“There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.” —Rebecca Solnit, “The Blue of Distance”
When my grandmother was moved into a retirement home a few years ago, my father encouraged me to take her cedar chest, her secretary desk, remnants from her pantry. I refused, as politely as I could. I lived in a tiny college apartment. I hardly knew my father’s mother, and all of her belongings reeked of cigarette smoke. And I never felt the same attachment to family history that my father could conjure up for every photo, spoon, or fishing hat that would link him to a previous generation of American history. Sometimes, I wonder if my dad thinks he can create the close familial bonds, ones that never really existed, if he can just possess these possibly meaningful objects with enough reverence.
In spite of his passionate pitch about my grandmother’s cedar chest being in amazing condition and the secretary desk having belonged to his grandmother, I left her condo with an old cat carrier, a box filled with a small teacup collection, and a grocery bag of extra office supplies my dad said she no longer wanted.
In taking these things, I reasoned, I had helped eliminate some of the extra clutter my dad had to deal with as her thirty-day’s notice ended. Since I had two cats and only one carrier, I felt I was practical. The office supplies I would have bought eventually, and the teacups I would have liked even if I had merely seen them in a thrift store, regardless of connection to their previous owner.
The day after our afternoon in my grandma’s old condo, my dad called to tell me he understood why I couldn’t take the furniture. My mom called, however, to tell me he was hurt that I wouldn’t make space in my apartment for his mother’s things, but he never said those words to me. He reasoned that we could think of the cedar chest and the secretary desk as being on hold until I finally had space for them: put into a storage unit my grandmother had rented for all the stuff she couldn’t take with her but didn’t want to get rid of, which was everything.
A few days later, my dad told me that my grandma had not been able to pay for the storage space, which had been cleared out by the storage company, and the things inside had been taken as payment.
After that, my dad said my grandma wanted the cat carrier back, since she needed to take her cat for walks in the hallways of her assisted living home, so I gave it to him.
Since then, I’ve moved and I’m in a bigger apartment, with space for real furniture. I have yet to wish for another chance at the cedar chest, but I’ve been searching Craigslist for a desk to replace the folding table I’ve used for the last four years, and I keep coming across ads for secretary desks that look very similar to the one my dad had wanted me to take.
I try to feel sad over the loss of that piece of furniture and family history. I attempt to conjure up a scene of nostalgic reflection, the sort of epiphanic scene in a movie where a young woman realizes how much she has in common with her grandmother, and how much said grandmother really means to her. I set about imagining possible hints of my grandmother or her mother that may have been in that desk, if I had only taken the time to look—a shopping list or a note from a best friend, perhaps, pushed to the back of one of the drawers. Or an inconspicuous stretch of wood on the bottom with smudged tally marks, one line for each day spent waiting for the next letter from a beloved soldier. But with no genealogical truths to guide me, even the imaginary artifacts I place inside that secretary desk are vague and cliché. Sometimes, I try in vain to picture these strong American women sitting there, working. Perhaps a great-grandmother I never met, whose name I’d have to ask my father for. There’s no accurate image I can place there, on a chair pushed up to the small oak secretary desk, littered with objects vital to running a life I know nothing about. The figure I seat at that desk is a generic young woman with dimples and tight, bobby-pinned curls, a blurred image in gray scale, lifted off the pages of my high school history books.
That woman’s daughter, who owned the desk next, was the woman I learned to call Grandma June while, to my cousins, she was simply, affectionately, Nanna.
Grandma June was not the grandmother I heard my mom refer to as Ama, so I called her that, too; I thought it was her name until I was five and learned it sort-of meant “mom,” and then I struggled through the word abuelita, which I heard my Torres cousins call her. At some point, I settled on guelita because it just rolled better from my mouth. Grandma June lived in the same town we did, a hundred and fifty miles closer to us than Guelita, but she still wasn’t the one who stayed with us to take care of me when I was little and my mom was sick for long periods of time. I never took walks with Grandma June around my neighborhood, where we could stare at the house with hundreds of birds in a backyard cage on the corner. She never helped me make peace with the yard-full of six-foot-tall sunflower-shaped monsters I was terrified of by telling me they were her favorite flower and the happiest things she’d ever seen. She never pulled her teeth—all of them, perfectly white and shiny, with gums attached—out of her mouth just to prove a point when I was six and desperate to eat the whole chocolate Easter bunny.
Grandma June was not the grandmother I ate push-up sherbet pops with on afternoon trips to the corner gas station, and not the reason I still feel grown-up and fancy when I choose cherry—in a cone—over every other ice cream option in the store. As far as I know, Grandma June never had the option to sit in a rocking chair by my bed at night, making up stories she seemed to know by heart about the niñas qui viven dentro de la luna and the mariachis que tocan en las bodas (que nunca terminan). To Guelita, I have always been Brendita, or hijita, or muñeca, every time I’ve ever called her on the phone, and I still do, regularly, even though my Spanish isn’t what it used to be, and she has to remind me of words and correct my grammar mistakes as I update her on my life, interrupting her to ask her what things mean as she updates me on hers.
I can’t think of a single nickname Grandma June ever had for me—I can’t even picture her saying my name. Maybe, after a while, there wasn’t anything to say.
Sometimes I can’t help but consider what it will be like to lose my mother’s mother, Guelita, and every time I do, my brain doesn’t even have a chance to address the issue before I feel nauseous and short of breath. I get pummeled by the knowledge that, when she is gone, I will get crushed by a combination of grief and frustration over not having best used my time with her. I will be grateful for any of her belongings I am allowed to keep for myself—I will make space, no matter what it is. At first, I thought there was nothing in particular I wanted for my own, but then I remembered the rusted white-shellacked vent cover from the hallway of their house on Bear Mountain Boulevard. When this object enters my mind, it is a perfect embodiment of my Guelita’s sweet little house, with ornate eccentricities and decorations that never seemed to change—a house I’d really like to be able to pick up and put in my pocket for eternal safekeeping, but when my abuelito died, the house was sold in a hurry and my guelita moved next door to my uncle and his family. All I could do was go back to the little white house outside of Arvin, one day when the new owners weren’t home, and creep around outside, taking digital photos of every inch of the house’s exteriors and the vineyards that surround it.
When I imagine the death of Grandma June, the reaction occurs only in my brain—I grow pensive, analytical: Shouldn’t I feel just as sad over this loss? Why have I never thought it strange or heartbreaking that I have no connection to her, and no desire to create one—does an unshakable ambivalence about their own grandmother make one a bad person? I haven’t thought so before but, really, I wouldn’t want to advertise that part of myself. Shouldn’t there be some internal force that explodes with attachment to her as a member of my family, as part of where I come from, as my link to American history? Communication-wise, it should have been easier all along to grow close with my dad’s side of the family—the white, English-speaking side that lived nearby—than it was to spend time with my mom’s family, who moved from Mexico to a Spanish-speaking town in California when she was eleven. My dad has never learned any Spanish, so whenever we visit my mom’s family he sits off to the side, reading the paper, while everyone else talks for hours. My dad has never quite fit with my mom’s family, but that’s never stopped me from working to fit in with them.
A few months after the Bear Mountain Boulevard house was sold, my mom and I were reminiscing about the place on the phone, and I mentioned that rusted white air vent. To my surprise, my mom burst out laughing in response to my mourning for the vent. “I have that vent,” she said, “because I’m the one who loved it. Way before we knew the house was going to get sold, I made sure my whole family knew that that vent was mine, no matter what.”
I was stunned, and kept trying to interject things like, “Are you sure I didn’t have any particular reason to feel attached to it?”
“You can’t figure out why it was so special to you, because it probably wasn’t special to you for any particular reason,” she said. “But you must have heard me talk about how much I loved it at some point. I grew up looking at that thing every time I came out of the bathroom, or waited for my turn in the shower in the mornings. It’s sort of like a symbol for the whole house, and growing up there.”
“So you’re telling me the vent couldn’t have been meaningful for me?” I felt hurt, and a little defensive, hearing her tell me that I would have had no legitimate claim to the vent. I had spent years thinking of it as my own quirky mental souvenir of that house, and everything the house meant to me.
“I’m not saying that,” she replied. “I think it’s probably true that you’ve loved it since you were little. But I think you probably first took notice of it, back then, and decided it was special, because of me.”
Of course, I can see how my mom is right. My dad and my brother both remember that vent as being a special fixation of hers. Over the years, my memory revised the vent, and the house, and Ama, as my own special, larger-than-life, always-been-there loves. Really, they were all cherished hand-me-downs, from my mom, and a lifetime of seeing how she valued them, and experiencing them with and through her.
I wonder at what point her history became mine, in my mind, and how much of my memory and identity is really just an extension of hers. Then again, I suspect that this is simply the way the generations move from one to another, and that we begin this inheritance process from our parents from the moment we’re born. What makes the situation unusual, even difficult, is how uneven the scale is, between what I’ve inherited from each parent. And how impossible it is for me to tell, at this point, who or what is responsible for the lopsidedness.