In 1990, we said goodbye to my grandparents on Thanksgiving
afternoon. At the back door, my grandfather smiled and pressed into my hands
the largest of his collection of antique glass salt dishes that he had been
gradually giving me over the years. We backed out of the driveway, waving, and
I watched them in the window, behind the geraniums, my eyes a little more full
of tears than usual.
The next morning when I called home, there was no answer at my parents’. I called my grandmother’s number, and my Aunt Meredith answered. She hesitated, and then said, “I guess I can tell you, Beth. Daddy died this morning. He got up, had breakfast, and said he was going to go out and put some seed in the bird feeder, and when he got up he simply collapsed. He died a little while later at the hospital.”
He had seemed –- transparent. I’d remarked on it to J. as we drove back to Vermont. I had watched him walking through the familiar rooms holding one of his great-grandchildren in his arms, talking to her, and felt that he was only partly with us, becoming more spirit and less flesh. The news shocked me, but it didn’t surprise me. We quickly re-packed our bags, and got back in the car.
We slept that night in my grandparents’ house, to give my parents and Aunt a chance to go home and sleep in their own beds. As my father and I were making up the bed in the downstairs bedroom, next to my grandparents’ room, my father said, “This is where you slept your first night in this house, when we brought you home from the hospital.” I had never known that, and I had never knowingly slept in that room in the past forty years. My parents left, and we went to bed.
My grandmother lay beyond that closed door, alone for only the second night in more than sixty years. Was she sleeping? Weeping? I heard no sound. How could it feel? I had never been this close to such grief, but my grandmother’s stoicism gave no outward clue of how she was feeling. And there was something more that had come home to me as we ate the casseroles and salads that had been brought to the house, and I listed to my relatives telling their stories: everyone else in the family had been summoned; seen him lying on the floor, the couch, loaded into the ambulance, on the gurney; they had heard the final words from the doctor. I was the one who was never there, loving fiercely, but from far. And now I was here, in a home that surely was mine as much as anyone’s, three paces away from a closed door that now felt symbolic as well as real.
After a few restless hours I rose and went upstairs. I walked through our old apartment, opened the kitchen cupboards, felt the cold linoleum of the bathroom on my feet, looked out at the big maple tree still towering over the garden in the moonlight. I lay down on the bed in Aunt Inez’s old room, which had later been mine, but I still couldn’t sleep. I found some herbal tea in my old kitchen and made a cup, and crept back downstairs. In the book case in the parlor I found several volumes of poetry, and took out Frost’s collected poems. With one of my grandmother’s hand-knitted afghans wrapped around me I curled up in her chair, the one where we had read together so many times, and read Frost until dawn. I didn’t read the familiar, pastoral poems, but the longer ones, the stories with their harsh truths: “Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” “Out, Out--”. Then I went back to bed and lay with my own husband until morning.
My grandmother came out then, and greeted us as if everything were normal. “Well, what shall we have for breakfast?” she asked, and brushed away any suggestion that I might prepare it. She insisted she had slept. I set the table while she fussed in the kitchen, and then sat down. Methodically I buttered my toast and spread it with jam.