Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cigarettes and chocolate chips

Three of my four grandparents died in the fall. This year, my first without any of them present, it seems an appropriate time to remember each of them and their gifts to my life. My piece about Papa was posted earlier this week. Today, I remember my Grandmother.

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My memories of Grandmother are few. She was generous and fashionable and bought me my favorite dresses. Her Jacksonville drawl I did not much understand. When she visited us in Maryland, she would take frequent smoke breaks; when we visited her, she would watch TV in her den, cigarettes in hand. I came home from fourth grade one afternoon to find that my father was on his way to North Carolina because she had been taken by an acute form of leukemia and was not expected to live out the month. I did not cry then, nor when she died, nor at the funeral. We scattered her ashes in the garden at her church. The photos from that day are gray with strained faces, for her death was early and sudden.

I have learned, in the years since Grandmother died, to celebrate the connections I have to her. She left me some small things: my thick, curly hair and a pearl necklace and the small diamonds that now sit in my engagement ring.

Also, a painting. Grandmother was an artist and recently (after Grandfather died), I got to choose one of her paintings to hang in my apartment. I picked a beautiful oil still-life of cut flowers. The painting is bright with yellow and green and hope and light. Her life was not much these colors. Grandmother battled depression most of her life. Though I have never been clinically depressed, when I hear these stories I feel connected to her. I am certainly more like her than I am like my Grandfather, with his winning charm and his calm, loving approach to every situation. I have been broken and angry and sometimes wondered if I could dig myself out from darkness and apathy.


I was thirteen and summer whiled away. Camp and swim team were over and I was home in my room, writing in my journal. And in the August humidity I came upon the meaninglessness of life: how alone we are in our thoughts and desires, how futile the day-to-day can be. I wrote through it, hoping it would go away when school started, when I saw my friends again. But hugs were scarce and the Backstreet Boys could not give the right words to define my thoughts. There was a hurricane and I was at home in the gloomy dark in my room and the rain and the thunder and the tasks of life were gray and heavy on me. Homework, check, piano, check, soccer, cancelled. And no one to explain it to, and no way to explain it.

I was twenty and my head was swirling with images of small huts and banana trees and beautiful brown-skinned children; my head was swirling with the philosophy and science and scholarship that seemed to tear down my faith; my heart swirling with first love and first heartbreak and jealousy and anger and fear of the future. I collapsed into it, and for a year I was lost and alone and tearful, staying in on the weekends and skipping meals and sitting idly in front of the computer.

I was twenty-six and married and in a new place and I felt like I had left everything behind and I was alone on a couch with a subscription to Netflix and bags and bags of chocolate chips.


I don’t know the details about Grandmother’s depression, when it began, how bad it got, if it was precipitated by specific experiences. And I don't really compare myself to her. I have been graced to escape the brunt of darkness—for me there has always been sun and laughter. My strand of melancholy has probably just been about average. It gives me a little empathy, and a little extra passion to play deep melodies on the piano and write things raw when I can. 

But since I was nine when she died, that connection is what I have, along with the ring on my finger that reminds me of how Grandfather never stopped loving her, never lost respect for her, even with all she went through, even though he couldn’t understand it.

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