Day 4: Heartbreak

“I cried when I wrote this, I’ll always remember….”

I was helping my daughter put away some new clothes today. She has had the same dresser and armoire since she was born, and back when her clothes were smaller and took up less space, I claimed the top two drawers for some stuff that needed a place. That was 9 years ago, She’s taller now, and we can almost wear the same shirts, and so today I decided I would clean out those drawers and relinquish them to their rightful owner. Mundane, yes?

My grandma had a drawer in her kitchen, right next to the oven and the cereal cabinet. It was a wonderland for me. I loved opening that drawer. You never knew what was going to roll to the front: a marble, a stray earring, a broken broach, matches from 1963, a Matchbox car missing all its wheels that probably belonged to my Uncle Jeff, my grandpa’s 1951 high school track medal, pennies, so many rubber bands and pens and pencils and expired coupons and random batteries, and once I even found what I think was a piece of dog kibble, although my grandparents never owned a dog in my lifetime. It was the junk drawer of all junk drawers. I could pluck something out of that drawer and take it to my grandma, and she would stop was she was doing and tell me what it was, where it came from, whose property it was, and why she had saved it. Ditto for her jewelry box, her nightstand, most of the drawers in her back bedroom dresser, and a little tin box she kept on her sewing machine. No doubt seeds were planted by those mysterious and wondrous treasures and the histories they carried with them. Just ask my daughter, who frequents the places I stash my own treasures, always with questions, always looking for a story.

If you are a sentimental keeper of things, you know that cleaning out a drawer of “stuff that needed a place” is never a mundane task. In the first drawer there were pictures of my daughter as a tiny baby and giggly toddler, and a clay imprint of her hand at age one. There were magnets from the chore chart I used when she was three, and two story books that were mine as a child, plus a set of mini pom-poms a colleague gave her when I took her to a football game at the school where I worked ages ago. Nostalgic, amusing (she wouldn’t touch pom-poms with a 10-foot-pole now), harmless, mostly. And then came the other drawer.

My grandma died when my daughter was eight months old. She had been with me in the delivery room, had been one of the first to hear those first wails and touch what we all agreed was more hair than most adults had. She had visited us almost weekly, coming for long enough to rock her great-granddaughter to sleep or feed her or just hold her and stare at for an hour before she had to leave. It was never long enough. It is never long enough. When we went through her things after she died I saved as much as I could fit in my car, including a few pieces of her clothing. I knew I would never wear them, but I wanted them near me. They smelled like her. This was simultaneously comforting and agonizing, so I put them away in a drawer that wasn’t being used.

If you ask my daughter who her favorite person is, she will not stop to ponder her answer. “Nonna,” she will say without fail. Her grandma. My mom. I listen to my girl talk about the things she loves to do with my mother, and I can almost see the thread that ties us all together, like the cross-strands of a Jacob’s Ladder on a child’s hands. My grandma and I loved old pictures, walking through churchyards and marveling at the old gravestones we came across, wading in rivers and filling our pockets with rocks, watching “The Carol Burnett Show” and listening to country radio. My daughter and her Nonna love watching HGTV and all dogs and tiny houses, poking around yard sales and thrift stores and going on adventures to caverns and parks, reading books and going to the movies and eating popcorn. Just before my mom left this past July to spend nearly a year in California with my sister, she took my daughter home with her for “a few days.” The day she was supposed come home would roll around and they would call and ask for a few more days. The days turned into over two weeks. Every time they called I remembered the weeks, probably months, I spent with my grandma when school was out a lifetime ago–still some of the best memories of my life. I kept saying yes.

After my mom had been in California for a few weeks, I walked upstairs one evening and found my daughter sitting in the middle of her floor with a few stuffed animals and a sweatshirt in her arms. Her face was buried in them, and when she looked up at me there were tears in her eyes. “These smell like Nonna,” she said, and I felt the threads pull hard on my heart. For a minute I was her same age, and we had just moved three states away from my grandparents, and I had taken a blanket and some pillowcases from their house that I swore I’d never wash. It was comfort, and it was agony. “I know exactly what you mean,” I told my daughter.

I knew what was in the second drawer when I pulled it out, and without thinking I pulled the first thing I grabbed, a sweater, toward my face and inhaled. I was not prepared for my grandma’s scent to be there, to be so very alive and present after all these years. Comfort. Agony. My chest ached with the remembering. I was frozen on my child’s bedroom floor with a pile of my grandma’s clothes in my lap, not quite sure what to do. She walked in and found me much like I’d found her a few months before, and she picked up a sweater and smelled it. “That’s what she smelled like? It’s good,” she said, smiling at me, and I swear there was understanding in her almost 10-year-old voice. I carried the clothes to my room and placed them on my bed. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I paced in and out of the room a few times, eyeing them there, touching them occasionally, and then my husband came in and asked if something was wrong, and for the next five minutes I wept on his shoulder for every moment I had with my grandma, for every memory stitched into my being, for every second that has passed since she left us. I cried because man, what a great time we had, and I cried because it is never long enough.

“You better keep those,” my husband said, and I remembered the drawer in my grandma’s kitchen, the marbles and pencils and stories, and I placed those shirts and sweaters on the shelf in our closet. I cannot imagine a time in my life when they won’t move me the way they did today, so there they will stay in my closet, and the marbles and random glasses and single butter knife from her kitchen will stay in my kitchen, and my handful of her earrings and broaches and a tiny heart charm will stay in my jewelry box, and I will remember her with comfort and agony, because as the song goes, “the deeper the love goes, the deeper the bruising.”

The leaves on the oak tree
Hold on through the winter
They’re brown and they’re brittle
And they clatter together

I can’t seem to let go
I’m so scared of losing
The deeper the love goes
The deeper the bruising

“Here it Is”
Lyrics by Linford Detweiler, performed by Karin Bergquist/Over the Rhine

2 thoughts on “Day 4: Heartbreak

  1. “I cried because man, what a great time we had, and I cried because it is never long enough.”
    I have tears in my eyes because I immediately started thinking about how much I miss my mom. I keep a bottle of her White Shoulders perfume in my fridge and when I take a whiff it takes me back to Sabbath mornings as a kid, watching my mom getting ready for church. “I will remember her with comfort and agony, because as the song goes, “the deeper the love goes, the deeper the bruising.”

  2. Loved that. Brought Norma out of her special place in my heart. She stay there with Paulette and all the other great family members that were gone much to soon

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