May 5th, 2010
“These were Bill’s when he was young,” she said. “Isn’t that something? Especially now, knowing he’d be the least likely to be a boxer.”
I held the two gloves in the palm of one hand as she looked inside one of her many pieces of antique furniture. Bill died when I was five or six. All I remember is my parent’s sunlit bedroom in California, my mom hanging up the phone, sobbing. Of Bill, himself, I only have freeze-frame images of his faded jeans from my seat on the kitchen floor. All the other images are of pictures, the real kind, printed on photographic paper. I’m chubby, he’s long-haired, and we’re smiling. (at right, the canyon of Treman Park in Ithaca, NY)
In my grandmother’s “cottage,” at an assisted living facility in Ithaca, New York, is the remaining clutter of 89 years of life. “Oh, how I miss my three barns,” she kept on saying. They sold the farm, auctioned off many of their possessions, and moved into “the place where we’ll spend the last years of our lives,” as my grandfather had said. He died several years ago. There was a memorial service in August of 2001, just before the World Trade Center fell. My grandfather got pneumonia and, as my grandmother said, he saw his chart and gave up. He was a doctor and knew what it all meant.
Since then, my grandmother’s life has become an exercise in minimalism, in everything but “stuff.” Letters are stacked on tables, boxes, baskets. Magazines; she has a vintage 1948-ish Time magazine, with Churchill on the cover. She likes Churchill. She also likes all her empty boxes and miscellaneous things that might be useful one day. I understand, I’m like that too, which is why I gave up on trying to clean up her place. I mean, just what do you do with the baby-sized boxing gloves of your dead uncle?
Over the weekend with her, I realized I could know her as a person, not just my grandmother. She was a tough woman–still is. Back in the day, she took on the Catholic Church to help bring contraception, family planning, and women’s reproductive health to upstate New York. She was president of what became the Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood. She kicked ass. Especially for someone who is a staunch Republican in everything except her environmental stance and her views on women’s rights.
She continues with that environmentalism: she’s up in arms over the local hydrofracking of shale for natural gas. We even watched a lecture her endocrinologist gave on how the chemicals they’re using can alter our hormonal development. It’s scary stuff, but she kept on falling asleep, as she says she’s prone to do at her age. She lived through the depression, World War Two, the death of her second child, Susan, who succumbed to leukemia, and the death of her youngest, Bill, whose baby boxing gloves I’d held, from complications related to mononucleosis.
And now. Now she is reflecting on the illness of a third child, Carol. As I write, I’m on a plane flying to a small family reunion in Walnut Creek, California, to celebrate Carol’s 60th birthday. She has liver cancer. When I called her on her birthday, I told her grandma took me to where she and Doug were married. That afternoon, my grandma walked me through the Tolkien-esque canyon near their wedding reception.
“I love that place,” Carol responded. Their wedding was on a hot and muggy day, and as a five year-old I spent most of it playing in the cool of the creek.
“I wished I’d been able to do what you were doing,” Carol laughed. Yes, to be a child. It definitely was much simpler.
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