The day Grandma H. died, my paternal grandmother (Gram) lost her best friend. That very same week, Gram also lost her youngest son. The first death was a blessing—Gram’s friend, my maternal grandmother, had been secretly ill for a while and clearly suffering. The second death was a shocking now-he’s-alive/now-he-is-not aneurism.
For me, the timing of her death felt like a slap in the face. I had been putting off writing a letter to her, and after I finally sent the email, knowing full-well that the U.S. Postal Service would never make it on time, I found out that my parents had not been able to read it to her. She died the morning before they printed it.
As my parents sort through the various items that Gram collected during her ninety-one years, they are finding that many of the lamps, paintings, furniture and other trinkets scattered about her house have “value.” This does not surprise me. Gram liked finer things and took great care of the few she could afford. What does surprise me is that none of those things interest me in the slightest. I want Gram’s shattered chandeliers.
Gram grew up in East Aurora, New York back in the day when it was customary for young ladies to wear gloves and hats, be escorted by a chaperone when out and about, and choose marriage over a career. Because Gram had wanted to be a teacher, and teachers could not be married at that time in history, she wound up in the lunchroom instead.
This was no ordinary lunchroom. Housed in a private school just outside Buffalo, Gram’s kitchen nourished the people who visited daily. Because her food was nutritious and tasty, the faculty and staff ate there regularly alongside the students. Being her granddaughter means that I, too, am a good cook. It has brushed off on all of us (all of us except her son, my father), with my brother being a notable stand-out with his Mobile 5 Stars to prove it.
Most of my memories of Gram are in the kitchen. The kitchen is where we sewed a double-sided, baby blue wrap-around skirt for my first day of middle school. The kitchen is where we played cards or board games as a family until the wee hours of the night. The kitchen is where, clutching her tea or glass of brandy in her arthritic hands, Gram would listen to me dream.
I was going to grow-up, run an inn, and have everything in it for sale. I was going to marry a doctor. I was going to become a writer.
“We could use a doctor in the family,” Gram told me as I gushed on about a new intern I was seeing. The day I received my PhD, I heard it once again—this time with much more pride and conviction. Gram’s husband, my grandfather, had tried to get his PhD and had had his research stolen by a colleague. “He had his dissertation finished, and then his friend just up and took it,” is how Gram told the legendary family tale.
The gathering of the shattered chandeliers started about that time in her life. She was living alone in Cheektowaga, New York with her large garden, eighteen feet of annual snow fall, and immaculate house. We had all moved away, so the holidays were really the only time she had a lot of family around. I remember visiting her one winter from Cleveland and being dazzled by her Christmas tree. “How do you get it to sparkle like that?” I asked while munching on one of her cookies that really did taste better because she still sifted the flour.
“I hang crystal pieces taken from old chandeliers. I find them at garage sales and take them apart. Some of them are very old.”
The crystal pieces made their way across country after my parents talked Gram into moving to California because she fell down the basement stairs while doing laundry. We each took turns driving her silver Mercedes sedan for one leg of the cross-country trip from New York to California. Like many of her valuables, the pieces of chandeliers for her Christmas tree were locked securely in the trunk.
Gram confided in me that California was never really home. I couldn’t have agreed with her more. The sunny weather is nice, and it was helpful having my parents so close by, but she never warmed to it. She missed her friends. She missed her church. And even though she had a new, beautiful garden—she missed the one back home.
It was in this new garden that her heart gave way. She survived the multiple surgeries, stayed in the ICU for months, and eventually lost many of her toes due to lack of circulation from the medications she was on. And, while this slowed her down to a degree, it never stopped her.
Then she lost her sense of smell and taste.
Then she lost her speech.
Then she started losing her mind.
For many years when I visited Gram, we carried on like school girls passing notes back and forth to each other while giggling and swearing to secrecy. Under their noses, Gram and I had our own, private conversations about family members and friends. It got to the point where she would only tell me the things on her mind. My parents asked me to intervene to find out the truth about the care she was receiving (she had helpers come to her home) and see if she really wanted to sell her old Mercedes.
On our last visit we cried a lot more than laughed. Gram was convinced that people were stealing mundane items from her and furious that no one was taking her seriously. When I passed her a note saying, “Gram, there is no reason why Lucy would steal your bras,” she lashed out at me, crying, frustrated because I would not listen to her.
My last best memory of Gram was a few Christmases ago. I had time on my hands, so I decided I was going to decorate the family’s behemoth, fake tree. I was given a budget, all of the time in the world, and a helper—Gram. While I wound each branch with ribbon, tied each bulb with a bow, and individually placed each strand of tinsel, I talked to Gram. I told her about how scared I was to be writing a book instead of making a steady income. I told her how lonely I was now that I wasn’t dating anyone special. I talked and talked and talked.
It was the release I really needed at that time in my life. I needed the time to process my situation and have a loving friend—someone who really knew me—there to listen. We did not put the shiny crystals of chandeliers on my parents’ tree that year. In fact, I don’t even think I thought of it. For years to come, I will never make that mistake again.