Read on June 13, 2009
I have been thinking a lot about death and grief over these last few days. Sometimes death comes slow and sure, waiting, for days or weeks or months. Sometimes it comes suddenly and graciously but certain. And no matter how it arrives, I have decided that there is no right time, no right way for death to appear on our doorsteps and certainly no set length of time for grief.
When somebody dies at the age of 97, it’s easy to say, “She lived a long life.” “It was her time.” “How wonderful that you had her for so many years.” But these are simply platitudes that are easy to repeat in order to avoid the hard work that grief offers. Because grief is hard work, but its rewards are tremendous and transformative.
What I remember most is this: Waking up in the early morning in a room off of the kitchen in my grandparent’s mobile home. Someone on the floor or in the bed quietly breathing early morning sleep beside me. And then, I’d hear it—a pan shifting on the stove; a drawer shuffling open. I’d see the light underneath the crack of the bedroom door. And once again, as often as I’d try to get up in the morning before my grandma, there she was already prepping the dough so it would have time to rise so that we’d have fresh peanut butter rolls for breakfast. As often as I tried (and I DID try), I could never wake up early enough to help her.
Another memory: Opening the pantry in her kitchen with shelf after shelf filled with glass jars: canned peaches, canned apricots, jars of pickled watermelon rind (gross!); jars of pickles; more peaches; old Christmas tins filled with—if you were lucky—chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. And if you were unlucky—pfernussen nussen, some sort of cookie I could never pronounce and never understand because what kind of cookie has pepper in it?
One more memory: The dining room table and brown chairs that swirled. Cards, lots and lots of cards that you had to count and divide, divide and shuffle, count again and hand out. And always, I wanted to be on grandma’s team because she would teach me how to cheat. And we cheated so well together! And then the cards went away and out came the Yahtzee. How she continued game after game, year after year to roll 1, 2 and yes, 3 Yahtzees was beyond me. I still can’t roll a Yahtzee. And at the table was grandma and grandpa, Anna and Alex, Aaron and Ida, Hank and Alvina. It wasn’t long before tears were rolling down our faces in laughter.
97 years. Is it long enough? I don’t know because I know the next 30 or 40 years without her are going to be long years. Is it long enough? I don’t think so because I’m still not confident in my ability to roll out the dough correctly, to put the right kind of pickling spices into the vegetable soup, to make sure to remember the cinnamon in the chocolate chip cookies. I’m certain that I can’t cook the strudels in the pan without lifting the lid and watching them fall. I still screw up the amount of water and vinegar in the cooked cabbage. And I know that I will never slice the cucumbers thin enough for grandma’s salad.
Shortly after my daughter Grace was still born, my grandma came to stay with me for a few days. It was the last time she came to visit alone. She was worried about me because I wasn’t cooking, and worse than that I wasn’t baking. But she didn’t really seem to mind. She just got out the toothbrush and started scrubbing my stove. And then she got out the flour, and she started putting it into a bowl unmeasured and added some sugar, an egg, some salt and within a few hours we were pulling peanut butter rolls out of the oven.
And then we sat down over rolls and talked. And she told me about her first born child, a boy she never got to meet, a boy that she never got to hold. A child, she told me, that she never forgot, not for one day, even though back then, she said, she wasn’t allowed to talk about him. And she told me that she wanted to name him William. And she took my hand and told me to never forget.
My grandmother died on the same day that Grace died--six years later--, and some small part of me wants to believe that it was planned, that somehow she knew that I would never forget, that I would always remember and that the four of us—Grandma, William, Grace and I—would be inextricably linked by a sort of grief so large, that it transforms into a beauty even larger that binds us together still like flour and water and yeast binds together to transform into the lightest, sweetest, most beautiful kind of offering.