Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Winston Churchill, November 9th, 1942, London
I couldn’t tell if she’d heard me, so I rang the bell again. Silence. I raised my hand to ring the bell a third time when I heard it. Two slightly different height orthopedic souls clipped their way to the door. A shock of gray hair bouncing with the joy of recent liberation from a curler sprung assertively out of the door. A few moments later, unsuccessfully hiding under a cautiously applied investigative stare, a happy wrinkled face emerged. It smiled.
“Hi, darlin’. I was just in the kitchen making a little snack for myself,” she wove her way through the stacks of boxes, documents, and oversized furniture that now populated her new cottage, “Are you hungry?”
I smiled at the familiar question, and answered, “No no, I just ate,” and followed the linen shirt buttoned over her ever so slightly hunched little shoulders, as it led the light beige pants covering her ever so wide-hipped little legs. If it wasn’t for the black bra whispering beneath my linen shirt (in a way that just met the approval of me and my mother) we could have practically traded outfits. I silently patted myself on the back.
My eyes combed the clutter for the crack that had inspired my aunt to spend our last night in the house persuading us that the new living room could indeed hold the Chippendale dining room set. Finding only reclaimed marble office desks and an extensive lamp collection where cracks should be, my offensive was affirmed. The Chippendale set had not been donated in vain.
“…from Whole Foods. They’re pretty good with this swiss cheese. Or I have those almond cookies from last…” wafted out of the kitchen. I hurried in. “No thank you I’m really fine. I promise. How are you feeling, Grandma? Is your back alright?”
She rotated away from the corner where the mound of groceries lived. Aside from the mix of organic labels and sterling silver, she had created a very convincing grocery tableau of a parents’ lake house after a post-graduation rager. The toothy smile spread slowly across her face, and she sort of laughed. She wasn’t used to me being an adult yet. “Well, yeah. It’s doing better. I can get around to do a little bit today. But only if you want to, honey.”
I grinned back at her as I closed up one of the boxes of crackers. “That’s what I’m here for. What would you like me to do?”
Five minutes, two wrenched shoulders, and one gallon of sweat later the landline–complete with answering machine–was plugged in behind her Churchill bookcase and glowed the vivid orange of thirty-one missed calls.
A Churchill bust observed gruffly as Grandma Ginger, arms crooked scrupulously to accommodate placing hands just so on hips, calculated the toll of the Battle of the Move on her petite kingdom as it appeared through the two tortoise-rimmed lenses that framed her nose. These circles of beveled glass, for the moment not employed as the communicative medium between author and reader, quickly ignored critics’ simplistic appraisal of the chaotic interior as superfluous ruins of American suburbia, and eagerly occupied themselves with the discerning analysis of this new interior.
I stood quietly behind her, attempting to hear the conversation between those hip glasses and the antique furniture.
Even in the movers’ cattywampus arrangement of the space, there was something pleasing about it. The delicate dark wood spindles of the princess chair arched particularly handsomely against the black screen that commanded the corner like a wrongly undiscovered wallflower. I followed the spidery hand as it absentmindedly fingered the tassels that dotted the rich metallic Navajo-ish brocade of the pillows that had been commissioned specially from Calico Corners to mirror the blue tassel on the single key that unlocked the ceiling-high china cabinet with the art deco overlay. Juxtaposed against this Wedgwood fortress sat the creamy couch, whose embossed tulips could not be seen because of the blanket tenaciously protecting it from the poking pinecones of the cuckoo clock, but who boldly planted her well carved little foot insistently atop the buttery wood floor.
Flanking the other side of the couch stood the wall of bookshelves. My eyes combed them for future reads. Happily, the gold embossed covers of the work of the likes of Bronte, Tolstoy, and Austen had survived the move and now graced the bottom of the bookshelf with their yellowy parchment pages, just inches away from the pale Oriental rug being stifled under the weight of the box labeled “FRAGILE Chinese CAREFUL Bowl.”
I bent down to relieve the rug from the pressure of the box. I was on the side of her good ear. Hearing me rustle, she turned toward me. Those well-read blue eyes peered at me out of the tortoise frames, “Oh, don’t move that, honey. It’s really very heavy.” She rested against the big white chair with the gold polka-dotted pillow. “When the man from the Sale Barn came to look at my Chippendale dinging room set he offered me two hundred dollars for that bowl, which is what I paid for it there years ago, but I thought if he was willing to offer me two hundred dollars for it, then it must be worth a lot more. You know someone told me it’s very old… I probably should have just taken the money.”
I stepped away from the box, regretting my interruption of the dialogue between curator and collection. I stepped back from the box and approached her, shifting from granddaughter to intern. Apparently all of those rejected applications for summer positions were worth something. I inhaled, “How about we work on getting some of these boxes out of here so you can start to use this room?”
“Oh, yes! That would be wonderful!” she said like a child who had discovered that a genie lived inside her teddy bear.
“Okay, so which box should we start with?” I walked persuasively toward the box whose cardboard arms valiantly kept curlers and shoe polish from spilling onto the floor, “This one looks doable,” I offered.
“Now you’re sure that one doesn’t have any of my good dishes in it? What does it say on the side there? Can you read that?”
She had proactively applied the worried face again, but the box was already on the move. In a cloud of rolled up Gap-does-linen shirt sleeves and lingering post-yoga body odors, it landed ominously in front of the two boldly veined little that sprouted out of those specially made penny loafers. My grandmother’s infamously dubbed “bird-legs,” now framing a cube-y fifteen pound cardboard egg.
Assuming I had responded and she hadn’t heard me, she perched carefully upon the white mock-wood brocaded twig of her curated nest and–peach-painted nails poised–accepted the first suckling of her cardboard brood: a plastic tub of shoe polish.
In a flurry of gentle blue and pink hands, trash bag demands, ancient plastic clinks, and laundry machine cycles, Grandma Ginger’s take on the American living room emerged.
Except for one box.
The amount of Wedgwood in her ceiling-high cabinet alone was far beyond the dishwashing capacity of virtually every millennial, and yet, it was only the beginning. There were approximately 2 x 3 x 4 cubic feet of precious china yet to be excavated. I took a deep breath and plunged my heels into the mercifully soft footbeds of my Birckenstock Arizonas and asked if she was ready to go through that box because it was the last thing standing between us and the full appreciation of the Oriental-rugged wood floor that she had spent all that time choosing before she moved in. I suggested we could put the dishes into the bottom cabinets of the breakfront.
“Well wouldn’t that be marvelous to have them off of the floor, but how much time do you have?” she asked through finger-covered lips.
Standing up to clutch one of my tannish arms with a loosely ringed hand, she chuckled and grinned that slightly black-gummed, white tooth grin that was charming in the way that only an eighty-four year old woman from “Missour-a” could muster. I knew I’d won. “Well sure let’s get that box unpacked,” she said.
I pulled over a chair for her in front of the breakfront and took my own place on the floor. One by one, pretending my hands had been smoothed by the same eighty-four years of life as hers had, I began unearthing the FRAGILE CHINA GLASS BREAKABLE content of the living room’s last box.
Stooping to touch the silver, the stories tumbled out of her, “You know your grandpa’s mother–”
I placed a saucer with little blue and violet flowers onto a shelf already stocked with too-chipped-to-display china covered with pale blue flowers just like my grandmother’s wistful child eyes. The delicate white petal folds of the plates’ various circumferences demanded the protection of this enormous cabinet, designed specifically to hold such beautiful unnecessary treasures. I shook my head maybe isometrically as I made room for yet another weightless tea cup on the crowded shelf. So superfluous. So un-dishwasher-friendly. So breakable. So time consuming. So… old.
When I turned to get another piece she had a plate for a face.
“You see people used to have sets of this China that could serve twenty,” her fingers closed firmly around the plate, covering the tiny blue flowers. I kept filling the shelf, “When Grandpa Nick’s family’s company failed, his mother had to give up a-a-a-a-all of their china because you had to give the bank anything that was worth anything, see?” I made the shelf a little more crowded and she leaned in just a little closer, “But she did keep–she wasn’t supposed to–but she kept the sterling silver bowl that has all of these beautiful animals carved into it,” I searched for a place for more dishes as she she traced the animals onto the plate, “that Grandpa’s aunts and uncles gave her when Grandpa was born. I think there’s a cat and a dog in the center. That was all she had left. She wasn’t supposed to do it but she did,” finished, she leaned back in the chair and handed me the last blue-flowered plate.
I reunited it with its salad plate family. The Wedgwood collection she had built back for my great grandmothers breathed a sigh of relief that they had lived through such exercise, and retreated into the comforting solitude of the cabinet as if they had never left.
“I think that I’ve got everything to fit on the shelves, but what about these glasses with the strawberries on them?”
She reached down and picked one up. Her finger pressed smoothly against the little glass strawberry seeds.
“My mother bought twenty-four of these glasses in the twenties. There used to be peddlers that came around and sold things to the farmers’ wives because they couldn’t get to a store, you know.”
Her drawl snuck up on her. It was just a little dash of sugar in her iced tea voice that made her words a little longer and her vowels a little sweeter. At first, sitting on the floor beneath her like that I felt like a little girl again, listening to her read the book I had picked out from the basket by the couch beneath the window at the house. But, as she clutched the glass to her heart and told me how she and her mother drank lemonade out of them when she came back from school, I realized that this time we were both children, sharing the same precious secret late at night when we should have been asleep.
“By the time I was through with college there were only six left, so she let me keep them. There are only four now.” She looked at the rest of them on the rug in front of her, “Let’s put them up in the glass part of the cabinet.”
One by one, she took each of those four strawberry glasses and put them on the shelves that sat behind the glass doors. She didn’t appraise this part of her collection. Those glasses had been a part of her life as she made the transition from mother’s milk to after-school lemonade to the iced tea sitting in her refrigerator. They weren’t her painstaking recreation of a lost fortune or even just a beautiful design. They were her Southern drawl. Her mother. Her.
After a few minutes of adjusting she was sure that the strawberry glasses, bought ninety years ago from some peddler on a farm in Missouri, sat safely beside rest of the Wedgwood and Waterford filling that ceiling-high china cabinet.
She gave me the key and I locked the doors.