Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Out of Grandma's Closet: Grief

I gazed into the open closet. It smelled like her, clean and sweet. Grandma’s familiar scent threatened to release the ocean of tears I held so bravely back. I dreaded looking through her things, but Grandpa had been so confident, so persistent over the phone that I felt compelled to come.
Wasn’t it too soon for Grandpa to give away her clothes? She’s only been gone a couple of months. And now he expected me to calmly rummage through her things and decide what I wanted. She had been such a tiny woman; I might not find anything that fit. And yet, I did want to have something of hers to remember her by.

Grandma Johnston was everyone’s favorite. She introduced me to Pig Rummy and Bingo, and how to make homemade bread, kneading it “until the dough felt like an earlobe.” She gave me her recipe for baking powder biscuits that melt in your mouth. Topped with butter and homemade strawberry jam, they always send me back to the blue and white kitchen where she reigned.

Grandma taught me how to knit when I was in the fourth grade and beamed when I presented her with my first project - a royal blue apron with red strings and a pocket so small she could only fit two fingers inside. The apron itself was small, even on her tiny frame. It looked like a potholder dangling from her waist. But she wore it every time I came.

Motherhood had been foisted upon her early in life, the oldest of twelve children, because of her mother’s frequent illnesses. Grandma only went to school through the eighth grade. Nevertheless, she was an avid reader and seemed to know a little about everything, especially if one of her children or grandchildren was interested in it.

At her gravesite we all shared stories of how her faith and love had influenced us. The grandchildren, now grown, remembered the hours she spent reading us stories. We liked her "out of the mouth" stories the best. She made us supply the characters. So we would think up the zaniest combinations we could – a dragon, a nurse, a clown, and the leaning tower of Pisa. With them she managed to weave magical, hilarious bedtime stories. We remembered how she tickled us, the twinkle in her eye when she was teasing, and the raspberry kisses we pretended to avoid.

My brother-in-law laughingly remembered how Grandma’s love extended even to her great grandchildren. “She was at our house for her eightieth birthday when I went to Heidi’s room to tell them dinner was ready. I found them both on the floor in the closet…playing dog.”

She loved with such abandon that we thought we were the only recipients and were surprised to discover how many other lives she touched. The memorial service at her and Grandpa's church was packed with people I'd never met before. She had taken meals to countless families, started a young mother's club at church before such things even existed, and had mentored many. My Grandpa also spoke words of love and gratitude for her in the dedication. For years I had seen them living and laughing side by side, but never knew how much he cherished her. And now she was gone.

Grandpa and I went through her clothes item by item. As we did, he reminisced. I jumped when his hand darted into the closet to remove a black velvet jacket.

"Oh, I want to keep this one," he said. "Your Grandma always looked so classy in this. I can’t give that away."

A few minutes later he came across a red bandanna hat and chuckled. "I remember the first time "Boots" (his nickname for her) wore this. We were climbing down a hill to look at a construction job I was working on. When I turned around to see if she was coming, all I could see this red hat bobbing after me." He laughed. "She looked so cute.” It was a faraway look - joy mingled with pain. "I'd better keep it too,” he said, holding the hat to his heart.

We spent the afternoon laughing and remembering. Tears trickled down our cheeks now and then. Afterward, I floated home on a cloud of memories with an armload of clothes, my heart full of love and grief.

That evening I withdrew to my bedroom and tried on Grandma's clothes. I found tissues in almost every pocket, and laughed. All my clothes have tissues in the pockets too. She would have been horrified to know she had left a legacy of “snot rags.”

Grandma had always kept their house spotless. She ironed everything, even their sheets and Grandpa’s v-necked tee-shirts he wore under his coveralls. I’d “helped” her many times as she bustled around dusting, mopping and washing. I remember lugging her wicker basket full of damp clothes to the side yard to hang wash together. I can still hear the click of wooden clothespins and smell the clean scent on the breeze.

Years of hard work had made her hands ugly. At least she thought they were ugly. Grandma especially despised her thumbs. They were short and flat at the nail, the skin toughened by years of loving service. The day she noticed my thumbs she was aghast.

"Oh no!" she said. "You got those awful things!" I looked at them with secret delight. I had Grandma's thumbs.

Her hands didn’t feel rough to me when I held them to walk around the neighborhood. She would call my attention to flowers, bugs, houses - always delighted with the details of life. I planted wisteria in my yard because I remembered the stone house on our walks. Grape-like clusters festooned the porch like the entrance to a secret hideaway. We would stop to catch the fragrance eyes closed, inhaling the rich perfume.

Suddenly I am aware of an image in the mirror. It is me wrapped in Grandma’s cardigan sweater with tissues in the pocket. What a surprise blessing to find a piece of her there! Tears of grief and gladness run freely and melt into her sweater as I finger the soft tissue. God knew the solace I needed and He brought comfort to my grieving heart from out of Grandma's closet.

~ (c) Beth Vice, July 2010