January 26, 2011
When I was seven or eight, my brother and I would go to Grandma’s house three times a week while Mom was at work. We walked the mile across our tiny hometown each time, arriving at her back door. For the longest time, I thought her back door was actually her front door because we never used the front door. People who used the front door were strangers. We would ring the doorbell, open the door, and I would call out, “Is there anybody home?” Years later she told me that she loved hearing my little voice coming through that door. It made her smile and sometimes laugh. I don’t know where I learned that a person should call out, “Is there anybody home?” while entering a house. I probably heard it on TV.
My grandma was a serial duster before age stopped her from cleaning the house. The clutter would disappear, the dust would die, the dishes would wash before anyone even knew they were dirty. She vacuumed already immaculate floors. It was a stark contrast to the house in which I grew up, where piles of things built up across surfaces. We were like a family of beavers building our dams.
Grandma’s closet was exquisite, her photos books arranged by date in stacks on the shelf. When she came over to our house to help clean before family gatherings, she dusted areas of the chairs I didn’t realize existed – the bar between the legs and the seat, the underside of the curved back between the rungs.
Each evening she rolled her hair up, piece by piece, into springed, spikey rollers and pinned them to her head. She had a box just for it, with a mirror and a comb. We were allowed three cookies when we came over, and to watch three shows. “Three is the limit,” she said, and then we would play card games with her for the rest of the afternoon. We learned to shuffle and to deal. We learned the rules and keeping score. There were many games, many winners, many losers.
We didn’t know she was lonely – at least I didn’t – until her sewing club came over with a book of poems after Grandpa died, and she began to cry and hugged them all. She was wearing a green dress that day, or maybe I just remember her in a green dress because it doesn’t make sense that she would be wearing it in winter. Her friends held her for a while as I peaked around the corner from the other room. The book of poems had a shiny cover and was in a slim box. “Wings of Silver,” it said.
Twenty years later, she is safe in a nursing home, presumably content with her season of life. I wonder what she thinks of it all while she’s busy being gracious. In some ways she seems more like a child, returning to the time in life when all you had was family there to take care of you. She grew up without a dad, and I wonder if her sons have become her dads, her daughter her mother. She forgets things. We drove by her old house, and she asked if I’d ever visited her there. I remembered all the nights my cousin and I had spent in the little upstairs bedroom, the dinners on her round wooden table, how we’d mow the lawn, sweep the sidewalks, play cards, and gather for holidays there in the small living room, uncles and aunts and cousins, oh my!, with her as our matriarch. They were good years. It was a good life. Yes, I’d been there.
When she moved, I told her that living in the nursing home is just like living in a college dorm, and she needs to be careful to observe quiet hours and do her homework even when the boys upstairs ask her to come over for a party.
This past Christmas, Mom and I went through the boxes of Grandma’s things that didn’t fit in her small room. It was a late night. We sat at the table, near where dad had fallen asleep on the couch, separating Grandma’s things into boxes to give to individual family members, and boxes to take to the thrift store. The poem book was there from the evening I’d seen her cry many years before – “Wings of Silver” – a slim silver plush book in a box. I recognized it but didn’t keep it.
I said to Mom, “I think I know where I got this gene,” as I held up a notebook of handwritten research Grandma had done, simply for the joy of learning and knowing things. It felt like an invasion, reading her version of a diary, even though much of the pages were just notes on how we’re related to such-and-such person who lives in Ottumwa, Iowa, or Sheboygen, Wisconsin, whom we’ve never met. There were addresses for people who have died with photos of strangers it felt weird to throw away. What do you do with a photo when no one wants it anymore? The person in it was once, indeed, a person: born, lived, died.
I found a notebook among her things with a story I kept but haven’t yet read. The story was about me, and the first few words made me laugh. “Listen to this,” I said to Mom, and I started reading Grandma’s words. She talked about that time when I was seven or eight, and how she felt joy and excitement as she anticipated our arrival at her door. When I got to the point in the story, not too far in, where my child-self called out, “Is there anybody home?” I stopped reading, and I covered my face. Mom and I shared several quiet moments before we composed ourselves. I set the notebook in my small pile of things to keep.