Sunday, January 25, 2009

Embrace

In my family, it's hard to say from whom I inherited my stubbornness, or what my friend Jeff once upon a time called my orneriness, or what my friend Jason more recently called my contrariness. It's a good bet some of it came from my maternal grandmother, who passed away just after Labor Day.

One of the things my grandmother was known for doing was putting away "nice" clothes for later, or for "good," after which she'd never (or hardly ever) wear them. We all eventually developed feints to try to trick her into wearing them: my aunt would tell her she got it at an outlet and it didn't fit but she couldn't return it; my mom would pass 'em off as hand-me-downs; I would disguise my handwriting and "mark things down" to a point that she wouldn't feel bad wearing it. Sometimes it worked and sometimes -- as my mother discovered going through her clothes this past fall -- it didn't.

My last Christmas present to her failed. For years, she and my grandfather had wintered in Florida, so their stash of cold-weather clothing was limited, to say the least. And then, after a winter illness in Florida a few years back, they decided that they wanted to be closer to their family in case anything happened (to my grandfather, was the unspoken and now-ironic thought process) and moved back to upstate New York. This made gift-giving fairly easy, as we could all give them winter clothes. That last Christmas, I gave my grandmother a fleece sweatshirt from LL Bean -- my grandmother never wore sweaters, but always layered turtlenecks under sweatshirts with cheezy grandma prints on them, and I was determined to rescue her from that. So I gave her a v-neck fleece with a center panel of her favorite shade of blue and side panels in ivory -- kind of an apr├ęs-ski look, but not too pointedly.

Two weeks after she died, I went home for my sister's wedding and found it on the dresser in my old bedroom. My mother had found it in her "good" drawer, which means she'd probably never worn it, and gave it back to me. I threw it in a bag, brought it home and threw it in a drawer with my yoga pants and t-shirts and forgot it, until last night.

I was getting ready for bed and opened the drawer in search of... I don't know what, really. A tank top? A different shirt? But there I saw the sweatshirt. And it was chilly enough in my bedroom, so I put it on for the first time since I'd gotten it, and I started to cry. I remembered -- too vividly -- saying goodbye to her for the last time in August, knowing that she didn't know it was the last time or even, necessarily, that I was there at all. And my mom asked that I not make a scene when I left, so I leaned over the railings on the hospital bed and brushed my lips against the thinning skin of her forehead, already cool to the touch, clenching my jaw and squinching up every muscle from my cheekbones to my forehead to hold back the tears, willing the muscles in my throat to relax enough to say goodbye without choking up.

And then I walked out into the hallway where the unaccountable sun was shining in from the windows, and I shook my mother's hand off my back, and straightened up and walked away. I think a tear or two escaped, probably, from my traitorous eyes, but the rest of me held firm against the tide. But alone, last night, I didn't have to straighten up, and I didn't have to be strong for anyone else, and I didn't have hold back the tide. And so wrapped in my grandmother's sweatshirt, I cried for that goodbye, and for the phone call that came in the middle of Mitt Romney's RNC speech telling me she was gone, for the deep hug my friend Asma gave me that night in the midst of the Republican hordes streaming by that meant so much to me in the midst of so many strangers. And then I feel asleep and dreamt of her snow-covered house in Cooperstown and the cold, distant parlor, the yellow, bubbled juice glasses and the leather chair in the family room that smelled like Grandpa's cigarettes, all of which are long gone, too.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful eulogy. Good work as always.


T.Bob

Kay Steiger said...

This is beautiful and so sad. It's so true that sometimes it's those little things that remind you that you miss someone after they're gone.