First Prize Winner in the SiN Short Story Contest

Hey Everyone:

We’re excited to share with you the first place prize winner in our short story contest.
Congratulations once again to Laurie Milito.

Here’s her prize winning submission.

MY GRANDMOTHER’S PEARLS – A Memoir

I have only ever made three trips to the little cemetery on the Old Cote Road. Each time it was fall but this was only coincidence. I can still smell the leaves, like living hands being laid upon me as I stood under the ancient oak trees.
It was cool and windy the first time I set foot upon the place. November breezes held us all by the necks. We had come along to bury my cousin’s ashes next to my grandfather’s.
Malcolm was only a few months older than me, but was far more juvenile. When we were twelve he chased me around the basement of our home trying to kiss me. He could never run long though. His asthma would act up and he’d stop the catch the breath left in him. The breath would run out for good when we were both seventeen.
As I stooped to place Malcolm’s ashes in the hole, the wind breathed down my back. It was as if the whole creation was exhaling with him. A breath so laboured in life, now flowed without ceasing so that the hairs on my arms prickled.
There were few graves in this cemetery by the Cote church, in this little bedroom town of Hudson, Quebec. But two of them now belonged to our family, and the oaks groaned with the weight of it. It was not a difficult death for me, in the usual sense. Malcolm was always a sickly child, and it seemed as natural and as tragic as an underdeveloped sparrow falling from the nest to feed the hungry fox below.
In the years that followed I never talked to my grandmother about Malcolm. But I felt it hang between us like a curtain, or a veil. At times, it was opaque and solid so that my thoughts rebounded upon themselves, and I had only my own questions to keep my company. At other times, a mere look in her eyes told me the memory that was flashing behind them.
While my grandmother could speak of my deceased grandfather, she couldn’t bring herself to speak Malcolm’s name. At one point, my grandmother discovered a way of speaking about my cousin without naming him.
“They are probably having a walk on their own up there,” she commented off hand, and I knew she meant my grandfather and Malcolm. By attaching them together in her conversations, thoughts of Malcolm came more gently.
“Granddad always did love a good walk” I replied. She squeezed my arm, and I knew the healing had begun.
We spoke of them most often when we sat in the Hudson church before worship on my weekend visits to Hudson from Montreal where I was a university student. My grandmother was an intellectual by default, raised on the University of Washington campus where her father was the Registrar. She absorbed the academic world like an anemone filters the ocean floor.
“When you come to church, you don’t leave your brain at the door,” she reminded me on a regular basis. Our conversations quickly moved from loved ones to debates over the origins of the bible or the value of Hebraic laws. Taking a minor in Religious Studies fueled my mind, and it wasn’t long before I was outstretching my grandmother in religious debate.
When I worked myself up too much, she’d pointed to her favourite stained-glass window of Jesus the shepherd holding the lamb and say, “See how Jesus’ face shows such peace and divine knowledge. There is no fear there.”
This frustrated me no end. Just when I was getting deep into some reasoned argument, she would turn to her faith. I was too immature to see her wisdom of course. They are some questions only faith, and not reason, can answer. There are some problems that are not of the mind, but of the heart. I would learn this soon enough.
She attended every one of my graduations, my Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Theology and Masters of Divinity. For the last degree, she was manoeuvred in her wheelchair to the front row, looking dignified in her favourite blue tweed skirt and string of pearls.
A few years later, around the time my grandmother was moved into a care facility, I met Mark back in my hometown. Dementia had started its ugly course, and I was one of the few people my grandmother consistently remembered. When I visited her with my parents on her ninetieth birthday, I told her that Mark and I were engaged. We were planning a wedding in the fall.
She became agitated and motioned towards a cabinet in the corner of the room. With some awkward prompting, my mother was able to determine she wanted a box from the bottom drawer. Opening it in front of her, my grandmother reached in with one shaky hand and pulled out a string of very old pearls. My grandmother’s eyes were on me, as clear and blue as the ocean. “I think she wants you to have them for the wedding,” my mom explained.
It was a clear autumn day in October when the wedding took place. The leaves were on fire with reds and yellow and oranges, but inside the church a more subdued tone was evident. On the communion table, were two white roses for our grandfathers who’d passed on, and one pink rose for my grandmother who was not well enough to make the trip.
It was one week after the wedding, when my mom and I made a weekend trip to Hudson to see my grandmother. I leaned over her bedside and whispered through my tears, “I wore your pearls, grandmom, and everyone thought they were beautiful.” For the first time, she could not speak back. While I stared at her, she was staring at worlds far past me. The veil was returning now, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not penetrate it. She died an hour after we left. She had held on long enough to know I was married.
Joined by the rest of the family a few days later, we took a second trip to the little cemetery on the Old Cote Road. This time it was Mark who carried the ashes. I felt no need to carry her myself. My grandmother was light as air to me, and as still as the spaces between the oaks that held us up once more.
She had transformed into a vapour as impossible to touch as my disappearing breath in the autumn cold. She was no longer where I could find her, and as much as I tried to feel comfort in her reunion with ‘them’, I was restless and desolate with her loss.
I spoke at her funeral, a last gift offered up with all the heart courage I could muster. There was one particular memory that gripped me as I faced the legacy of her life. We had been in her apartment in Montreal when she showed me the Harvard Degree she had just received in the mail, granted fifty years after her graduation. Though she passed all her degree courses at Harvard with honours, women were not allowed as students there, so she was granted a degree from Radcliffe College for Women instead.
When her Harvard diploma arrived decades later I felt fiercely vindicated on her behalf. She was merely amused. Frustrated yet again, I outlined her many groundbreaking career accomplishments of which she should be proud. She smiled patiently, and told me she was most proud of being a mother and grandmother. At the time, I huffed off in exasperation.
As I stood in her church on the day of her funeral to remember the treasure of my grandmother’s life, all I could think of was what an incredible mother and grandmother she had been. At the end of eulogy I spoke my truth. I hoped one day it would be said of me, as it was of my grandmother, that I was a good mother.
I never questioned my desire to have children, nor did Mark. And when we became pregnant in the spring, it seemed as natural and wondrous at the crocuses bursting the snow crusted ground.
I grew ripe and restless as my child took shape within me. I first knew her as a butterfly in my stomach, a fluttering of wings just below my chest. Soon, wings became elbows and knees with danced when I sang to her. Each song I sang was a love song, and each roll of her body was a reply. Mark would carefully touch my stomach, eyes wide with wonder and fear. But the dance shared within one body was not easily experienced by others.
Full-term and heavy with life, the first pains of labour came too sharp and too fast. My mom and Mark were at my side, but a feeling of tremendous loneliness stole over me.
As scripted, we arrived at the hospital late at night, and were ushered into the maternity ward. The quiet seemed to smother us in the examining room where the nurse roamed a heart moniter over my stomach.
The doctor was called in and an ultrasound machine plugged in. That was when the air changed. It grew denser. It crowded in around me so that I could not think.
I remember the doctor’s words, how they took shape like a gathering thunder of a coming storm, and how everyone else fell silent as they did, so that his words echoed as if trapped in a deep and dark canyon from which there was no escape.
“There is no heartbeat.”
I gripped Mark’s hand so tight, he bent over my side. We held on to each other like castaways on the ocean, holding on for dear life. The slightest loosening of the hold could send us plummeting deep into its depths to be lost in a darkness there was no coming back from.
For much of the labour my eyes were closed, afraid of seeing the child I had never ceased dreaming of. My eyes were closed when my daughter born, but opened when they placed her, still warm, in my arms.
They asked for her name. We had chosen Angelina Louise, the middle name after my grandmother. Mark responded “Angelina…” then looked to me for guidance.
“Margaret” I said emphatically, “Angelina Margaret.”
The lights were lowered and Mark and I were left alone with our daughter. We took turns kissing her forehead, trying to memorize her face in those briefest of moments, so that no matter the years that passed we would always have her in our minds.
A minister arrived quietly at the door, and we nodded her in. And there, with a single white candle lit and placed on the side table, we found sacred ground. I held her as she was baptized, the sign of the cross marked with water across her forehead, where our kisses had been.
It was sometime the next day, exiting the ward past a wall of baby pictures that I lost my way. Mark helped me up as we left the hospital with empty arms. Our parents would take over the holding in the days and weeks that followed, until, like newborns ourselves, we could stand and walk without extra support.
It was on my first night alone in the house that I was overcome at last by a grief that had no form or shape. I clung to the bedpost and wailed as loudly as I could. I prayed and screamed and begged God for a peace that would not come. That night, as sleep stole over me, I found myself walking through a meadow filled with crocuses. The sky was brilliant blue and the wind soft on my face. I approached a shallow river and noticed my grandmother waving to me from the other side. I was overjoyed to see her, and laboured through the river to get to her. It was then I noticed she was holding a baby in her arms.
“No grandmommy, I can’t,” I pleaded with her. But she beckoned me to her. She placed Angelina in my arms and I noticed the baby’s eyes were wide open. My daughter showed me the smile I longed to see, as my grandmother slipped away. I let the baby wrap her tiny fingers around mine. I kissed her face, and counted her tiny toes. Eventually my grandmother was by my side once more. She had to take the baby back, she told me. She belonged with her now.
I reluctantly placed my daughter into my grandmother’s arms as I found my way back across the river, back into my waiting life. I did not return to the waking world empty though. I brought with me the peace I was seeking. I would now speak of my both my grandparents in the plural, my grandfather and Malcolm, my grandmother and Angelina. “They are probably out for a stroll like us on this fine day,” I would tell my dog Lucy on our outings. She sniffed the roadways, while I searched the silent breezes for any reply.
It was nearly two years later when my son Lucas was born. As if to make up for the silent entry of his sister, he came into the world wailing. His colic would last several months, so that I took to pacing around in the basement singing Greenday songs at the top of my lungs.
As Lucas grew and quieted, and I grew rounder with a third pregnancy, I sometimes caught the shadow of his older sister stealing over him as he napped, or as he played in the swing we had purchased for her.
I kept a photo of Angelina on my bedside table, and one day a two-year-old Lucas wandered in and took it in his hands. I froze on the other side of the room as I watched him. He stared at it for a moment or two, then kissed it gently.
“Baby” he said sweetly. “Love baby,” he whispered and kissed it once more.
He carried it around with him for several hours. When it had finally lost his interest I put it back. But that night I wept ferociously into my pillow, my heart aching with a pain I thought long past.
My second daughter was born shortly after this. She slipped into the world so silently I sat upright to make sure she was alright. Her eyes were large and quiet, as if adjusting to the world she had entered, but still longing for the one she had just left.
By the time she was three she was already dressing up with offerings from my closet. “Meadow Lousie!” I would say sternly when I caught her in the act.
The fall breezes were just beginning to stir the day Meadow wandered out of my room with bright pink lipstick circling her mouth and slashed across her cheeks like war paint. She was wearing one of my summer skirts pulled up to the top of her chest, and a string of pearls tied with a clumsy knot around her neck.
I paused when I saw the pearls. “Where did you get that necklace Meadow?”
“The box,” she said and led me back to my closet, pointing to a cardboard box she had clumsily pulled out from the back. I had not opened the box since I had stuffed it full of keepsakes the day after our wedding. Amidst, the shoes, cards, guest book and namecards, Meadow had found my grandmother’s necklace. How it had found its way in there I do not know. I bent down to Meadow, untied the knot, and properly clasped the necklace around her neck.
“Mine!” declared my daughter.
“Yours one day,” I explained calmly. She marched off defiantly to have a tea party with her waiting princess dolls. When to hold on and when to let go were lessons Meadow had yet to learn.
On a trip to Toronto, I took a day away from the family to drive several hours to Hudson. It was a cool day when I found my way back to the Old Cote Road. The leaves were mostly on the ground, and they crunched as I walked through the cemetery for the third time.
I knelt beside my grandmother’s grave. Grass had grown around the small marker laid in the ground, life relentlessly renewing itself in the face of loss. It was then I spoke to my beloved grandmother from someplace way down inside me, words that had been pooling there for years. I told her about a grief so deep it could slice out your insides and hollow you out. I told her about the joys of a child’s hug so tender it recreated you. I told her about the wonder and terror of being a mother, and how I felt inadequate and powerful all at the same time. I told her, in other words, everything she already knew.
When silence was all that was left, I pulled Angelina’s bonnet from my pocket. I dug in the earth beside my grandmother’s grave and buried it there. Leaves fell like living hands upon me as I knelt under the ancient oaks. The breeze brought them swirling around my knees. There are some prayers that only the wind can carry, so I opened my hand full of leaves, and tossed them in the air.

—end—

Comments

  1. Ann Goring says:

    This is tearfully amazing. What an amazing story, thank you for sharing. Beautiful… just like the author.