I blame it all on Grace, that fiery little baby born in the back of a
wagon traversing from Canada to the United States a century ago. The one born so small,
it was assumed she wouldn’t live the night. The one wrapped in cotton batting and
placed in a tissue box to be buried in the morning. The one who lived to be 83. Grace,
my Greatest of Great Aunts. The woman who categorically recorded every family event
for posterity with her camera. The tiny, round woman with the big smile and loud voice.
The one who never had her own children; just a man-child of a veteran husband who
barked orders at her. She would ignore his bear-like grumpiness with a smile, a laugh
and a twinkle in her eye. Aunt Grace was the woman who brought all her nieces and
nephews (and the grand versions, too) into her home, which was bedecked with trinkets
so untouchable that you Just Had to Touch Them.
Glass dinner bells with fragile ringers inside and Salt and Pepper shaker sets lined every nook and cranny of her house. These Salt and Pepper shaker sets were much more breakable than the 1970’s plastic version on my mother’s kitchen cupboard, and they were everywhere in her home—in and on top of her china closet, perched expectantly on her end tables, and her glass-paned kitchen cupboards were lined with them. As I grew older, I realized that they were a collection of all the places her husband’s military career had taken her. These piggies and holiday sprites and snowmen and roosters were a sad replacement for the children she never had. They did not hold salt and pepper, they held tiny pieces of her broken heart. No one ever entered her home without an admonishment to not break anything. My cousins broke a few things. Cousin Jim broke more than a few. I, however, never did. I was very, very careful.
As a child, I was always very, very careful. I smiled and sat on her lap and listened to her stories. I carefully let her love on me. I carefully loved her back. While my cousins tore around her garden, playing tag, I looked at her pictures in her photo albums and listened to her songs on her beloved record player.
My mother loved her Aunt with a monstrous capacity. I felt this before I realized it. I knew it was the way only a child can know. I saw it in their everyday encounters, in their tidy lunches and sweet sharing of record albums... Lawrence Welk, Show Tunes and Elvis among them. They never tired of each other’s company, and my Mom always found time to travel the twenty minutes or so for a weekly visit.
As I grew up, I became less careful and less caring. Grace’s conversations, in her last years, bored me. I couldn’t stand how she always talked about the “lovely roll she had for breakfast. Well, half... the other half will be wonderful with a cup of tea for lunch” or “do you hear the phrasing in this music? The lilting of the voice?”. I was in college, then. Her gaudy trinkets alarmed me. Her touch was not welcome. I visited less. My mother’s visits changed from weekly to daily. When her bellowing husband passed, and Grace found herself alone with her trinkets, pictures and vinyl albums, she lost that fighter within herself. She seemed sad and fragile.
Then, Grace became ill. Silently, savagely, painfully, ill. She was never diagnosed, but we assumed she was ravaged from a quickly spreading form of cancer. In a heartbeat, she was gone. This woman who had fought from the beginning, who had loved others’ children as her own, who had survived a marriage that others would have fled from... gone.
My cousins and I gathered at the back of the small-town funeral home and, suddenly, massively, we were crying. My tall-stilt of an Uncle appeared in the frame of the doorway. He wrapped us in his long and lanky arms and looked us each in the eye. “I know,” he said, “this is the beginning of many endings for you all. Soon, there will be more funerals. This is the start of understanding death for all of you and it is so hard. I know.”
That was it, really. My Uncle, the man who climbed telephone poles and strung wire and smiled when others failed to, had stated the obvious. We dried our eyes and took our seats in the small viewing room. I sat, for the first and not last time, in the white, straight-backed chair of that room and averted my eyes from her casket. I imagined her happy somewhere, anywhere else but here. I tucked my near-tears inside my head to this very day. It was a trick I designed at Grace’s funeral. A trick that has gotten me through too many similar good-byes in my life.
I returned to college and received daily phone calls from my mom, who struggled with Great Aunt Grace’s passing. She and my Grandmother and the other family women separated Grace’s belongings, and my mother came home with the lot of Salt and Pepper shakers and her album collection and her glass dinner bells. The shakers were carefully placed in her china cabinet in matching sets of memories, the dinner bells took up residence in our dining room, and the albums were lined on the shelves of my mother’s den.
I have come to admit that I blame you, Grace. You started it all. The tears and the aching-insides. The longing and the not knowing how to say a good-bye. My Uncle was right. So many of my relatives followed you. So many times I have sat, straight backed and teary eyed in those white chairs. Too many times.
The albums of photos are in my possession now. I see us collected on those pages at family reunions and baptisms and birthday parties. Your record collection stands like tilted soldiers in my library shelves. On quiet nights, I choose one of your favorites and let the music pour over me. The songs bring back images of you and my Mom, perched on your flowered love seat with tea cups in hand and sandwiches on napkins on laps.
Your Salt and Pepper shakers and glass dinner bells are mine, too. The bells sit on a corner shelf in my dining room, and I choose one to ring for each special dinner I prepare. Is that your voice I hear in the lilt of the tinny bell ring? I place a different set of Salt and Pepper shakers at the center of my table every month. Unlike you and my mother, I embrace the chance to use them and smile at the small and special beauty they add to my home.
Perhaps, more than anything, you taught me that life is too damn short to set things on shelves. There is a joy in ringing a glass bell. There is a satisfaction in using those salt and pepper shakers. Most of all, it is okay to break things. It is okay to be broken. I believe I have inherited your innate strength and ability to smile when others would cry. I know I can put up with those people who others may find harsh or difficult. When I close my eyes, I can conjure up those afternoons when I would climb on your lap and listen to your stories. I am very, very careful to remember you, Grace, the Greatest of my Great Aunts.