What I Saw
We put my grandmother in the first bedroom, just down the hall, on the day my mother died. She had died early that morning, in a hospital in downtown Louisville, and by noon, her mother and five brothers and sisters had arrived, along with lots of food and friends. We were all milling around my parents’ big house in a lost, dull-minded way, occasionally holding each other and sometimes crying.
Around mid-afternoon, I was at the other end of the bedroom hallway, coming out of my parents’ room, when I saw my uncle Grant, my grandmother’s youngest son, hurry toward one of the bedrooms. My grandmother was in the room whose door he opened and then closed so quickly that I hardly had time to think: Uncle Grant is here. Nana is in that room. He is going in to see her; no one has been in to see her yet. I had thought—we all had thought—that Nana wanted to be alone; we had taken her bags into the “Yellow Room,” a room my grandmother loved. When Grant opened the door to where my grandmother was, I could see her half sitting, stretched out in the middle of the bed on top of the yellow bedspread; I saw my uncle slip into the room and the brief image of my grandmother bringing her hands to her mouth and I heard her cry upon seeing her son, as though the sight of him released from her the only sound a mother who has lost her first born child could make. Between the opening of the bedroom door and its closing, two—maybe three seconds passed. I have never forgotten this moment, its intimacy not intended for my viewing, and my uncle didn’t see me there, standing still at the end of the hall. I thought then and today, too, that Grant, my grandmother’s last child, was who my grandmother was waiting for; it was he who she would allow to see her unadorned grief.
I sometimes think there is a reckoning that comes from moments like these; I would not be able to forget how my grandmother looked and sounded, nor how my uncle moved toward her, for a reason. It has taken over three decades for me to take that brief glimpse of my grandmother’s pain as she cried out for her daughter and hold it in my heart—to understand that my grandmother knew my mother much better and for much longer than I did. She’d wrapped her in her infant blankets and walked the floor with her at night. She knew her favorite foods. My grandmother allowed my mother to be the sulky teen-ager she would learn from, so she could withstand her five younger children, as they each struggled to grow up. My grandmother was first a mother—then, she was my grandmother.
I have grown to know my mother from the letters she wrote to her mother, when she first married my father at the end of WWII, and then later, when she moved to Louisville, KY because my father was transferred there. My mother, in each letter, was terribly homesick for her mother and let my grandmother know. “Mummy,” my mother wrote, “Only two letters from you this week! You must write more. I miss you so!” My aunt Marjorie sent me these letters over 20 years ago and right away, I read each one, a few each night. I was looking through them with interest but I was looking for mention of me. I missed my mother and wanted to hear her write my name and tell me who I was to her, when I was a child. But a few years ago, long after my children left home, I read her letters again.
This time, when I came to the end of her letters, I realized some were missing and started to cry, thinking them lost and feeling I need to keep hearing my mother’s voice. I was bereft. When, a day later, I found the missing letters, I felt pure joy, as though I’d found my mother again. And I had: her voice was her, and I longed for her to continue to tell me who she was.
Since then, I have read her letters—and there are many and they are long—several times, and I have grown to know my mother as she was to others; she confided in my grandmother about her friends; she had many and was a good friend. I learned of her love for her gardens and for sewing and how late she stayed up to get everything done. She described how she wanted a particular room to look and how they couldn’t afford the changes she wanted. “But can you see it, Mummy—can you see how it would be?” she wrote plaintively. I heard her worries about her younger siblings and her barely disguised frustration as she dealt with a household of my father’s friends, who were helping rebuild our upstairs. “I have to wash half a dozen shirts every day!” she wrote. As I read, I would think and she had three little children.
One day about a year ago, my daughter called and said she was sick and that she wanted someone to worry about her, meaning me. I laughed and asked about her symptoms—I asked her all that I would ask had she been with me. And when I was making my Will, I asked her what she wanted. “The little cherry book case,” she said, “and all of your writing.” All of my writing. I do not want to experience the loss of my first-born child, as my grandmother did; I want to die before her and leave her my writing. But if my grandchildren should see my grief, I would hope it would fold into their hearts, as mine did, and become a gift that unfolds, when they are ready.