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  • I never really knew my grandmother, Hannah Gardener. My memories are scraps, often just feeling and color. What I knew of her is all bits and pieces. Some I was told or heard, some I likely made up to connect the dots and fill in the spaces. Like a child going through a box in the attic I poured them out today looking for patterns and clues in the jumble of past and present.

    Her family left the darker, German side of Switzerland. She grew up in a sod house on the wide Nebraska plains around the turn of the century. Got oranges in her stocking for Christmas. Made it to Reed College and then New York City, escaping the drudgery and darkness of farm life and harsh restraint of evangelical faith. Sold her blood to get through school. Met my grandfather, a well off and society man, and then she’s divorced, remarried to him again, divorced again, somewhere in there gets TB goes to Tucson with my mother to recuperate in the dry, desert air.

    I walked by the little house they stayed in when I was in Tucson, three years ago. Stayed in their old neighbourhood. I walked their streets, even walked by my mother’s old elementary school. I imagined my mother walking home from school. Tried to see her just ahead, skipping along, pigtails swinging. Tried to see her pausing at the door, maybe turning to see whose shadow had dogged her that day, her hand on the door, shielding her eyes from the glare of sun on the rough desert floor. Then she turned and stepped through and the door closed behind her and I was left alone on the street.

    I know Grandma came out to the island the first summer back when I was one. Maybe she held me, read to me, sat on the porch in the bentwood chairs with the red cushions and rocked to the rhythm of the waves on the shore and sang me a song. All that could be, but those memories are behind doors as well. The Grandma I remember was never the grandmother you nestled in close to, never the warm cookies and milk grandma. She was upright and strong and smart as a whip. When she was most in my life, my father, the Harvard professor, addressed her as Mrs Gardener. He always shaved before she arrived and set out the sherry and the little glasses.

    Back then we lived across the Charles River and met her in the Boston Common on Sundays. We fed the pigeons and watched the swan boats go round the lakes, then walked back to her place maybe for tea and cookies but not the checked tablecloth and easy spread table, no, all my memories have the grey chill of fall about them and the sudden rush of pigeon’s taking wing and the dimness of her place there on Marlborough Street.

    I walked there a couple of years ago, the Back Bay is fashionable now and the streets were thronged with shoppers and tourists. A park with memorial statues runs down the middle of Marlborough Street and on that summer’s day joggers and cyclists and business types strode by while the thinkers and workers with sore feet leaned back on the benches and watched the world pass. I tried to picture myself back then walking up to the polished brass and bright paint of the door that was hers but all I could see in any kind of focus was her closet with the TV my mother banished from the house because we fought over what show to watch.


    She looks out of the past to me from the faded black and white photos from the 1930s. Gorgeous, striking, strong, even combative. The kind of woman in the song, the one you’d turn to see if she was looking back to see if you were looking back to see if she was looking at you.


    I remember her doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. Glasses perched, mouth pursed, pen never pencil, poised purposefully.

    I remember the no-holds-barred Scrabble games she played with my parents. This was no game for children, and my father, the Harvard man, Professor of American History and Literature, played for his life. The massive dictionary sat beside them though I am not sure he ever dared challenge her on a word.

    I remember the boxes of chocolates she brought and shared round with tea after supper. I watched the box go round the table, kept my hands tight in my lap. Only reached when I was sure. Two each, no more, no less.


    In my mind I see her in her wide brimmed straw hat, scarf around her neck, blue jeans rolled up in cuffs. She worked with saw and pruning shears in the woods out front limbing the unruly spruce, making some kind of order out of the strip of forest along the road.


    Her ashes are scattered around a small white lilac in back of parents’ house on the island. I remember the day we stood awkwardly around the tiny bush but I don’t remember what any of us said or even if we said anything. There were just us kids and mom and dad and Grandma’s little bag of ashes there in the meadow.

    Just like that, she was gone, scattered to wind and ground. Or, just like that, she came home.

    For years, the small pair of work gloves she used sat hand in hand on a shelf in the shed.

    When I walk by the woods in front of my parents’ house I see her standing in the shadow orange bow saw in hand.

    If I sit in one of the old cane seated rockers by the window, I see her across from me, sunlight on her face, the fine lines, the angles and planes and she turns to me and I lean forward to hear what she has to say.
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