Our current series, “Encounters with God,” consists of essays written by several participants in the summer 2015 writing workshop, Apart & Yet A Part. M. Sophia Newman wrote about ecology and faith in “A Wild Strawberry Patch,” Jamie Howison shared a story of ten voices who helped him hear God’s call on his life, and Kurt Armstrong wrote about why he chooses meaning over meaninglessness. Today Paige Eve Chant writes about the spiritual heritage of her grandmother. Stay tuned for one final essay, to be published in the coming weeks.
As my grandmother lay dying on the sofa in her mid-century ranch house, she called me to fetch her tweezers. “Sister,” she said, “you see these chin hairs? Just pluck them for me.”
My grandmother was not a vain woman. And yet.
So I leaned over her, tweezers readied. I reached for the lamp on the end table, turned the dial once, twice, three times for the brightest light. “I don’t see any chin hairs,” I lied.
“Oh, they’re there. Just a few.”
Still, I resisted, tweezers hovering mid-air. “It might hurt,” I said.
“It’s alright,” she said. “Go ahead.” She was as matter-of-fact about suffering as she was about everything else. She was Catholic, after all.
My grandmother’s eyes were closed, her face tilted back in peaceful, steadied waiting.
I laned over her, plucked three delicate chin hairs. She smiled as if relieved, and we went back to watching television. The living room walls were covered in fake wood paneling and an oversized portrait of Pope John Paul II, reaching out to us from the mantel, hand extended in perpetual blessing.
I was nearly thirty years old. I was supposed to know that my grandmother was dying. Still, when all was said and done, I did not know how to know a thing like that.
Not long ago, I bought my first car and drove it across the country to a little college town in New Jersey. I felt like a pioneer in reverse, the golden paradise of California’s central valley shrinking behind me in the rear-view mirror. Some days, it haunts me, this California.
I have lived in the northwestern corner of Spain, the south of France, a small town along the Mexican border. Nothing has felt so far from home as New Jersey, this great suburban land that is comforting and infuriating in equal measure. Still, I am trying it on as home. I keep trying it on, taking it off, trying it on again. It is mostly an exercise in trying. Some days I move a little more slowly, not recognizing this new land, muttering under my breath, as if afraid I might forget: I am not from here. I am from someplace else. I repeat the words like a mantra.
For a time, I lived in a perfectly suitable apartment in graduate-student housing. The building was less than ten years old, with central heat and air conditioning, university-subsidized rent, and scalding hot water that never once turned lukewarm in the middle of a shower. I lasted six months before I broke the lease in favor of a yellow farmhouse more than a half-century old. It has scuffed walls and hissing radiators and a decidedly less reliable stream of hot water. But somehow, lining the walls of the kitchen, three thousand miles from the ranch house I left behind, there they are—my grandmother’s cabinets, pistachio-green beauties with black fifties-era ironwork and the smell of the years locked away deep inside.
As a child, I used to wake up to the scent of coffee wafting down the hallway from my grandmother’s kitchen. It would be early morning yet, the house dark and quiet, no one bustling to ready themselves for Sunday Mass. I’d peek around the kitchen door and slip onto one of the barstools at the counter. My grandmother would be there, as there as the sun of California’s central valley, leaning over her prayer books with her housecoat wrapped around her and a cup of steaming coffee on the countertop.
Leaning over the kitchen counter, coffee and prayer books in hand, she would tell me about sightings of the Virgin Mary, the pilgrimages she and my grandfather had made to see the mother of all mothers in distant holy lands. I would sit in awe, absent-mindedly tracing the vein on the back of her hand with my child-finger as her words made their way through my head. My grandmother’s stories were so convincing, her own faith so compelling that as a child I often lay awake in bed for hours, unable to sleep for fear the Blessed Mother would somehow mistakenly appear to me, ask me to build her a chapel or make a pilgrimage or do whatever it is that unholy people are compelled to do when confronted face-to-face with the divine.
Even now, all these years later, when I open the door to my third-floor walk-up and breathe in the rich, warm scent of coffee rising up from the shop below, it is like a call to prayer. A call to come home.
When she was dying, my grandmother slept with her eyes wide open, as if she wanted to see all she could of this world before leaving it at an hour nobody, least of all she, knew. I read the pamphlets left behind by the hospice nurses, feeling guilty under her watchful stare, sleeping or not. It was not uncommon, I read, for dying people to grow suddenly restless even in their sleep, to flail their arms, or look stricken or panicked, or search about for things lost years before. I began watching for signs, as curious as I was heartbroken about this mysteriously final act of leaving one’s home. Then one afternoon, my grandmother woke up, suddenly lucid, and said, “I need a haircut.” She hadn’t eaten or drunk anything in days. When we tried to appease her with water sponged to her lips, she protested. The woman was on her deathbed, nearly pouting at our obstinacy (or ignorance?). So we finally called in my cousin, who is a hairdresser, and she set to work primping a dying woman’s hair.
The next afternoon, with her hair freshly trimmed and styled, my grandmother died.
We buried her in the plot that had been waiting, empty and patient, beside my grandfather. He had died five years before, but he may as well have never gone, as often as my grandmother reported his presence. She was a bit of a mystic, my grandmother. Even death couldn’t take you away from her.
There is a memorization device known as the memory palace. You visualize a house, then walk through it room by room in your mind, “placing” the things you want to remember in distinct areas in each room. Then, when you want to remember them, you return to the house in your mind, collecting your knowledge like so many things left behind.
In the days of my grandmother’s dying, I walked through the house she’d shared with my grandfather for over half a century, trying to memorize it just as it was, or had been. Already, it was changing faster than I could change with it.
In the living room, an enormous framed photograph of St. Patrick’s Cathedral hung on the wall, with another matching lithograph in the adjacent den. Such was my grandparents’ pride in helping refinance with their weekly tithing its renovation after a fire.
On the wall-to-wall bookshelves, my grandmother had collected nearly all of John Steinbeck’s novels; a few shelves down, set at eye-level for the grandchildren (though all of us had long since grown up) was a hardback children’s book about John F. Kennedy, the man who showed America that “even Catholics could be President.”
On a bedroom wall, there were framed copies of grainy, black-and-white photographs of the Virgin Mary in far-off places like Fatima and Medjugorje: Xeroxed proof of the divine adorning the walls, watching over us as we slept.
I’m not sure the “memory palace” device is meant for this kind of remembering — it’s more often used to memorize grocery lists, or absurd volumes of material for high-school AP exams—but in the days of my grandmother’s dying, I walked through the house like it was a palace, anyway. I left things one place, picked them up again later, and it was only when I returned, and it was too late, that I realized how absence changes everything.
Catholicism is a religion of the spiritual and sacred imagination: stories of the Blessed Mother appearing to poor shepherd children (and slightly fanatical old women who clutch their beads day in and day out); St. Francis of Assisi preaching to a flock of birds (his sisters, he called them) gathered at his feet; the curiously well-preserved body of Pope John XXIII after being exhumed for beatification (not a miracle, the Vatican says, just a fortuitous accident of good embalming practices).
Sometimes it matters whether or not certain stories are “true,” whether or not they “actually happened” (or at least whether or not we believe they happened). But sometimes it does not. (Since when has life ever been about “actually”?) What matters are the stories themselves — how they are told, to whom we tell them. These stories are the land we inhabit, the palaces of memory we walk through, leaving things here, collecting things there, straightening and re-arranging as we go along.
I have lived away from home for a long while now. Too long, perhaps, because now when I return, I find that things are no longer where I left them; stories are forgotten, half-muttered or misremembered, and there is no one left to ask for the right words, the proper telling. In my grandmother’s absence, the ground seems always to be shifting underfoot. I try to keep up with these words, running after the ghost of my grandmother with my stories in tow, trying to find the land where I come from, to pin it down before the fault lines send it spinning again like so many suns in the skies of Medjugorje.
These days, when people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I’m from California. From the valley, I say, with its triple-digit heat, suburban strip malls like mazes and parking lots you can lose yourself in; the stubborn smell of cow manure that always reminds us where we are, no matter how much we try to remake the land in our own image. All this I tell them, and good-naturedly, because it’s true. But what I really want to say is that I come from the place that is my grandmother. From her early-morning prayers that smell like coffee, and her paisley housecoat, and that lovely blue-green vein that traveled across the back of her left hand.
I shared this with my family at my grandmother’s memorial Mass. (Eulogies are not a Catholic tradition and are not typically allowed at Masses, but the priest was a friend of my grandmother’s, and he’d been told I was a writer, a storyteller. So he made an exception, this religion of his being what it was.) My family, perhaps, did not know what to make of my memory’s insistence on something as oddly intimate and corporeal as that vein running through my grandmother’s hand. At my pew, I stared at the little red flame in front of the tabernacle, feeling suddenly like a wanderer, a pilgrim without a homeland.
But then my cousin—who is nineteen, and painfully unsure of herself because, although she is smart and beautiful and destined for greatness, she does not know this yet—leaned into me and whispered, unblinking: I know that vein.
What she meant, I think, was: I am not from here. I, like you, am from this other place.