The driveway is on the long side, made of packed, rutted dirt. My mother’s car bounces past the same shed with colorful corrugated sides, the same relics of cars my uncles once experimented on, attaching the shell of an old VW bug to some frame with monstrous tires. Grasses and small trees grow up through the empty windshield. When we reach the brown log house, I don’t know why I’m surprised to see the only car there is my grandmother’s. My grandfather’s car and truck once sat there too, but the gravelly space looks empty now with her little lone silver car she hardly drives anymore. As my mother parks, I wonder if my grandmother worries when a car unexpectedly drives in–there’s no way she doesn’t hear it, the pops and crunches over rock and hard-packed earth.
My mother goes up the leaning column of stairs to the porch first. On the stone
steps that lead to the staircase, vines have dropped dusky blue grapes all over, crushed under feet. My uncle and some of my cousins still visit every week. Otherwise, my grandmother has her fox-red Corgi, Zephyr, for company. When she opens the door, he waddles out ahead of her.
“Hey!” she says, standing in the doorway in an old purple sweatshirt with the
Chanel logo in white and gold. Don’t be fooled into thinking she’s an aging fashion plate though–she wears it with faded jeans and sturdy clogs. I’m sure she got the sweatshirt at “Sal’s Fashion Boutique,” what she calls the Salvation Army store in a neighboring town. Frugality is a pillar of family philosophy.
We each give her a quick squeeze and follow her inside. The unmistakable smell
of her house washes over me: leather and woodsmoke and something earthy that I can’t place or name. Whenever she sends something home for me with my mother, I smell that essence and feel instantly comforted. It lingers on the clothes we wear long after we leave her house.
“And look, she’s brought her work!” Gram says, gesturing to my tote bag with
yarn and knitting needles sticking out the top. She used to knit too, until arthritis made
it too painful.
“Always gotta have something to work on! You know what that’s like.”
She nods and points to a chair. “You can sit there–it has the least dog hair on it.” She turns to my mother. “Can you look at this? I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it.”
She starts talking to my mother about the mid-90’s vacuum cleaner, and how
she’s been trying to clean up Zephyr’s hair that coats the braided rugs scattered through the rooms. She made every one of them. Some are circles, small as a Frisbee, and others are oval, longer than a man is tall. There are more family photographs on the walls than I remember from the last time I was here. They’ve taken over furniture ledges and other surfaces too.
“Well, where’s your beater brush, Mum?” my mother says, fiddling with the
“You know, the big carpet attachment.”
Gram tries to find the compartment where the vacuum’s extra attachments are
“No, it wouldn’t fit in there–it would be big, and heavy.”
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Let’s go look.”
They head to the kitchen, then through the double spring-hinged doors that have
always reminded me of a saloon. Out there is the back bedroom, where she sleeps now, after having fallen down the spiral staircase to her room a few years ago. There’s also a back foyer, where she used to keep doves, and the stairs down to the cellar. I remember my mother saying my grandmother told my aunt she was so tired last week, and when my aunt asked why, she said she’d been up all night because there were all kinds of dogs in the cellar, and she was feeding a houseful of people. But she seems lucid now.
They come back through the doors, having found the carpet attachment. I wander
over to some of the photos I haven’t seen before. One is a picture of her grinning beside my grandfather on their wedding day.
“Gram, look how beautiful you are! I love your veil.” I walk over to her with the photo, in its ornate enamelled metal frame, raising my voice slightly so she’ll hear me over the vacuum my mother pushes around the living room.
“What happened?” she laughs.
“That veil, that’s the only thing I didn’t make myself! Well, I didn’t make my
underwear either. But everything else I did.”
I laugh. “Of course you did.”
She points to a slightly blurred figure in the background. “That’s Chuck’s
I nod. I don’t remember hearing much about my grandfather’s family. I do know
my mother’s older sister Charlene is named for his sister, who died when she was a teen. I put the photo back and pick up the one next to it. “Who is this adorable baby?”
The child in the photo is in a pram, bundled up in a knitted bonnet, a collared
sweater, mittens, and a blanket, all white or perhaps just pastels, it’s hard to tell in black and white. Her face is round, her mouth wide open in a laugh, and her eyes are curved lines atop her cheeks.
“That’s me!” Gram says.
“I have never seen a baby look so happy in a picture from this era. Look at this
dimple in your right cheek!”
She just smiles.
“Do you mind if I take a picture of it with my cell phone?”
“Oh, go ahead.”
I pull my phone out and hold up the photo, trying to get as little glare as possible from the glass and the light streaming in the windows on each wall of the room.
“I can’t believe what those little things can do,” she says. “Tina was here last
week, and she wanted to take pictures of things, too.”
“Oh yeah?” Tina is my Uncle Chris’s wife. Some might argue that of all her
children, my grandmother has always had the softest place in her heart for him.
In the other room, the vacuum stops and starts.
“Mum, there’s some kind of loose connection here–it isn’t getting power,” my
mother says, bending over the vacuum, trying to tighten its various parts and cables to be sure all the connectors and pins are touching. “Oh, Cyndle, can you make sure we don’t forget your brother’s lunch bag? He left it here last time.”
“I’ll just bring it down to the car now. Where is it?”
“I’ll get it,” Gram says.
I follow her out the door to the porch, and she hands me the camouflage lunch
bag. One whole corner of the second-story porch has been grown over with grape vines, the sun filtering through their palm-sized leaves. A light breeze ripples through the chimes.
From inside, the aggravated purr of the vacuum cleaner shorts out and starts up
again as my mother continues her attempts to remove the dog hair from each island of braided rug, putting her energies into this labor to avoid dwelling on what changes. The back and forth of the vacuum is her meditation.
“You guys can sweep out here next, and I’ll roll these out!” my grandmother says, indicating clustered cans of deck stain and chuckling. I’m glad she still makes jokes.
We head back inside, and I notice a stack of watercolors on a shelf, leaning
against the wall. The first one is small, a yellow waterlily with dark water around it. I pick it up, fingers unused to the stiff textured paper.
“This is lovely, Gram.”
“Which one is that?” She comes over to look. “Oh, yeah. Turn it over.”
On the other side is a floral arrangement–an orange lily and a black-eyed susan, plus some other wildflowers. Never one to waste anything, she’d used both sides of the sheet.
“I just put this one up.” She gestures toward a larger painting of a shapely
pumpkin and some corn stalks, with a vintage feed bag in the background, the letters on it even and perfectly recreated.
“I love the feed bag in the background.”
“Thank you, honey.”
The shelf is crammed with other things too–small otters that look like they’re
carved from wood or stone, religious paraphernalia like crosses and rosaries. A mirror with a panel at the top that holds another of her watercolors–this one a close-up view of the mouth of a fish as it’s about to bite an expertly tied red fly. It must have been a gift for my grandfather, a longtime lover of fly-fishing.
We move into the kitchen and I notice photos of my cousin Mae’s children. “Isn’t
it crazy how Jillian looks just like Maeghan?”
She looks and nods absently. “Maeghan is….” Her brow furrows.
“Uncle Chuck’s oldest daughter. She lives on an island up north and doesn’t get
down here much, so you probably haven’t seen her in awhile, right?” I say, trying to fill in the blanks.
“Someone came here the other day. Two girls–they looked so much alike I wasn’t
sure who was who.”
“Probably Amanda and Gabrielle,” I say–my Uncle Chuck’s other two daughters.
Gram stares off. “I don’t know.”
After a moment she shifts her attention to a plain wood cross hanging beside the
fridge, draped with a necklace of flowers and woven reeds that’s been knocked slightly askew. “Well, I guess I’ll fix this instead–I can at least do that.”
She turns back toward me. “What have you been doing with yourself lately?”
I tell her about the novel I’m working on, that I’ve been enjoying the freedom and quiet now that both of my boys are in school all day.
“How old are the boys now?” she asks. I’m not sure if she remembered I had
children only because I just mentioned them, but I tell her they’re five and eight, that my little one just started kindergarten.
The vacuum is silenced, the room suddenly quiet.
“I’m gonna go do the back rooms now, Mum,” says my mother, bustling through
carrying the blue vacuum.
“Okay,” says Gram, walking back toward the living room. We pass her bookshelf,
adorned with every kind of hedgehog figurine and stuffed toy one could imagine. One of them has a button inside that produces a version of the animal’s muffled grunt. There’s also a duck with a similar button. It doesn’t make the noise anymore, but she always loved to tell the story of how one time, she took the duck to Marden’s in a small bird cage and when the checkout girl asked about the bird, my grandmother made a show of reaching in carefully to take out the stuffed duck. Holding it gently in her hands, she told the girl not to scare it, but that she could pet it. When the girl reached out her hand, my grandmother squeezed the duck and its frantic recorded quack sounded loudly, scaring the daylights out of the girl. Gram would hoot at her own clever treachery each time she retold the story.
She starts telling me how she had to get a new refrigerator, and she’s been going through and organizing her things. “They had to take the old one out this way, because it was so big,” she says, indicating the space under the spiral stairs, where she keeps her sewing machine and supplies. She trails off. It was like she had it, the memory, but then it was gone, like when the wind changes and the grape leaves outside flip the other way.
“Yes, someone helped pull it out… Kim…?” she falters. “I don’t know.”
“Cam, my brother? Big tall blonde guy?” I offer.
She doesn’t answer right away. She searches the room with her brown eyes. “It
was one of my kids. The one who used to be a schoolteacher. Maybe he still does teach, I don’t know.”
“Oh, that’s Uncle Chris.”
She looks uncertain. She doesn’t confirm or deny my suggestion. “You know, I
can’t even put a face to that name.” A shadow of sadness passes over her features as she
gazes into the space under the stairs.
“It’s okay, Gram, you have a lot of kids, grandkids, and even great-grandkids to
keep track of!” I say, chuckling, trying to lighten the moment.
She turns to her photos, searching.
I point to two over the long wall of window panes at the front of the house, of a man in a Navy uniform. “That’s him, up there. Those ones are from a long time ago, so he looks a little different. He wears glasses now, and keeps his hair really short.” She looks at them, but doesn’t seem to connect.
“I made that,” she says, pointing at a ball of woodland detritus that hangs like a big rustic Christmas ornament. There are pine cones and twigs and other things I don’t recognize. It feels right that she keeps making things, still feels the impulse to create something new.
“Is that a hickory nut?” I ask.
“I don’t know… Some kind of nut.”
“Some kind of nut, huh?” I say, laughing and nudging her shoulder ever so gently.
“Like some kind of nut that made it!” she says, chuckling. She picks up another
framed photo. “Oh, this one is me!” she says. “Me and my horse T.”
In the photo my grandmother is coming up the driveway in a wagon pulled
behind T. The big white horse’s given name was actually Frosty, for my grandmother’s maiden name, Frost, but she was mostly called just T.
“I remember her.”
My mother returns to the room, asking where she should put away the vacuum
and its extra parts. My grandmother follows her to the back room, and I look out the window toward the pond. The stable and its fenced in area have grown over with weeds and saplings. It’s been a few years since she had a horse–once she could no longer get down the stairs easily to do chores morning and night, they were taken to neighboring farms. I think she still gets to visit them once in awhile. She has good friends up here in the woods, friends she’s known for a lifetime, who still pick her up to take her to her Tuesday art classes and to the grocery store.
Zephyr shuffles around the corner, my mother and Gram in his wake. We make a
few more minutes of small talk.
“Well, Mum, sorry we didn’t stay longer, but I have to get Cyndle home for the
boys. We’ll come earlier next time, okay?”
“Okay, hun,” Gram says. “I’ll make sure I think of some things you can do around
“You know I love to work, Mum!” my mother says, laughing and hugging her.
I take my turn and hug her and say I love her too, and she follows us onto the
porch. Just like she has since forever, she waves from the porch as we climb into the car and turn around in the big wide driveway. As she and the house shrink in the rear-view mirror and then disappear when we round the bend, I tell my mother the things my grandmother had seemed to lose, the memories that were there and the ones that weren’t.
“I try not to shine too much light on those things,” my mother says. “At least she seems happy. That’s enough.”
I nod. I remember my grandmother never called me by name. I never heard her
speak my mother’s childhood pet name, the name only she called her: Widget,
sometimes Widge. I wonder if she knew for sure who we were at all.
As we head for home, I think of my grandmother, and the walls crowded with
frozen moments, the shelves of all the things her hands have made, the October light, the grapes crushed on the stone steps, and the ones that hang on the vine, still rich and plump before the frost.
Cyndle Plaisted Rials
Cyndle Plaisted Rials
Cyndle Plaisted Rials lives between the mountains and the ocean; both pull her equally. She teaches undergraduate creative writing for Southern New Hampshire University. Cyndle earned her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her poems have appeared in such places as Hunger Mountain, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Amethyst Arsenic, Conte, and Be Wilder: A Word Portland Anthology. She is currently at work on her first novel.