being out in the weather, then turns back to the phone book.
“I’m trying to remember the name of that pizza place,” she says.
Lafiti shrugs her shoulders.
“You don’t like pizza, Grandma.”
“No, I don’t. Lafiti will make us some chicken.”
The next morning, I awaken in my mother’s childhood bedroom. My grandmother has lived in this house since she and my grandfather built it themselves in the 1940s. It was farmland back then, but companies like Microsoft have transformed the area into a wealthy suburb. The small house is now surrounded by million-dollar estates. It’s conspicuously small and tucked away between the bloated McMansions. Yet the familiarity is comforting to me. It’s the last physical place with ties to my childhood. I know every cupboard, nook, smell. I know that the hot water tap is backward on the old tub, where my mother gave me my first baths. I know when the light will shift, where the crumbling old wishing well is hidden behind the madrone tree, that the shrub bursting with delicate pink blooms near the sagging wooden fence is quince, my grandmother’s wedding flowers. Because of Lafiti, my grandmother can stay here at home, in this familiar place, even as her mind slips away. But what will happen to Lafiti when she needs care someday? Where and what is home, to her?
Skilled in-home help costs about twenty dollars per hour. The caregivers themselves only make around ten dollars per hour on average. Immigrants like Lafiti constitute nearly 30 percent of in-home caregivers in the United States. One in five are undocumented.
Lafiti has already made coffee and started some laundry when I go upstairs. I take a walk along the road where my great-grandmother lived during a time when families didn’t venture far from one another. My grandmother will not be awake for hours.
Later, the three of us sit in the living room, reaching for meaningful conversation. A small fishing boat parts the pewter-colored water of Lake Washington in the distance, and I miss my grandfather. His family came from Germany one generation before. We have old reel movies of him as a teenager visiting relatives in what would become East Berlin, surrounded by a crowd waving Nazi flags.
Lafiti tells stories with her hands, but there is a delay between the words and the signs. Right now, her hands are in the air, telling the story of a jet skidding silently across a cloudless, blue sky over the Pacific. “And so they turned the plane around over Hawaii, just turned it right around and sent them back,” she said, as her hands rose up in the way of wings. “My daughter and her family were on their way here from Fiji, the five of them. Guess what day it was?”
Lafiti speaks slowly, her heavy Fijian accent giving the words a soft, rolling rhythm. She has a broad face, large hands, and a thick mahogany afro. She is calm and sweet, even when my eighty-nine-year-old grandmother, who suffers from severe dementia, asks her the same questions over and over again. Nothing riles her as far as I can tell. She is wearing a cotton uniform that looks like it belongs on a pediatric nurse—light blue with little animals printed on it. Grandma keeps touching the fabric on the sleeve and repeating, “I love your shirt. It’s so pretty. Is it comfortable, too? I love your shirt. It’s so pretty. It goes well with your hair.”
“It was September eleventh,” Lafiti went on. “They didn’t even let them land. They just turned that plane around.” My breath is caught in my lungs in the silent moment as Lafiti’s hands glide through space, arcing, and turning back. “Can you believe that luck? A week later, they tried again, but the rules had changed.” She shakes her head, sadly. This story she is telling me is the answer to my question of where her grandchildren’s parents are. She is explaining how she has ended up raising the four of them alone. I am sitting on the floor and have a National Geographic magazine spread open on the carpet. My grandmother is reading the Seattle Times in her favorite blue chair in a yellow satin-quilted robe, her thin gray hair flattened in the back from a nap, not listening to Lafiti’s story at all.
“They made it to the US, but September eleventh changed the immigration rules. My daughter got into the US on her husband’s documents, but she wasn’t really legal. A few years later, after their fourth baby was born here, she wanted to go back to Fiji for an important wedding. I begged her not to go. What if something goes wrong? She didn’t listen. ‘Oh, Mama,’ she said. ‘You worry too much. Don’t worry.’ That was in 2007. I haven’t seen her since. She won’t let me send the children to her. She wants them to grow up in America.”
“So, here I am, here we are. We get along OK. The oldest granddaughter is seventeen now. She helps while I am at work. Now my daughter is trying to get back in through Canada. I just pray to Jesus, every day.” Lafiti’s hands fly into the air again and hang there after the words end, fluttering, a prayer to Jesus.
The gold letters on the big, worn bible Lafiti keeps on the coffee table are shining in the morning light. The words spell out NAI VOLA TABU. I assume it says “The Holy Bible” in Fijian but have no idea and don’t ask. She said she’s been in the US since 1995 and has worked as a caregiver the entire time. “This is the nicest house I’ve ever worked in,” she tells me. “This is such a lovely place.”
“It’s not about the eyes,” Grandma says, suddenly. “People say that, but it’s not true.” She turns the newspaper around and points to a photograph of an accused terrorist on the front page. “It’s the mouth. You can tell by the mouth whether someone is a bad or not. My mother taught me that. Look at the way his lips turn down. He’s guilty.”
“When are you leaving? Going home tonight, Lafiti?” Grandma asks. “No, Margie, tomorrow. I go home tomorrow.”
I look at Lafiti and shrug my shoulders. She smiles. I pick up the National Geographic and show Grandma a photograph of an old woman in a story about secrets of the world’s oldest people. “Check it out, Grandma. This lady is 105 years old.” Granny hangs her head. “Nobody should ever live that long,” she says. “What a shame. Such a shame.”
The old woman in the magazine doesn’t look displeased about it. She’s wearing a floppy orange hat and bright red lipstick. Her eyes are shining. Her lips are turned up.
“When are you leaving? Going home tonight?” Grandma asks Lafiti again. “No, Margie, no,” Lafiti says, calmly. “I am here four days, then three days off. I go home to my grandchildren. Then I come back.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” Grandma says. “Nobody told me. Nobody tells me anything.”
“Did you fall? Are you hurt?” she asks Lafiti next, out of the blue and without context, like usual. “No, Margie, you fell. You hurt your head. You fell down the stairs, remember? You hurt your head and your leg.” My grandmother touches the place on the back of her head where she had eight stitches after falling backward off the stairs while trying to catch her cat.
Grandma shakes her head, shuts her eyes. “I did? I fell?” Then she clenches her small fist, as tiny and bony as a pigeon talon, and hits herself in the forehead. “Sawdust! There’s nothing but sawdust and straw in here now.” Then she turns to me. “Tell her. Tell Lafiti I haven’t always been this way. Tell her I haven’t always been so stupid.”
After dinner, we play rummy. The way Lafiti is shuffling the cards, casually spreading them up, pulling them in, allowing them to collapse, spreading them back out again in a vertical column above the glass dining room table, I’m convinced she’s done this before, professionally. The left corner of her mouth pulls up into a smirk when I say, “Now that is how a pro shuffles cards,” but she doesn’t say anything, just keeps shuffling, then deals, just like a dealer.
My grandmother has forgotten again which card is wild. We’re just beginning the seventh hand of our second game. She slaps a card down onto the discard pile. Her wedding band slides around on her thin ring finger as she draws her hand back up, slowly, to her face. She taps and rolls her fingertips across her forehead, contemplating the next move. Her deeply-creased face looks tired, but her eyes are flashing.
“Sevens are wild, Grandma,” I tell her, reaching for the card so she can put it back into her hand. She smacks herself on the forehead with her palm. “No!” she says. “My fault, that was my fault. It’s too late. I took my hand off.”
Lafiti doesn’t miss a beat. “Thank you, Margie,” she says, her lips opening into a wide grin. “I needed that.” She quickly organizes her hand, then lays her cards out onto the table in two piles and discards, chuckling, picking cashews from her teeth with her tongue.
“You little rat!” Grandma shouts. “You didn’t just do that.”
Lafiti laughs louder, jots down the scores, then gathers up the cards to hand to me for my shuffle. “Sorry, lady,” she tells Grandma. “You remember next time. Next time, eights are wild. Don’t forget.”
“You think because you’re a kid you can take advantage of an old lady?” Grandma teases. Lafiti tosses another handful of nuts from her pocket into her mouth. She’s eaten almost an entire can of cashews in the last half hour.
“Oh, lady, I am not a kid,” Lafiti says as I shuffle the cards like a first-grader, bending them sideways, forcing the edges together. “I am seventy-two.”
“What! You are not, no way,” I say, while Grandma cuts the deck.
“It’s true,” she says. “I am an old woman, no kid, no kidding, ha.”
“You can’t be any older than sixty,” I tell her, and mean it. And then this wave of grief hits me. Suddenly, I want to give Lafiti this house and everything in it. I dig my toes into the carpet like that might keep me from crying.
It’s getting late and these old women are wearing me out. After the last hand, I beg forgiveness and excuse myself from the table, kiss my grandmother goodnight.
“What do you say, Margie?” I hear Lafiti saying as I head downstairs. “One more game?”
“Okay. You shuffle.”
The next morning, Lafiti is drying the dishes. She’s wearing a pink cotton outfit now with birds and clouds and faded rainbows printed on it. She dries the dishes with fluid, circular motions, the same way she shuffles cards and tells stories about airplanes stopped in the sky.
Her roller suitcase is standing upright by the patio door. She sits down at a small table in the kitchen and picks up her phone. The bible is there, next to a miniature television set. “I have to text the grandkids,” she says, “and tell them I’ll be picking them up from church today.”
When she’s done, I hand her a cup of coffee. “I’m sorry about your daughter’s papers and all the problems. I hope the government keeps making progress on immigration reform. I hope something changes soon, so she can come back.”
Lafiti looks out the window for a moment, pushes her lips into the steam, sips loudly. “In Fiji, if you see someone walking down the street outside your house, you always say to them, ‘Come inside! Take a rest. Have some tea.’ Here, nobody trusts, and nobody can be trusted.”
“Yeah, well, it depends, I guess, doesn’t it? On the community, the city, the neighborhood.”
“Yes, but not really. I’m talking generally about the country, not individuals, but the place. And it’s not really sad,” Lafiti says, “just a different culture. You have to understand the culture. Do you know the best advice I ever got about living in America? When I first come here, a lady I worked for said to me, ‘Lafiti, Americans want to be the most important thing. That’s why you have to act stupid.’ And you know what? That lady was right! When I go to the bank, to the office, to the store, any place where I need something, now, I act stupid. I say, ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I don’t get it’ or ‘please help, I don’t know what you mean,’ and magic! Americans want to be here.” She raises her hands and holds them high above her head. “They don’t want anyone else to be more important than them.” Lafiti says “them” like I’m not part of this, like I’ve made my way here from somewhere else, too. “It’s okay. In Fiji, the government is corrupt, no good. This is a better life. It is better to be stupid in America than smart in Fiji.”
“Tell them,” I can hear my grandmother repeating, her mind rolling around like marbles lost in the couch cushions, drifting like straw spilling out. “Tell them I haven’t always been this way. Tell them I haven’t always been so stupid.”
Nannies, housekeepers, caregivers. More than two million people do this type of work in the United States. I worked as a caregiver for one of my aunts when she was dying from cancer. I was in college at the time. The women I traded shifts with were in the business for life. This occupation is often referred to in the media as “the invisible workforce.” I didn’t ask Lafiti about her own immigration status. Maybe I will someday. She’s been with my grandmother for a year now, but Grandma just turned ninety and is frailer every time I see her. I wonder where Lafiti will go next as she toils her way into her own old age, what the homes will be like, how the families will treat her.
Grandma is asleep and snoring softly. I stroke her forehead to say goodbye but don’t want to wake her. I have a train to catch. I have to go back home. I can’t take her with me. I can’t give Lafiti this house. Lafiti is getting ready to change shifts with the next caregiver, so she can go home, too. So she can pick her grandkids up from church.
I write my grandmother a note and hug Lafiti. She hands me a plastic bag filled with big, wet chunks of watermelon. “For your trip,” she says. “I just cut it up. There is plenty, and your grandma prefers the strawberries.”
In downtown Seattle, I pass through the Chinatown Gate. It’s drizzling, and the sky is the color of cast iron. Across the street, two Buddhist monks are walking slowly in lock-step, wearing identical robes and matching red raincoats. On the other side of the gate, a tiny Chinese grandmother, gripping the hand of a squirming toddler, smiles at me as I start to cross the street to the train station. “God bless you, lady!” she shouts.
“Thank you, bless you,” I tell her, waving at her grandson, passing her wish of good grace silently along in my mind to my grandmother and Lafiti.
The train pulls out, into the rain, heading south to Portland. I push headphones into my ears and turn toward the window, put my music on shuffle. The train picks up speed outside the city. The suburbs give way to trees and pastures, ponds, rolling hills, and old timber towns, as we roll along on ancient tracks laid down and pounded in, mostly by Asian immigrants. I like this backward view of the world, the ugly backside of things that you can only see from the vantage point of a train. We chug past crumbling back porches and trash-filled ravines and skinny dogs on chains. As we pass through one small town, a young girl carrying a trombone case sees the train and motions for the conductor to whistle. She is waving and yelling, but her voice is muted by glass and steel. Her blond hair is flying around her face. I wave back with my fingertips, even though I know she can only see shapes through the tinted windows.
Through my headphones, Johnny Cash is singing in time with the rolling motion of the train, singing about fire and dinosaur bones and the way people break and break and are broken here.
Gina Williams’s poetry, photography, and essays have been featured or are forthcoming most recently in Carve, The Sun, Fugue, Palooka, Black Box Gallery, and NewerYork, among others. Find her at http://www.GinaMarieWilliams.com.