Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Grandma's pincushion

My grandfather died last week. It wasn't altogether unexpected, but it was very sudden. He had a lump, which turned out to be bladder cancer that came out of remission as cancer of the everything. Two weekends ago my sisters and I met my parents at the old folks' home slash hospital to see him for what we all knew would be the last time, and this weekend we were back again for his funeral.

I'm not all that close to my family, and I was never very close to Grandpa. When the grandkids got together to write a eulogy, I realized my strongest memory of him is half remembered and half home movie - we were playing in a kiddie pool, and Grandpa put our plastic backyard slide over it and slid us down it into the pool. I remember a grown-up, probably Dad, wetting the slide with the hose so it'd be slippery for the kids to go down. Then Grandpa climbed up and slid down himself. It was a tiny little pool - he splashed just about all the water out of it when he landed. This was the best home movie ever. I remember watching it on our chucka-chucka 8mm projector with the family. We'd watch him slide down and splash the water out, and then beg dad to play it backwards, over and over again.

He could be really happy-go-lucky. Growing up I was fascinated with the fact that he had come to America on a boat when he was 6 years old, and I asked him if he could say something in Czechoslovakian. He had this little rhyming ditty that my aunt can still recite, that translates into "something something, something, knocking on your door, something something something, or I'll pull down my pants." All us grandkids remembered him as fun to play with - he played tackle football with my cousin Michael and his step-brothers. There's this awesome picture of him rocking out on the swingset next to great-grandson (my nephew) Ethan. And the big narrative of the weekend was about how last spring he and a scooter-bound friend had made a net out of a yardstick and a plastic bag so they could catch butterflies by the pond near the old folks' home.

But Grandpa was really blue, too. My grandma died suddenly and way too young when I was five years old. It was the same year Grandpa retired, and he didn't seem to know what to do with himself. He went into a funk that he only recently got out of. A really, really deep depression. I remember visiting him in my teens, and grandma's dresser being just as she had left it, as if she'd be right back to rearrange her things. As if she still needed her hairbrush. He didn't cook, so he went out for every meal except breakfast. He stopped cleaning his clothes. There was nothing in his fridge except milk and creamer. A few years ago I heard he was picketing Planned Parenthood, and my first reaction was oh, good - I'm glad he's getting out some.

Eventually, though, he did come out of his funk. He moved by his own decision into an independent-assisted living place where his sister also lived, and it was great for him. He started to get excited about things again. I saw him over Christmas, and my aunt had made a video out of old pictures she had, and he really engaged when we watched it - he took over telling the story of his double wedding - two sailors and two war brides, and a too-short honeymoon. Apparently, too, he was the life of the party at the old folks' home. I overheard one of the ladies saying to my uncle, someone just told me he used stay at home all the time - I can't believe it's the same person, that just doesn't sound like our Emery.

On his dresser in his room at the old folks' home, Grandpa had Grandma's pincushion. It's hard to express how odd and out of place it looked there. It was on one of those manly dresser trays where he'd empty out his pockets at the end of the day, and I thought it was from space. I took it to the beach Monday to try to express how out-of-context it felt to see it there. I'm not sure if there's a particular memory attached to it, and I never got to ask him what it meant to him, or why he chose a pincushion as a distillation of all the Grandma stuff he used to live among. That's not the kind of conversation I'd have been able to have with him, anyway. But I can guess at it.

It's chaotic and personal and intimate - the pins are all higgledy-piggledy, and there are hundreds of them, which means among other things that Grandma held this object in her hands hundreds of times. There's something to the pattern of the pins - like in the art class exercise where everybody draws a single line on a piece of paper, then hangs them up and looks at how different they all are. Somehow, the simplest, most everyday artifacts can be so full of a person - my own pincushion looks totally different. And it's an object that begs to be picked up, to be handled.

And to be used. I inherited the pincushion, and as an heirloom, it scares the crap out of me. There's a huge power in the fact that it's 27 years of un-touched, just like she left it, but the only way I can think of to honor what it means is for me to use it. I love that it's something of Grandpa's and something of Grandma's at the same time. And I love the idea that I'm picking it up after all of these years, like I imagine Grandpa imagining Grandma picking it up. It's a symbol of doing and undoing at the same time - if it's mine, is it still theirs? How long will it take, I wonder, for it to look like something of mine instead of Grandpa and Grandma's? Years, I'm sure, but that's how grieving works. How well will I use it? When I die, who will pick it up and think of me?

related, kinda sorta and randomly -
this yarnharlot post with knitting in the wild; Gorky's button memory in ararat; and fragiletender for teaching me the word "plinth"

EDIT January, 2008: The ditty goes:

Vincujem, Vincujem
Na pesu kolace vizim
A ked mi nye daze
Spuscim na vas gace

which means

I greet you, I greet you
On the stove I see kolace
And if you don't give me some
I'll drop my pants before you!

(kolace is a slovak sweet)

Thanks Aunt Betty Ann for sharing and Great Aunt Betty for translating!

3 comments:

Marjojo said...

Hi Daniel, so sorry about your loss. It was lovely to read what you wrote about your granddad, his liveliness, his grieving, how he changed back to liveliness late in life. And that heirloom is just amazing, so red and strange and sculptural, it seems to breathe something, some strange form of pincushion-life. How wonderful that it's yours now.

Lee Ann said...

Having just lost a grandparent as well, it's particularly moving to read your post. You write beautifully--the power of the heirloom is indeed in the use of it. Thank you for an unexpected turn to my day...I stumbled upon you at Ariadne (the post about the reverse curse).

Emily said...

That is an amazing, touching story and a very beautiful photo. I think you have to use the pins, don't you? That's the best way to appreciate what it means.