Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Day 3. After the funeral we hiked it back up to Atlanta, leaving warm(er) weather behind. It's in the teens here, and our entire neighborhood is still covered in snow. The most popular activity for Snow Days appears to be cleaning out closets (according to Facebook status updates.) We can be certain, once the ice and snow melts, everyone's innards, so to speak, will be emptied.

I'm racking my brain to find the correlation between closets and being cooped up inside our homes, and the only thing I can come up with is that when faced with prolonged exposure to a single space (e.g. our home) we have to confront it. This may be why so many Southerners have the proverbial skeletons in the closet. There's never enough snow on the ground for us to work up the courage - it is just another room, even smaller than all the others - to face the past.

Quick catalog of my closet: file bin, computer bag, trophy, myriad clothes, myriad shoes, old letters, receipts, purses, CDs.

Among the detritus of my life old letters and shoes hold the most meaning for me. The letters have been loving sorted and filed into boxes by year. From time to time I take them out, fixation on a particular year if I knew it was a good one, seeing the version of me others saw so long ago. They are pretty typical. Remember, it was C's closet so long ago that propelled me to save them like an archivist would. C has just moved into a new apartment and I imagine her setting her own boxes in some dark closet for reading when memory calls her.

The shoes are another story. My interest is not typical. I have a pair of shoes that I can not part with that I wore while in Paris, as in the whole time I was in Paris. They are nothing fancy, a worn pair of Ked's now dusty red from the Georgia clay. Then there's the gray and pink pair of Nike's my twin and I bought together while in NYC. We hadn't brought any good walking shoes, so we made a quick stop to the shoe store and walked out with near matching sets. Or the Vera Wang's from an old boss who was getting rid of them. Now, a favorite for evenings when magic might happen.

This brings me back to my grandmother, whose closets we helped clean out last weekend. I imagined we come across some remarkable discovery - my own closets will surely offer up some interesting life artifacts - but instead we found very little of her. Here was a woman who kept a very clean closet, and folks, it never snows in Florida.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

In Memoriam

(Jacqueline Mexson Catob)

Carillon bells rang this morning.

My grandmother passed away late last night. My family, those that are still in Florida, kept vigil beside her. I had wished to be there, but even the ones only an hour away didn't make it in time for her last few breaths.

I enjoyed the words of my twin who wrote this morning about her passing, "I did notice that she never changed her polish color from Thanksgiving. It only took 12 or so colors before she chose one, but I realized last night that I get my hands from her."

My twin wondered if she were compassionate enough, too. I should take the moment to note that my grandmother will never be described as being warm or even friendly really later in life, so we dealt with her seemingly displeasure with the way life turned out accordingly: frustrated, concerned, bummed.) My own last vision of her was as she was leaving our Thanksgiving day festivities, strong willed and hornery, but beautiful with her red lipstick my older sister applied after dinner. Vanity doesn't really disappear with time and her smile reminded me of how it will always be an intricate part of us.

I did love this woman whose hands (and artistic drive) I inherited. I also saw her that same week of Thanksgiving, but in the nursing home where she spent the last year of her life. The place was dismal, but my mom and her sisters brightened the space up as best they could with cut outs of fuzzy, funny animals, real furniture, books, comfy blankets. The smell of the place will stay with me, as will the fear I felt when faced with a mumbling man and disoriented older woman. Is this what we can become against our will?

But she was not this way when we entered her room. Her pale, gaunt face smiled as us. It had been a couple of years since I last saw her at her home, heavier, maybe even grumpier. Despite her demeanor she gave me a couple of drawings she made as a little girl. All models dressed in 1940s garb, long-legged, and polished. They looked like she traced them from a book or magazine. I took them home and from time to time, dug them out to look at where her small hands once worked the paper. Those hands that so long along created a montage of glamorous woman were now writing I thought, somehow continuing her story.

Honestly, I don't know a lot about my grandmother's early life. My twin was fortunate enough to glean some information and I heard some stories from cousins thrice removed when I lived briefly in London. I do know that as a child growing up in WWII London, she was sent to the countryside to live with strangers. When I think of the difficulty I have had adapting to new places, I can only imagine what she would have endured separated from family.

And that's the thing. I've looked at old pictures of family members decades old and can't connect with them. I look for resemblances - the curve of a lip, the shape of an eyebrow - but it's never enough. I'm thinking that what really connects us is the longing to know the other's past, present, and future. Most of the time it's what brings us together, but sometimes too much of that longing pushes people away.

This new year began with death but I think in this darkness there is light. While I was waiting to hear a status on my grandmother from my own mother, I heard what I thought was the phone ringing. (This is also known as the phantom ring for those of us who have to carry around two phones and also receive forwarded calls.) I cocked my head to the kitchen, nothing. Ten minutes later my twin called and said our grandmother died. 'What time?' I asked. To which she replied, 'About ten minutes ago.' Call it whatever you want but a lightness flooded me.

My grandmother inspired me. She was not perfect and I never idolized her, nor was she the kind of grandmother it seemed other kids had - sweet, plump, giddy, fun. These were adjectives I would never use to describe her. Still, her life resonated with me and I take comfort knowing that I did know her, even if it was a fraction of the life she lived and even if saccharine words will never befit the grandmother I knew. The more nuanced flavors in life are most interesting after all.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year, New Traditions

Happy New Year.

I'm just now sitting down to address a few post-Christmas New Year cards. I've recently been inspired by a magazine called ReadyMade, so in lieu of store bought gifts I dared to make a few homemade things, namely a scarf (not yet delivered), pints of preserved lemons, and holiday cards. The knitting is not new, but something I used to do years ago in Oxford. Carlyle Wolfe, a local artist there would come into the bookstore with her yarn and needles and I was curious. One day, she showed me how to do it and I spent the weekend holed up listening to books on tapes until my friend Lauren came over and I taught her how to do it. She excelled, far more than I did, and tore through several skeins to my one. Then something else interested me and I moved on, forgetting how to cast on and the simple knit stitch until Chris' mom showed me on Christmas.

The cards were an entirely different matter. I've long made handmade cards, never being able to find designs or sentiments that resonate with me. After seeing an interesting collection of rubber stamps in the above mentioned magazine, I embarked on making my own stamp, in this case a bird. Simple and a nod to peace. I stamped out a handful before the holiday, adding some bits of paper for flair, and then Christmas hit, followed by snow and the arrival of my family, and the cards sat on my desk forgotten. Until today...

The preserved lemons are old news and constant pastime, only unusually engaged in during the first few weeks of spring. But after seeing some lemons in the grocery store and thinking how cheery they would be in the coming gray months of winter, I thought I'd make a few pints of lemons to give away. My own stash is down to a quarter piece, but I like knowing other people will have a chance to be creative with this surprisingly bright condiment. And I feel good knowing I'm continuing a tradition of preserving fruit, even if it isn't the same way (or even the same type of fruit) my grandma did.