“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.