As we were climbing into the car to leave, Jean said to me, “I wonder how my
grandchildren will remember me.”
I thought of how warm it must have felt in her hand. The crumbs that clung to her
little finger tips. That wonderful smell that permeated the kitchen. You can now
buy candles that try to recapture it. The traces of flour on her apron. A mixing bowl
and big wooden spoon with specks of batter clinging to them. The heat of the stove.
A window thrown open to allow a gentle breeze in providing some relief. A counter
full of those circular, sweet sugar cookies. A little girl looks at her grandma as she
raises one of them to her mouth.
Maybe I should explain. You don’t know who you are until you know where you
have been. That is why knowing your family history is so important. If you are lucky,
it is more than just some dates and some hard to spell names. The problem is most
of us don’t start this search until our tires have become thread bare and all the
people that could have given us so many answers have passed away themselves.
Parents and grandparents, great uncles and aunts, who knew so many things you
wish you would have asked.
Sometimes it is chasing phantoms. People dead a half a century or more are always
slightly out of focus. Still, like Sherlock Holmes, you put the clues together. All the
while knowing the puzzle pieces regarding who they were are missing, ultimately
hoping you discover a part of yourself.
If you are lucky you can find an elderly person with whom you spent a great deal of
time, usually as a child, with the relatives you are searching for clues about. The
problem is you are asking them to recall relatives who might have passed away sixty
or seventy years ago. Memories are not fossilized in amber. Most simply slip away.
Memories of grandparents are particularly elusive because who they were is not
completely who they were with you. They were your grandparents and a child
looked at them through that lens. You learn to hope for little things. Most of who
they were does not survive.
It was called the big house. In the race between my great-great grandmother and
her sisters, it was the symbol to show that she had won. For my great-great
grandfather it was probably proof to him that he was not going to end up like his
father clutching a bottle of booze in some general store’s backroom. Those who saw
it remember the second and third floors as resembling grand hotels inside. A child
would have had a field day tooling around on a big wheel in that home. Back then, a
child was expected to show manners and, if you wanted to roughhouse or play, you
What is funny is every child in that house recalls the hairy, big child of a black dog
named King who patrolled the farmyard. Each elderly person now recalls rooms
that others never saw, and some rooms the doors were always closed. So no one
remembers what was inside those walls. It would be nice to walk around the big
house and explore what was where, but it burnt down well over half a century ago. I
don’t know if anyone really knows why. Almost everything was lost in the fire,
pictures, mementoes, and things that seemed so important at the time, as that house
and everything it represented disappeared in the flames.
Everyone should have memories of their mother. That just seems right. Yet, her
mom died from a brain tumor when she had just turned four. I am sure she was
sheltered from it. It could not have been pleasant. So, that is how she spent a great
deal of her childhood with her grandparents in the big house.
My relative, Jean, and I got to spend an afternoon visiting with this now 97-year-old
woman named Bessie and her memories of the big house. Still living in her own
home, her mind as clear as a bell, and except for a touch of arthritis, she has amazing
health. Even her voice was still strong and full, not reedy like many older people
develop. It is said that we all practice our entire life for what we will be like when
we are old. So, she must have done something right because it was a perfectly
charming afternoon. One where you feel you are not wearing out your welcome, not
the other way around.
We looked at a handful of photographs and talked. She had her memories of rooms,
bits and pieces of recollections here and there, and there were the apologies as she
struggled to come up with something about her grandparents. Oh, she spent a great
deal of time with them, but no child ever thinks, “We need to talk.”
When you are trying to discover who you are and uncovering the past, you learn to
celebrate the little things. Towards the end of our conversation, Bessie started
talking about how her grandmother made the best sugar cookies in the world. As
she described them, I looked in her eyes and some small piece of her was five years
old again in the kitchen of the big house and, for a brief moment, her grandma was
still alive. Again, she was a little girl who lost her mother, sitting in the kitchen, with
a grandmother who loved her more than she would ever know. Those sugar cookies
were as real as if they had just been pulled out of the oven today.
If there is an afterlife, if part of us does carry on, I think it is in sugar cookies, and
that is more beautiful than we deserve. If there is an eternity, it is not 70 virgins or
sitting on a cloud. It is sugar cookies. We get worked up and worried about things
that ultimately disappear in the fire like the big house. Even after we are long
forgotten, and all of us are forgotten in time, what remains are sugar cookies.
As we were getting into the car to leave, Jean wondered what her grandchildren or
great-grandchildren would remember about her. They will remember sugar cookies
and that will carry on long past when they are gone. I don’t know what your sugar
cookies are, but whatever they are, however you show love, that is the only thing
that will remain. Smiles, laughter, and childish glee. A grandmother and
granddaughter. Warm ovens and sugar cookies. That seems just about right to me.