Then and Now

When I was young I wanted to write, but I thought I didn’t know anything. I realize now that I knew so little, I didn’t even recognize what I did know.

I did not see any importance in it, that my grandfather wore his old black leather shoes over the sand and into the boat when we went out fishing for perch or bass in the Bay. The same shoes he wore gardening, tending the cucumbers and green beans and tomatoes he would bring us every week in a rough garden basket with an arching handle, made of splints like a bushel.

I didn’t know it was important, that my grandmother had these objects in a tin in the linen closet: the rattles from a rattlesnake; a letter from a Union soldier (her ancestor), writing of seeing Abraham Lincoln when he came to review the troops; a huge, half-worn away shell, thick and brown and fossilized like an old bone.

I didn’t know how much it mattered, that one grandfather sang WWI songs (entrhusiastically and slightly off-key), the other wore a nightcap to bed to keep his bald head warm. He cried once, at the dinner table, when we were all gathered with him, saying grace, because he loved us, and he was ill. He had Parkinson’s. Some thirty years later, my dad would be diagnosed.

I didn’t know then to try to capture and express the beautiful coolness of my maternal grandparents’ screened porch on a hot summer day; shaded but warm, how lazy we felt there, how my sister and I would fight over space on the chaise, covered in velour printed with big, sweeping palms in the colors of a vintage Hawaiian shirt: gray-green, yellow, magenta. I didn’t think to write about my grandmother’s fingers, crooked with arthritis, clasped around the garden shears as she cut zinnias. Even now I love those riotous colors. We would wrap the stems in wet paper towels, then foil to keep them fresh on the ride back to our house. Her shoes too I failed to write about: black or navy, Grandma shoes, lace-ups with a block heel. In my mind I can hear them, gently clicking across the kitchen floor as she went to open the back door onto the porch, or in winter, to raise the shade on the window. She talked on a black wall telephone there beside the door, standing up.

I remember going on a train with my paternal grandparents, when my sister and I were very small. I don’t remember where we went, or much about it—just that it was exciting. I believe they took us because they wanted us to know what it was like, to ride a train, before such things were gone. For probably the same reason, they took us to the State Fair. And yes, now it’s gone—the life-size cow sculpted from butter, the cavernous old buildings filled with rows and rows of chickens, pheasants, rabbits. The horse barns, the big ring they called “The Coliseum,” where riding competitions went on. The pens where every year one or two (or more?) sows would have just given birth. The huge expanse of the fairgrounds, here and there shaded with big old trees.

All gone. About to become a “development.”

I didn’t know how important any of it was.

“In the grand scheme of things” we often say, dismissing the trivial. But is there really anything like a grand scheme? If there is, if our lives have such a structure, they are made of small, crystalline moments that we are rarely much aware of, at the time.

But I had one, yesterday.

My partner’s mother, Jeanette, is in Alzheimer’s care. We went to see her, and unpack some of her things, just arrived from Florida. She was sound asleep, sprawled in a big, cushy recliner near the nurse’s station. She’d been sleeping all morning, the staff told us. They weren’t sure why she was so tired. Sally and I stood by the chair, and as I watched her, she seemed so completely inert, I wasn’t sure at first if she was breathing. Then, after a moment, I saw her thin frame expand, her chest rise, and then contract, just slightly.

We went on to her room, did our work there and when we started down the hall to leave we saw Jeanette approaching, in her wheelchair, pushed by one of her caregivers. I smiled a big smile and as she saw me she smiled too and we hailed her. “Hi Jeanette!” “Hi Mom!” “You woke up!” Still smiling she said, “Yes I woke up.” And I felt such a stab of connection that I knew instantly how much it meant, how grateful I was to have that moment—just that, nothing more. As we loaded some stuff we were taking with us into Sally’s truck tears came to my eyes.

Now I know. Then I didn’t. So it is for all of us, that we have to grow and learn, and so many, many things we’ll witness before we know the value of them. We are lucky when we do.

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