A small grief on the subject of home

I take a bus to the city where my mother was born to sit with my aunt on her deathbed.

Before we go to her, my older cousins drive me to the family house to drop off my single carry-on and maybe eat.

“I’m just going to get a glass of water,” I say.

“Rinse it out first,” says my cousin. “Apparently my glasses smell. I gave a glass of water to my nephew and he said Aunt, this glass smells, I can’t drink out of it.”

I put my nose into the empty glass. “It does not smell.”

My cousin says, “It smells like grandma’s cupboards.”

We each put our noses into our empty glasses and huff the bouquet of empty air.

“It does smell like Grandma’s cupboards,” I say. My grandmother was born in this house in 1922. The cupboards were built and varnished to a mirror shine by my grandfather after they married. That must be what we’re sniffing: molecules of aging plywood, hints of tobacco and vanilla as the cellulose decays. Same as old books. When I get home, I will put my nose into the Corelle bowls that we once used for salad at my grandmother’s table. They are white, with a lacy trim of avocado-green flowers; she gave them to me when she bought herself a new dinner set for her eightieth birthday. I use them every day.

I rinse and fill my glass with tap water and take a long drink. If it smells like anything, it still smells like Grandma’s cupboards. We do call this house Grandma’s house, although my grandmother has been dead these last ten years. Although my cousin has lived in the house herself for nearly forty years. When my cousin turned 18, she packed her bags and left her mother and quarrelsome stepfather and new baby sister. She has lived in this house with my grandmother and grandfather, and then with just my grandmother, and now with her husband. They have replaced the carpet in the living room and finished the basement floor and painted, but the kitchen looks unchanged: the cupboards shine with their dark varnished glow, and the table is centered under the geometric ceiling mural painted by my grandfather, a steelworker with an artistic streak.

In my Grandma’s kitchen, we talk about my grandmother in the present tense. What she would think, how she would feel. Your hair looks nice; Grandma loves short hair. Pick up your feet when you walk. Well, you know what Grandma would say.

My cousin tells me how her mother has been faring: not well. Not much energy, not much appetite. “I told her not to ask for a cucumber sandwich,” she says. It is a joke, one that catches me unexpectedly like a blow.

Ten years ago, when I came to sit at my grandmother’s deathbed, I had a surplus of high summer vegetables. As soon as I arrived at my grandmother’s house, I went upstairs to see her. I think my day has come, she had been saying. I sat on the edge of her bed, patting her hands and murmuring. Then I went downstairs to unpack a giant cucumber and six ears of corn from my shoulder bag.

As I sliced the cucumber, my aunt wandered into my grandmother’s kitchen. Oh, that smells so good, she breathed. It’s a cucumber from my friend’s garden, I said, and offered her a bite. Oh no, she said. Well, maybe. Just a slice. I made her a sandwich like the ones my mother made me when I was small: soft bread, swipe of mayo, thin slices of cucumber. My aunt took half and I put the other half on one of Grandma’s new Corelle plates–autumn flowers–to bring to my mother, who still sat in my grandmother’s bedroom. Oh, that smells so good! they both exclaimed. So I went into Grandma’s kitchen again to make cucumber sandwiches for everyone. My grandmother, who had not eaten in a day, ate one. Also one of the ears of corn that I boiled and buttered. Her day did not come for another week, after I had gone home.

“If my aunt wants a cucumber sandwich,” I tell my cousin, “I will make her two.”

To sit with my aunt on her deathbed we must drive for half an hour to a hospital close to the airport. Before we go, I wash the dust off of a white hobnailed glass vase I find on a shelf in my grandmother’s kitchen and cut the stems from an autumnal bouquet I carried on the bus from Philadelphia. “Pretty,” my aunt breathes when I show her. She says little else, and takes her last breath five hours later in an unfathomable morphine sleep. We left the hobnail vase and flowers with her nurse.

Back in my grandmother’s kitchen, my cousin and mother and I pour tumblers of whiskey and laugh and cry ourselves hysterical. I pity my aunt’s husband but my mother is angry with him for failing to love her sister well enough. My cousin recalls that he once said to her You don’t know what your mother is like! You try living with her and my cousin replied My mother can live with me anytime she wants but let me tell you, if she does, you won’t see her come back.

Incongruously, I remember that on another occasion my cousin said to my mother that her grandson, my nephew, would move away from his squabbling parents–just as she did as soon as she was of age. He’s going to pack a bag and move in with his Grandma, said my cousin, and my mother looked pained but pleased. And I remember that I too moved in with my grandmother, although just for a month, when I turned eighteen: my father died and as soon as I graduated high school I fled my mother’s crushing sadness.

In my grandmother’s kitchen time stops, I think, or else curls around itself like my aunt’s little white dog who waits mournfully by the front door. Every age I have ever been and my cousin has ever been and all the versions of my mother and aunt and grandmother seem to exist at once: we are always coming and always leaving, always carrying things in and carrying them away, always fighting or grieving or feeding one another. The center of the known world; the warm, heaving heart of the universe.


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