In Memory of Everything
What it is going to be, is filled with sentimental woolgathering about my childhood; in particular, about a person in my life who likely has no idea how much she has meant to my sisters and me.
And it's going to be very long. I know, long is the kiss of death in the blogosphere, but this is for me, not you, so there.
My grandmother died when I was just an infant, and this person I speak of stepped in to fill the cookie baking, cheek pinching, present buying void Grandma left with her passing.
It wasn't a big decision, there wasn't a lot of thought. It's just what she did. She fussed; over anybody and everybody who needed it. She still does.
She is my Auntie Carol; my mother's sister, and she was 17 years old when my mother, a "late" baby, was born (my Grandmother was 35). She mothered my mother, and then she grandmothered us. She is 78 and she still mothers my mother. I have moved far away, so she doesn't get to grandmother me much anymore, but when I go home, she makes up for lost time with a vengeance.
She cooks us a fine meal and sets the table with dishes that I ate on as a child. The olive colored water goblets feel familiar to my lips. The tablecloth is one I spilled gravy upon as a child, horrified to have spoiled the snowy and carefully pressed linen. She still puts out a relish tray piled high with pickles and olives; remembering, I suppose that my sisters and I loved to stick them on our fingers and then pop them into our mouths one by one.
She makes my boys Shirley Temples with two maraschino cherries. She lets them drink soda until they are crazed with sugar and indulgence. She lets them have two desserts, even though she knows they won't finish them both. She lets them drag out the stereoscope and piles of stereographic cards. She does not complain when they don't put them back.
I try to help. After so many meals, so many dirty dishes, so many pies and turkeys baked in the trusty harvest wheat colored oven...she's earned the right to enjoy her meal, linger over her coffee and savor her dessert without jumping up to refill glasses or platters. She will have none of it, of course. She shoos me away, protesting that she can still put a meal on the table by herself. But the last time I was home, she deigned to let me mash the potatoes, and that was when I knew that she was growing tired.
She and my uncle are moving out of their home of 50 years this weekend. They are elderly now, and can't keep up with the demands of home ownership, or maintain the acreage the house sits on. My uncle has been infirm for several years now and she has carried the burden by herself.
She is relieved, if a bit regretful as well. She is happily clearing out closets and cabinets and giving away the momentos of her life, a life that is intertwined with so many others. I have not been there for the yard sales or the carefully considered doling out of personal things. I have not been able to gather up the memories and store them away for safekeeping, except in my mind.
But not long ago, I received an envelope addressed in her distinctive hand. Inside was a drawing I had done as a child. It was a simple drawing...nothing about it was special or unique that I could see. I have no idea why she kept it.
Another time she sent me one of the pink and blue trifold cards announcing my birth. And now and then I receive other little treasures; a tattered but beautifully embroidered hanky, a piece of old lace, a snapshot, a butter pat, a cut glass salt cellar, a piece of doll clothing sewn by my grandmother, black and white photographs of my mother, my grandmother, my sisters, me.
They make me smile, but they fill me with sadness. My childhood in that house is being slowly dismantled. Last Christmas we visited for what I knew was the last time. And it filled me with a melancholy that lingered for days. I went through every room, remembering.
In the bedroom, I sat at the vanity that had been my playground as a little girl. I remembered sitting there for hours sniffing, smearing and powdering. I remember clipping enormously gaudy rhinestone earrings onto my delicate earlobes; wincing at the pinch, smiling at the effect. I remember sliding bangles and bracelets onto my arm until it was nearly too heavy to lift. I remembered pushing the antique hatpins through the thin cotton of my play clothes. I had no idea what they were for, but I liked them.
She never frowned at the mess and she never scolded when I spilled her perfume or smushed her favorite lipstick into a creamy stump. She always exclaimed over my beauty when I emerged from the bedroom, trailing a cloud of Emeraude behind me and looking for all the world like a Davis-esque Baby Jane.
Even the bathroom held memories for me. I remembered bathing in strangely squatty little tub (our home was very old and had a huge cast iron tub). I used her White Rain shampoo and her Camay soap and felt very pampered and mature. I can still smell the fragrant lather.
Later, I would lie in bed and enjoy rubbing my face against the fresh, cool, sweet smelling sheets. Our sheets at home, worn from many years of washing, were never so crisp. My sister and I whispered and giggled in the antique twin beds, but she never called to us to be quiet or settle down. She always let us have the closet light on to gaurd against the deep, still darkness of the country night.
In the morning, we woke to the smell of coffee and frying bacon. She always smiled at our sleep blinky eyes and our wild hair and asked us how we would like our eggs cooked. We all wanted them cooked differently of course, but she never sighed unhappily at that. She cooked our eggs the way we wanted them and poured us each a cup of coffee from the percolator. She said nothing when we heaped spoonful after spoonful of sugar into our mugs and then didn't drink it.
She let us bring the barn cats in the house when Uncle Norm was gone. She let us turn the vinyl ottoman upside down and pretend it was a horse, a car, a boat. She let us eat ice cream right before bed. She let us eat tomatoes and cucumbers right off the vine; never fussing about them being washed or sliced. She let us play in the cornfield, unmindful of bruised ears or bent stalks.
She took us places...To the fish hatcherie, where rectangular cement pools of fish were teeming with silvered bodies, packed so closely together that it seemed impossible that they could swim at all. She took us to the Red Mill, and told us stories about the Mill Pond covered bridge, which my uncle, her brother had designed and built. He even won an award for it, she told us proudly.
She took us to my grandmother's grave, where we just stood quietly. She didn't cry. It had been a long time I suppose and the tears had been exhausted long ago. But she pulled the weeds and carefully righted the little stone urn and replaced the plastic flowers. With a wistful smile, she told us how Grandma would have loved us girls.
She took us into the tiny chapel in the woods and let us lay wildflowers upon the altar. She took us to the farm where we jumped when the calves bawled, started violently when the chickens flapped crazily past and gave the bullpen an absurdly wide berth. We held our noses and exclaimed over the odor and wiped our feet compulsively in the high, sweet smelling grass.
She laughed at us for that. She thought us funny and sweet and innocent, I think. Her own children grown, she took pleasure in everything about us. Even our city kid skittishness was charming to her.
I will miss that house, but it is just a place after all. She is still here. I don't want to think about when she is not.
So I don't.
I just close my eyes and think about sunny days in her backyard, swaying lazily in the hammock or the swing beneath the oak tree...listening to the emphatic snickety snack of her shears as she pruned rosebushes.
I think about how it was to never be afraid of her not being there and I don't think about not making it home in time to say goodbye.
And, I love you. And, thank you.
We are Northern people and German to boot. We are not terribly demonstrative or outspoken about how we feel. I don't think she has ever told us that she loved us. She didn't have to. I knew. I still know. Everything she did and continues to do, is a testament to her love for us.
But I want her to know how much she has meant to us, to me. I want her to know how those moments of my childhood are suspended in time as moments of true and perfect happiness. I want her to know that no grandmother could have grandmothered us better than she did. I want her to know I love her.
Thank You Auntie Carol. You were one of the things that made childhood so right and good.
To us it was....everything.