Guest blog by Dorothy Brush Henry
My family never loved out loud. No one ever sent me off to school, or ended a phone conversation, or tucked me in at night with a deliberate “Love you!”
Indeed, in all of my growing up years, not one single person ever found even one single occasion when it might be warranted to tell me I was loved. So when my mother surprised me with a crocheted white sweater that she had obviously worked on for dozens of stolen hours, or when my father brought home his paycheck after a long hard week, or my paternal grandmother showed up with a tin of homemade chocolate chip cookies, I named these gifts for what I needed. I named them love. I was so disappointed when it turned out that that sweater was really not very pretty, and my father came home grumpy everyday, and my brother ate most of the chocolate chip cookies. I had hoped, expected, really, that love, when I finally found it, would not be fleeting and flimsy, but rather permanent and perfect. These things, these gifts, could not be love. Where else might I look? I went to visit Grandma.
I am older now than I ever could have imagined as a young whippersnapper. Today I am as old as my great grandmother was when, as a child of just 5 or maybe only 4 years old, I first stood beside her velvet chair worn to a color with no name.
In all the years I knew her, Grandma did only four things that I can recall. One was sitting in that chair, or sometimes, if it was summer, sitting out back next to the barn, or, in winter, bundled up sitting outside on the front porch in a wicker rocker. She was a very good sitter.
She also did a bang up job of drying dishes. After every family holiday dinner, the menfolk would retire to the living room, sprawl out on the couches, loosen their belts and pretend to watch whatever ballgame was in season. It was their snores that eventually betrayed them. This while the women and girls carried all the spent dishes to the kitchen and began the job of washing, drying and putting away. We all had our specialties and assigned chores…Grandma did the drying and the humming. Her constant hums made the work go faster and were a lovely way of drowning out the snores drifting in from the living room.
Before I reveal the third thing, it’s important for you to know that I only heard Grandma speak one time. That was during one of those holiday dinners; it was a Thanksgiving. Grandpa had been loading up her plate with turkey and all the usual fixings. When the vegetables began to be passed, he said kindly, “Here, old woman, have some peas.” He was always kind but maybe a bit brusque sometimes.
“If I want some of those damn peas, old man, I’ll take them myself,” Grandma replied. The room went silent. All of the clanging of silverware ceased. All voices hushed. People who were chewing stopped. Those who were drinking sputtered a little. Everyone turned to look at Grandma. Several of the young ones like me and some assorted cousins, had never heard her speak. Not once. Shocked silence, then an eruption of laughter. Even Grandma laughed, but silently. For the next 11 years I never heard her speak again. She died quietly when I was 18 and away at college.
She did, I am told, once have a voice. I don’t know what caused her to stop using it. As she grew older, then older still, Grandma also lost most of her hearing. She decided, or someone decided for her, that she would thenceforth live in that quiet chair beside the dining room window where her world ended just beyond the glass at the sagging white picket fence. No one expected much of Grandma.
As a little girl, I visited her almost every day. It was back in those times when houses were never locked, so I just slipped in the front door and made my way down the long dark hall to the dining room. In the center stood the great oaken table, its clawed feet clutching at a worn floral rug that anchored the room. I helped myself to a Kraft caramel from the old glass candy jar, nodded a greeting to the line of ancient family that paraded across the mantle in their tarnished silver frames, then went to stand beside Grandma’s chair. I unwrapped my caramel and as it melted in my mouth I waited.
I never had to wait more than one full candy-worth before she sensed me there. Suddenly she would become alert to the moment, deserting the memory world where she floated through her days. As she turned toward me a smile would already be transforming her face….eyes, mouth and cheeks. She would mouth a silent “Ohhh!” which I always thought, if it had sound, would be a bit of a cute, rusty little squeak. She stretched out her arms and maybe she pulled me or I fell into her but I know it was both, then we shared a hug that I can still feel to this day. Soft and warm and real. I did not have to guess if this was love. It was a quiet truth. Grandma followed no pattern, punched no time clock, read no recipe. The many people in my life who were perfectly capable of speech, of telling a little girl when she was sad or silly, “I love you,” never did. The one who could not speak told me over and over again. Her hugs were quiet but never silent.
I keep my memories of those days tucked away in quiet drawers, between sleepy journal pages, in the pocket of my winter jacket. Vignettes of long ago people, of incidents and accidents, of touches - gentle or bruising. I take them out sometimes and rerun them like old black and white movies, frame by stuttering frame. And like those very old films, they are silent. There is no soundtrack. Except for in that one. That one where my great grandmother, sitting in her faded chair by the window, turns to me with a smile. And then I can hear it. In her sweet, squeaky whispered, “Ohhh!” I hear it. And I say - out loud, “ I love you too, Grandma…”
Dorothy Brush Henry spent her childhood in a small antique village on Long Island. She earned an undergraduate degree in Sociology from SUNY Binghamton and years later another BA in Gerontology from Molloy College which enabled her career (and her dream) of working as a recreational therapist in assisted living facilities. As the unofficial historian of her family, she has collected and cataloged albums full of documents and photographs. By adding her written memories of family persons and happenings, she hopes to leave a more personal and vibrant story for the generations to come.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.