Thursday, June 17, 2010

Grandma VanHoorn

I told you I was working on this? It's not great, it's rough, it doesn't really work that well. I can't really work on it much more, though. This is what I've got, for now. I need more time.

Audra VanHoorn

My grandmother was tiny, at the end
at 79, after nearly sixty years
of marriage
but I can recall a time when
I craned my head upwards to ask if I could
have cheese
and crackers, please
for my snack today.

A single scoop of ice cream, eaten on a TV tray
with one half-hour of Nickelodeon on their old
if I was very good. No matter how I begged,
no more than that single scoop, with a little syrup on top.

Well, maybe two scoops just this once.

I remember pouring cat food into a metal pan
in the garage, seeing the cats come running to her
even as they danced anxiously away from my
outstretched little-girl fingers.
Her call to them one I’ve never heard anyone else use
except myself, of course.
That’s how I learned you call the cats to you:
A high call, sweet-voiced, “kitty-kitty-kitty!”

And there they scrambled out from under
ancient machinery I didn’t even recognize
hid their kittens until she found them
lapped up the water and the milk
and let a little girl learn about love
for all things great and small

I remember balancing precariously on my hands
on the edge of the library counter
while she showed me how to check a book out
to myself.
A swelling pride I took in being able to do it on my own
reflected in her indulgent smile.

The sheer joy in discovering a new box of library books
delivered to her house, my little hands
pulling out and looking for the new ones
before she’d even put the sleeves inside of them
while she let me pick out “two, just two”
she’d set aside for me.

Or ‘helping’ her put away library books
I never noticed then but I’m certain
she followed behind me
taking each book carefully from the shelf
and returning it to the place it
actually belonged.
If it bugged her, she never said a word,
she just smiled and said “of course!”
the next time I asked if I could help.

The best days were the puppet shows she gave
The children, a spotted dog
a smiling frog and
those times I got to help her. I’m sure
I was a terrible actor: giggling behind the curtain
forgetting lines
looking the wrong direction.
But still she said she was proud of me
and glad I wanted to help.

I ate strawberries warm right off the bush
in her garden
until she told me I had to be careful not to eat too many
I helped her snap green beans, once or twice
I withheld my burning curiosity at all the strange things
upstairs, these toys and photos and memories that belonged
to an age I was too young to even grasp:
The idea of my father, my uncles, my aunt having childhoods
learning all these things
from her and my grandfather, the idea of a world
where these people had once been
the age I was now.

My father was diagnosed with diabetes when he was barely a little boy. 
I asked her once
what it was like to give injections to her son
to keep him alive. She gave it a moment’s thoughts, and
replied, “It was just what I needed to do.”
And that was that, her practicality a mother’s earned right
confusing to a teenage girl
who had no idea.

A hug to greet me at the end of every time away
as if I'd never left, a music box
to play
"You are My Sunshine"

as if I'd never left.

A child’s memories of their grandmother are selfish. It’s always
what I felt, what I experienced, what things were said to me, what moments
I shared with her. I wish I had been better
at asking the right questions, that
I had asked about her photo albums then
when she could narrate them.

I wish I had been better at asking the right questions.

After she died I had an unanswered e-mail in my inbox
from her, I had eyes I kept carefully as dry
as any grieving granddaughter could during
visitation, during the funeral, because if I lost control
I wouldn't hear what everyone was saying and I had to
I had to hear what they had of her. I think I did a good job.
I laughed, I joked, I spoke to so many people
my head’s still a blur when I try to remember, and each of them
had a different
side to her.

So many versions I didn’t know, because
I didn’t ask before.
I wish I had asked.

I am fine except for the moments
when I remember an ancient calico cat rubbing against the palm
of my hand or holding tiny kittens with closed eyes
while her voice murmured,
“Careful, Katie, careful,” at my ear and their little hearts
beat fast against my fingers.

Then I curl up on the bedroom floor
and cry
my heart beating fast against my chest
with my calico cat rubbing her head
against the palm of my hand
my love for all things great and small
little comfort when it comes to loss

I think about that tiny woman
all these memories, all the sides of her
I only got to see
 I wish
I had answered that e-mail.
I wish I had asked more questions.

I wish I was better at saying goodbye.


  1. Oh, Katie, I have these same thoughts and feelings, but could never have said it in such a lovely way. Why didn't I spend more time with her? Why didn't I ask her more about her life? Why, why, why...

    It's just not fair that she was taken from us so soon, is it? I keep finding things she gave JW, Delainey or me while packing - of course, what I may have thrown out just a few weeks ago are now among my most treasured belongings. It's just so hard to say goodbye, but it was simply her time.

    Wonderful writing, as always.

    Love you!

  2. This brought tears to my eyes! What a lovely way to remember her!


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