The battered metal steamer trunk in my living room, a family heirloom, is crammed full of memories. Sturdy sides hold every photo album and scrapbook that was bestowed upon me in the weeks following my father’s death*.
This pile of memories is like a divination tool. I open the lid and dig in then something useful bubbles to the surface. Something I’ve never seen before or something familiar, but always just the thing I need to see.
One stapled stack of papers catches my eye today. It contains a perfect wood pulp circle of life: my paternal grandparent’s birth certificates, their marriage license, and both death certificates.
Their entire lives are covered off in five pages.
On my grandmother’s death certificate, it lists, “oat cell cancer to left lung” under the cause of death.
Oat cell. Doesn’t that sound very grandma-ish? Like warm oatmeal and a hug, however, a short Google search advises that oat cell is among the most aggressive forms of lung cancer.
Besides, my grandmother wasn’t very oatmeal and hugs anyway. She was something much more urbane.
Which makes her bigger than life in my memory.
When I was about seven, my paternal grandparents made a visit to New Mexico to attend my first communion. My dad grew up in South Bend, Indiana, which to this desert kid may as well have been on the other side of the universe.
In the mid-seventies, Albuquerque wasn’t a very evolved place. Our airport was a small building the color of dry grass next to a hot concrete tarmac shared with the air force base.
The waiting area had memorable soft leather chairs on sturdy wood frames. I’d sink into the smell of leather and through large picture windows watch the planes fly in over the Sandia Mountains.
Passengers would disembark down sturdy metal stairs, eyes blinking in the bright desert sun.
That day I stood there, clutching at my mom, both scared and excited to meet my dad’s parents.
“There they are,” my mom said.
“Where?” I asked, perking up.
“Look, the woman in the coat.”
I looked. Making her elegant way off the plane was my white-haired grandmother. She wore a dress, pearls, stockings and heels. On top of it all she wore a fur-lined overcoat.
No one wore fur, much less an overcoat, in New Mexico.
She carried herself like a movie star, the regal matriarch of my father’s family. Her lipstick was flawless, her porcelain skin showing nary a wrinkle.
Behind her tottered my grandfather, a tall man with a lined face wearing a good suit and a hat. Always a hat.
These people were like something out of a novel. They were big city. Granted, South Bend is no great shakes, but they flew in from Chicago and looked it.
To me they seemed worldly, intelligent, and jaunty in that “Great Gatsby” kind of way.
My Grandmother smelled of perfume and powder and my Grandfather of cigarettes and hair oil. I was in awe. My mother was visibly intimidated by them both so I followed suit.
My 1970’s fashionable bell-bottom jeans and ratty t-shirt now felt tacky and under-dressed, as elegance had just hit our dry, desert wilderness.
Over the course of the visit, I tried desperately to reconcile myself to these people; my family. I clung to my mother, a shy doe-eyed girl from Oregon who in later years would confide to me just how much her in-laws scared the bejeezus out of her. I understood why.
At breakfast one morning, Grandmother sat chain-smoking, leaving perfect lipstick rings on the filter while Grandfather sat quietly, acquiescing to her, always. Something my dad had said made Grandmother mad, and she spoke harshly, her Irish temper flaring.
She shouted down my father, something no one I knew had ever done. I fled from the room, scared out of my gourd.
No one talked back to my father and got away with it. I think that terrified me more than the shouting.
I’d managed to bond with my gentle, comedic Grandfather and did my best to studiously behave in front of my Grandmother, lest she turn her overpowering temper on me.
Several days into the visit, while having an early evening happy hour, my mom cracked open a can of smoked oysters and Grandmother clapped her hands with glee, as this was a favorite treat. She prodded me to try one. It looked like a globby, gray pencil eraser doing an oily shimmy on a cracker.
Wanting desperately to somehow connect with this elegant woman, I took the offering like receiving communion, and chewed. It was tasty and I smiled. Grandmother was pleased, and handed me another, which I quickly ate. She wrapped an arm around me and pulled me close to her warm, fleshy side.
I’d done good.
We were worlds apart, and yet, our mutual love of good food held the power to close the gap.
In the years that followed, I wouldn’t be able to explore any more potential common ground. South Bend and Albuquerque were just too far apart, and it was five years later that my grandmother died. It was the only time I ever saw my father cry, and at age twelve, my first experience with cancer.
I wish I’d known my grandmother more. I wish I could find more ways to say, “oh, I’m just like her” but I can’t.
She was like a shooting star, in my mind a brief bit of glorious celebrity, stolen away far too quickly by the oat cells.
*My father succumbed to complications from pulmonary fibrosis
– Karen Fayeth
© Karen Fayeth, copyright 2011, all rights reserved. The family photos of the author and her grandmother are covered under copyright. Please be respectful.