I am sitting in my hotel room in Virginia, while my dad, my aunt and my uncle detail through all of the stuff that has come up after the death of their parents. In a tiny little assisted living apartment (which consists of a living room, bathroom, fridge and sink and a tiny bedroom), it is apparent that after my grandfather was moved to convalescent care before his death, my grandmother only took the things that were most dear to her heart to this little apartment. She and my grandfather always lived minimally, but this apartment shows how minimal they could get.
Still, stored into every possible nook and cranny we find more things. Jewelry, books, CDs, instruction manuals, and pictures. There are hundreds of pictures still in this apartment, and hundreds at my father’s house already in Vermont.
By the time we had gotten there on Thursday, my aunt Kathy had already emptied her clothing and the last of my grandfather’s clothing (including a beautiful tuxedo that no one wanted or needed) and brought it to Goodwill. I have been tasked with carefully removing the photos that are in these large frames on the wall, those reminiscent of the 70s when people would put as many photos as possible into a frame, a cheap matting surrounding each one. Many of these photos are sun-bleached, their edges curling up and pushing the matting away from the backing. And they are taped onto the backing. It has been a slow, tedious process. I keep the tape on the photos because it is easier to manipulate a photo so that the tape is not visible, than to try and recreate a photo where tape has torn off the emulsion.
There were a few things I wanted, but didn’t want to overstep my boundaries. My aunt Kathy took my great-grandmother’s wedding dress – from the 1920s – a black dress that she evidently hand-beaded at night in secret. I am taking home my grandmother’s wedding dress, that in 1951 cost her $250. It’s all lace and light fabric, and in it I can see her young self – and I can hear her older self calmly purring about her “once 22 inch waist.” She was proud of her figure, and she was certainly a beautiful woman.
But she was proud, and she was strong. In our careful removal of all these things in her little apartment, we came across a little book she sent to my grandfather when he was in Korea – for the second time – with notes, and photos carefully placed on the pages, anecdotes and updates on their children’s lives. At the end, she simply writes – “Merry Christmas, dear. Very soon we will all be together again like we were in the photo at the beginning of this book.”
And the sentimental part of me read that and started getting teary, because I imagined her after my grandfather’s death maybe saying, “Very soon we will be together like we were before.” Maybe she didn’t say it, maybe she just thought it.
It’s been evident that they loved each other. In these pictures of them, young and old, they look at each other adoringly, or one is smiling at the camera while another is smiling adoringly at the other. And while I struggle to process their deaths and grieve like I know I should, it is hard to look at their things and remember how my grandparents interacted with them.
I am taking home three dressers and an apothecary cabinet. There was talk of letting them go, but I couldn’t bear to see them go – and I need a dresser, anyway. The apothecary cabinet is something I have always admired, and as we talked it over my uncle David looked through the drawers. The cabinet was purchased in Japan during World War II when oji-san (my dad’s grandfather, my great grandfather) was stationed there. Each drawer has a different symbol, which my father and my uncle guess each mean something different for good luck. No one in our family reads Japanese, although they all speak a few words (or maybe “remember” a few words would be a better way of putting it).
I imagine my grandparents back together now, happy and capable of conversation and enjoyment in each other’s company again. I imagine in that way – I don’t, and will not, claim to know that’s where they are or what they’re doing. All I know is they loved each other, they loved their family, and they were always there for each other and all of the rest of us too. When we needed advice, or just support, they were there. There was no judgement, there was no presumption of what we were “supposed to do” versus what we did do. There was advice for future situations, and words of encouragement.
I loved them, and they loved all of us. And most of all, they loved each other. They set the standard in our family for what a marriage should look like – how partners are supposed to treat each other. How to deal, both gracefully an stubbornly, with those situations that are hard, and frustrating, and all-together entirely overwhelming.