Morning is the Best Time
My dead grandmother has been on my mind a lot. Which is weird, because she's been dead for quite some time now, and we weren't really in contact when she died.
I think about her when I open my hope chest (sue me, I'm from New England) and see the quilts she made, cook using her enormous stockpot or her enamel baking pan, or go for a piece of ribbon and see it coiled around a recycled greeting card.
She didn't leave me these things, I picked them from a room in my uncle's house filled with her stuff. It's a long story.
My maternal grandparents were Plymouth Brethren, the Exclusive kind. My grandfather was essentially as pope-like of a figure as could be possible, in a denomination that doesn't even acknowledge that the position of pastor exists. When there were doctrinal disagreements, you either went with my grandfather, or you didn't. This contributed greatly to the splintering of the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren and helped render it the small pile of sawdust it is today. Our family did not go with him, and so when I was 12, my grandparents ceased speaking to us publicly. My grandmother, in an act of rebellion, or perhaps hoping I might be redeemed, continued to write me letters. They were strange. She wasn't good with children, and she was very German, and I don't think she ever got the mental help she needed to process her depression and PTSD. I know only a handful of facts about her because you don't think to ask these kinds of questions as a young child, and she was secretive enough so that even my mother and the uncle that still speaks to me (there's one that doesn't) don't know the answers.
She was born in Germany in the 1930s (I think?) and was the oldest of 5. Her father was an architect, who I'm told designed some of the gas chambers used in the concentration camps. They say he didn't know what they were for. The children were instructed by my great-grandmother to drape their clothes neatly over chairs after removing them at night, "in case the Lord came back because you wouldn't want Him to find you with a messy room."
When World War II hit, my grandmother and her siblings were out raiding American army garbage cans for potato peelings. She never spoke of this to us. All I knew as a kid was that her teeth were bad, and this was due to malnutrition. She emigrated to England, and I believe did some kind of schooling there until she was sponsored to come to America.
(Many many many years later, my father would rent a room from the man who sponsored my grandmother, not having yet met my mother.)
I don't know when she met my grandfather, and I don't know what drew them together. He had a great sense of humor but was spiritually domineering. She had a great sense of humor which got stifled and would only occasionally peek out. Their wedding photos are, typical of the early 50s, very formal. She looks sad. I know she hated the photos.
So you take all of this, and add lashings of typical German stoicism, a healthy amount of legalism and pietism, and then all that nutty Plymouth Brethren dispensationalism (which I'm not even sure she understood or agreed with!) and there you have the grandmother who would send 12-year-old me letters that read "Dear Danielle, it's true the Bible doesn't actually SAY what the best time to read your Bible is, but really, morning is the best time." Most letters were accompanied by an improving pamphlet or a profitable article photocopied from who knows where—sometimes a florid poem about heaven. There was no advice about how to be a Christian and function in the world, only about how to be completely separate from everything.
The memories from before our families stopped speaking are blurry at this point, being a couple decades old. I remember their house and yard, remember running out to her raspberry patch to help her pick. I remember their dog, an aged German Shepherd, whose most interesting feature was that he dug until the color wore off the end of his nose, and then she had to put vitamin E on it.
I remember the one terrible time my parents tried to leave my brother and I with the grandparents for a night. To be fair, we were probably on her last nerve. She had made us dinner—egg drop soup—which we rejected summarily, and so she made us scrambled eggs and toast, I think. We kept popping out of bed, as small children do, but she was so unnerved by this (as though this hadn't happened with her 3 kids?) we got told we were going to get spanked. Needless to say, by the time our parents called to check on us, we were both crying. There were no more overnights.
She tried to teach me to sew. A fine, complicated stitching technique, that I didn't get on the first try, and I remember how frustrated she was by that. Joke's on her—I'm fine at sewing now. But I was like SEVEN THEN.
I can't remember what her food tasted like, which hurts. There have been blips—once I made chicken stock and left it cooking overnight and the kitchen suddenly smelled like hers (she was famous for being able to make soup out of nothing, which incidentally I inherited,) and I cried. The smell and texture of mixed peas, carrots, and corn still makes me feel weird.
Post-separation, we saw her one more time, shortly after my grandfather died. My car broke down on the trip, and it was before smart phones were readily available, so we were hopelessly lost. By the time everything got sorted out, my car was towed, and the uncle who didn't speak to us had to pick us up in his fancy car and deposit us at her house, she fed us dinner and put us to bed at 7:30 pm. It was broad daylight. She was in her 70s at that point—getting up at 5:30 am, RUNNING up and down stairs, scads of energy.
She'd always been a hypochondriac and a health nut at the same time, constantly looking for the fountain of youth. Piles of supplements, carefully regimented diet, and coffee enemas. It didn't work—she declined into Alzheimer's not too long afterward.
The last few years of her life were spent with my uncle (the one that does not speak to us) and his family, and by all accounts, they took wonderful care of her.
We were not informed of the death of either of my grandparents until after the funerals had respectively taken place, per their wills, so that we could not be in attendance. My mother had been written out of her father's will and remained somewhat in my grandmother's, so I was sent to pick out any of her personal items that we might want.
I loaded the car—the quilts she had made, her pots and pans, her yogurt maker. The sign from a pile of fabric just marked "BARGAINS." Tubs of neatly coiled ribbon and trim and embroidery floss. The china my mom asked for. Everything of hers that hadn't already been claimed was there, down to the contents of her medicine cabinet. The thing that hit me the hardest was opening a tub of bedding and smelling HER, a smell I did not know I remembered. There's a container full of quilts under my bed right now. And I am afraid to open them in case that smell is gone.
When my car was packed full, I drove to the giant cemetery both my grandparents were supposed to be buried in, according to the internet. It was bordered by a field on one side, and a super-highway on the other 3 sides. I walked for hours, up and down, and couldn't find them. It was cold and windy and I cried a lot, wondering if they had been buried in unmarked graves just to spite us, and then I drove home with my car full of what must have looked like crap to the tollbooth operators who stared at me strangely.
These mornings in Lent where I wake up and grab my coffee and try not to fall asleep over the Book of Concord, I feel an odd yearning to see her again. She'd probably hate the fact that I'm Lutheran, but at least she'd approve of the fact that I'm getting my reading done during the best time.