It’s been a year since my Grandma Helen died. I inherited several things from her before and after her death, including a Selectric typewriter and typewriter desk. But of these heirlooms, what I now notice most frequently, and what most often remind me of her, are the dressers.
One horizontal and one vertical, they are massive and sturdy things made of solid wood. We had to rent a U-Haul to get them home. They are properly worn in (but not worn down) by decades of previous use. My grandparents were frugal, but when they made big purchases they were of high quality.
Though I usually notice the distinct burnt orange color first, it’s the smell that triggers the memories. The dressers lived with her for so long that inevitably the aroma I associate with her—a melange of perfumes, deodorants, and who knows what other products that made up her graceful cosmetic presentation—seeped deeply into the wood and now wafts its way to me at random times throughout the day.
Then I think of the time we spent in her apartment baking and talking and laughing at eating grapes together in the final years of her life, and I smile.
“Take care and keep in touch.” My grandma Helen would close every letter she sent to me with that phrase. They were also the final words I said to her on Sunday, before she died yesterday at the age of 92.
After slowly declining for years, she took a turn for the worse this weekend. Jenny and I had already made plans to visit Madison for other reasons, but suddenly there was only one. Hospice was called, other family flew in. She was breathing but unresponsive, opening her eyes only rarely and smiling at whoever was there—that’s Helen for you—but then quickly fading again. We kept watch over her and made sure she was comfortable as we reminisced and discussed what to do with all of her things when the time came. She had moved thrice since leaving Texas after her husband of 63 years died, each time winnowing more and more things.
It was in her first Madison apartment where I began recording my conversations with her. These interviews, which I transcribed along with interviews of her family and friends, became a family oral history of her life. I compiled it into a book and gave her a printed copy for Christmas 2013. She never stopped thanking me for it. She also kept telling people that I wrote it, but I couldn’t get her to realize that I didn’t write it at all. It was her life—and such a life—as told by the people she loved and who loved her.
“Take care and keep in touch.” I could barely speak the words to her as I held her hand for the final time. She meant those words, because she lived them. She made a long life out of caring for people and staying in touch: birthday cards, phone calls about the latest family happenings, letters of encouragement and descriptions of the weather (always the weather).
Jenny and I made dobbins last night in honor of her. If you’ve ever had a Dobbin (or mound bars as she called them), you know Helen. They are her recipe and trademark within the family. Like her, they are sweet but powerful, and you can’t get enough of them. They are also the theme of one of the last emails she sent to me:
I love you too.