Gram wears Grandpa's gold wedding band on a chain around her neck, along with the delicate silver heart he gave her for their anniversary—was is 25 or 40?—it's hard to remember, there being nearly 70 in all. In the center of the heart sit six small diamonds, bought with the labor of Grandpa's calloused hands—a stone for him and each of their babies.
I'm home for a wedding, held in the small Catholic parish where Grandpa's Dad grew up going to mass, in a town where his last name belongs to half the population. I don't think I've ever heard the story of how Grandpa's parents met, and so I ask Gram.
At 87 years old, she can recite most of our family history in impeccable detail, but this is a story where she can only offer a guess—probably church, after he moved across the river. Sitting down and recording Grandpa as he explained who we come from, and how we got here, was something I always meant to do, but never did. The dead don't just take their secrets.
With a trembling hand, Gram raises a glass of red wine to her lips, making the ice rattle noisily against the glass (don't tell the wine people, she says, but she's always thought red wine was best served cold).
She has just returned from a weekend trip to the dusty town of her childhood several hours south, where she laid fresh flowers on her mother's grave; her husband's recent departure a reminder that none of us have as much time as we'd like, and should go and do what we've been meaning to go and do. Living in Grandpa's hometown meant that her history never received quite as much attention as his, but lately, stories of her tribe have begun to pour out of her, as if she doesn't want them to leave the earth when she does.
I remember the open casket, she says, recalling her mother's funeral, a woman not even 40, and Gram, only 9. She was in a blue dress, holding a bouquet of blue pansies.
I want these details to live inside of me forever, and so I repeat them, slowly, as if to etch them into the deepest recesses of my memory—a blue dress, pansies.
I think of this as I wander Grandpa's shop, opening drawers of dusty pieces of furniture, hoping I'll stumble across some long forgotten treasure. A carpenter by trade, and a child of the Great Depression by circumstance, he could never be convinced to throw anything away. On the left side of the shop sits a shelf of empty peanut butter jars filled with screws, nuts, and bolts, above me hang no less than 35 kerosene lamps, and to my right, a set of unfinished kitchen chairs covered in sawdust.
In the final years of his life, Mom and Gram would get rid of things when Grandpa was in town for a doctor's visit, or at the Elks Club making brunch on Sunday mornings. Nine times out of ten, he never noticed that there was one less wooden barrel sitting out in the barn, or that his pocket knife collection was missing a Swiss Army.
We talked a lot about death growing up—maybe that's normal, when you share a home with the elderly, I don't know—but when he'd scold us for trying to throw away something he could "absolutely use", we'd tease him about how long it was going to take us to sort through his shop when he went. He'd just smile, and chuckle from somewhere deep inside his round belly.
Not all of it was peanut butter jars and rusted over carpentry tools—the treasure was out there, too. The cedar chest he built Gram for her high school graduation, just before he proposed. My quadruple Great Grandfather's medical degree from the Netherlands. The piano his mother grew up playing in the family farmhouse we have shared since I was a small child.
Maybe holding on to everything was his way of making sure certain things didn't leave us when he did.
Among the most sacred moments of my growing up life were the first few hours of Christmas morning each year, when the six of us—Mom, Dad, Gram, Grandpa, Kate, and myself—would gather to open presents before the extended family arrived for brunch.
As they grew older, I found myself watching them intently, so as not to miss anything about the way they looked on those mornings—Gram in her mint green bathrobe nestled in a maroon armchair, and Grandpa, suspenders holding up his Levi's paired with a white tee shirt in a wooden dining room chair beside her. I wanted to memorize the lines in their faces and the sound of their chiding each other for buying gifts, when they had specifically agreed not to this year. (This was always the agreement, and it was never upheld.)
I wanted how Grandpa's scratchy cheek felt against my lips, and cadence of his gravely voice saying, "Thank you, sweetheart," (emphasis on the t at the end of sweet and heart) to take up residence in my bones so as to never leave me.
The reality I am grappling with now is this— no matter how hard I try to absorb every small detail, there will inevitably be things that slip through my grasp. There will always be some part of their magic that escapes me, stories I was never told, or will forget if I was, as well as pieces of them I will be unable to capture with words after they leave.
Bud has been gone a little over a year now, and some nights my chest contracts with the realization that my children will not know the sight of him perched in a green lawn chair, talking to the rows of corn behind the barn (it helps them grow, he'd say), or the smell of Jack Daniel's mixed with sweat that he'd carry after rewarding himself for a hard days work. They will only have my incomplete retellings, and it will not be the same.
But that will not keep me from telling them—the same way Gram tells me of blue dresses and pansies.