My grandma died this week. It’s Easter, today is Easter Monday, and I spent the morning at the cemetery helping to lower her casket into the grave. I can tell you, with the confidence of one having just looked full into its opening, that the tomb was indeed empty. She was buried beside her husband, my grandfather, her name awaiting her arrival on the head stone, only the date missing. 1919-2011, is what it will say.
There are many things to say about my grandma, and I was able to say them earlier this weekend as I gave her eulogy. However, what was appropriate there, and perhaps inappropriate here, is now reversed. I want to say something about why I write, and why I write here now.
My grandma kept a journal every day of her life. Many times I’ve heard her ask my father to burn them all upon her death, which I assume he did. She wrote them not for publication, not as a work of art, but for herself, and for her family. Whenever we would visit her she would always tell us some story about our youth, or my father’s. She could remember them because she read them as often as she wrote them. If you can ever remember asking your own parents to tell you a story about when they were young, and watching them struggle to think of one, imagine the opposite. She could and would narrate long, forgotten stories to us.
She was also a historian, and a dedicated genealogist. Like her commitment to writing and reading the journal, these were activities she did with other people. There was always someone coming to the house in order to talk to her about some distant relative. She was committed to a kind of oral tradition, a hyper-local mythology of our family and her small farming community.
As we stood around the grave today, after her brother had read from Thessalonians and prayed, we took a moment to look at the graves around her. It was a fairly small cemetery, and many stones bore the names of the family and friends I had heard her discuss so many times in her stories. I was made to reflect how she had connected me to this past, how she had faithfully borne witness of the dead and the long ago for us all in the present. Here, one last time, she seemed to draw my attention to the past through writing.
I have no doubt that I write because my grandma wrote. She and I had a special bond in language. Each of us felt the responsibility to recite the past in the present, and to build living narratives for the dead. I am compelled to write in order that I might tell those around me what happened, to see and commit to memory. I spend much of my time living in the past, much of my life in memory.
I am ill equipped to pick up where she left off, and carry the burden of remembering. I realized this many times this weekend as I wished to ask her something about her past and couldn’t. I’ll try to remember them so I can ask her again one day.
In grade 9 I wrote her a poem, which is one of the things I remember, and is worth repeating, even if only to myself.
Just down the stairs, and to the right of the
dinning table which I have never seen used
is my Grandmother’s cellar. Inside there are
cold surfaces, special tomato juices maturing in glass mason jars
canned peaches plums berries and
resting in bushel baskets two deep from the wall
Like the table, I have never seen one being eaten
in all the years I visited.
In fact, you could likely convince me
with little effort
that these (or those) apples have been there forever;
or at least as long as my Grandmother.
But there was never anything quite as strong in
that house as those
apples aging in bushel baskets on the cold concrete floor.
The smell I mean.
The cellar was so alive with the smell
of old apples that for you to step inside
anyone talking to you after would bet that you’d been
eating apples down in that cellar
But you haven’t (or hadn’t).