Whenever my daughters and I visit my grandma’s house, my girls want to play with two things: her miniature Dachshund and her giant snow globe. The snow globe is about the same weight and size as a bowling ball. Inside there’s an idyllic scene of a village in England or Ireland or possibly France. There’s a stone bridge and a horse-drawn cart and small thatched-roof homes. Technically it isn’t a snow globe because, instead of snow, there’s glitter.
What my girls like best about the globe isn’t the cozy hamlet inside or the glitter or even the pastel butterfly attached to the outside by a coiled wire. What they like is the wind-up music:
Come with me and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination
One of the houses inside the globe could have easily been my great aunt and uncle’s. Outside, their house was painted red and white like a barn. Inside, their house was always warm, even in winter. Especially in winter. My uncle Harry would get a fire going and we’d all fall asleep at various points in the night because of the warmth and soft conversation.
Margaret and Harry’s looked like a page from the children’s book I Can Fly. They built the house themselves, literally, with their own hands after the war. The kitchen alone – an oven tucked in a brick wall, red plaid carpet, Coke and Sprite bottles in the fridge, milk glass tumblers, red, cut-glass goblets, a collection of gold-rimmed tea cups and saucers, scalloped-edged floral and lace plates displayed on the soffit and, for us kids, a wooden box with candy inside, usually butterscotch, attached to the brick wall. A fairy tale kitchen if there ever was.
When I stepped inside, I saw myself through Margaret’s eyes, the best version of myself. Margaret found the good in me, even as a sullen teenager, and put it up on her fridge: my honor roll announcement in the paper, some other achievement – and pointed it out to me. Look, she insisted through her actions. You’re a good kid. Remember that.
Sometimes as a child I’d spend a night or two at Margaret and Harry’s house. I slept in a sunny room with a rose and lace comforter, hardwood floors, a view of the shaded, lazy creek. The room was fancy and special and, because it was “my room,” I became someone worthy of its beauty. It was also Margaret’s sewing room. Every once in a while she took me with her to shop for patterns. We went to Paul’s, the hardware store uptown. Outside, the building was a drab dark brown and inside, not much different, but well-lit. To get to the patterns, we walked up a carpeted ramp. The lower floor was the hardware section and smelled of fertilizer, glue and fresh-cut wood. At the top of the ramp, we passed through a doorway into another world of silk flowers, ribbons, fabric, thread, buttons, floral wire and binders thick with the latest fashions. Margaret and I flipped through the binders to find a dress style or skirt she liked in Vogue or McCall’s, then we’d note the pattern number and search the filing cabinet to find the white envelope that held the pattern. She pulled out the brown tissue shapes and I wondered how it all worked. She never taught me how to sew – likely because I never asked – but pattern shopping with Margaret was one of the few occasions in my childhood where I had the sense to appreciate where I was and what I was doing.
Margaret and Gram couldn’t have been more opposite. Margaret was Methodist, Gram Catholic, so that separated them right there. Gram delivered the cold, hard truth no matter if you wanted to hear it or not. A person had to do something really bad for Margaret to speak ill of him. Gram has a police scanner in her family room to get the town’s gossip directly from the source. Margaret wasn’t one for gossip. I never heard a single swear word pass through Margaret’s lips. Gram, well – she can swear. One worked as a secretary in the school office, one worked in the factory. You can guess who did what.
As our family shrank and Margaret and Gram became widows, they spent holidays together at my mom’s house and forged an unlikely friendship. Margaret didn’t have any grandchildren of her own, so my siblings and I were essentially it. Margaret’s sister, my grandmother Dorothy, died when we were young so Margaret became a grandmother to us. Sometimes Gram got jealous that her grandkids adored another woman as much as we adored her, but I believe Margaret sensed that and kept a respectful distance. It seemed to me Margaret and Gram shared a wisdom about the world and how it worked – even if it was from different viewpoints – and they respected each other for that.
My eldest daughter stands Gram’s snow globe on its head to get the glitter in motion, but not much happens. My grandma tells her, “It’s getting old. It don’t work like it used to.”
Gram leaves the room and returns holding a wooden windmill. She sits and my girls’ attention is drawn away from the globe, toward her. They flank Gram on both sides. She pulls out a drawer at the bottom of the windmill and another song plays. It’s familiar – I can hum the melody, but can’t quite find the words. My grandma talks to them in her soft voice, one I seldom hear. The scene couldn’t be more poignant if I wrote it and I suddenly realize, I have to leave the room or else I’ll break my family’s golden rule: never let them see you cry.
I’m walking through Gram’s house carrying my four-month-old baby, my third and final. I head down into the basement with its low ceilings and whitewashed walls. The basement smells like detergent and moss. There’s a dusty six-pack of Coke bottles at least a decade old. I shake one to see if the liquid moves, and it does. The washing machine’s going – the washing machine’s always going. I come upon an entire shelf of my mom’s old shoes. I open a box and see a pair of black satin pumps embroidered with red roses that look like they belong on the feet of a flamenco dancer. I’m up the steps and into the back room where I study the pictures and touch the smooth face of a gold clock. I walk around touching things – the rough wool fabric of the chair, the glass of picture frames, the metal hats of steins, the carved wood of the grandfather clock – as if by touching them, I can absorb them through my skin and make them part of me.
I step into the bathroom to check my eyes in the mirror and I know it’s too soon to go back. My eyes are too red. She’ll know. I look down at my baby. She’s fixated on me, communicating through her stare. And, for the second time in a day, I clearly understand what she’s saying: “I love you.”
The first time she told me was during her baptism. There were about twelve of us in the church. The priest was doing us a favor, giving us wayward out-of-towners our own personal baptism. On the day after Easter, no less.
My grandma had flown to California for my first two daughters’ baptisms. It had been a deal: if she came to California, I would baptize them. This time, there was no talk of a deal. She was 92 and done traveling. So I arranged to have the baptism in Ohio.
Even though we were the only ones in the high-ceilinged church during the baptism and it was brisk and windy outside, I didn’t feel cold. The priest, Father Tony, had a rare mix of seriousness about his profession and Midwestern warmth. As he opened the small brass container of chrism, he told us it was brand new, just blessed by the bishop the previous week and my daughter was the first baby to be baptized with it. Maybe it was the newness or possibly how thick the oil was – more like a salve – but five days and as many baths later, my baby still smelled of it. Father Tony spread the oil over her forehead with his thumb and talked about what a gift this baby was. I looked down at her and clearly understood that she was staring “I love you” at me and I began to cry, surprising everyone there – most of all myself.
The church was built by German settlers and meant to be a replica of the church in Glandorf, Germany. There’s a hand-carved wood pulpit that, according to Father Tony, the church won in auction during the World’s Fair against St. Patrick’s in New York City. St. Pat’s decided at the last minute it was too much wood for their stony church. The pulpit was hand-carved by orphans in Germany, Father Tony told us.
“Do you preach up there a lot?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “I don’t like to look down on the congregation.”
At lunch after the baptism, Father Tony barely sat to eat because he was working the lunch crowd, not in a showy way, in a generous way, having real conversations with people.
When he finally did sit, I asked him if he’d always wanted to be a priest.
“I first studied religion in college,” he said.
“We study other religions in the seminary, in case we meet a person from that faith so we can speak intelligently to their beliefs.”
“Have you learned anything from other religions that have influenced your views?” I asked.
He made a “yes and no” gesture, then said, “Take Buddhism for example. It’s admirable that they teach peace, which is necessary for the world, but – it isn’t realistic.”
“You can’t have life without conflict. Life is conflict.”
I stopped, fork-still, because, right there – he was speaking a storyteller’s language. At the center of any story worth a damn is conflict.
“Life is conflict,” I repeated, mesmerized.
The only war story my uncle Harry ever told was of the ship that sailed him and a multitude of soldiers to their fates. He was in awe of just how many men that ship held. Thousands of men. Tens of thousands. A hundred thousand. Just a constant stream of men embarking on their journey. Apparently he was too old during WWII to fight in combat, so he was a litter bearer on the front. I think. I don’t even know where he went exactly during the war. France? Germany? Belgium? He never talked about it. Just the ship. Only the magical ship.
My mom’s dad, whom my siblings and I called Did Dad, was in a tank that blew up. From what I understand, he was rescued by the guy all the other guys hated. They were the only ones who survived the blast. Did Dad had his own ship story, but it was about the return. When their boat came into New York harbor and the men saw the Statue of Liberty, flame held aloft, welcoming the lucky ones home, there wasn’t “a dry eye” on deck. “Not a dry eye,” he’d always repeat.
Both Margaret and Gram had only children – daughters. Gram had a miscarriage, then breast cancer at 34, when doctors took out all her “plumbing.” On the topic of having more kids, she’ll give a shrug and say, “Sure, I wanted more, but oh well. That’s life.”
Margaret did have two children. Her daughter, Becky, and another girl, Judith, who died during childbirth. Growing up, I knew that Margaret had a baby girl before Becky, but it wasn’t something she spoke about. Now that I’ve been pregnant myself, the thought of Margaret – or any woman – going through the relentless ache of pregnancy, the pain of contractions that knock you mute, the rip and tear of childbirth, then to return home with an empty womb and empty arms –
Sometimes when it’s your last time in a house, you know it. If you move away and do the final walk through, you have a chance to say goodbye to your old friend. Or wave good riddance. We didn’t realize that our last time in Margaret and Harry’s would be it. After Harry died, Margaret’s health started to tip downward, but we were all in denial about her selling the house. It was sold to a member of Harry’s family. We all found comfort in this, deluding ourselves that we might go inside again. Over the next few years, my family all drove past “Mag and Hay’s” just to look at it – to remember the place we were all our best selves. But I never went past. I couldn’t. I might see the furniture arranged differently or something decidedly un-Margaret-and-Harry like outside and I’d have to accept that they were no longer there. If I didn’t drive past, I could fool myself into believing they were inside, making Jell-O molds and tinkering with the Buick. After a few years, the house had an electrical fire and burnt down. I somehow got tricked into driving past the new house when it was under construction and it was a strange relief. Margaret and Harry’s house really only belonged to them.
I’m in the tiny bedroom of Gram and Did Dad’s house where there’s space for a desk and not much else. I used to sleep in this room on a twin bed, but the bed’s gone now. It’s a dark room, practical, wood paneled. There’s a coat tree and some sewing supplies on a narrow table because Gram doesn’t make clothes, she fixes them.
My baby’s studying me. I’m still avoiding Gram because the blotchiness hasn’t yet left my face. When I walk into her bedroom, I can hear there’s a problem.
“It’s not working,” says my middle daughter.
Actually, the windmill’s music box is working. Too well. The song is supposed to stop when they slide in the windmill’s drawer, but the music keeps playing. I look around at the bedroom that’s exactly as it’s always been. A white chenille bedspread, the ticking of an alarm clock, a rosary on the nightstand, L’eggs on the dresser. I hear the familiar melody and check my face in the mirror. I can go back to them. The words of the song finally come to me, the only four words I know: We’ve only just begun.
The music stops.
I don’t want to leave my grandma’s house. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve been there – because of the baby – and I won’t be back for another eight months. But the time comes when we can’t delay it any longer and Gram stands to say good bye. She goes in for a quick hug and I think I am, too, and then I just hang on. I can’t let go and I start to cry. She feels it and she starts, too. I’m torn between holding her tight and the worry I might bruise her. She’s become so skinny I can feel her bones. The only sound in the room is us crying. My girls don’t know what to make of it. They move away from us.
“I’ll see you at Christmas,” I tell Gram. And she says through her tears, “I don’t know if you will. I might not be here.” I look at her and I say, “You’ll be here. I will see you.”
Margaret didn’t talk much about her daughter who died at birth. I only knew secondhand from my mom. I had always believed Margaret’s baby died because the cord was wrapped around her neck, but my sister told me recently it was the forceps. They crushed her skull.
After Harry died, Margaret started talking more and more about her baby. She told me she was angry with Harry for keeping the baby from her. I was shocked to hear Margaret say she was angry at Harry in a sharp voice. She just wanted to hold the baby, even if she was dead. Margaret wanted to see what she looked like. She never got to see the baby’s face. Harry and the doctors kept that baby from her. They felt like they were protecting her. Well, she didn’t need protection. What she needed was to hold her daughter.
At first, I found all this profoundly sad and cried about it with her, but then, as time passed, she spoke of it every time I visited her, every time my mom visited her, when we visited her together, and we became less certain of how else to reply. We’d said it all. We would never truly understand. Margaret didn’t really care about our replies. The closer she inched toward death, the more she ached to see her baby.
In the midst of Margaret’s yearning, I had a baby girl of my own, my eldest. Delivered by forceps. Margaret was in the nursing home at this point. When my mom and I brought my baby for a visit, Margaret was in the dining room eating lunch.
As we pushed the stroller toward her, all of the women in the room took notice and began to move in our direction, like filament to a magnet. I had a blanket over my daughter’s car seat because it was April and cold. We were there visiting for Easter. I hugged Margaret then pulled the blanket off to a chorus of oohs and ahhs. There sat my baby wide-eyed and alert, yet quiet.
The women cooed and came closer, wanting to touch my daughter or just get a good look at her. It was in this moment I realized nothing transports women faster in time than a baby, especially newborns. Newborns turn grey hair brown and erase wrinkles from the face in an instant because newborns are all essentially the same – same sounds, same hand movements, same mouths. So, whenever a woman holds a newborn, she’s holding her newborn. Real or imagined. My baby was a little beyond the newborn stage, but that didn’t matter. All these women cared about was the baby in their midst.
One woman said, “Here she is.”
Another asked Margaret, “Is this the baby you were talking about?”
“Yes, yes.” Margaret was crying. She touched my daughter’s hair and wiped her own eyes.
My mom and I exchanged a glance. We finally understood. Mom and I stepped back to make room for Margaret and her friends. They all wanted to see.
“My baby,” said Margaret. Her voice broke then she paused to collect herself. “Look. My baby.”