Relative Strangers: Remembering My Grandmother Ruth Stone
My grandmother Ruth Stone died on a cold day in November on the mountain in Vermont where our family land stretches over acres of tall grass and woods and a lean dirt road that cuts through, utterly unchanged in all the years I’ve been alive. That Arcadian mountain loomed enormous in my childhood, rife with plums and apples growing wild, clusters of fat currants jamming the backyard bushes, and a towering cherry tree that bent right over the old W. B. Stone mailbox and dropped its sour cherries onto the dusty road. I can still feel the gritty pits that seemed so unusual in my mouth and I can still feel Grandma’s hand at the moment of her death many years later, her last big sigh of breath like a great steam engine coming to a stop.
Her house was stuffed with books and papers, rooms of the true artist’s life—ninety-six years, at the time of her death—worth of poems, letters, marked-up books, photographs, piano music, quilts, tin cups, notes in her broad, loopy handwriting, funny drawings, and all the stories we had heard and made collected there under wide panels of dust. Now, four years later, as the invisible chronometer marks a century since she began, I feel urged to see those years again in which I lived outside of my own story, glimpsed that life that was my grandmother’s, and that was also my mother’s, and that became, in turn, the sharp and glimmering frame of my own.
When she died that November there was no doctor, no hospice, just our small family come together when her cold turned to pneumonia on a Tuesday. Bianca read poems and stroked her grey hair; our aunt read her an old love letter our grandfather had sent after the war, before he killed himself while on sabbatical in London, a fact that would haunt and restrain and burst our family inward for decades to come. Then, a lull, and I was sitting beside her, her pale, large-knuckled hand in mine. I was looking at the wrinkles folding in elegant rows up her arm, her thin skin, the strange blue tint of it from having too little oxygen. Her breathing was an evident, distressing death rattle, though the little morphine administered by her oldest daughter every few hours seemed to keep her just under the surface of consciousness.
There, in the warm back bedroom of her daughter’s house down the mountain where she had been living, a fire burning in the stove just outside her door, the familiar smell of mountain dogs that run free in the woods and books hanging around for a century and dusty cassette tapes piled in a basket by her bed with the library-rented tape player—'70s beige with big buttons to play P. G. Wodehouse and Tarzan—her body simply, uneventfully stopped. I saw it, heard the forceful exhale, then waited for her to breathe back in. She did not. After a minute I gently put the portable heart-rate monitor on her finger. There was no pulse. I sucked in all the air around me, as though the last of it were pouring out a leak in the wall, and looked at my sister to say: Grandma is dead.
“Some things you know all your life,” Philip Levine wrote. The line chuffs across my brain with such regularity I can’t recall the first time I read it. He’s talking about our greatest certainties, but I am always reversing it: Some things you can never know. We live only with a vague sense of when we will end and glimmers of the history behind us, all of it brief and unstable. Sometimes we write out of this desperate place —to give shape to where we came from while there’s still time. To articulate something of what it means to be human. “Don’t confuse hunger with greed,” Advice goes. “And don’t wait until you are dead.”
When we’d visit Grandma in Goshen, my mother carrying a new story to read her or an electric bill, sometimes I’d climb into the back seat of our car and sleep in the heat the sun made coming through the window. I could hear them through the trees, laughing on the porch loud as wind chimes, their closeness a tiny circle I could not get inside. Eventually I would wander down the path to the chilly front door. Even in late spring I needed a sweater indoors; the fireplace was always dead, though it must have been roaring in my mother’s childhood, and the Persian rugs lay over the wide wood floors that never seemed to warm. In the center of the living room the woodstove stood baldly next to a shelf of poetry and a sunken flowered chair, Grandma’s favorite, her whole body visible in its depressions. In the summer I’d walk out to the tiny back porch to lie on the horsehair mattress and watch the wild cats that came in through the screen to eat. Or I’d go to the front porch that stretched the length of the house and was scattered with wicker chairs and plants in bowls. That infamous, sloping porch with its weak spots and patched screens where my mother and grandmother laughed and fought and read aloud was a sanctuary for many poets during a lifetime of summers. Up there where the currant bushes grew wild, up there where the grass was the rich, damp green of renaissance paintings, in the sad light of a house bought for a young family who would soon be devastated and retreat. On hot afternoons we’d take the road up to Bread Loaf Pond and swim out to the dock, trying not to touch the spongy, dark bottom where another kind of life, neither land- nor water-bound, was teeming. It’s all there in front of me still: the soft path from the dirt road; the mossy, wet boards that would catch and pull at my bathing suit when I’d hoist myself up out of the water; the poets on the hill moving slowly like soft wind from cabin to cabin.
Our world was filled with writers, book-lovers, music; the sound of my mother’s typewriter before the sun came up. It was filled with money troubles and somber walks back from the mailbox with heavy, rejected manuscripts. I knew early on how to get by without electricity, how to tell a good story, how to read a poem out loud with gravity and feeling. I knew it was hard to be a thinking woman, to honor your art like the children you were raising alone. I was piecing together, as we do when we are young, the place that I came from, a place where my grandmother’s students adored her but she couldn’t get tenure and so lugged her suitcase around the country for years in her rickety car or on Greyhound buses following teaching jobs. A place where my grandparents once had poems in The New Yorker side-by-side but my grandfather died soon after under the enormous pressure of his first book’s deadline. I knew this life of the writer was compulsory, almost inescapable when you had the bug; sometimes thrilling, often lonely.
I knew too that we had roles in our family and I was the oldest of my mother’s children. Which meant that later in my life, many of the phone calls my grandmother made to me exploded through the wires like hydrogen gas. I can hear her voice on my answering machine with incredible clarity still, and I recall the exaggerated messages now with overwhelming affection. I’m worried! Your mother isn’t answering her phone. Hillery? Hillery? This is your grandmother. Call me back.
It was in her old, sloping, buckling-wood-floored bathroom that I first understood what it meant to remember something. I was five years old and looking at a wall of photographs she’d put up with pushpins and Scotch tape. I stared for a long time at the chaotic tapestry of our family, images clipped and torn running almost to the ceiling, then turned my head away and was astonished to find that I could still see it in my mind. I did it again, and again the wall came back to me. I looked harder, wider, then ran to the back bedroom. The images were still there. It seemed to me a miracle.
When she died I felt the wall come back and I felt its doom. A vaporous terror lay over my skin all afternoon while she stayed there in her bed growing colder. By night her face had hardened—all but the top layer of her skin, which remained soft and pink in the cheeks, so much like the baby mouse I’d once found abandoned under a box on my mother’s porch, hairless and writhing around in the discomfort of its brand-newness. As the night drew on it was as if time, as it existed in her, was moving backward. How could I not think it? She looked younger with every glance. The mouse, blinking and blinking at the sun.
But still her body stiffened, and still we went in, kissing her cool forehead, saying a few things, then leaving to make tea or look through David’s box of old film reels or walk outside onto the crunchy November snow to smoke and look at stars. A few hours after her death the dog, in a seemingly horrific act of mimicry, began to choke, convulse and die. Nora put him next to Grandma in her bed, and there they faded together all night long. The next morning we carried the bed with two silent bodies out to the garage where it was cooler. I could see my breath rising and fanning out in front of me, but other than that, it seemed more or less another room. The bed sat all day in the corner like a canoe. There were blankets keeping nothing warm, a chest sinking; the strangeness of being left with a human body and no one in charge of it. Anne Sexton’s dead came to me, how they “lie without shoes in their stone boats. They are more like stone than the sea would be if it stopped.”
A great sea had stopped. Yet it seemed cruel to wrap her up and send her away with strangers, and anyway, we didn’t know yet what to do with the body. At dinner we discussed cremation and burials and decided her beautiful legs could not be burned, her body would be better met by the dirt of her own land. Someone called the town to find out about proper burial regulations. We had to measure a certain distance to her grave from water lines, they said. We had to make a box. I wondered which family members might have salted a dead body in ancient Egypt, patting the granules across every appendage before drying it for forty days. A sister, a daughter? Who could bear the responsibility?
When I was young Grandma would hiss loudly at me, Be nice to your mother, as though I could be cruel, as though I wasn’t eight or nine years old and innocent of most things save a door-slam on my brother Walter or roping off my room. I wish I didn’t remember her voice like this. I wish I remembered her loving me more. But all the darkness of those upstairs rooms, the overgrown front walk where I waited hours for her one day when she told me not to move, all of it is fading, anyway, because we whittle to a near-singular fondness for someone after they’ve died. It’s harder to remember the complexities of our love. And while this golden light settles protectively over them, I worry how far we’ll go from our real selves in the softened memories of the still-living. Which is to say, I worry that one day I will disappear.
Some theories about the brain suggest that any memory we have becomes less reliable when we revisit it, like a room we walk into, taking something each time we leave. So how do we see anything in its true form once it’s gone? What is it we’re writing down? If our memories are so wily and malleable, then they are indeed like Grandma’s best flower chair—deeply imprinted with our heavy, human selves. “We were relative strangers,” she writes about her husband thirty years after his death, because she’d been living with his memory longer than she’d lived with his actual body. The longer he was gone, the more unreal he became. The more hers.
We might come to feel closer to each other in absence like that, but what an astoundingly lonely thought: that we can know someone for years but only look back at a vague reproduction of them, hung with details created in the folds of ageing. One’s favorite old button-up, or chocolate bar, or affection for us—perhaps our own inventions, a soaring cherry tree that could never withstand the freezing winters on the top of our Appalachian mountain.
This is how I see my grandmother in the still place behind my eyes: a radical, a pillar, the dramatic ruler on the peak; a brilliant storm of a woman who might have loved us all madly, or might not have. She could cut someone down fiercely if he was rude to her. She could learn your whole life story in an hour. Once, in a taxi ride from SoHo to my apartment in the West Village, she became best friends with our Nigerian driver. While I was paying up, they were making plans for him to visit her in Vermont.
She was known for calling her students My Darlings. She could make you feel you were her favorite person on earth. Each Thanksgiving after her sight started failing, she’d arrive at our bustling house brought over by someone (Has anyone gone to get Mother yet? we’d hear from inside the stove where our mother was basting the turkey dangerously). Sometimes it was my husband, as he was the least busy and most comforting to her with his new, well-heated car, and she’d arrive on his arm like a queen.
Grandma’s reign in the family was long and only slightly broken by the death we all feared. But I can see us all on her Goshen staircase Christmas morning the year we were sure was her last (we were three decades early), and in my mother’s kitchen belting out Alexander Mehielovitch Touritzen, the sisters laughing in their private way that always sent everyone else out simply to orbit, Grandma pleased and annoyed, all of us children watching from space. Oh, Mother her daughters would say. That was our life together; this is the imprint left in me. One day we too will be skimmed off the surface of the earth. Perhaps we will join her in the backyard. Perhaps we will be remembered, intact, unharmed.
We gave her a green burial, finally, presuming that’s what she’d want since she would never speak of it. Her body was lowered into the ground in her own back yard in an untreated box, the men holding the sides and pulling the wet ropes, the dull sound of weeping, my daughter in pink, muddy corduroys holding a shovel to scatter dirt, the rain beating down so hard our whole kingdom was turning to mud. Shubert was playing scratchily from a portable CD player. The white storm clouds flattened against each other like an enormous canvas; the branches tore at the sky. Do all things come to an end? she’d asked. The bend of the muddy river. The wide dry field of geese. I could see my mother across the lawn, crouched down in her sandbox under her favorite tree, I could see her father scraping the house in the hot sun while his girls played in the grass, I could see myself many years later filling a shirt with red currants by the back door. I could see Grandma widowed, hanging laundry. Rain, rain, our howling ancestral land, we were saying goodbye to a body that had lived almost a century and was now only the many millions of atoms her mountain had gathered, a composite of our overlapping, unharmonious memories, a frail, etiolated moon descending into the earth. Was it okay that the rain was hitting her face and dampening her hair? Should we close the top? The gesture seemed impossible for any single person. I looked at her and then I looked at her lineage lined up at the edge of the deep grave, wet, huddled close for warmth, ravaged by love and warfare and rain turning to ice. The image pressed hard against the walls of my mind like a hieroglyphic, though how sharp it will remain in me I cannot say.