I walked the halls of the old house, my mind in tune with each creaky step of the wooden floorboards. Running my hands along the walls my thoughts wandered to my grandmother, a stranger, save for the birthday cards with a couple of dollars and a handwritten note underneath the standard Hallmark message. The birthday cards always came late. I imagine it was hard for her to keep up with our many moves. Eventually, the cards stopped coming.
When we arrived at my grandmother’s house for her funeral last week, I stared at the front porch, taking it all in as a theater goer’s first glimpse of the stage and its red velvet curtains. Eyes fixed on the curtain’s hemline as it inches up, ever closer to revealing the mysteries behind it, I faced the front door with the same anticipation. My body leaned forward slightly as my feet remained planted, an inner battle of curiosity and trepidation. There was much history in this house, but unlike the history books in school, this history was different. It was mine.
Past its wear and tear, the house showed it had been well cared for by someone who took pride in appearances. Yet, I interpreted so much more from the throw blanket bunched up on the armchair in the living room, a stack of books tipped over on the floor beside it. The corner of a plate peeked out behind the wooden leg as though she had gotten so caught up in a book she had forgotten the snack she had prepared. I immediately knew she loved to read as much as I did.
Down the hall I entered my grandmother’s bedroom and approached the queen size bed with the floral blanket and numerous pillows propped against the ornate wooden headboard. I glimpsed the open book on her nightstand. It was positioned off-center, part of it hanging off the edge. A pair of reading glasses attached to a colorful beaded chain rested on the pages as though just before drifting off to sleep, she had reached over and set them down. As I looked around her room I could see her life, her movements ingrained in each item.
Is it possible to miss someone you never really knew?
I reached for the locket hanging around my neck, my thumb having dulled the gold from rubbing it so often. It was my only memory of meeting my grandmother. I was nine. We were the only ones at the park that day, and I quickly claimed my favorite swing. Flying higher and higher, eyes closed, I heard my mother call me, and slowly opened one eye to see a woman standing with her, both silently watching me.
“Did you see how high I went?”
“Maggie, this is your grandmother. She has to be running along, but wanted to say hello to you.”
“You’re the one who sends the birthday cards?”
She reached her hand out, and pulled me to her. I sunk into her arms as though I belonged there. We never spoke. She placed a locket around my neck, and hugged me once more. As my mother took a step closer, I knew we would be leaving soon. I also knew the woman whose arms held me wouldn’t be coming with us. And, just as that realization hit I felt her arms slowly lift and the warmth they provided lift with them. I replayed that park scene for years to come. I was lost and found in that one hug. That hug was part of my story, and I had wanted nothing more than to remain suspended in it. It was my only connection to the woman whose house I now explored.
I moved across the bedroom to my grandmother’s dresser. It was as ornate as her headboard, its surface covered in costume jewelry. I stood before the mirror holding a pair of dangling earrings, their gold beads brushing up against my neck. As I put them back, another object caught my eye. I gingerly lifted the thin chain, and pried open the tiny heart. The photo inside was a duplicate of the one my own heart carried, my grandmother carrying a newborn version of me. Holding the tiny heart, its gold patina dulled of its original shine, I rubbed my thumb over it as much out of habit as the comfort of knowing our hearts had always been connected. I was learning our story through the presence of her absence.