Thursday, December 27th, 2007
There are no valuable antiques passed down from generation to generation in my family. There never were any antiques – valuable or otherwise – to be passed.
My father’s parents were middle class and flush with the practicality that comes from being one generation removed from farmers and cotton mill workers. While I knew them, Gran and Pa lived in a ranch-style house with deer prominently featured in the decor and a hanging lamp featuring an eagle homage to the Auburn University football team. My aunt Sue’s former bedroom was a snapshot of the early 70′s, complete with big-eyed-girl figurines cavorting on the white dresser.
Gran’s bedroom was a treasure trove of memory, with all the portraits on the walls, costume jewelry all around, and a dresser hiding photographs in its drawers – black and white school photos of my dad, looking like Leave It to Beaver, or Aunt Sue with her roller skating trophies and impossibly long, impossibly straight hair. I always entered the room cautiously, with the sense that I was treading in the forest of Gran’s mind, a mysterious place, and that to spend time in this room was the only way to really know her.
When the house was sold and the things inside it divvied up, sold, or given away, I ended up with a few things of hers – a sunflower picture frame, silver earrings shaped like dangling hearts – but nothing that spoke of that private bedroom with its yellow light and yellow photographs. Several years later, I was given Gran’s 1947 class ring, as before her death she’d dictated it be given to the first granddaughter to graduate college. I beat my cousin by a semester.
The ring is tiny – so tiny it won’t even fit on my pinkie finger – with the tiny gold carvings softened as if rubbed often with warm hands. It is a little window into that yellow room, into the bold young woman in the old photograph with the black hair and her hands on the hips of her high-waisted 1940s swim shorts. The woman I never really knew, never thought to ask her about, and now, never will.
My mother’s parents were poor, one the child of a farmer, the other the child of a farmer with a bad back who could not farm. They left Alabama when Mom was a toddler to seek manufacturing jobs in Michigan. There they had more children, rented a house, got divorced. Both eventually returned to Alabama; both eventually remarried. Neither cared a fig for material goods (though Gramma, like me, had a healthy dose of vanity) and it was just as well, since they had few. The log woods were unforgiving, and there was no welfare. There were cavities and a tiny, crowded house and a stepmother who had no patience for saving sentimental things secreted all the way from Michigan (until later, when she would be our Mamaw and save a suitcase under her bed with all the drawings and cards we’ve ever made her).
I have no mementos of Gramma’s young life. Instead, it has been illuminated to us bit by bit through our mother’s stories. Even now, we hear new ones, stories that were perhaps deemed unsuitable for younger ears. Stories of Gramma and her great mistakes and her great forbidden love, who was not my grandfather or step-grandfather.
Gramma is silent on the subject of that life now. She refuses to tell the truth, iron out the mysteries, even now in the nursing home bed. On Christmas day, as I stood at the foot of the bed, she stared at the color and shape of me – too blurry now to recognize – and I stared back at her. The debilitating arthritis, the strokes, the lips collapsed over the gums rendered her mostly unrecognizable compared to the woman she used to be, the dark-haired one in the photograph she once kept prominently displayed over the TV set, so she – and we all – could admire it.
But there still were her ears with the little point of skin and cartilage at the top, the “Hudson ears,” she’d said ruefully to my mother when I was born with them, too. There still were her hands, dramatically misshapen now but so obviously a future extrapolation of my mother’s, my own.
I have no antiques passed down from generation to generation. There’s nothing I can touch or hold in my hand and feel connected to my people, knowing they once touched this, too, many times.
Except that these physical markers are all around me. Pa is there in my sister’s tall body and small hands and something about her face. Gran is there in the mirror in my eyes and the way the skin around them crinkles when I smile. Gramma is there in the shape of my mother’s arms and my sister’s and mine, and in every last detail of Aunt Connie’s face.
These, all these, are my family heirlooms. I’ve always dreamed of passing things down, creating a past for future generations. But looking at my grandmother’s twisted body, at my mother’s future and mine in living color, I feel a mixture of two simultaneous terrors – what will I do if I can’t pass these heirlooms on? Or is it better if I don’t?