My great-grandmother turned toward me, but her focus was somewhere distant. We sat on the stone wall of her raised garden, staring at the 40-foot pine trees towering over her house; they were knee-high when she planted them over half a century ago. The cold, dry weather wrought strong south-west winds, blowing pine needles across her yard, triggering a bout of anamnesis. Smiling, she said, “one hundred is when I’ll go.” Looking down at her arthritis scathed hand, she murmurs, “that’s… enough for me.” She said something similar when she was nearing 95, although the time of her tone sounds serious. My great-grandmother, as she often describes her age, is 98 years young. She thanks God for being alive, reminding herself that there must be a reason, some event she is waiting for, a marriage, a birth; ultimately, she waits for God to make it her time.
“I wish my husband were here. I have been living 12 years by myself,” she tells me. Each recollection of her husband softens her voice. She still lives in the same house her husband and father built together shortly after she married. Her husband wanted to take her all over the world, something they never did because she wanted to focus on her business: Jo’s Beauty Salon, providing individualized coiffures and cold waves — a specialty. Her business did not last because of the extensive attention her children required. After her children aged, she reopened the salon in her home’s basement for a few more years. Time, resiliency, and the love of her family allowed her to overcome many of her obstacles. Now, with her age, she can no longer lean on time, and a pandemic stripped her of her family; her last and most pressing challenge is the pandemic, and for the first time since I have known her, she is tired.
For me, her strength and effervescent personality defines her. Visiting her, regardless of your reason or recent familial drama, came with a certainty that she would greet you all the same with love and food. Her home is like a time capsule, a vessel for nostalgic memories defined by a golden age era aesthetic, filled with chinoiserie, synthetic resin, and decorative plastics. Gold-leafed framed paintings of Italian homesteads and vistas fill her walls, many of which she painted herself. On occasion, she takes out a photo album to show off her oil paintings; one capitol portrait made it into the local government’s hall. Old family videos and pictures of the home reveal little to no changes, making it a consistent fixture in my family’s life.
There’s magic in her home. I always find a four-leaf clover in the same lucky patch in her yard. By some miracle, the clovers survive the poison saturated soil set by my uncle to stave off vegetal intruders. It only ever takes a few minutes to discover my resilient clover, although I cannot help but wonder whether it is the toxicity of the soil that mutates it. I wonder if I am doing it a favor to pluck out the deformities. She usually watches me in as I comb her yard for good luck.
Before a debilitating fall, my great-grandmother kept active in her garden. Arrays of tulips, roses, and small flowering bushes beautify her property’s expansive perimeter. Under her green thumb, annuals seem to turn perennial, and any flower, cut or not, survives significantly past its prime. Her garden’s health seemed to mimic her own; her contagious life energy embedded deep in the floral life around her. Despite her energy or the excitement surrounding the holidays, visiting her always ended in full stomachs and a long afternoon nap.
Every year since 1986, my mother sets up my great grandmother’s Christmas tree. This tradition came about after her mother’s death — my great-great-grandmother; she was so distraught by her passing that she refused to set up a tree that year. My mother, who came back from college, found this unacceptable and purchased a fake tree for her — bouncing a check in the process — and has set up her tree ever since. Last Christmas is the first year in 34 years my mother did not set up her Christmas tree. Our modern Christmas visitation became a simulacrum of a social gathering, exchanging our holiday wishes through a glass screen. I promise that I will see her soon over the phone, but I am unsure if it is a promise I can keep.
During the holidays, my partner and I bake pastries for her, like baklava and pies using local ingredients and fruits we harvested; this, too, got shelved. She rarely has others cook for her, so we gladly attempt to return the favor. Her connection to the kitchen is so strong that it is not unusual to force her to sit down and enjoy the food she made for us. Her cooking defines much of my memories of her. I feel most connected to her by replicating her dishes, like eggplant parmesan, taking comfort in the warm embrace of nostalgic aromas surrounding me in my kitchen. Unfortunately, in the past four years, a fall robbed much of her mobility, making independent living near impossible. Her son spends much of his time helping her, taking over as the primary cook—with her direction, of course. As the center of the family and someone with five children, she amassed many people to care for her; however, as people moved away and cross-country travels are limited to holidays, her son, who lives down the road, is her primary caretaker. She says she does not feel like an invalid, but her reliance on her son weighs on her.
For years, in June, the family from the west coast, the South, and occasionally Canada come to Salisbury, Massachusetts, to celebrate my great-grandmother’s birthday at a beach house. My family has a half-century-old connection with this beach, with a comforting consistency, similar to my great-grandmother’s home, beckoning us back. We choose the same beach house; tacky ocean-themed decorations and furniture, sand in the bed, a tub of sun-warmed water to wash your feet. There is a rawness in the pleasure my family finds on this beach; however, to me, a looming sadness bears weight to every sinking step I take. Salisbury is an unfortunate imitation of itself and has been degrading as fast as its eroding coastline. Salisbury’s vicissitudes have left ghostly, boarded up shells of establishments, overwhelmed by sand and beach roses. Being a refuge for those clamoring for the carefree childhood days of the beach, Salisbury has beguiled many through its unchanging landscape, enveloped in a time-capsule left to deteriorate by time, the sun, and the sea. Salisbury’s nostalgia clung to my great-grandmother, who sat in her beach chair in a colorful striped swimsuit and a floppy sunhat, looking as youthful as I ever remembered her.
These last few years, I connected with my great grandmother more than I ever have. I only recently learned that after she married and had her second child, the landlord evicted her from her apartment because of the incessant crying from one of her children due to stomach issues. For six months, her son’s condition forced her to live with her parents in a small two-bedroom farmhouse her dad built. Her parents allowed her and her husband to find their footing to discover — or in this case, build — a new place to live, which conveniently was a short walk away. In her aging years, and certainly after her husband’s death, her family is what allowed her to stay independent and avoid living in a nursing home. Despite everything, she has remained a jubilant soul, and upon visiting slows the mind and body to a time of comfort.
“It is what it is. But I’m seeing you now,” my great-grandmother said after ending her stories to me. As a college graduate, I take comfort in hearing the parallels between my life and hers. Though a century of changes separates our youths, the struggles she faced do not feel foreign. Throughout all the uncertainties surrounding housing, employment, and education, the family was always a persistent variable she could rely on. My life is rife with uncertainties, and to me, my great grandmother, sitting on this stone wall with me, reaffirms that things will turn out alright in one way or another.