When I was three years old, my paternal grandmother died just days before Christmas, almost a year to the day after her husband had died. What awful Christmases those must have been for my dad, but I never knew it. As I said earlier, I have no memory of my dad’s father. I don’t remember his mother, either, but I remember the wake. I remember being carried into that little house that felt close and hot (it was late December, after all) and seeing a big box placed against the back wall of the living room. The room was dimly lit, but there was no avoiding that box. My grandmother was inside it. I remember wondering why she was sleeping there. I didn’t associate her stillness with “dead.” I had never seen anything lifeless. I didn’t know what dead was.
I filed that image away in memory. Many years later, thinking maybe I had dreamed it, I finally asked my mother if she and Daddy had really taken me to the house after my grandmother died.
She looked at me sort of funny. “We did,” she said. “Why?”
“Well, I remember it.”
She shook her head. “That’s not possible. You were too little.”
“But I do.” I described the room and where the casket was placed against the wall and how it seemed like I was looking down at my grandmother.
“It’s because your daddy was holding you,” Mother said, looking stunned. “That would explain why you were looking down.” I don’t remember whether Mother asked me if I was afraid. I was later, with other deaths, but I did not see another dead person until I was ten years old.
An only child, by the time I was three, I was used to playing quietly by myself. I was a girly-baby doll kind of little girl. I had already begun to collect storybook dolls. Each time my dad went to Memphis on business, he brought me a “surprise”–sometimes a little doll (Bo Peep, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood . . .), sometimes something very special, like the rabbit fur hat and muff that made me sneeze. I loved pretty dresses. My mother was pretty, and I wanted to be pretty, too. (She did her part, rolling my hair in pin curls to try and tame it.)
I loved playing dress-up. I could make a playhouse out of anything–under the table, outside under the willow tree or even under a shrub!
About this time, the first thing I did every morning was put on a pair of my mother’s slingback heels and a hat and stash a big purse under my arm and head out to the garden. Never mind that I was still in my nightgown or that my hair was in pincurls. Nothing stopped me!
Meanwhile, in the house, there was sickness. But that’s a story for another day.
Maybe I was already learning to escape.
I still have some of those dolls, by the way. What childhood mementos do you have? What brings the memories back?