Today my mother called me and told me to come to my paternal grandmother’s house, to look through her things and decide what, if anything, I want to keep to remember her by when she moves from the nursing home to North Carolina, to live the likely short remainder of her life with my aunt and uncle.
I pulled into the once-familiar driveway, gravel crunching beneath my car tires the way they used to beneath the tires of my bicycle. Piles of trash pulled down from the attic and out of the backs of closets greeted me on the front porch. But the peeling wooden swing was the same, the rocking chairs, the snowball plant with the greenish-white blossoms I was admonished, as a child, against plucking from the bush.
I haven’t seen my grandmother since I graduated from college, an impossible-sounding nine years ago. My aunt picked her up and they drove the 200-odd miles from my hometown to my college, to watch me sweat through my polyester robe in a gym with hundreds of other students and then go out to eat with the rest of the family. I sat in a local restaurant and watched as my grandmother and my aunt shared one meal from one plate, leaving food behind. They were and are both so unlike my mother and me, their bodies composed of hard, straight lines, so easy to fit into the tiniest spaces.
Nine years ago, but when I saw photos of my grandmother last month, sent by the nursing home staff, she looked much the same as I remember her. And as I walked through her house, I walked through a monument to time stood still, everything in its exact place, just as I remembered it from my childhood. In the bedroom where I slept when I spent the night, I found the same books that once belonged to my father when he was young gathering dust on the same shelves down from which I took them at age seven, staying up past my bedtime to thumb through Peanuts comics.
If everything had not been emptied from dressers and cabinets and sorted out on the floor, it would have seemed that nothing at all had happened, that no time had passed since the last time my father dropped me off for a visit. I found a VHS tape my grandmother received as a gift sometime in the ’90s, its cellophane wrapper intact. In a closet hung my deceased uncle’s uniform from Vietnam. In a drawer, unsigned drawings dated 1938, still lifes and holiday scenes in colored pencil on notebook paper gone gauzy with age.
My mother urged me to take anything that I wanted, though I had insisted that I wanted nothing. I ended up with a few things that hold no objective value, but that, when I think of the house, stand out as images in my mind. Old paperbacks, the bookshelf that once held my father’s photography manuals, one of a collection of many bells that I used to take down and ring one by one, a small molded sandcastle brought back from a vacation that happened before I was born.
The signatures of my grandmother’s house, though, are things that I can’t take. The summer sunlight filtered through the magnolia tree’s branches, so much higher up from the vantage of age 7. The knothole that fascinated me, as hidden spaces and apertures always have. The kaleidoscopic pattern of yellow tile on the bathroom floor. The view of the street from the front window. The grass that encircles the house’s foundation, soft and deep green, the kind I’ve only seen growing around old homes.
There are some things that I don’t want to take, but I don’t have a choice.
I first learned about cognitive dissonance in the introductory psychology course that I took as a college freshman. The act of holding within one’s mind two contradictory ideas or beliefs. At the time I thought that I held few contradictions, but I was wrong.
Cognitive dissonance: My grandmother spinning me on the merry-go-round at the city park. My grandmother hitting me hard enough to knock the breath from my lungs. Christmases spent opening presents with my cousins on her living room floor. The months when my mother would not speak to her. Cashing checks she asked my father to give to me. Not remembering the last time I spoke to her. Knowing that it’s sad that she is leaving, that we are selling her house. Feeling nothing.
I often think of all the places that once made up my landscape, apartments and homes, that no longer exist, that cannot exist as they once did because they hold other people, other things. Phantoms that have been worn away by years. Soon my grandmother’s house will join this ghost map in my mind. I will watch as it auctions and as strangers carry it away piece by piece.
Perhaps, this time next year, the new owner will have knocked it down and replaced it with a new house, one where only their feet have walked, where only their children have played. A house that it not haunted, yet, by war or secrets or death. They will fill the drawers with drawings dated 2021, will place books on shelves, figurines on the table in the foyer. Years later, a granddaughter will sift through the remnants of lives and losses and regrets and wonder why this was kept, why that.
Maybe she will know how to feel about it.