“We create stories and stories create us. It is a rondo.” — Chinua Achebe
“If no one knows you, then you are no one.” — Dan Chaon
I’ve been in New Hampshire almost three months and there is plenty to say about this place, work on the farms, and various other going-ons. But, I’d like to dive into something else tonight.
I started writing this a few weeks ago. It’s about my grandmother. She passed away in April and would have just celebrated her 91st birthday. I’m living in her summer house now in Tamworth, a small town on the edge of the White Mountains. I’ll save the rest of the catch up for another day…
Tonight, going through her books underneath the grandfather clock, I discover more than a library of novels. It is a library of a life. There are cards in pages from old friends, daughters, grandchildren. “Mom, we thought you’d like this one,” tucked into a book on tennis. “Went to the bookstore together in search of a good story for you,” a note from Jenny and Steve reads, “it was fun spending the time thinking of you and what you might like to read.” “To Joan,” writes another Steve, “I have so enjoyed our friendship over the years. You are truly a special woman. I hope you enjoy reading about my year in Vietnam.”
Then there are her own notes. Raven’s Children was “written by a young man met in Chocorua tennis tournament, Sept 1993.” Or, sometimes, there’s just a record of outside opinions — under Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: “Sus + Jacques think terrific; Chele Miller did NOT enjoy.”
But what really gets me are the notes she has scrawled in pencil on the covers of two Red-Tails in Love, A Wildlife Drama in Central Park copies. “Do NOT give away,” says the paperback. “Please return,” says the hardcover. Curiosity gets the better of me and I steal the hardcover up to bed to read (it’s pretty good).
A year ago I sat at the table behind me and talked to her. I had brought a recorder so that I could get some of her stories right (and have her voice telling them). What was it like growing up in Boston and Honolulu? To be the star of the Cambridge Skating Club and recite the words to Aloha ‘Oe?
There’s just something about the way she could tell a story. I’ve listened to that recording a few times since she died. There’s some relief in hearing it — hearing her humor, the cadence of her voice, how she would put things.
On the recording you can hear the rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clock (as well as the washer going and a steady hum of a lawnmower). You can hear me leave the recorder on while we sit back — interview over — and she starts moving around the kitchen, asking my Mom something, telling me, over the sound of a faucet, that it’s nice I care to know these things.
I’m here now with the same clock ticking, the lawnmower, the washing machine, the faucet — all are here, but she’s gone. She’s buried in a cemetery down the road. She’s next to a boulder that used to be in the driveway; a stone her late husband Bill used to always back his car into (another good story of hers).
They say we don’t leave this world with anything but ourselves, and that’s true. But there are things, many things, we leave behind.
It’s books. It’s notes. It’s date books and to-do lists. It’s papers upon papers with a little side of papers. It’s furniture that’s been saved for eons that goes to the antique dealer, only to learn that, well, it looks pretty used for eons, too. It’s keepsakes that leave everyone guessing. It’s jewelry that produces some awkward familial squabbling. It’s photos of the time you rode the toboggan, the time you turned 90 and got into Billy’s inflatable power boat, the time you drove off in a red Subaru, waving.
It’s a purple fleece hanging in the laundry room, after a funeral, sketching the outline of an old life, but weighing of love… and loss.
And what I’m realizing is this — that these things we leave behind, well, they fade, too. They cease carrying the memories. They become more abstract.
Another night, I’ll find a box of my great-grandmother’s things. I’ll note the holiday cards she cut the covers off of. (There’s the Thanksgiving one of a girl balancing a tray with a turkey and a giant candle coming out the top.) Postcards from friends traveling around the world. One note inquiring about her plant. A curious bookmark with rabbits, another with a Japanese sword hilt design. A postcard from her daughter, my Gramma, writing home to her mother. A card from my mother age 13 thanking her grandmother for the fourteen dollars.
And then there will be the night I thumb through an old copy of Stepping Westward on whose cover page my great-great grandmother, Ida Tenney Castle, has written, in a looping script, the word “Delightful.”
It makes me think how my grandmother, who is so real and alive in spirit still to me, will not be to my daughter. She will be a story. And to her child, she will become notes in a book.
Is this what we can offer the world? A sense of how it looked to us, of how it felt?
There is an absurdity to it all, in a way. The repetition of the generations, of the life cycles. We want to feel like we’re going forward as a people but in some ways I feel like we’re always uncovering what others have known before about the human condition, what they once discovered for themselves.
But what brings me back from that angst, that existential edge, is that recognition of another in yourself. The fact that I can read a long ago relative’s words and connect with her in that moment: “You are right, Ida! Stepping Westward sure does sound delightful.”
And what’s left in the wake of all this, I think, is an acceptance. An acceptance that not all of my Gramma’s stories will be known or told right. An acceptance that one day she will only be some penciled comments to a great-great granddaughter. And an acceptance that we, too, will fade. We will be memories, and then only abstract pieces in another life far out ahead of this one.
The last thing I asked her on the recording is what she would say to a future child of mine, perhaps a daughter. “You might not get to meet her,” I said. “What would you tell her?”
Tell her to never put herself in a position that she’s not proud of, my Gramma said. And tell her to, at all times, do the best you can.
What do we leave behind?
I can tell you what she left me; the most precious thing of all: the example of a life well-lived. And that, more than anything else, is something that can be passed on.
“Now tell me where do the great ones go when they’re gone?” — “Song for Sid,” Langhorne Slim