A Slice of the Pie: Sorting through memories – Mementos in mind

January 2023 Posted in Opinion / Columnists

When I walked into my great grandmother’s house for the last time I was submerged by memories. The matriarch of our family, hers was the home in which we all gathered for holidays, after funerals and every day in between. 

The house was small, simple and welcoming. There wasn’t a piece of furniture or a knick-knack we kids couldn’t touch, nothing was forbidden. The epitome of hospitality, my grandmother was the ultimate hostess.

Sitting in her recliner, crocheting a dishcloth or rag rug, snacking on popcorn and watching her shows, my grandmother kept the door open, the heat on and the pantry stocked. 

This was where my sister and I went after school, during the summer days and when we wanted to get away. Because my grandma told stories. She listened. She was a constant presence, even when we weren’t.

And then one day she was gone. The door to the house was locked, the heat turned off, the food in the refrigerator gone bad, everything cold to the touch. Because the spirit of the house – my grandmother’s spirit – was gone, and with it the meaning behind every thing. 

What was left felt like so much debris, things missing a purpose or story. The cigar lovingly wrapped in a handkerchief and tucked into a box now lacked meaning. Small notes, written in her lovely, looping hand were indecipherable without her help. 

What should stay and what must go? We hesitated between the boxes destined for the thrift shop, the bins marked with our names and the already bulging trash cans. But she wasn’t there to ask.

Pictures and letters were easy and hard. Effortless to divide, they nevertheless reminded us how few had been sent, how often she was met with an empty mailbox at the end of the day. 

Clothes were easy too. Stacks of colorful sweatshirts and neatly pressed jeans that were meant only for her body, fit for no one else, destined to find a new home. But what of the more delicate items – her bras and underwear – we paused before opening the drawers. It felt wrong but necessary, sorting these things we had never felt compelled to touch in the private domain that had always been hers. 

Easier was the kitchen, familiar and straightforward with fewer surprises. The refrigerator, a time capsule went back months and then years, to before she lost the energy and will to cook. The cupboards were the same. Spices from the 1970s and ’80s, giving off only the faintest aroma from their desiccated contents. Tools whose life began in a very different kitchen, on a backcountry ranch, where my grandmother’s task had been to feed the hired hands. 

Some of these I took with me, history in the shape of cast iron pans whose satiny finish is the work of years, a glass measuring cup, gone cloudy with use but which still holds some purpose, and a stack of cut-glass serving trays commemorating every holiday dinner and more memories than I can count.

Set against the mountains of things I would never see again, my stack of memorabilia seemed so small. I added a straw hat, a knitted afghan, an ironing board. My van took on the aroma of my childhood. I fought the urge to save more, to save everything. 

And then I realized, thankfully, that I didn’t need to. What was really important – my memories of my grandma and the lessons that she taught me – were already there. 

They’re in my belief that a house doesn’t need to be fancy if it’s home. That the door should always be open to family and friends. That telling your story is important but listening to the stories of others is essential. And that there’s no thing we can accumulate in this life that comes even close to the people we share it with. 

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