Mom calls to ask if I can help Grandma sell something on eBay. She couches her request in a convoluted story about their recent mother-daughter Taos vacation and the jewelry store that was never open before they had to leave, which turns out to be a good thing.
“You know that old bear-claw ring of Grandpa’s?” Mom asks. “Well, she wants to sell it, since no one wants it.”
I don’t know the ring. I get hung up temporarily on the idea that no one wanted something that no one asked me about.
After Grandpa died, we crowded into his bedroom—they slept apart at the end. Grandma pushed some shirts and a straw hat on my husband. All summer, Mark mowed the lawn disguised as Grandpa. He took a couple of Grandpa’s antique tools, too, at Grandma’s urging, some to use and some to enshrine on a shelf in his workshop. I got nothing, even though I’m his oldest granddaughter, older daughter of his older daughter. Was.
Grandma mails me the ring. She’s selling some things to buy a headstone, the kind of transaction only the elderly really understand. Like most American Indian jewelry, the ring is sterling silver. A saw-toothed mount clutches the base of a real bear claw. The claw is the size of a stretched-out pinto bean, with a bead of silver at its tip, like an elf hat for a vole. Tucked in the claw’s crook is an oval of black-veined turquoise; an oblong of red coral crowns the claw’s cusp. The silverwork is almost paisley-patterned.
I correspond half-heartedly about the ring with a dealer in France. I learn that because the claw is real, I can’t legally sell it across state lines; this is why, on eBay, everyone claims the claws they sell are faux. This restriction gives me permission to send Grandma a check for $150 and put the ring in my jewelry box. A purchased inheritance is better than none.
Other families hand things down. My husband teaches at a private school where a boy asked to show-and-tell an inherited Egyptian figurine. When the figure emerged from its tissue-paper shroud, Mark gasped. It was museum-quality, collected—the nine-year-old casually mentioned—in Egypt decades ago.
My family is different. We sell off valuables on the sly and hand down junk: a rickety, mass-produced, 1930s green wooden chair; a cut-glass candy jar. My first grandparent to die was my father’s father, whom I called Papa. I was five. My Grandmother Lillian let me into their bedroom and told me to choose one thing. I couldn’t have his ham radio or his glasses. The Rolex was gone, if it ever existed, as were his guns, and, years later, the signed first-edition Hemingways that family lore said Lillian had hoarded. Myths evaporating like mist. From Papa’s nightstand I selected the India-rubber ball he squeezed to strengthen his grip. “India rubber” made me remember someone said he loved Kipling. After Lillian died, I took her books, and so I have Kipling, too.
A few years back, Grandma handed out notepads and pens and told us to go shopping through her ranch-style house on the south side of Pueblo, Colorado, where yards are gravel and the main pops of color outside are plastic butterflies affixed to brown stucco. Inside, Grandma’s house was different. Our feet sank into plush carpet; her sister’s oil paintings, scenes of New Mexico life dating back to the 1940s, adorned the walls.
“Write down what you’d like,” she urged. “It won’t do any good to have you fight over it after we’re gone. I’d rather decide now, while I’m at least halfway right in the head. Go on!”
After my other grandmother, Lillian, died, I’d learned that objects scarcely matter. Even the present person is ephemeral. Only memories endure—campfires with Grandpa, tea parties with Grandma, Lillian’s Chantilly perfume and the way she’d flourish a lukewarm tissue from her armor-like brassiere.
At Grandma’s nudging, I tiptoed through her rooms while the air-conditioner hummed. I couldn’t imagine her collection dissolved and sent sprawling among us. When I brought back my yellow pad of Post-It notes, she squinted at my handwriting. A Navajo necklace was the only object I wanted.
“Oh, I gave that to your mother,” she said.
The little clay Indian fetishes she keeps in tiny stamped-tin cabinets, perhaps? She and I had trawled shops in Taos, looking for a storyteller doll with four babies, the same as the count of her grandchildren.
“Your aunt asked for those already. Anything else?”
I shook my head no.
The bear-claw ring isn’t worth much. Grandpa bought it in the 1970s from an artist whose mark—TD from ELK MT.—is untraceable online. Still, it’s funny to inherit anything of value from Grandpa. He’d shop for hours to save a dime on canned tomatoes, humming the whole time. When I was eight, in 1980, he gave me a stylish ivory cabled cardigan with a sailor collar and toggle buttons. He didn’t buy it at the mall. He spotted it on the side of the highway, pulled over, and Froggered his way through traffic while Grandma screamed, “Mervin! Watch out!” At the end of his life, he drank from black plastic mugs that had dropped, one by one, from his quavering grasp onto the tile floor, all their handles reattached with orange globs of Gorilla Glue.
His last Christmas, Grandpa rolled his walker into the living room. On the padded seat, like a holiday guest of honor, rode the Luger pistol he’d taken off a dead German soldier in 1944, somewhere in France. Careful, he said; it was loaded, for security. (“I’ll be goddamned,” my uncle muttered. “I keep unloading that thing, and he just keeps re-loading it.”) Not to worry, Grandpa told us nervous Nellies in the room full of kids; the safety was on. Maybe that gun was his way of pointing out that he was still a man. He had seen things I hope I’ll never see—his own frozen feet; his fellow paratroopers shot to bits beside him in the sky over Belgium—and yet he’d even learned to say “I love you.”
A few months later, when Grandpa was dying, my sister and I took turns holding his hand in his hospice room, which was decorated like a log cabin. We leaned close so he could see us through his good eye (the other, lost in a boyhood accident, was glass). His hands, curled like garlic knots after his last stroke, were soft as a child’s. His chest looked too tiny for his heart. We promised he would live in our memories.
“Our camping trips, and your whistling.”
“Always remember.” He responded as if to a liturgy, his voice reverting to a child’s squeak.
“Your funny little orange VW Beetle.”
He almost smiled, then grew serious. “I’ll never forget you, sweetie.”
His wartime tattoo was an old stain on his arm. I’d seen it a thousand times and never looked at it. Was it an eagle? A banner? I imagined him in the afterlife, remembering me. From where?
On our way out, my sister and I stopped just inside the door. We put our arms around each other and sobbed silently, hair sticking to each other’s cheeks.
As my grandparents die, my body instructs me in ways of mourning. When Lillian dies, my daughter is two. I leave the dinner table to weep in the bedroom, and my daughter follows me. It is the first time she has seen me cry. She pets my arm so sweetly.
When Grandpa dies, my daughter is eleven. At the moment he passes away, I am in a meeting, and my head jerks up with an unbidden thought of him. That night, I dig through a closet, seeking a certain photo of him and Grandma at my wedding. While I search, ragged sobs howl out of me. When I come upstairs, I’ve collected myself, but my daughter and husband look up from their books, their faces stained with pity.
The summer Grandma was ninety, a few years after Grandpa died, the women in my family had brunch in Manitou Springs, a town named for an Algonquian Indian spirit. In the nineteenth century, consumptives came for the region’s healing spring waters. Today, tourists visit the arcade, the biker bar that gets rolling early on weekend mornings, the shops selling crystals and mandolins, and the only two marijuana dispensaries in conservative El Paso County. Instead of indulging in these frivolities, we sipped lobster bisque at a restaurant in the historic, red stone hotel.
Grandma had a new hairstyle. I told her it looked nice. Mom asked whether Grandma wasn’t going to get permanents anymore. Was this how she was going to look now? My aunt said it was a lot fluffier yesterday.
“You ought to fix your bangs,” she told Grandma. “They’re sticking up, there,” and Grandma touched a gnarled finger to her crown.
After lunch, we helped Grandma hoist her walker over the curb and across the street. Freed from the restaurant’s formality, my sister’s young daughters raced ahead. I matched Grandma’s pace as she wheeled down the hill and past the arcade’s beeps and dings. At Patsy’s, we each bought a bag of salt water taffy, just as Grandma had done all her life. I tried to remember which flavors she liked. I have forgotten.
Under a store’s awning, Grandma rested on her walker. Before they disappeared down Manitou Avenue to the playground, my niece thrust her stuffed lion at Grandma.
“Can you keep this so it doesn’t get dirty?” she asked.
Now Grandma sat in her straw hat, with the plush lion and bag of candy on her lap. A little boy passed, staring solemnly, until he lagged to the full, stretched extent of his hand joined to his mother’s. He jolted to attention and ran to catch up.
“He must think I am one funny-looking little girl,” Grandma said, and we laughed and laughed. She was as small as a tween, but wrinkled. Her knobby fingers gripped the candy and the toy, an almost-ageless closing parenthesis on our family lineage.
In mid-December, I spoon ice cream into Grandma’s mouth in her room at the hospice. She opens and swallows, as delighted as a baby. When I leave, I use her phrase. I’ll just give you one more little squeeze, I tell her, and she grins.
On Christmas Eve I wear the bear-claw ring. The claw feels like sanded wood, smoother than the surface of Grandma’s fingernails, which are ridged like mine. A bear claw symbolizes protection. Grandpa asked us to care for Grandma, and she asks us when she’ll see him. Soon, we say. I’m not religious, but I pray for her. For her, I imagine a corporeal heaven, Grandpa waiting on the far side of Jordan.
Grandma dies in the early hours of New Year’s Eve. That afternoon, I wear sweats to the grocery store. I am numb. I catch myself muttering curses. Don’t they have fucking Sweet Baby Ray’s wing sauce? (I have a coupon, you see.) Where is the fucking peanut butter? In the evening, stirring Chex mix at the stove, I think of the rectangular Tupperware that Grandma would crack open in the late afternoon of a holiday weekend; the cold cuts arranged in neat rows on the bar; her curious square handwriting labeling the cribbage board now in my game cabinet. Traits and traditions, gone, like her body; her hands won’t write again.
I never saw her cry for Grandpa. I cannot yet cry for her.
My daughter is a teenager now. She spends New Year’s Eve texting friends. It’s strange, how she’s here and almost gone, and Grandma is gone and almost here. I rub the ring on my finger. If I wear it long enough, the silver will erode to nothing, the way of us all.
SUSANNA DONATO inherited her home state of Colorado but purchased her actual house in Denver. Her essays and hybrid pieces have appeared in Entropy, Okey-Panky, Blue Earth Review, Hippocampus, and others. She is writing a music-driven memoir-in-progress, The Only Girl in the Record Store, that explores coming of age as a gothy, redheaded minister’s daughter in Denver and NYC of the 1980s and ‘90s. (@susannadonato)