Here is the so-called dead grandmother story the teacher told us not to write. Everybody has one.
Once upon a time there was a shy, bookish, bespectacled girl with a larger than life grandmother who cast bags and bags of chocolate eggs across the dewy grass at Easter and whom the girl loved beyond measure, but then one day the grandmother got cancer, and even though the doctors tried and tried, and the girl’s father—the grandmother’s only child—cried and cried, the cells kept multiplying like words in a sentence, the grandmother died, and the girl’s heart was a broken chocolate egg in the teeth of the free-roaming goat who searched the grass with the hunting children, purple foil shining in his goaty beard.
But before the end, you have to know, there lived an extraordinary woman by the name of Sarah Conover Christman, my father’s artsy, salon-hosting, hard-drinking, old moneyed bohemian mother who, by the time memory begins, had given up both her house on The Vineyard and her apartment in The City, establishing her final domicile in a little white house with a big green yard and a fireplace by which she honest-to-God kept a jug of gasoline for use when the flames got low.
The year before Grammy Sarah died, our father took us to her house in Connecticut for Christmas. She was still well enough to cook, and when she cooked, a cigarette burning at the corner of her lipsticked mouth and a glass of scotch in her drinking hand, Julia Child’s name was often evoked; there were whole sticks of butter dropped into bubbling pots like doomed golden ships, little china pitchers of heavy cream, much whisking. Often, there was something screeching in a pressure cooker, and I would watch from the doorframe, half-hidden and cautious, because Sarah waited for nobody and nothing, certainly not a stinking gauge on a pot. The time was always now, and living by this explosive creed, cracking the lid too soon, she Pollocked her kitchen ceiling with gravies and sauces.
That night, we feasted on roast beef from a huge silver platter and Yorkshire puddings popping out of the muffin tins like curious seals, nut brown and slick with fat. We were to spend the night, but it was Christmas Eve and Dad had forgotten our stockings. What would we hang by the hearth? My brother Ian and I panicked, but Sarah took the matter in hand, ducking into her bedroom and returning with a pair of panty hose, which she chopped in half with glinting shears, right through the crotch. After we pushed back from the table, our lips shining with grease, Ian and I nailed the silky legs to the wall by the fire, and in the morning, the thighs bulged and the feet dragged the ground.
Grammy Sarah sat back in her chair puffing a cigarette and drinking dark espresso while we each pulled out a hammer and level, then wood, glue, handfuls of sugar cubes and nails, corncob pipes and dolls, and at the bottom, not your typical clementine rounding out the toe, but the entire fruit bowl—lemons, chestnuts, dates, and oranges.
We sat in our pile of plunder, crunching sugar, dangerously close to the roaring fire, our grandmother’s excess now our own. She smiled, eyes sparkling, and asked, “What are you going to make?”
Now I am six, and Grammy Sarah’s is the first funeral I will ever attend. The grave is cool—so deep, the dirt pile mountainous. Perfect for climbing or trucks. If Grammy Sarah were alive, there would be trucks, boards to make roads, pinecones and corncobs for shrubs and trees. If Grammy Sarah were here, we would not be so cold. We would have fire, and a party. But then someone tells me Grammy Sarah is in the box the men are lowering into the ground with ropes, and this seems sort of okay until the first shovelful of dirt hits the coffin lid with an echoing thud.
Suddenly, I understand these men are going to keep throwing dirt until the box is buried. How will she breathe? Get her out, I scream in my heart—or do I scream out loud? Get her out get her out get her out.
I couldn’t get her out, but she came back. Sarah is here. Ian and I are always making things: oil paintings and Yoda pancakes, birdhouses and forts, clay pots and crusty bread.
Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks 2014), and essays in magazines and journals such as Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, Literary Mama, Oprah Magazine, River Teeth, & Brain, Child. She serves on the board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com.
As always, I’m thankful for Jill Christman’s stories. And now, I’m also thankful for her grandmother, that she asked the big question– “What are you going to make?” How lucky we are that Christman picked stories.