It is, I am quite certain, my first real memory: my grandmother washing my hair on the day that I was to meet my new baby brother for the first time. I can still see it all in my mind’s eye — me kneeling on a stool alongside the old clawfoot tub in the bathroom, with its windows looking out across an expanse of back yard, the weeping willow tree, the duck pond, the raspberry patch, the mountains beyond; the long rubber hose with a silver sprinkler on the end; the bottle of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo; Grammie’s strong, capable fingers. It was August, 1961, and I was three years old. I squeezed my eyes tight shut, let the warm water pour down over my face, and marveled–I do remember this!–at how good it felt, how exciting it was, how much I loved feeling my grandmother’s hands scrubbing me clean for the most momentous event of my life.
My grandmother died today, just on the cusp of one hundred, and I’m not quite sure how I feel. Relief that her years in a nursing home are over, that’s part of if. Guilt that it has been two years since my brother and I drove north one day to see her — we clipped her fingernails and brought her a meager plain donut that she didn’t eat and watched her fall asleep in her wheelchair, and then tip-toed away, back into our own busy, distant lives. Yes, guilt is part of it, too. Sadness, at the passing of my last grandparent and the end of an era, at the realization that it’s my own parents now who are on the frontlines between me and mortality. And sadness that my dear grandmother took her last breath after so many years of being almost gone to us already, lost in the fog of dementia and forgetfulness. “You don’t need to visit,” my uncle would say, “if you came, she wouldn’t remember that you were here.”
I think she would have been pleased to pass from this world to the next on this auspicious night of the full moon, the autumn equinox. Pleased too, to know that I am sitting alone in my kitchen this evening, the windows open wide, writing a few of my own memories down.
She was a record keeper herself, a faithful recorder of stories from the distant past and from her youth. She once showed me a map she had drawn to perfect scale, of the house she’d grown up in, a house that had burned to the ground in a fire when she was still a girl. Having lost everything once, she learned to save and to keep, just in case. As a child I explored the infinite closets and cupboards and recesses of her house like an archaeologist searching for clues to a vanished civilization, slipping my feet into the black ice skates my dad had worn as a child, sniffing the contents of the mysterious bottles in the back of the medicine cabinet, poring over the ancient magazines piled up in the vast catch-all room known to all as “the store.” (At one time, years earlier, this space attached to the house actually had been a store; by the time I arrived on the planet it was fully stocked with the flotsam and jetsam of my grandparents lives together–an inexhaustible inventory of memory and artifact and the left-behind possessions of three boys who had long since grown and gone.)
My grandmother tracked the family geneology, learned to use a computer just to keep it all straight, and then tried in vain to get some one of us feckless granchildren to carry on in her stead, to pick up her passion for pursuing the bloodlines. The truth is, I never could get too excited about my proven ties to the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, or about finding out whether the Kenistons with a “t” who lived to the south were related to us. And yet, as I sit here tonight, I think I do understand, a bit, my grandmother’s desire to somehow gather up the past, hold onto it all, and make some sense of it. My memories are tumbling all over one other, each one giving way to the next, more details than I would ever have guessed my middle-aged brain could contain. Still, in her honor and in her memory, I offer a few. This is where I’m from, after all, and she is so much a part of who I am.
I am from the front porch stretched across the front of the wide gray house at the foot of Cherry Mountain. Fireflies in a jar, rocking chairs in a row, my grandfather’s Camel cigarettes glowing in the darkness. Home-made donuts fried in hot oil, melt-in-your-mouth donut holes, crisp and tender, burning the tongue. Day-olds carried out and fed from the palm of my grandmother’s hand to the catbird in the bushes. A jar of bacon grease on the back of the cook stove, cereal boxes on top of the fridge, rough lye soap at the long kitchen sink with its plastic dish drainer and its old rusty pump at one end. A tiny kitchen mirror with a black comb on a shelf. Fresh baked white bread, slathered with butter and honey. An old pump organ, with heavy carpeted pedals and chipped ivory keys and a row of irresistible, complaining knobs to push and pull. A heavy black telephone, a party line, our own special ring. Walks to the post office where I studied the Wanted posters on the wall, shivers crawling up and down my spine, and walks back home again, across the railroad tracks, sucking a Jawbreaker and looking both ways for runaway trains. Tea parties under the weeping willow tree, kittens in the barn, ducks and frogs in the pond, petunias planted in an old row-boat beached for all time in the grass. A pile of old Boys’ Life magazines, left over from my dad’s childhood, and every single Hardy Boys mystery ever written, lined up on a shelf. Cactuses and African violets in the window, a Bible on the kitchen table, Billy Graham on the television. A photo gallery of ancestral family members on the wall up the stairs, black and white portraits of long-dead children in white Victorian blouses, pushing wicker strollers or posing with stern-looking elders frozen in history but, somehow, amazingly, related to me. Pots of Helene Curtis face powder on a tray, on a doily, on a table, in that bathroom. The tall closet with its medicinal smell, its nameless brown bottles with black rubber stoppers, Witch Hazel and cotton balls, hairnets and Acqua Net and Alka-Selzer and Pepto-Bismol and Brylcreem. Crochet hooks and knitting needles and white socks to be darned. Lampshades protected by plastic, newspaper clippings, the Readers Digest, pies baked six at a time.
These are old memories. The images that keep rising up, and that feel so fresh and vivid in my mind’s eye, are from another world it seems, nearly half a century ago. And what’s left behind now seems so slight. It’s been quite a few years since my grandmother’s house was dismantled, the quilt tops and photo albums and tea cups scattered to the winds. What I have is what I can remember — and what I return to again and again is her hands. Her beautiful, capable hands, bent a bit from arthritis and a life time of hard work, fingernails immaculate and clipped short. These hands could knead bread dough with a few deft strokes, slip a perfect pie crust into a pan, stitch an invisible seam, clean a wound, soothe a brow, coax the tangles out of a rat’s nest of hair without a single pull. After her boys grew up, my grandmother went to nursing school and then she took her hands, and all of her maternal energy, out into the world, caring for the old and the ill in their homes, sitting with the dying through long winter nights in the north country, and then driving home on the icy roads of dawn in time to make breakfast for my grandfather. If you were sick or scared or bleeding, she was the person you wanted at your side. One look at those hands, and you knew that you were safe. The phrase “you are in good hands” could have originated with her. My dad has those hands. With them he has performed impeccable dentistry for over fifty years; they are steady still. Healing, fixing, soothing, doing — this is what runs in the family. “Idle hands,” my grandmother liked to say, “make devil’s work.”
There is a stack of afghans, folded and sitting on a chair in our den. Back when her mind was just starting to go, but her hands still needed to be busy, my grandmother crocheted afghans; once she got started, it was hard for her to stop. Before long there were afghans for each and every family member, and a few more just because. She gave them to us with a touch of embarrassment; she gave them with love–at age eighty-five, afghans were what she had to give. Whenever we settle in on the couch to watch a baseball game or a movie, we reach for those afghans and snuggle in. Such small but essential comfort, these four old coverlets made by hand by my grandmother. She would surely like to know that they have been of use here, that they are in use still, that when I pull the pink and white one across my knees, I always pause for just a moment and think of her.