Today is the 5th anniversary of my grandmother’s death. Here is my version of the story, written 2013.
When I was about 10, she told my mother that I was going to be a problem. What would she do with a child so stubborn? So wild? So loud? One who would sit/talk/stand/breathe like that? Where were her manners? What was her audacity?
Even so, she had long, dark hair and I found her fascinating. She ran an antique store in central Florida, where it’s always a humid, rainy, 85-degree day. Rain rattled off the tin of her back porch as she lit a steady stream of cigarettes. She smelled like soap and stale smoke and wore her hair in a long braid down her back. I wanted her to tell me her stories and find me charming. I wanted her leathery hand to wrap around mine.
I didn’t realize her disapproval, though, as she’d look past the end of her cigarette, past me. I was her daughter’s daughter, and she wanted nothing to do with me.
I don’t know.
She wasn’t a regular fixture, but she came into focus every few seasons. Her antique store eventually bankrupted, but she went on listening to the rain on her tin roof. For reasons I chose to believe as loving, her antique gifts were passed onto us every holiday, every birthday. For me, she sent seashells. Hundreds of seashells, which she collected on walks and held onto with my special days in mind. Seashells that she picked up and considered. Seashells she carried to the porch under the tin roof. Seashells she dried and gifted to me. Seashells that sit in my bedroom, still.
She thought me ungrateful, and I probably was. I was free-spirited and loud, I loved to laugh and to run. I would sit with her on the porch and let the smoke blow into my face for a chance to look at this myth of a woman. My blood was her blood and I wanted her to know me.
But I don’t remember her caring to know me. I was too much. I was too different. I was too much like her daughter. I was too much like her; I had long, dark hair, as well.
I don’t know.
The last time I saw her it was during a Christmas holiday, and my sister, mom and I drove to see her with cups of coffee in hand and a game of Scrabble. We wandered around her apartment — meticulously organized, still smelling of soap and stale smoke. Full of seashells. We played for a few hours, talking somewhat, looking out the window. She looked me in the eye, and I realized that she liked me better as an adult.
She liked my scowl. She liked the way life had made me sadder.
I don’t know.
I was driving down a Nashville road one recent winter when I received the call that she had covered her apartment with post-it-note instructions, washed the sheets, and made fresh ice cubes, before slipping beneath the bath water and taking her life.
She was nothing if not precise and intentional.
She didn’t like my loud voice and my wild hair. She didn’t like the way I threw my head back when I laughed or how I danced under her tin roof. She didn’t like life and so she left. She left my mother to sort through the rubble — left her to pick up hundreds of post-it notes. She left her home smelling of clean, stale smoke.
I knew her hair and her tin roof, and I have her seashells lined on my windowpane.
But I didn’t know Joan.