We sit on a creaky pew, my grandmother and I. My grandfather is at the pulpit. It is summer in the Finger Lakes region of New York: sticky in the rolling hills scattered with ice-cream stands, bed and breakfasts, and vineyards.
My grandfather blesses everyone and encourages the congregation to pass the peace to those around us. I don’t like passing the peace. It makes me nervous, but my grandmother welcomes everyone cheerfully while I shake as few hands as possible before I start to sit down. A woman brushes up to my grandmother, puts her arm around her and asks, while looking at me, “And who is this?” I stand again.
“This is …” My grandmother looks at me with a mixture of pride and love. She places her hand on my arm.
“This is …”
Her hand stays on my arm and I can tell she is realizing that while she knows I mean something to her, she can’t remember who I am or what it is I have to do with her. She cocks her head to the side and laughs like she is working on a fun puzzle and pleasantly stumped. I study her in this moment. I can imagine how frustrating this must be, but I am envious that my grandmother doesn’t let on. When I am frustrated, or sad, or scared, it is written all over my face. Plus, I bring everyone I’m around down with me.
My grandmother doesn’t show any of that when she asks, “Who are you again?”
What I can tell you about my grandma, Jeanne Ives Lewis, is this: She had the most gorgeous cursive in the world. Her handwriting looked like the examples in the D’Neilian handbooks I used in school, though hers was tighter and more delicate. Looking at her script reminded me of watching a ballerina dance. The letters pranced on the page.
She wrote on unlined flowery stationery sometimes, or stiff, professional paper with my grandpa’s name printed at the top: Reverend Stanley C. Lewis. She would call me “Callie dear” as she told me about a sermon my grandpa preached, or an ice-cream shop she found in a worn corner of the country.
Once she wrote a letter to me after grandpa had taken her jewelry shopping. I think it was a ring she picked out and described to me. I remember gushing over my grandpa doing such a romantic thing. Years later, I wrote her a letter telling that upon my husband Jesse’s graduation from Notre Dame, he gave me a ring from Tiffany’s. I told her I wasn’t sure what I was more excited about: the ring, or the Tiffany’s box.
I don’t remember sentimentality in her letters. She never said she missed me or loved me “sooooo” much. She didn’t send cute cards on my birthday with a bear or Strawberry Shortcake holding a number of candles. I looked forward to her letters because of these omissions. I remember sitting in the rocking chair in our living room and carefully opening her letters. I didn’t rip them open searching for a treat as I ran to my bedroom, scattering pieces of envelope on the stairs. Her letters were to be savored and I studied her pretty script as I rocked and read of her goings-on in Naples, New York.
My grandmother concerned herself with things she thought looked nice. She loved purses and jewelry and her nails were always painted. Her interest in these things intrigued me from an early age, and I think my love of all things frilly and sparkly must have come from her.
Once, when I was around seven or eight, during a family dinner with my brother, mom and dad, the story of Adam and Eve came up. Over broccoli, mashed potatoes, and chicken, we discussed the Garden of Eden and why Adam and Eve had to leave it.
“And that’s how they got to wear clothes?” I asked, stabbing a piece of broccoli with my fork. I said it as though God did them a favor, as though Adam and Eve won a prize.
“I don’t think wearing clothes was supposed to make them feel better, Callie,” my mom said as she cut a piece of chicken.
“I love getting dressed,” I said. I couldn’t imagine a world without dresses, “tappy shoes,” and lacy socks. How could wearing clothes be a punishment?
I worry, and I have always worried, that my tastes have always made me trite, superficial even. So I’ve tried to hide it. I made an effort growing up not to be too girly. My school friends were into sports, not dress-up, Barbies, or playing school. So I signed up for soccer, basketball, and softball to be with them. I was horrible at all of it.
I played with my Barbies and dolls in secret. I hid bags of Barbie clothes and dolls in the back of my closet so my friends wouldn’t see if they came over. I’d dig them out and play with them by myself for hours.
Years later, when I was a college student, my grandma showed me the dollhouse she played with as a child. She kept it on display in a dayroom in her home. It was the largest trinket I’d ever seen. Her father built it for her and it was three floors, about ten rooms, with a porch and teeny pieces of gorgeous furniture. It was probably the house of both our dreams.
“You may have it when you have children, if you like,” she offered as we stood in front of it, admiring.
“I love it,” I whispered.
It is 2002 and I am standing in an airport in New York with my brother Geoff and my husband Jesse waiting for a rental car. We are here for my grandma’s 80th birthday and my grandparents’ 60th anniversary.
The only cars available for us to rent are a green Toyota Camry and a white Mustang convertible.
“We’ll take the convertible!” I say and fill out the papers while Geoff and Jesse stand next to me.
“Your handwriting is like a font,” Geoff says.
“She has a permanent dent on her middle finger from gripping the pen so hard,” Jesse adds.
“I remember that,” Geoff says. “It used to bleed every September when school started because she hadn’t written all summer.”
“You must suffer for beauty,” I say, signing my name.
The three of us ride with the top down to the anniversary/birthday party. It’s being held in a banquet room of a pasta shop my grandparents enjoy. The party is a surprise, so when my grandparents walk into the banquet hall, we yell as much as we can without scaring 80-year-olds. Before we sit down to eat we mingle for a bit. I stand with my grandma and a group of her friends. One of the women grabs both of my hands in hers, gripping them more than I’d like as she says, “You have her Limoges, don’t you?” She is referring to a set of dishes my grandmother gave me when Jesse and I got married. They were her mother’s, a gift from her husband when they saw them on their honeymoon in France.
“I do,” I say, trying to twist my hands from her grip.
“You take good care of it,” she tells me, squeezing my hands so they twist onto each other.
“OK,” I say, trying not to grimace.
She leans in and whispers, “She has beautiful jewelry, too.”
“I don’t have any of her jewelry,” I say, pulling my hands from her probably more forcibly than I should have.
Certainly that’s not all these women know my grandma for. Is it? When they saw the delicate pink flowers and worn gold around the Limoges dishes, didn’t they wonder about the young, married couple in France on their honeymoon? Had he planned to buy her those dishes? Or were they out for a walk one afternoon and she spotted them and he couldn’t say no to his bride? I will never know those young honeymooners in France, but I have their dishes not so much because I think they’re beautiful but because I wonder about their story.
And what if someday my great grand-daughter wonders why she is the way she is, and a small remnant of me is left over for her to find? And in that remnant she hears a tiny voice whispering, “Me, too.”
Now, after the peace has been passed, and we are supposed to be settling in to hear my grandfather’s sermon, the question of who I am lingers in the air. I see my grandmother, and I say, “I’m your granddaughter.”
And we shake hands as if meeting for the first time.
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