Grammie Kenison

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.

Anniversary

Each morning this week, my husband and I have woken early and walked together.  With our two sons back in school, the daily rhythm of our life has shifted.   We’ve gone from twenty years of being utterly child-centered — and from a summer of family schedule-juggling, despite the fact that our children, at 17 and 20, are not actually children anymore — to the quieter intimacy of two.

We take the same route from our house, a loop through the woods and along a quiet bike path, then up the hill toward home.  By the time I put coffee on and Steve heads upstairs to shower, the sun is well up and we have said to one another all the things that are on our minds.  Already this new ritual feels special, worth protecting and continuing.  Sunday we marked our twenty-third wedding anniversary.  I say marked instead of celebrated because there were no gifts or letters exchanged, no romantic tryst in a hotel, no showy surprises.  We shared a bottle of champagne, and in the morning we put on our sneakers and began the twenty-fourth year of our life together.

A couple of days earlier, I’d had a couple of old home videos transferred to DVD, and Steve and Jack and I sat in the kitchen that night and watched the footage of our wedding, September 12, 1987.  How odd it was, to see my own parents, just about the age that I am now; to see the two of us not as parents but as young lovers; to see so many friends and dear ones who have passed away in these intervening years, but who, on that joyful day, were simply alive: dancing and making toasts and chatting under a white and yellow tent.  My dad had bought the video camera just for the occasion.  No one in the family quite knew what to do with it, and so it was casually passed around, from one willing photographer to the next.  Someone managed to film our first kiss, a blizzard of rice, my grandmother with her black purse on her arm, Steve leading me out to the dance floor.  My Uncle Chet zeroed in for quite a while on a college friend of mine, dancing barefoot in a transparent purple dress.  And then, a bit tipsy perhaps, and unaware that he had failed to press the “off” button, he simply carried the camera around as he enjoyed the party.  So this is what we have: an unwitting, ridiculously precious hour of captured feet and sky and tent-top.  Most of our wedding video could be mistaken for a bad Robert Altman spoof — random and unscripted and oddly revealing.  All those legs and pairs of shoes! All those wide, aimless swaths of grass and ground, followed by majestic arcs to cloud and awning and tent pole.  The uncensored soundtrack of laughter, clinking glasses, party talk, swing music.

We had a laugh the other day, my husband, son and I, watching what is arguably the worst wedding video ever recorded.  But at the same time, I can’t help but treasure this odd memento, this collage of accidental moments captured for all time.  What I realize is that the quality of the picture-taking doesn’t matter all that much; meaning is not to be found there anyway.  The truth of our lives is not in photographs that freeze time and memory, any more than it is to be found in gift-wrapped boxes or champagne bottles. And yet each glimpse of that long-ago day, each unplanned kiss and silly dance move, each overheard scrap of conversation and each tapping foot does remind me to wake up and pay attention right now.  Twenty-three years of marriage is a multitude of moments lived, of gestures made, words spoken.  We have not always been kind.  Mistakes have been made. Regret, perhaps, is inevitable.  And yet what I glimpse in that video–love, optimism, anticipation–endures.  How grateful I am for all that we’ve shared, for the two sons who are now nearly men themselves, for the quiet early mornings of this bright autumn.

My heart is full today. A beloved friend is nearing the end of a long, exceedingly courageous journey with cancer.  Moment by moment, she is being called upon to let go of this physical world and to open to mysteries beyond our human understanding.  Watching the sunrise at 6:30 this morning, walking in the woods, touching my husband’s arm, I tried to live and love and pay attention enough for both of us, for a friend who is not ready to leave this earth and for myself, so fully occupied upon it.  I wondered whether — if I could only be grateful enough, notice enough, feel deeply enough — I might somehow occupy both realms at once, material and spiritual.  “Write me the mundane details of your life,” she e-mailed the other night, from her hospital bed.  I try to do that.  And each time I pause, and look, and gather up some small bouquet of mundane details, what I see is not ordinariness but evidence:  this world in which we are blessed to live is full of meaning, beauty, and holiness.

End of Summer


The other day one of my favorite fellow bloggers, Lindsey at A Design So Vast, wrote a lovely end-of-summer post.  Reading her elegiac reflections made me realize that I wasn’t quite there yet myself; I’m having some trouble  acknowledging this change of season,  acquiescing to yet another ending.   You can see it in my half-there-half-here outfit this morning:  as I type these words I’m wearing flip flops and a wool sweater, trying to have it both ways.  I keep looking at my bathing suit, tossed on the edge of the bath tub:  if I don’t put it away, maybe I’ll take one more swim in the pond before the water gets too cold.  I was tempted by rust-colored chrysanthemums in pots at the farmer’s market on Wednesday, but here at home my pink petunias and impatiens are still blooming, alongside the fading hydrangeas and spent sunflowers; I keep watering, deadheading, prolonging.  There are local peaches in my refrigerator, a row of Brandywines on the window sill, the season’s first Paula Reds in a bowl:  summer and fall all mixed together, gloriously abundant.  I savor every bite. Yesterday I sat outside in the sunshine and ate tomatoes from my neighbor’s garden for lunch; by evening, we’d cranked the windows all shut and were glad to have hot corn chowder for dinner.  One son left for school on Tuesday, but one is still sound asleep upstairs on this weekday morning.  As long as it’s still summer vacation for him, I can pretend it’s summer for me, too.

And yet.  If I have learned anything at all these last couple of months, it is that I am still learning how to let go, still caught so often between my wish to stop time in its tracks and my longing to accept with more grace the transience of all things.  In New Hampshire, summer’s end always catches me off-guard, so swiftly do the lush ferns along the stone walls crumple into brittle brown tangles, so suddenly do the evenings turn from balmy to brisk.  Next week, Jack, too, will be back in school, and my bathing suit will surely be back in the drawer.  My own days will feel different then: shorter,  busier, and — I have to admit this — lonelier.  It’s still cool now, the temperature hovering right around 60; just too cold for that swim I’ve been so determined to have.  Jack has promised to take a hike with me, though.  I’m going to make him some pancakes, help him pack up his stuff, give him the car later to go visit a friend, settle in with Steve tonight to watch the semifinals of the U.S. Open.  And then tomorrow, I promise, I’m going to release my grip and let summer go.  It’s been good.  It’s over.  It’s okay.

Walking

“What are you thinking?” I asked Henry.

We were taking a last hike before he heads back to college tomorrow, climbing up the back side of North Pack on a perfect early autumn morning.

“Oh, nothing much,” was his reply.  “Sometimes it’s nice to just walk in the woods and not think about anything at all.”

My own mind, of course, was racing down the trail ahead of my feet, tumbling into the afternoon, considering what we would do for the rest of the day, what I should make for dinner, how we could make this last weekend of family togetherness feel special.

“Henry is already a yogi,” my yoga teacher said to me five or six years ago when she first met him.  He had never done a downward dog; what she meant is that he is possessed of — was perhaps born with — the calm, the kind of inner quiet, that most of us spend years, and lots of time and energy, trying to achieve.  When he walks in the woods, he just walks in the woods.  Yesterday, as sunlight filtered through the trees and summer drew to a close, his companionable silence was the gentle reminder I needed to do the same.  To let the thoughts and plans and voices in my head fall silent for a while, and to be fully present right where I was instead, taking a hike with my son.

His plane leaves at 6:30 tomorrow morning.  As I type these words, he’s upstairs, packing the final load of his clean laundry into his suitcase. Tonight, we’ll have an early meal, our last as a family til Christmas time. We’ll say what we’re feeling grateful for, chat at the table for a while, head to bed by ten.  And in the darkness of dawn I’ll hug him one last time and send him back into his other life.  The good-byes are hard, still.  So I’m grateful for right now, for every moment that we are here under this roof together.  And I’m taking a cue from my son — not thinking about it all too much,  just paying attention.