I miss my grandparents, they were home to me in ways very few things can be. When my grandmother passed away, it ended something for our larger family. We have never really come together again the way we were when my grandparents were alive. They drew us home to them, like geese in winter, to gather and celebrate and disagree and love.
Family stories suggest my grandfather could be a harsh and demanding father at times. Towering over 6 feet tall, with a military background, he was as able to inspire fear as he was love in his children. I don't relate to the stories of the disciplinarian as much. He died when I was 9 and the safest place in the world I can remember or imagine is with my grandfather. I was his youngest grandchild, the proverbial apple of his eye. 10 years younger than my next oldest cousin -- well next oldest acknowledged cousin-- he doted on me. What are the things I remember about him? He smelled of old spice and pipe tobacco. He cooked the most interesting things and always had fresh applesauce for me when I was visiting. He called my cousin Matthew and I the applesauce twins because we both loved it so much.
When I was 17 my grandmother started dying. It was a long process. She had always been very independent in nature and our family honored that by taking shifts for months to care for her, so she could avoid the “old ladies home” as she called it. My mother would come home from work on Friday evenings and we would drive for 2 hours from our home in Connecticut to northern Rhode Island where grandma lived. My memories of those trips exist mostly as still photography in my brain. We had made this journey for years to celebrate annual holiday traditions with the extended family. This weekly journey affixed these roadside staples into the context of my grandmother's death. The cemetery with its New England style headstones covered in moss and snow and fallen leaves. The trees that lined the road and made for breathtaking landscapes as we rose and fell with the mini-mountains of the east. I saw them, stop animation style, change by the week from lushly green to brilliantly colored, to barren and then snow covered.
My grandparents lived on Naragansett Bay in Rhode Island when I was growing up. My earliest memories are of playing in their garden, swimming in their pool, and large family dinners with laughter and games. The days of my grandmother’s death were socially subdued gatherings uncomfortably similar to those happy times. Mom and I would get there late on a Friday night to find my cousin or aunt with grandma. Most of the time they would be reading by the woodstove or quietly sitting with grandma. It was a strange experience to enter the house that was filled with laughter and joy in my heart and feel the heavy anticipation of death.
As one of the more solidly religious people in my family, it was often left to me, at 17, to explain the concept of heaven and god to my dying grandmother. I would go to my grandmother’s bed in a strangely confessional style. and take her spotted, wrinkled hand between mine while she sought reassurance in my conviction. When she begged me to tell her that god could forgive her for her sins. I told her god was love and could forgive anything. I didn’t know then how cruel people could be. How hard it was to believe in a loving god when our daily lives are so frequently filled with random acts of cruelty or, even worse, indifference. My belief was rooted in my innocence and hope. And she held it tightly to her. This became my weekly routine, when the older family members couldn’t bear to watch this strong matriarchal figure doubt and fear for her soul, uncertain in their own faith.
She left us in the spring, close to her birthday, while my mother was recovering from surgery. I asked my best friend to come with me to the funeral, making the drive without my mother for the first and only time in my life. I left for college and have returned only a handful of times since then.
This weekend we went to visit my mom in Rhode Island and drove her over to the old house. I look at the exterior and I paint the interior with a collage of memories from my childhood. I want to go inside and I know that I won't find what I am looking for behind the now yellow exterior.