Elegy written on a decrepit sofa
This is about my grandmother.
I’ve been trying to write about her for a week, since I made pizza crust and later found remnants of the dough under my wedding ring, catapulting me back to a cluttered kitchen table on the opposite side of the state, fifteen years and several feet and maybe a hundred pounds ago in my history.
Not that the feet and the pounds mean anything. It’s just a way to try to quantify the intervening time. How do you keep records on the part of you that continues to grow after loss freezes a section of your personhood in its tracks? I feel, however irrationally, that it’s somehow important for me to keep these records. For whom, I’m not sure.
I’m writing on the night of my grandmother’s 79th birthday, sitting on a battered couch she’s never seen, in a town she never visited, in a body she might not recognize as mine. She was 68 when she died, and I was 14. And I can’t reconcile, when I think of her, that time has somehow passed in those ten years. She didn’t know me at 16, or 20 – not, at least, in the way of mutual recognition in which we’re used to knowing and being known by those we love – so to her, or in my perception of her perception of me, I am perpetually finishing the eighth grade.
And I do think about her perception of me, although it sounds strange to articulate it in this way. We all do, I think, when we think of lost loved ones – wondering, “What would Grandma think of the life I have now?” and “I wonder how she’d get along with my husband,” is our way of connecting with them, drawing them back into our lives for a moment. So I wonder, and I draw her back, but I’m never sure whether I’m a young teenager or a young adult in her imagined eyes. I’m in some limbo between “I hope I pass algebra” and “Wow, our first wedding anniversary is coming up.”
When my cousins and I get together, we almost always talk about her. She looms large in our family mythology, always somehow more of a presence than my quiet, sometimes overly logical grandfather, who survived her by two years. He is the family member whom I most closely resemble – a fact I didn’t discover until old military headshots were pulled out for display at his funeral. But in the other four of us five kids, as well as in our fathers, her genes might as well be Sharpie-d across the faces of her descendants. My youngest cousin, now a college freshman, has grown to look so much like the photos of Grandma as a college beauty queen that I still double-take when I look at the Facebook photos captured by her photographer friends. We all have her family’s deep-set eyes – and the accompanying dark circles below. We have her big feet and long second toes – “monkey toes,” my next-oldest cousin calls them. And we all feel the responsibility of curating our memories of her and reflecting them back to each other.
Because her pillowcases, beautiful though they are, will not teach us where we came from. We are all adults now. It is something we have to do for ourselves.
When my grandmother died – boom, in the middle of the night, no warning – she had been teaching me, the oldest grandkid, and my cousin Ashley, nine months younger, how to cross-stitch. I still have the unfinished scrap of fabric on which I’d been tracing letters, and had gotten as far as “All things bright and beautif.” She was adept at all sorts of needle arts, and this was meant to be only the beginning of her teaching for us, but it turned out to be all we got. I remember drawing on that single sleepover-at-Grandma’s lesson when I stitched a Bible verse onto a fleece blanket for my boyfriend in college, a blanket we kept on our bed along with many others during the first few chilly months of our marriage. I’m thankful to have retained at least that, to give some of my history to a part of my future she never got to meet.
None of us ever learned any of her recipes. We would have had to learn by doing, since she never wrote down what went into her celebrated baked goods. As older teens, Ashley and I, feeling the weight of our responsibilities to Grandma’s legacy, researched old cookbooks and tried repeatedly to recreate her coconut cake. We never could get it right. And not once have I been able to roll out biscuit dough and cut it to a uniform thickness, though I have vivid memories of pressing a round yellow cookie cutter down on her floured kitchen table and furtively eating the scraps of dough from around the edges. She was constantly making biscuits. There was always doughy residue on her wrists, under her nails, in the crevices of her rings.
These days, Lance makes drop biscuits in our kitchen in this faraway town, and I pounce on the mixing bowl to scrape out and eat the dough when he’s done. I’m guaranteed to bungle any dough involving baking powder, but I throw together yeast bread as intuitively as my grandmother rolled out her biscuits, and I find myself hesitating to remove all the traces of it from my hands. Somehow, wrist-deep in White Lily flour, I feel a connection to her on a level that would have been foreign to me at 14, or 9, or any of the ages at which I actually got to speak with her.
Maybe it’s not that her connection to me is stuck just beyond my fourteenth birthday. This is not a story about the afterlife. That would be my grandmother’s story to write, not mine. My speculations on where and how she exists and what she knows of me are not public matters, and they can only ever be speculations while I am what I am. My perception of her knowledge is finite. I think what I really struggle with is that I had no chance to interact with her, to perceive her, at 16 and 20 and 24. I will not get to look at my grandmother, to gather information about her, to compare and contrast our lives, when I am 28 and 30 and 42. The most complete version of “Grandma” I can look to is the one I saw with my 14-year-old eyes, and that will have to be the basis from which I fill in the blanks of what else I might have seen in her as I grew in the wisdom of my own life. That’s the loss; that’s the frustrating part of not having had more time with her.
It’s the responsibility, too. Ashley and I have both, I think, been surprised to realize that the limited knowledge we have of our grandmother is the most complete version available to Brent, Brooke, and Kerri, who weren’t yet teenagers when she died. As frustrated as I get with my lack of information – with wishing I’d had the foresight (a tall order at 14) to ask her about being the first person in her family to go to college, about meeting my grandfather, about their marriage, about the early days of parenting, about the connection she felt to her life’s work of teaching, about her faith, about how she got all those plants to grow wherever she wanted them to – when Kerri, who looks the most like Grandma of any of us but was gifted with the shortest amount of time with her, wonders about how Grandma did x or what she would have thought about y, I do often have a memory to offer her. And that’s a precious thing, and it’s something we’re all able to do for each other – filling in the gaps of memory, creating something more cohesive we can all hang on to.
Maybe it’s something we can do for ourselves, too. I’d rather be able to find out about how I’m connected to my grandma by just talking to her. But since that’s off the table, I have my family, yes, but I also have myself. There’s just as much of her in me – my own baking and gardening and concern for social justice – as there is in any of the rest of us. I think I can trust those moments of connection I feel as I go about my life. I can spin my gears wondering what she’d think of Lance, of my English degree, of my feisty dog, or I can look inside myself for the answers and choose to believe that they’re no less trustworthy than my perception of her in me as I scrape bread dough from between my fingers.
Bread dough is kinda sorta alive. Enough to get the job done, anyway.