My grandmother died on Wednesday.
This wasn’t unexpected, but expected earthquakes still shake the buildings.
I’ve been thinking about this post for quite some time now, trying to put into the words the meaning of the lives that came before mine. All these scraps of memory that surface and seem so inadequate, the lines drawn into their faces that I see lightly etched into my own. How to describe these matters of the heart? How to understand these women when so much of them comes filtered through their children, in the details we care to share or fail to notice?
And so, instead of a coherent story, the verses come out in fragments:
The way my mother and her sister both look like Kay, both have her voice and her laugh. How long it took me to see her side of the family in my face, now so clearly defining the line of my jaw, the setting of the teeth against the world. I see her hands clasped behind her back as she walks, see bony ankles in sandals along a path. I am a heartsick third grader traveling without my beloved Panda, soothed by a Princeton tiger I name Stripes.
Inevitably I try to see her in the ivy-covered house, or greeting the limousine she accidentally ordered for us at the airport, but instead I’m caught in that moment where her shirt is on impossibly inside-out. I am young and uncomfortable and not paying enough attention to how this new reality is layering itself onto my mother’s skin.
And that’s how this will go. Tiny pieces I’d thought forgotten, bigger ones I’ll wish I had.
I saw Grandma Gwen the day, the moment, she learned my aunt was dead. Saw her hands shaking against the countertop, heard her ask the sheriff directly. This moment sticks the way I wish her hugs would, her laugh, her eyes. Shake my memory like a snow globe and find so much debris trickling downward–the constant stocking of goldfish crackers and string cheese, the thickly sliced cheese on sandwiches, heavily dressed salads. I remember that she humored me through a phase where I pretended to be Snoopy, crawling into a doghouse masquerading as an airmchair.
And Sylvia, not related by blood, the thick line of lipstick and the necklaces carefully chosen. Held my tongue as she told me she thought the Williams sisters were too masculine for tennis, sat patiently through her tirade against the first female president of Harvard. She would press my hand tightly and entertain delivery men in the parlor. At her wake I found myself crying and couldn’t stop, couldn’t explain to anyone that she was all the grandmother I had left.
When I was in high school and trying to answer the question of what next, my theater director told me I owed it to women to go somewhere like Harvard. At the time I believed her, but now I understand that my debt is more to these women who blazed the trail for me. Three college graduates, three mothers, three women who worked so hard their whole lives for their families and their careers.
Because of these women, I have a name. I have an education. I have learned to try everything at least once, like Beverly Hills 90210 and olive and cream cheese sandwiches. I have memories of well-wrapped VHS tapes and times I cried because I didn’t want to say goodbye.
We owe our lives to the women who gave them to us.