I don’t know how to fix an accurate picture of my grandmother in my imagination. When I try, the only picture that comes to mind mimics a still, black-and-white photograph that I have seen where she is standing, arms straight at her side, on the front porch of that house that no longer exists. She is smiling, but it is a smile to be photographed, not the natural, easy smile of affection or amusement. I search my grandmother’s photographed features for traces of my mom or of me or my sister in her face, hoping to find any family resemblance from which I may be able to extract a fuller life. In her jawline and around her eyes, I see my cousin Lynnette, which I think may be useful. When I probed my mom for more details, she rewarded me with a description of hands perpetually stained, darkened in every crevice. As a child, my mom thought they just looked that way because of hard work, but now she realizes her mother’s hands were stained by the berries she used to make pies. I recognize, too, that even working with a more complete physical description, I still have an impoverished idea of who my grandmother was. I have vague descriptors such as “she was kind” and “she was thoughtful,” but I don’t know of a single thing that would make her laugh. I don’t know whether she liked to read, never mind what books she might have liked, or what kind of music she played on the piano when she played to make her tears stop. The only direct quote I’ve ever heard attributed to her is “It’s peeing outside,” and that survived only because it shocked my mom to hear her mother say something that seemed so out of character.
For as long as I have known that her mom died when she was ten years old, I have somehow believed that event has been the key to elucidating my mother’s emotional landscape, that it could in some way explain everything there is to know about her. I have not been able to see how anything other than her mother’s death—or at least a combination of things that included it—could have contributed to my mom being who she is. I have spent years consciously and unconsciously trying to find the root of every one of my mom’s idiosyncrasies in the stories she has told about her mom and about losing her.
Every single time we get in the car together, without fail, Mom asks me to hand her the lipstick in her purse, and I am reminded that her mother used to put lipstick on in the car too – one of the few things Mom remembers about time spent with her. I wonder if my grandmother hid purchases from my grandpa the way Mom hides the movies she buys in the basement for a couple of months before she watches them (so that when my dad asks if it’s a new movie, she can answer honestly, “No, I’ve had it for a while”). Did her mom sing to her “Here I come to save the day! That means that Mommy is on the way!” or “Good morning to you!” the way she did to me and my sister? I wonder what it is that constrains me to want to tie my mom’s psychology so closely to her mother’s, to want to prove that these quirks of hers are inherited. I wonder what it is that makes me hope that some reminiscence of my grandmother who died fourteen years before I was born persists in me.
I have created for myself a handful of images of my grandmother – imaginations of her that have been constructed from the few stories my mom can remember and the stories that have been told by others. My representations are like dreams in their substitution of details, especially details that do not make any sense, and nonlinear meanderings, their disregard for actual truth in their dramatization of poetic truth about my grandmother. These renderings, like my mother’s childhood home, are silent. They are in color, though dully, and even though in “real life” they would rely on action and physical activity to move the stories they represent forward, the only motion in any of them is the unseen wind that in my imagination makes its dramatic presence known even indoors.
A favorite image that I have of my mom’s mom is from the stories I’ve heard about her wallpapering her bedroom. For this mental reproduction of my grandmother, the particulars are provided from my own experience of what I can only explain as a matrilineal compulsion toward impulsive home improvement passed from my grandmother through my mom to me. I’ve been told that my grandmother once wallpapered a room in the house the very day that her relatives were expected to arrive from California. In my reworking of the details of this last-minute improvement, the wallpaper is thick yellow-and-cream stripes – the stripes I painted on my living room walls last year the morning of the day I was throwing my first “grown-up” dinner party for fifteen people. The logic behind these kinds of preparations has also been somehow passed down through my maternal line. My mom always says that company won’t notice what you do; they’ll only notice what you don’t do. She has also instilled in me a belief that if we clean out the refrigerator or paint the closet in the extra bedroom, especially if we do it the day that company is arriving, it will not only allow us to get done that which we’ve been putting off but it will have the added benefit of forcing us to get all the regular cleaning done as well because cleaning for company is something that we have to do anyway. And I think that makes perfect sense.