Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Grieving on Presidents' Day

I wrote this on Presidents' Day and decided to post it. Consider it a bit of a tribute to two wonderful people and to the slightly dysfunctional but fiercely loyal family they left behind.

Today, instead of lazing around home or going shopping for Presidents' Day, I packed my daughter and most of my cleaning supplies into my small Honda and drove to my paternal grandparents' home. My grandfather's wife has retrieved all her things and left the home feeling truly empty. My two uncles and two of my aunts were there. Tensions have been high since my grandfather passed away, but the feeling today was one of industry and nostalgia. My throat caught when I first walked into the house. I thought I had anticipated the feeling of realizing yet again that my grandparents were gone, but I hadn't prepared myself enough. The leftover shell that once housed a living, breathing couple lay stripped of most of its character, but whispering stories still lurked in the corners, waiting to be uncovered with brooms and spic-and-span-soaked rags.

Our main goal was to clear out the kitchen. My father and his siblings had decided to rent the house to a friend of my aunt. All of the dishes, utensils and other detritus that can collect in a kitchen was slated to one of three fates: the garbage, the thrift store or to a room to be picked over by family. I was allowed to take anything in the thrift store pile. I didn't take much, mostly a couple of odds and ends: a set of tongs, a garlic press, an old-fashioned ice cream scoop. Nothing that held any real meaning.

As we sorted through things, we came to a hanging sorter with three pockets labeled "Letters". "Bills". "Misc". In the short time I lived with my grandparents, before I went to college, I helped my grandmother sort her coupons, matching them to the things she wanted to buy. My aunt decided to send it to the thrift store. I quickly scooped it up. To me, it was not junk. My grandmother passed away nearly nine years ago. I miss her.

The family - and by that, I mean my grandparents children - decided that the grandchildren would have no claim on the things left behind. Once the children claimed what they wished, the grandchildren could pick over what was left. There is little to no chance I will have anything else to remember my grandmother by, not until my own parents pass on.

I didn't realize how bittersweet helping to clean my grandmother's house would be. I am a child of the military. Places are not meant to have meaning. Yet, in all the places I moved, I always knew my father's and mother's parents were there. Their houses never really changed. They were anchors in an otherwise drifting life. Now, the house remains, but the anchor is gone. It did not break suddenly. It slowly rusted as my grandmother died, replaced by my grandfather's new wife, and then finally gone when my grandfather joined my grandmother.

My mom's mother recently entered a nursing home. I feel that my grandfather will not be far behind. Their farmhouse is now the last of my anchors. It, too, will soon rust through. Then, I shall be left to find new anchors.

We were visited by a cat. I am allergic to cats, but I love them. This one was small, colored a rusty black and had eyes the color of new pine needles. She was dusty, but affectionate, though she was afraid of my exuberant daughter. She was a stray. I told her I would take her home if she stayed until we left. The tiny, superstitious part of my mind wondered at the coincidence of a black cat visiting so insistently at a time like this. I find that animals, particularly cats, tend to come when I need something soft and living to touch. By the time I left the house, she was gone. I wish she had stayed.

I left the house feeling a little more at peace. Death has never been something to ruffle my feathers. I'm not sure if it is because I have never formed strong bonds with someone, or if it is because I have a very unorthodox view of death. It is probably a little of both. Whatever the reason, I always find myself feeling a little awkward when surrounded by the grieving, particularly when I should also be grieving. Today, I mourned my grandfather and my grandmother in truth by sorting through their things and remembering.

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