by Elizabeth Glass
My grandmother was not a giving person. She didn’t bake cookies or come to visit. She didn’t give personally chosen gifts. She especially didn’t give hugs or love. My cousin Jane and I had lunch when we were about thirty, fifteen years ago, at The Grape Leaf in our hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. I got a call from my mom and when getting off the phone, I said, “I love you” to her. A strange look crossed Jane’s face. “I’ve always been jealous with how easily you love each other.” I didn’t understand. My mom, dad, sisters, and I said “I love you” all the time, and we meant it. My sister Callie even has to kiss my mom’s cheek when she leaves, and if she forgets, she’ll drive back to kiss it. That’s a bit weird, but with all our oddities, insecurities, and craziness, I’ve never questioned whether my parents or sisters loved me—liked me, maybe—loved me, never.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My mother has never said ‘I love you’ to me and her mother—Grandma—has never said it to her.”
I remember sitting with my eyes wide, not knowing what to say. Then I realized it meant something else, too. “Has Grandma every said it to you?” I asked.
There was a niggling in my mind, but I was quiet. I was sure Grandma, my dad’s mom, had said it to me, but wasn’t certain.
When I was in college I wrote Grandma long rambling letters—more like journal entries—about what was going on, what I hoped for my life, my thoughts on religion, and whatever I happened to be thinking right then. She never wrote back, but when I saw her she always told me how much it meant to her to get the letters, so I kept sending them. After college “real life” started, but I would climb onto the roof of my apartment, sit at the kitchen table of the rented house in Ohio, or at the desk of the job I had for fifteen years and pen her letters faithfully. They were sent less frequently the older I got, and the more pressing and fast-paced my life became, but I always sent them. Through the years, I went to visit Grandma when my mom reminded me it had been months since my last visit. Grandma would pat the seat closest to her for me to sit in. I always noticed, but didn’t know if it meant anything. I had always said, “I love you” when leaving, both because I meant it, but also because that’s what my family says when parting. Sitting with Jane, I tried to think back, remember if Grandma spoke back after I said it. I didn’t know then, but I do know that the next time I saw her she said it and it stopped me short. It hit me because it was the first time; it was because it was familiar.
I was five when I ran away to Grandma’s house. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong since it was only a couple blocks away and we went there all the time, but it made my mom crazy with worry. That was during what Mom called her “dutiful daughter-in-law” period, when she thought a grandmother wanted to see her grandchildren so she took us to visit regularly. It was Fess, my step-grandfather, her husband, who spent most of the time with us. He was the athletic director of The American Turner’s Athletic Club and taught us how to do simple gymnastics—somersaults and cartwheels. I grew tired of the lessons after a while and sought out my grandmother who was sitting in the living room, smoking, looking out the large picture window that covered most of the wall across from the couch. Even at five, I could feel the longing she had. I didn’t know that word, but I knew the feeling—that there’s something more, something beyond doing somersaults in the basement, more than collecting cicada shells, than having a sister who I knew didn’t always like me. I sat with Grandma and we watched the world go by, knowing we should be out there in it instead of in that house. I picture her in a smart traveling hat, but it was more likely her nurse’s cap.
I’m not sure when she retired—she didn’t have to work, but she wasn’t one to rely on a man’s income. She and my grandfather divorced when my dad was a baby. She married a man named Leo and they divorced when my aunt was a baby. By the time Fess came along, she had two children and wasn’t going to count on him to ensure she could keep herself and the kids housed, clothed, and fed. He was also twenty years her senior, so she knew he couldn’t do that forever, even if they did stay married. They did, until he died when I was about eight. I bet she thought my mother foolish for not working while raising my sisters and me. My parents were married until my dad died, but I suspect in the 1970s Grandma watched my mom with the same knowing look as she looked outside the window. Grandma knew that when she moved beyond that windowed room, it would be on her terms, not her husband’s. She would have been right in many ways to look at my mom in that light. Mom wasn’t prepared to carry on financially when Dad died in 2000. Grandma, on the other hand, worked until she retired, and then she began traveling. She bought a house with my aunt and uncle. Even though when my cousins were little, she wasn’t grandmotherly toward them, either. I learned as an adult that Grandma didn’t hold my youngest cousin until she was nine months old. Not once. And they lived in the same house.
I don’t know if it was my letters, my sitting on the couch gazing out the picture window with her, or simply because I was oldest, but when I got married in 1990, she gave me her nice set of china. She did it dismissively—that she didn’t need it anymore since she didn’t entertain—but the look in her eyes when she said that her grandmother brought them from Bohemia let me know how important they were to her. Mom and I took the boxes out to the car and when we got to Mom’s house we took out the plates that were stamped “Bohemia”—a country no longer in existence—on the bottom. Mom showed me that if china is exceptionally nice, you can see the shadow of your hand through it, and we could through Grandma’s plates: china that was mine now. Something in the way Grandma gave them to me also let me know not to tell my cousins or sisters that she had done so. Jane confirmed that when we ate lunch at The Grape Leaf all that time later, years after my divorce, when she said Grandma hadn’t acknowledged her marriage. She didn’t my sisters or other cousins, either. I didn’t tell Jane I was given the dishes, but Mom mentioned before that my aunt didn’t know what happened to Grandma’s fine china. Mom listened, but didn’t say a word. If Grandma hadn’t told her, neither would my mom.
When Grandma was a young woman in the 1920s, she dressed as a “flapper,” went to speakeasies, and drank throughout Prohibition. My great-uncle Bye was a bootlegger during that time. I wish I had listened to the tales of my great-aunt Mary and Grandma going out, sneaking around, and being girlish, and of my bootlegging great-uncle. I don’t even have any pictures of them from then. I don’t know if Grandma didn’t have any or if my aunt has them or got rid of them. The irony that my grandmother liked to drink and smoke most of her days and lived with my Mormon aunt and uncle has not been lost on me. I am sure when they bought the house together it was laid out clearly that she would keep her vices in spite of religious objections.
I wonder if Grandma saw me in herself. I’m sure at least some of the letters I wrote her over the years, especially the long ones written in college, were penned after drinks. I wonder if the girl who went to the speakeasies, worked when married, and got divorces when such things were unheard of liked the drinking granddaughter who dreamed of being a writer. I may have gotten her wild side, but I forgive easily and convey my love with hugs and saying “I love you” to relatives often. Any time anyone in my family holds a grudge, we call them “Elsie,” my grandmother’s name. I don’t hold grudges, though my sister Callie does, to the point that my mom calls her “Little Elsie.” I was more like my grandmother’s sister, my great-aunt Mary, than Grandma. Both had the wildness, but Aunt Mary was giving, forgiving, and demonstrative. Dad always joked that Grandma had not liked Aunt Mary so long she forgot why she was mad at her. Aunt Mary would try to get Grandma’s dander up when they’d both come for Christmas dinner. She would talk to Grandma, ask her questions, and force her to either rudely ignore Aunt Mary or answer her, both of which irked Grandma to no end. When we asked Aunt Mary why Grandma was mad at her, sometimes she said it was too long a story, but I don’t know if there was a specific answer. Mom said that she thinks Grandma just didn’t like people, Aunt Mary included. My sister Callie, from the days of our childhood when I looked out the picture window with Grandma, hasn’t liked me much. She is always mad at me, and I couldn’t tell you why. She talks horribly about me and doesn’t include me in things like her kids’ birthday gatherings. She’s always angry when we first get together, but within moments, she’s forgotten she doesn’t like me and we’re instantly close. I’m grateful she’s not like Grandma to that degree, but as soon as we aren’t together anymore, she becomes “Little Elsie” and doesn’t like me again. It’s been that way our whole lives. I think Grandma was probably unforgiving and spiteful toward Aunt Mary her entire life, too.
Grandma was in and out of the hospital for a couple years, but when she was ninety-eight, they found dark spots on her lungs. That’s what the doctors called them: not cancer, dark spots. To confirm it was cancer would require tests Grandma didn’t want. I went to see her several times during those last days. In the next-to-the-last one, my mom and I went. My aunt and uncle were there already. They said Grandma hadn’t been eating, that she hadn’t eaten in two days. I was appalled no one in my family had tried to feed her, that the nurses weren’t feeding her. The hospital staff brought her dinner and I cut up the meat, hid it in mashed potatoes, and fed her bites of it. She didn’t want to eat, but she did for me. I thought no one would feed her, so I did. In our strange land of love, she ate for me and I tried to keep her alive by feeding her. I teased that her thickened milk tasted like a milkshake and she drank it all. My mom and I were talking recently when it occurred to me for the first time Grandma had given up by then, that she didn’t want to go on. She was in pain and ready to go. Nobody was feeding her because she didn’t want to keep living, because she didn’t want to eat so she’d go sooner, not because my relatives or the staff were cruel or lazy. Mom said it was hard to watch, me feeding Grandma, Grandma eating for me, laughing together about the “milkshake.” Mom said it was a private, intimate, loving moment, something Grandma didn’t have, and it was playing out right there with my aunt, uncle, and mother, and they found it difficult to see so turned away.
Two nights later we were told if we wanted to say goodbye we needed go see Grandma. My sisters Callie and Kristin met me at the hospital. We talked to Grandma and to my aunt and uncle. She patted on the side of the bed, and took my hand in hers and looked into my eyes. She held my hands with strength I didn’t think she would have still had. We held eye contact for a long time, I told her that I loved her and she could go if she wanted, and then kissed her forehead. When we were leaving, the three of us stood at the end of her bed. Kristin, then Callie, then I said “I love you.” She said, “I love you.” We all were crying when we left. I cried because I knew I’d not see her again. Kristin and Callie said at the same moment, “That’s the first time she’s ever said ‘I love you’ to me. I said, “Really? She’s always said it to me.” There are a few single moments I wish I could change in my life and that is one. I wish I hadn’t said it, but I had. I couldn’t change that, couldn’t take it back.
Kristin and I are very close, and a year ago I told her I wished I had never said that. She was stirring queso in a crock pot. She took out the spoon and slammed down the crock pot lid. “Well, you did,” she said. My hope that it would take the sting away by mentioning it years later didn’t work; I only made it worse by bringing it up again.
My cousin Jane and I started corresponding recently after having lost touch a decade ago. I have promised myself I won’t let her know Grandma told me “I love you,” or that I inherited the china, even if she asks. I won’t tell her that the china sits in boxes in my mom’s attic, though Grandma would surely prefer I—the drinking swearing granddaughter—use it daily, risk breaking it, rather than it be encased in cardboard. She knew this was something I was capable of, like showing my emotions as she was unable to. I also won’t ask Jane if Grandma ever told my aunt, her daughter, she loved her. I don’t want to know in case she didn’t. I want to remember Grandma as the one who loved, however parsimoniously that might have been. She may have seemed as hard as the bone china she gave to me, but I bet she knew I was the one capable of seeing the silhouette of love through her the way I could see the shadow of my hand through the plates.
Elizabeth Glass is a PhD student in Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville. She has received an Emerging Artist Award in Nonfiction from the Kentucky Arts Council and a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Redivider, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” series, and Appalachian Heritage. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.