We spent about 12 hours on airplanes over the weekend, swapping time zones to travel to and from New Haven to be there for Grandma Jeanne, and to be in community with everyone whose hearts she had taken up residence in.
We practiced spelling words for the third grade Bee on the plane. We caught up with family, and cried, and dressed up and sat in a beautiful old chapel with impossibly tall stained glass windows, and let the kids play by the creek in their good shoes, and ate delicious little steak-and-horseradish crostini.
We drove back to Rhode Island and slept hard, and fed the ducks, and toured a house for sale around the corner. The woman who owned it had passed away, she was over 100 years old and I thought about the stories that 1960’s wallpaper could tell.
Bixby clambered into his old ride-on car with his knees pulled up to his chest and zoomed up and down the quiet street. We talked around the table over plates of homemade chicken Milanese, and over mugs of tea, and outside on what ended up being the first really spring-like day.
Mostly though, over the past few days, I’ve listened. See, Grandma Jeanne wasn’t my grandma, at least not by blood. I was content to listen, partly because I love hearing the stories, and partly because it feels awkward to lay claim to a grandmother that isn’t officially “mine”. But Grandma Jeanne has been my surrogate grandmother — something I think my own grandparents would be grateful I’ve had the gift of enjoying all of these years.
I remember when Grandma Jeanne and Pop-Pop still lived in the house on Autumn Street: the steep backyard was terraced into a garden, the structure of it lovely even in winter.
Inside was all sunlight and warmth.
Artwork from their world travels and photographs of family spanned the clean, milk-white walls. Upstairs, presented with pride, were a few gorgeous handmade quilts hung carefully on the walls, their stitches telling stories of their own.
I feel lucky to have met my husband’s grandparents while they were still living in that house: lucky to have witnessed a small slice of their life in that love-filled home, where so many poached eggs on toast were served up and the candy dish was always full.
But most of all, I feel lucky for the time I got to spend with Jeanne in the years after her husband passed away. My own grandparents were all gone by then, and without fanfare, Jeanne took me into her brood like just one more little duckling.
We shared a love of mystery novels — she adored Louise Penny and Martha Grimes — and always talked books when we got together. She took such an interest in my work, always asking to see my latest blog post or a recent article I had written for Houzz. She wanted me to help her design her apartment in the assisted living facility after she moved out of the house on Autumn Street. When I brought photos for her of Bixby, she told me with utter sincerity that she thought I should be a photographer.
I think a lot of people hold their own families so tightly that there’s no space for anyone else to get in. But if you’re lucky, sometime you’ll run into another kind of person: the kind that has not just a warm smile, but a warm and open heart that seems built for kindness. Especially where grandchildren — and great-grandchildren and surrogate grandchildren — are concerned.