In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I walk through my husband’s grandmother’s house and pick up a measuring cup from her countertop, then put it back down.
“Where’s Grandma Jean, Mommy?” my two-year-old, Wilder, asks, climbing the stairs to her attic, his voice ringing through her silent house. “Where’s Grandma Jean?”
“She’s not here,” I tell him. He’s content with this, the easiest answer, the boy who ran in circles at her wake.
“Take whatever you want,” Kathy, my mother-in-law, calls to me from the couch. “We’ve already been through it.”
What I want, I cannot take, and that is the sound of Jean’s voice, ever steady save for the time we told her our second child was going to be a boy and, at ninety-two, she jumped in the air and said, “Yippee!” I want her triangular bathroom, nestled off her kitchen, like a room in a fairy garden, so small you can stand in the middle and touch two walls. I want the heat from a pan of her raspberry pudding when she takes it out of the oven.
Because I was brought into the family through marriage, I feel conflicted about what I should and should not take. With each glass pitcher and L.L. Bean pullover I carry to my car, I wonder if I am helping remove clutter or claiming something someone else needs to remember her by. Other family members roam from room to room with items they’ve chosen. There is a beer can on the dresser in the attic, and I wonder if someone came up here to sit on the nearby bed, drink, stare out the window, and grieve.
Todd and I have already been through the house a couple of times and claimed a television, a box of matches, her bowling ball. I tell myself that Jean, not one for displays of emotion, would appreciate this. When Todd went to see her in the hospital days before she died, she asked about my tomato plants — her way of asking about me — and now I pick up a brown crock at the top of the attic stairs and imagine planting a succulent in it. I add the crock to the items I’ve collected on the recliner where my husband’s grandfather used to sit, a stack of yearbooks next to him that he would flip through after reading the obituaries, connecting the names of the dead to the faces of the kids he went to school with.
My mother-in-law is reading to Wilder and my five-year-old daughter, Mae, in the living room. Todd is filling bags with Jean’s Tupperware, a bowling trophy, a planter shaped like a pipe. “I love this stuff,” he says to me, beaming, and I am grateful that he is able to find joy in rummaging through the house of his beloved grandmother. The only time he teared up was when he opened her refrigerator in the basement and saw one of her pie crusts alone on the top shelf. “She had plans,” he told me.
Jean lived to be ninety-five, subsisting for years largely on a diet of coffee, doughnuts, and toast. To walk through her house is to see a life paused. Her bulletin board holds her calendar. A week before her death she went to a birthday party for her twin great-grandchildren and sang in the church choir.
“I would have liked to have gone to Jean’s funeral,” my dad tells me now, an odd statement considering that he didn’t go to his own mother’s funeral when she died a few years ago at the age of ninety-nine.
My parents don’t go to funerals. They can get away with this because they are Midwestern farmers in their seventies and no one tells them what to do.
“I don’t like funerals,” my mom says, as if the rest of us enjoy them. When her aunt died and left my parents two burial plots, my mom asked me, “What am I supposed to do with these?” I couldn’t figure out if she was suggesting she would never die, or if she planned on being buried in a hole my dad scooped out of the field with a backhoe, the way he buried dead cows.
My husband’s mother and grandmother came to visit us when Wilder was about six months old. He had just started eating solid foods, and I noticed them eyeing his baby-food jars.
“Can you save one of those for us?” asked Kathy.
“Of course,” I said.
She explained that she’d bought a jar of horseradish, but it was too much for one person. She was going to give Jean half and needed something to put it in.
My heart swelled, as it often did, at the tenderness of their relationship.
Often when Todd and I would bring the kids to visit Kathy, I would hear her and Jean talking on the phone. They might call three times before noon. The conversations were usually just a few seconds, but each had a purpose, small and specific: Did you see that bird at your feeder? Do you need anything from town?
Kathy and her youngest daughter are so close they go on vacations together, something I cannot even fathom doing with my own mother, who hates traveling. When Kathy came from Ohio to visit us in Oklahoma after Mae was born, she said she would try to return once a month. When my mother came, she said she was never going to do it again.
On their way out the door, Kathy and Jean told me not to forget to bring the empty jar the next time I visited.
In the closet off my bathroom I have dozens of gift bags. I gather them up after every Christmas, baby shower, and birthday party, and I pride myself on the fact that I haven’t paid for a gift bag in years. This is a holdover from my childhood, when we were legitimately poor, and proof that I am both a Midwesterner and my mother’s daughter. The organizational gurus tell us that too much clutter takes a toll on our mental health. “You pay for the storage,” they say. No, you don’t, says every person who has ever been poor. No bill arrives in my mail informing me of an amount of money I need to deduct from my checking account based on the number of gift bags I have in my closet.
When I try to trim down the collection, the voice of my mother rises up: You’re just going to get rid of perfectly good gift bags? Wow. OK. Must be nice to have that sort of freewheeling attitude in life.
I often worry I have too many possessions, that they are weighing me down. Did we need all the items we chose from Jean’s house? Yes, there are fond memories attached to many of them, but can’t you keep the memories without saving so much stuff?
When I was a kid, I kept my room immaculate. I loved cleaning it. I have memories of vacuuming the yellow carpet and arranging my Barbies in beds I made for them out of shoeboxes. My sisters and I would sit at a wooden table by the window and pretend to eat plastic cupcakes, neatly positioned on impossibly delicate plastic plates. And because my mother has nearly two rooms in her house filled with the toys we had as children, Mae and Wilder now play “restaurant” with the same plates and cupcakes.
My mother once told me, “You’ll never have a messy home.” She said this as if stating a fact, the way you might say, The sky is blue.
When I need to think, I clean. I sort and organize. I give away scores of possessions. In my mind I repeat the word away, away, away. I need clear, open space before I can even begin to understand the latest problem I’ve conjured for myself. Once, helping clean up after dinner, my mother peered inside my cabinet at my stacks of dishes and casseroles, layered and even, and muttered, “You’re so organized.”
I am good at this part: the stacking, the organizing, the giving away what I don’t need, the refusal to buy something just because it is striking. But I cannot clear my mind of the layers of storage that I cannot see.
One night, after hosting a family dinner, I stayed in the kitchen to clean up long after everyone else had retired to the living room to drink coffee. Seated on the couch with her arms crossed, my mother said, “Megan, just sit down.”
“My mom has a lot of strengths . . . ,” I say to Todd, my voice trailing off as if I’m not sure how to finish the sentence.
“But most of them are physical,” he says, and we laugh. If you need someone to grab a sheep around the neck and call it a bitch while you syringe worm medicine down its throat, she’s your girl. But if you need someone to hold your hand, literally or metaphorically, while you struggle with the dilemmas of your easy suburban life, she’s busy.
Ten years ago, when I had melanoma, I knew I could not go to my mother’s house, even just to stop in. I could barely talk to her about it on the phone. I told myself I would not look her in the face until it was over: the surgery complete, the test results back, the margins clear. During times of duress, being with my mother is not comforting. Her worry tends to manifest itself as anger and blame. When we first told her I had melanoma, she said the test results were probably wrong anyway.
I went to her house only when I knew I was in the clear, the Dermabond still stuck to a scar above my left breast. I fell asleep in my childhood bedroom, and my husband brought me a plate with a veggie sub and a side of pain-killers. The sight of the combo was so funny I laughed until my chest hurt.
Prior to that, I stayed with Kathy. With her I am always able to relax. I don’t have to look strong, the child of a farmer, used to bad news and hardship. My vision clears. The clouds part.
What clouds? my mother would say.
When your parents become grandparents for the first time, it is a messy reshuffling of the family dynamic. I struggled with how much to ask of my mother, unclear as to what the boundaries were. I longed for her help, but she was busy in her sheep barn, reviewing her flock, something raising children had often kept her from doing when I was young. I had to let her be free to do that now. “You have to watch them,” she told me once. “Just stand there and watch.” That’s how she notices the nuances, like a growing udder that indicates a ewe is about to lamb. It’s how she spots problems, weaknesses, sickness.
It was easier to ask Kathy for help with Mae and Wilder. She worked just as hard as my mother but bounded into my life with the joy and ease of an aerobics instructor. One of my mother’s many sayings when we were growing up was “There aren’t enough hours in the day.” One of Kathy’s is “You can get a lot done in a day.”
How many nights did I pace the lonely rooms of Kathy’s house, a baby crying in my arms, until she appeared out of the darkness, took my child, and told me to go to sleep? I can’t even tell you, because it happened again and again.
By this point you should know precisely how many times my own mother did that for me.
“Mae,” I say in a tone that always makes my daughter snap to attention, “we need to clean your room.”
Her eyes start to tear. She thinks this means I am going to donate her toys. She thinks this because I have done it before.
“We aren’t getting rid of anything you don’t want to get rid of,” I tell her.
“I don’t want to get rid of anything,” she says, fully crying now.
When I look around Mae’s room, I see stacks of cardboard boxes that could be recycled, but Mae sees garages for her dolls’ cars. Her imagination is as unburdened as her childhood, and I am smart enough not to smother it with my dreams of catalog-perfect children’s bedrooms. In her play kitchen one of her cupboards is stuffed to the gills with plastic food. “This is her compost,” she tells me. In her dollhouse she has a plastic cup with a few scraps of tissue paper in it. “That’s their garbage can,” she says.
“Do you like your room the way it is?” I ask.
“Then that’s all that matters,” I tell her, and also myself.
The day after we went through Jean’s house, Kathy told us she couldn’t part with the brown crock. She woke up in the night thinking about her mother making beans in it.
“I’ll put your name on it,” she said to me. “You can have it when I die.”
We both laughed.
At night I stuff myself beside my daughter in her twin bed. On my phone we read books, text people hilarious emojis, and look at old photos. One night we silently watched a slideshow of pictures of her and her brother — you know, the kind where light piano music plays in the background. Some of the pictures were of Jean holding Wilder. In others Wilder ran in circles, clutching a blue cup of milk.
“I want Wilder to be a baby again,” Mae whispered, and I realized she was crying. “Why am I crying?” she asked.
“It’s OK,” I said, also crying, and I held her and told her that I loved her, something my mother never did for me.
In the morning I wake up in my own bed, which has transformed into a Tetris game overnight: Mae, Wilder, our shih tzu Ginger, my husband, and I are all here. I am wedged between my children, each of whom grasps a side of me, as if afraid of falling, while Ginger sleeps at my feet. My husband is on his side in the exact position in which he fell asleep eight hours ago. I lie still and watch them. This is it, I think. Without a doubt, this is it.
“I bought a can of baking powder,” my mother says to me over the phone. “It will expire before I can use all of it. Bring a jar next time you come.”