I’ve collected a bunch of pictures and memories on my desk, trying to make sense of them. And I can’t help thinking of Grandma’s boxes upon boxes of memories. Photos of every child and grandchild, and every trip she and Grandpa took. Boxes of old calendars, of days going back well before I was born, the collected minutiae of Grandma’s everyday life. Trinkets and toys and programs and brochures, everything collected and saved. A bag full of wishbones, hundreds of chicken dinners memorialized by drying and brittle bones. A napkin collection, magazines, drawers full of milk bags: Grandma collected these too. The random scraps of paper and litter that I’ve collected on my desk in order to conjure up something of the Grandmother I knew represent a fairly pitiful collection in comparison to all of Grandma’s collections.
I was sitting with Grandma at her kitchen table one day, when we lived in Guelph, and when Grandma was having to downsize yet again. Someone had pulled out a box full of memories for Grandma to sort through in preparation for her move to Kingston. Paper was scattered across her table and littering her chairs, and I had to move some of them in order to find a place to sit down.
She held an old photograph of her high school class back in Grimsby. Although it was black and white, the young people in the photo were captured in crisp, perfect detail. I found a much younger Betty quickly enough, her bright smile holding nothing back. She looked like she couldn’t be happier than just standing outside with her classmates that day. Others in the picture were sullen or bored or shy to smile. But Betty let her light shine.
Grandma told me about the other kids in her class, the ones whose names she could still remember. That photograph still sits somewhere in the back of mind, and often I will return to it, marveling at how young everyone looked, how they were all destined for so many different things. How, although young and bright and just new to the adult world, many would go off to war only a year later. How most of them were gone now. But especially, I return to that smile I know so well, Betty’s smile, Grandma’s smile.
When I was twenty-one, I moved back home because I got sick. I love my family very much, and I also like not having to cook for myself, but I felt so defeated. I had gone out into the world and failed, and had to come back. Around that time, Grandma and I started what became a weekly ritual: we went out for dinner at the Golden Griddle every Wednesday. When I first started taking her out, I felt noble, like I was sacrificing a night out of my very busy schedule to take out my Grandmother.
Instead of a sacrifice, though, those nights with Grandma gave me strength. I learned a lot about her life, yes, but we talked even more about me. Grandma was always interested in what I was doing, even if even I found what I was doing boring. I tested out my theories of the world on her. Among her many strengths, Grandma was a fantastic conversationalist. She had all the tricks up her sleeve. Even if something seems like a cold, hard fact, go and tell it to Grandma, and she will find a way to refute it, all for the sake of a good discussion.
I learned how not very different I was from her; she had herself flunked out of university, and had done just fine with her life, all things considered. Grandma, even in her frailty, radiated strength. And, harnessing that strength, I was able to go back out into the world and try again.
The most important moments I spent with grandma are ones that I can’t remember because they were so ordinary. Perhaps this is why the scattered bits of paper and photos on my desk elicit no emotion in me. Instead, to remember grandma, all I need to do is look at life with unfailing optimism. To sit and enjoy a conversation, and maybe even start a gentle discussion by playing the devil’s advocate. To just sit and watch the birds, watch the children, to watch life pass by in its endless seasons and endless beauty.