Sunday, April 2, 2017

Even After We're Gone

Not long ago, I had a couple delicious hours alone and spent it with a fun romantic comedy called The Proposal. 

There is a great scene where Betty White’s character, the feisty and hilarious Grandma Annie, wants to give her wedding dress to Margaret (Sandra Bullock). 

“I can’t.  I can’t take this,” Margaret says, in an unexpected display of humble unselfishness.

Grandma Annie insists.  “Grandmothers love to give their stuff to their grandchildren.  It makes us feel like we’ll still be part of your lives even after we’re gone.  Take it.”

Instantly, I thought of my late grandmother.  In the last five years of her life, she drove us all bonkers because she talked incessantly about who would get what after she was gone.   Everything was up for discussion: her Spode china, her stacks of valuable books, her silver, her engagement and wedding rings, which grew increasingly loose and clink-y on her finger as she aged and thinned.  My siblings and I rolled our eyes each time it came up, and my cousins were similarly annoyed.  It became a joke amongst us, especially when my grandmother took to labeling things with index cards so we’d know who was supposed to get particular items—and then frequently moved these assignments around.  On one visit, I was slated to get her antique silverware; on the next visit, it was now labeled for my sister.  The Greek brass drawings she’d acquired overseas were assigned to my aunt, then to my mother, then to my cousin, and then back to my aunt.  It was by turns hilarious and infuriating—hilarious because we thought she was acting like lunatic, and infuriating because it felt like she was using her stuff (her “stupid stuff,” I believe I called them in my surly teenaged years) to manipulate us.

With time and reflection, though, my understanding has changed.  Now I know that she wasn’t being a lunatic at all.  On the contrary, she was clear-eyed, focusing on passing on her things because she needed to know they would continue to tell her story, and would remind the world that she was here.  And she moved her assignments around because she wanted to make sure they were honored appropriately, and worried about them landing in the right spot.

My grandmother assumed she would pass quietly in her sleep, dignified and elegant, and her things would be taken, as assigned, in a somber and grateful post-funeral walk through her house.  Circumstances never play out the way they are supposed to, though; her old-age illnesses drained her money, and many of her things were sold.  Others ended up in boxes in a storage facility and, when it was finally cleaned out months after her death, no one had the emotional or physical energy to allocate things with the care we should have.

So in spite of my grandmother’s plans, I do not have her high-heeled pumps or her tea set from Cairo, her English hats or her collection of rare books. I ended up with just one thing:  a single gold wedding band.

And I value it like nothing else.  I wear it every day, on the ring finger of my right hand.  I catch an unplanned glance at it a hundred times a day, and when it happens, I have a milli-flash of memory of my grandmother.  Just a snapshot, there and then gone, sometimes practically unconsciously:  A memory of the time we made donuts together, the most simple and delicious donuts I’d ever tasted.  How she scolded me for sock-skating across her hardwood floors.  How she always ate a breakfast of oatmeal with half a banana sliced on top, saving the other half for the next day.  How her words slurred a little after too many vodka tonics.  How she pressed a $10 bill in my hand and told me to go buy myself a “nice suit” for my graduate school intake interview.  Her final months, when she insisted on a glass of water by her bed at night with two—no more, no less—ice cubes in the glass, refusing to reason with us about inevitable melting.

The gold band brings all of that back.  Just this—this slim, indestructible, shining reminder—opens up a slew of snapshots of a good woman’s life and the connections she made with her granddaughter.

Here’s the thing:  As we go through this life, we never know when we’re taking a snapshot for someone else’s memory, and we never know how many years will pass before it is seen again.  But it’s a good reminder to work hard to build a gallery of positive snapshots, so no matter what we leave behind, we’ll still be part of the memories our loved ones keep. 


  1. Hi Jen, thank you for writing on my birthday. I've enjoyed following all the blogs you've written over the years and truly believe we are friends but our paths have not yet crossed. Your perspective is fresh, delightful and often parallels my life. Personal favorite from long ago, Hamburger slop and spilled milk, which I keep copies to share with credit to you. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Jen, this post sure brought some memories. My grandparents put tape on the bottom of items with names. We joked about this for years. I had no idea other families shared similar stories. Index cards are a smart idea as they are easily adjustable. I had never really thought about the fact that our grandparents weren't sharing items, but passing along stories. Beautiful post. Thank you.


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