Midniiiiight, Not a Sound on the Paaaavement
September 23, 2009 1 Comment
Concerning the insult of being forgotten by the senex we love: could it be that, in addition to selfishness, it might just hurt that the project of family-building unravels some when its oldest members stop knitting?
In one way your grandmother and her unrecognized recipe is an old and terrible story. Everyone forgets. But the particulars just can’t be leapfrogged. Thirty questions in an hour until you answer correctly! The walks through parking lots! What scares me most about old age is how it X-rays your psyche and hands your relations the skeleton keys to your soul.
I last visited my paternal grandparents with my dad when I was fifteen years old. They were old and confused. My Depression-era grandfather had taken to washing his used Depends and stringing them up on clothesline in the house to dry and burning garbage in the living-room wood stove. He dumped the remains out front. The lawn was a mess of charred chicken-bones and ash.
My grandmother knew I wasn’t my mother. And I wasn’t quite the squeaky granddaughter she knew. She concluded that my father had smuggled his new lover into her home, and she did not approve. She never stated this outright, but she kept trying to catch the so-called “daughter” in a lie, slunk around the house at night in the dark, and peppered my poor dad with knowing looks. It was awkward.
Because of that visit I know them both better than I ever could have had they died with everything intact. It’s an icky kind of knowledge. I feel like I have seen them naked.
I will now remark (originally) that my maternal grandmother, the one who died in October, was a terrific knitter in her day. The sort who watches soap operas unblinkingly while her hands flutter the needles into surprising sweaters. (I think yours did this too.) They were wonders, and they took imagination. It was interesting, horrifically interesting, to watch her ambitions for her yarn thicken and slow as her mind deteriorated. We know that memory goes, but it seems like the same circuits that let old people recite the poems of their childhoods long after they’ve forgotten their children’s names should govern something as repetitive, as oddly and oldly elemental, as knitting.
And in a sense they do: for my grandmother those patterned membranes were still possible, but the projects were simpler. She’d knit a onesie in afternoon as an afterthought with the same purely mechanical attention she brought to a crossword puzzle or a round of canasta. She used to make not just sassy sweaters, but wool paintings of churches and trees and people. Many of them for me. Now she didn’t seem to want to knit much of anything.
It might not seem it, but this was at least as disconcerting to me as my paternal grandma’s suspicion that I was my dad’s mistress. It was personal. Knitting had been her way of inserting herself symbolically into my life. She knitted red-and-white diamond-pattern sweaters with misshapen necks and expressed continual surprise that I wore them. But it mattered that I didn’t wear them charitably. They were a little crazy and I liked that, and them.
So when she didn’t want to knit, it surprised me that she didn’t want that validation from me anymore. I don’t know that it hurt my feelings exactly, but it was a small death. Something I had counted on growing forever had stopped and it was my turn to be the grown-up. Suddenly, her pleasure in our apparent sameness (one of my grandma’s favorite themes) had stopped mattering; she just wasn’t that interested any more in how her legacy was playing out. All she cared about now was her past. I felt a little like I’d been kicked out of the family story.
Being forgotten by a grandmother isn’t the same as being stricken out of the family Bible, but it’s not so far from that either. And the sting of your unrecognized recipe isn’t (I humbly offer) merely selfish. The Grandmothers are the closest thing to a record of our particular clutch of Buendías in Macondo, and they’re basically generative whether they’re making casseroles or cardigans. They’re why we’re even around. When they go, it falls to us to become memory-makers of a sadly yearbookish bent: we’re curators, archivists, executors. But we’re not knitters.
This weekend I will go to another city to celebrate my grandmother’s sister’s 92nd birthday. I made a recipe of hers tonight. I should probably tell her that.