In grief, we keep.
By the time Grandma died, her house had become a museum. This morning, when we pulled into the oil-stained carport, Mom hesitated before turning off the ignition. During the four-hour drive it took to get us into the valley, she and I had mostly ridden in comfortable silence, and now I saw her want for words. The corners of her lips were pensive, tinted with a practical berry lip balm. The new matriarch.
We exchanged looks. I saw the creases under her eyes route themselves into her cheekbones. We were both tired, running off the sheer determination that oldest daughters are born with. The low rumble of her SUV ceased with a large exhale that came from her belly.
You don’t have to say anything right now, I wanted to tell her.
She rubbed my shoulder. “Ready to work?”
I nodded, reminding myself that the house wouldn’t smell like Crisco when we walked in. There wouldn’t be food waiting for us in the oven. Grandma wouldn’t be peeling apple slices over the kitchen counter.
Although orderly, my grandma hoarded memories. Mom and I volunteered for the first, most intensive round of getting the house sorted: I was an archaeologist, she was a Capricorn, we both liked scavenger hunts. I pushed the door open with my shoulder—it always gets a little stuck in the summer—while Mom unfolded a piece of paper from her purse.
“I think we can find most of these things by lunchtime,” she said, scanning the list she made from Grandma’s will. “We can get enchiladas.”
We were greeted with stale, still air. Morning light trickled through the gaps in the curtains, but it was enough to capture the movement of particles swimming around us.
“I’ll open some windows,” I offered, watching the sea of dust part as I broke through it. The sounds of my heels against the linoleum, of the rushing curtains, of the street and the next-door neighbors’ pool broke the unsettling quiet.
I reached over the sink to open the kitchen window as my mom opened the sliding glass door on the other side of the breakfast counter. There was a small dish and a paring knife in the basin, and the roll of paper towels would soon need replacing.
“The roses look great,” Mom said. We both looked out to the backyard, and if I unfocused my eyes I could see blurs of a bounce castle, a slip’n’slide, a family reunion dancing in a circle. Memories of throwing chopped walnuts to the blue jays on the grass, chasing squirrels along the fence, and squishing fallen, soft apricots in between my toes flooded the front of my mind. Now the lawn was crisp and brown, and the apricot tree hadn’t produced fruit in years, but in the shade of an Oregon Ash, eight rose bushes had reached the peak of their blooms.
“You loved running around barefoot out there,” she told me. “The little burrs would stick your feet, but you kept your shoes off anyway.”
I smiled and made my way around the counter to turn on the kitchen lights. Mom was still lost outside. “Remember you’d stay here for weeks during the summer?”
“You’d be so brown by the time I picked you up. You haven’t been that dark in a long time.” She rubbed her hand across her pale arm. “I haven’t either.”
Over years and loss, the rooms had become subtle, inadvertent shrines. There were tracks in the vinyl where my grandpa would drag the legs of his favorite chair. Figurines of angels were perched on the TV stand in front of where my aunt’s hospice bed used to be. A shadow box on the wall next to my grandma’s bed encased her mother’s pearl hairpin (I planned on keeping this; Great-Grandma Sira was my namesake).
I cleared some space on the kitchen table and peeked at the list she was holding. “You’re getting Auntie Joy’s silverware?”
Mom let out a small laugh. “Everyone gives me their silverware.”
“I’m getting a ‘large red box and its contents.’”
“Do you know what that means?”
“No, what does it mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s very cryptic.” She shrugged and opened the china cabinet drawers. “I’m going to start packing these dishes for Rosie if you want to start looking around for the other things.”
The first three items on the list: my grandmother’s cross pendant (left to Allyse, my younger cousin with a proverbs tattoo), Grandpa’s bibles with the notes in the margins (left to my Uncle Warren, now a preacher in Hawaii), and Christmas ornaments (left to my mom, whose tree branches bowed heavy with her already-impressive collection).
“You get the ornaments too,” I told her.
“I know,” she said under the gentle clacking of plates as she wrapped them in old dish towels. “Sometimes I wonder who will take all of mine when I’m gone.”
She threw me a face. “You’re not sentimental.”
I thought of the boxes full of photographs and birthday cards that lived under my bed. “I could be.”
“Maybe your brother will. He’s more traditional anyway.”
“Mom, I’ll get a tree once I have space for one. I’m not anti-Christmas-tree.”
“Ok,” she dismissed. “If you find more old towels by the bathroom will you bring them back?”
I headed toward the back of the house where I’d find the bibles and the necklace. There were three bedrooms: the small pink one with a vintage vanity was my aunt’s, the white one with the red ‘80s stripe around the wall was my dad’s, and the master with the two single beds pushed together belonged to my grandparents. One side of the dark, narrow hallway that led to my grandparents’ bedroom was decked with a row of family portraits—the other side was brick. I ran my finger on the mortar the way I used to when I was younger. My grandma said I liked to live in the in-between.
The light in their bedroom seeped through gossamer curtains. The sliding glass door offered a side view to the backyard, and I saw the place where she used to grow calla lilies. In that soil, I caught pill bugs and buried a lizard the cat got to—one time I found a bird skull next to the drainage pipe.
The bookshelf near my grandpa’s side of the bed was full of thick bindings, but it was easy to remove the three bibles he used to study.
“Hokis, Armenia was the first what?” he would ask me.
“Christian nation,” I would answer.
A cloud of dust puffed up from the blankets when I placed the heavy books on top of them. I sat on the side of the mattress, then eased onto my back, twisting and resting my spine inside the crack where the two beds met. On the popcorn ceiling above my head was a small light with loops of plastic crystals. So much in the midcentury home hadn’t been altered since they first moved in.
Grandma’s silver jewelry box on her nightstand pulled my focus. The springs creaked as I shifted my weight and swung my feet to the other side of the mattress to lift the tarnished, heart-shaped lid. Inside were a few mismatched pearl earrings, a thin gold chain, and a white gold cross necklace decked with family birthstones. I lifted it out of the box and watched the light catch the different colored stones; the surfaces were cloudy and in need of cleaning. When I found my small piece of aquamarine close to the center, the chain slipped through my fingers and collapsed on the carpet under the bed frame.
In a flash of movement, I slid off the side and onto my knees to reach the necklace, clutching it in my closed, warm palm and pulling it into my chest. My eyes started to burn and my throat felt thick, mostly from the dust.
I panned my vision under the bed. The fabric from the box spring had dilapidated over the years and stretched into the floor. The space, aside from the stalactites of string, was kept clear, except for a red paperboard box by the wall. I reached for it, trying not to send its dense layer of dust flying as I pulled it into the open.
I set the cross necklace onto the bed and let my hands hover over the lid. It was sizable, like the shoeboxes that boots come in, and where my fingers had cleared the gray, a vibrant red peaked through. I hesitated, watching a young, pale silverfish dash off the top. I’d been on three excavations before, one in an ancient burial cave in Madrid. When I was six, my grandma drove through a cemetery to get me to fall asleep for a nap. She slowed the car to a stop as my eyes were closing and pointed out the window. “That’s where Papik and I will go, vayri aghjik.” It was the first time she called me wild girl.
Years of training—the patience, the ginger handling, removing dirt with brushes and dental picks—escaped me as I folded back the lid. There was a note taped to the inside, and in a nest of shredded kraft paper rested a blue velvet ring box and a scattering of seashells, dried petals, and assorted rocks. Four small mason jars, the kind she used when she made jam, were burrowed in the paper. Their gold-toned lids were labeled: one for my grandma, one for my grandpa, one for my aunt, and one for my father.
I opened the small tri-folded note:
I trust you with the old ways.
Utem kez, Tatik
My brow furrowed. The closest we’d ever gotten to “the old ways” was rolling dolma and playing backgammon. I let out a huff of air and picked up the navy ring box. Inside, a swirl of gold sat on top of a coiled chain. I held the pendant close to my face: it was the eternity symbol for Hetanism, the Armenian faith before Christianity. I researched it a few years ago when I was getting my master’s—the dissertation I wrote ended up getting published but I never told my family. I peered over my shoulder at my grandparents’ wedding portrait. Her dark eyes were shining behind her cheeky smile.
I studied the pendant; the edges were worn and rough in some spots and one side was more tarnished than the other. A gray hair was caught in the clasp of the chain. A sense of warmth rushed out of my shoulders as I eased the necklace onto my lap.
I lifted the jar with my father’s name on the lid out of its paper nest. A cascade of shells and pebbles beat against the bottom of the box, but I was too struck by the contents of the jar to notice. Through the glass, I counted all of his baby teeth, a dark curl of hair secured with a ribbon, and something I guessed could be a dried umbilical cord. I looked at her cheeky grin, then back to the jars. Each had teeth and hair, and she added nail clippings to the ones marked for her and my grandfather. I placed them back into the paper, searching for more instructions or reasons in the process. Without luck, I stared into the eight swirling arms of the pendant.
The half-eaten lizard in the old calla lily bed and the feeling of damp dirt under my fingernails crossed my mind. Grandma watched while she hung up the laundry to air dry, and turned on the hose for my hands, knees, and feet when I was done. “That’s good for a lizard,” she said and kissed the top of my head as I scrubbed out the soil. “Because it’s an animal. People need to be closer to nature.”
Hetanism gives its dead back to the elements. They’re cremated in fire, then the ashes are split into three: one portion is buried for the earth, one is thrown into the wind over a gorge or the top of a mountain, and the last is sprinkled into the sea.
Quick footsteps approached the door and I closed the lid of the box.
“How’s it going in here?” Mom asked as she walked into the room.
“Yeah, it’s just dust.”
“My eyes are bugging me too.” She nodded. “You found the red box?”
“Um, yeah, but I’m not ready to open it yet,” I told her.
She pointed to my lap. “What’s that?”
I lifted the gold necklace. “I found it in her jewelry box with the cross necklace.”
“Oh,” she smiled. “You should keep it, it’s pretty.”
She picked up the stack of bibles on the other side of the bed, “I’m going to pack these up for Uncle Warren. Did you happen to find any more towels?”
I shook my head. “Sorry, I haven’t looked yet.”
“It’s ok,” she said, holding the books to her body. “Bring some out to me when you’re done?”
“Yeah, I’ll go check the bathroom now.” I stood up and placed the box on the bed.
“Don’t forget that cross for Allyse.” Her eyes caught the glimmer of birthstones. “I was a little sad she didn’t give that to you.”
The emptiness of the house grew heavy in our silence, and I could see the corners of her mouth start to quake. I waited for sound to escape the barriers of her teeth while I slipped the eternity symbol into my pocket.
“Would you want some coffee?” I asked her. “I can make some once I’m done in here.”
“That would be really nice,” she answered, flipping the light switch before making her way back through the hallway.
Published by The Plentitudes. July 2021.