Family History

Nana had a little three drawer chest by her bed that she used as a nightstand. On top she kept and ashtray and a little dish full of hair pins that she used to secure her sleep scarves. These were always chiffon, usually pink, yellow or lavender and lived in the drop drawer of the chest. The other drawers were also full of scarves, but silk, the kind  you wore with a sweater or blouse. They were all colors, with bright prints and sometimes French names printed across the bottom. When I was a very little girl, she’d let me take them out while she sat at her wide vanity, lining her eyes in a magnifying mirror. I’d drape them all over myself and run to the closet mirror, soft ends unfurling about me like a small, pigeon-toed human kite, then I’d open the closet, which smelled like leather and gently lift the lids on a wall of shoeboxes.

I was a curious child. Inclined to open every lid without a lock and cabinet I could reach. Some adults found this trait horrifying and impolite, but Nana never minded, even encouraged. If she saw me pulling at a brass draw pull or nosing behind a rack of old kimonos and evening gowns, she’d often help, ask me about what I found, and afterwards keep an eye, as a I carefully put what I found back into place. She’d send me on a coat closet safari to find lighters she left in jacket pockets. “And if you find any money, you can keep it.” My ever-generous grandfather, observing and not to be outdone, tried to pull the same trick, except he also left a Hershey bar and twenty-five dollars in the pocket. That was, for me, at nine, a tycoon-level score, but an obvious gift. Nana’s felt more organic, even serendipitous. There weren’t always dollars in the pockets, and if there were, no guarantee how many, or how deep into the closet you’d have to go looking. It was somewhere between archeology and gambling, which, as it happens, is a fair description of the antiques business.

It suited me. The quest. If I got the hunger and curiosity from Nana, I got the mythos from the other side of my family–my paternal grandfather, who spent his whole life the sole protagonist of as yet-unwritten Arthurian legend (the only Knight of the Round Table to be felled by cirrhosis in Defuniak Springs, Florida). There wasn’t a corner safe from my inspection, a shelf protected from my wandering fingers. I was tireless in my efforts to see what was there, and if I was very lucky, find some reward, either tangible or intangible.

Occasionally, I found things I knew I should not have —a Highboy drawer full of blue-boxed dolls meant to be doled out as Christmas and birthday present presents, a black and white snapshot what appeared to be a dead man among ruined aircraft on a South Pacific beach, the cold barrel of a revolver under the edge of quilt. When that happened, I knew I’d gone a step too far, and I was always quick to shut the drawer, but not before I catalogued the contents. Sometimes, I’d return to see if the items had moved. The gun stuck around until it was sold after my grandfather died, the last doll lived in in box in the drawer for decades after I outgrew her, but the photograph, which still haunts me, disappeared so quickly after I saw it, I wonder, to this day, if I imagined it.

I don’t know what happened to Nana’s scarves or what became—or perhaps what will become–of the little chest that held them. In the years before she died and the months since, the catalog of things missing or unknown is greater than or equal to the text messaged snapshots of flowerpots, cake pans, dessert plates, baskets  and Pyrex–so much Pyrex—that well-intentioned relatives have sent me in these last remaining weeks of Nana’s house still being her house.

A half year out from her death, we’re in the scrambling, tidy-up section of the grief process, where it is assumed settlement brings closure. Nana’s house—not the one I visited in childhood with all the magical closets, but the one she move to after my grandfather’s death—sold quickly. It’s a hot housing market out there, even in the places you don’t expect. What’s left in the unloading, the parceling out, the arguments, the antique dealers, the estate sales, the junk collectors. Nana was a person who measured her life in beautiful things, which makes the process of figuring out where things go unusually complicated. Because every item seems valuable, every object imbued, even the ones that actually aren’t worth much.

My mother and my aunt are hard at the business end. The negotiations, the arrangments, the various checklists and forms and contracts and appraisals. Theirs is a numbers game, prices and dates, and estimates that offer a relatively stable, objective filter and an orderly to-do list that purports to eschew sentimentality (it does not). It’s a well-trod path in the management of grief, because it addresses the hard, practical “No one wants this old thing and maybe someone will pay good money for it” as opposed to the sensory flights of fantasy that come when you handle an object and catch a whiff of her perfume or a scratch from her pen or remember how some fabric felt against your face when you were young and you still believed your grandmother was the most magical person in the world.

I always imagined I’d be part of the organizational process. I’d assemble the catalogue before the inevitable disbursement and disposal. I’d sort through that scarf drawer one last time. I’d count the gloves and handkerchiefs, the napkins, the decades old ledgers, even the Pyrex with the same curiosity, the almost archeological fervor Nana instilled in me. I might build narrative through the pieces, before they are scattered. Maybe I could even conjure some final impression of her, one that could feel just tangible, if imaginary, enough,  that I’d feel a sense of lightness as I let it go.

But you know, 2020. Covid. Life. Reality. I am a grandchild—one of three–not a child. I don’t live there. It wasn’t the right time. There honestly just wasn’t time.

And in reality, I don’t know that long days of packing boxes and sorting through the incidental detritus of a life, even a life as materially lovely as Nana’s, would have provided any critical substance to her biography or allowed any useful vehicle for my grief. Because no tablecloth, no chandelier, no chest of draws, no number of hairpray-scented chiffon scarves can even begin to fill the empty space she left.  

I miss her being in the world more than I can say, though I know she lived a long life, and nothing, not even Nanas, last forever. But selfishly, and with even greater intensity, I miss her being in the world for me. Because while I’m often a mess and famously kind of a fuck-up, Nana loved me like I was beyond reproach, like I was practically perfect in every way. Even if she was momentarily peeved, even if there were parts of my life, as I got older, that I kept from her. It was like she knew and it didn’t matter. She made me feel like I lit up a room whenever she saw me, even if she was the only one that noticed the glow.

Everyone should have that  kind of advocate in their life, that kind of full-heart support, even, especially, if we don’t deserve it. I know I’m lucky, enormously so, that I had that person as long as I did and had her for as long as I did. Remembering that allows me to float along as the grief ebbs and flows. It gives me the focus I need to keep digging around in the corners, looking for the traces of her magic still left in the world, and the lingering confidence of knowing that you have been well and truly loved, and may yet be again.

The Author

tinycommotions at google dot com