Monday, July 8, 2013

Contextualism of grief

Something about the past holiday weekend made me dream grief dreams. It must have been the summer heat as I used to spend a great deal of time at my grandmother's house in suburban West Virginia, hiding from the hot sun behind double-thick curtains. And it is my grandmother I miss but also that house, the expectations and emotions wrapped up in the difficult plaster walls and the nubby square cushions of the rose-colored couch. I can vividly remember spinning around in the scoop-shaped swivel chairs and listening to the tick of the clock on the wall. Even the deep ring of that severe and solid bakelite telephone that still had the 1950s phone exchange number under the plastic of the rotary dial window. I found comfort in the heft of her pinking shears, hanging from the sewing room wall by a pegboard hook. Those shears weighed pounds and I was afraid to even touch them until well into my preteen years, and even then never to cut anything with. But as much as I miss her and I miss the solid walls and floors of that 1920s-built home, I feel no urge to have any of those items. The thought of her parakeet and green orchid painting on one of my walls is simply an anachronism. Her metal stepstool would be out of place in my own kitchen. And I still do not think I live up to those pinking shears.

And with these items in mind, I do not consider myself nostalgic. I am not a collector of things because things with an emotion attached to them but out of context seem to cause more pain than they soothe. I will never again see my grandmother sitting at her sewing table, and listen to her singing a little off-key hymn with a bit of the brogue of her immigrant father. And holding those fabrics and bobbins will not make me recall her as strongly as I can picture her in my memory. I have very few of her personal belongings but I am fine with that. I feel her spirit with me when I need strength. I know that she urges me on through situations I find larger than I can bear. She is the stubborn and forceful voice of my self-worth and my determination as well as the quiet tears of a loneliness heavier than just being alone. For these feelings, I do not need material goods.

In the dream I had last night, I was in her house after she had moved into her room at a nursing home. I was feeding items from her basement and her attic into a portable shredder and fireplace in one. I could hear her pointing at things to get rid of. Maps? I didn't need those maps. Just get in the car and go and see for yourself. And into the fire the huge maps went, state by state. Clothes from childhood? Well, why didn't I cut them up and make something useful. And if I could not make something useful or the fabric was just not right, pitch them out to the curb or down to the church basement for the rummage sale. She had her favorite books but very rarely did she keep any others on hand. While she was still of sound mind, she was strictly utilitarian. It seems entirely out of character to keep something of hers for the sake of frippery or artifice.

When I look back on my own childhood, I have very few items left. My mother swung to the opposite pole of materialism and took up hoarding. Everything she owned had to be binned and destroyed, my own keepsakes as well. Every once in a while I will wish I still had those Tinker Toys or that Sea Monkey Castle, but mostly it is the emotion I was having while playing with the items and not the items themselves. Some holidays (Christmas to be precise) were so full of preparation and hoopla that to even remember the boxes emerging from the attic, the ornaments from the linen closet, the garlands from the guest room, the silver service from the dining room cabinets, that I have moments of sheer panic when faced with winter weather. To her credit, when my mother knew she was dying, she sent me a few items I might want to keep (my sawdust-filled original Winnie the Pooh characters with the velvet worn smooth) and those are still around. But the report cards, Barbies, school clothes, and paintings from my high school art studio classes are long gone to the dump. But I do not really miss them. I remember them. I will remember their context and their situations and I am fine for now. I will start to worry when I start to lose my memories but that is another subject altogether. For now, I am living in a technicolor playback of my life, probably overdramatized and just a little short of stereo.

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