My grandmother was a keeper of secrets. During her last few days, semi-coherent, she told them all, let loose the accumulated small and large betrayals in whispers, the secrets hissing out of her like a tire losing air. She lay in her bed muttering, and we collected the secrets like we collect shells on the beach. Some secrets we understood; others were as mysterious to us as the various old black and white family photos of people we couldn’t name, tucked in her photo albums. The secrets spilled out of her quickly, unspooled.
“Thank God she never worked for the CIA,” my husband, Al, said to me in a low voice.
We learned many things, most benign; a few, not. We learned that she had cheated on high school math tests. Twice. We learned that she had cribbed her baked bean recipe from someone named Carol, a friend from Sunday School class, no less. An old neighbor shoplifted from Dayton’s and B. Dalton and surprisingly got caught with the blouses, not the books. Their former minister helped himself to the communion wine. And we learned that she had corresponded with Cecily after their last argument, long after we thought they’d last been in touch.
“So much for the famous family recipe for baked beans,” Mom said, trying to laugh.
The beans? What about the auntie who sat on her dad’s lap? “Why didn’t she tell anyone that she wrote to Cecily?” I asked.
Mom shrugged. “Maybe the letters were all bad.”
Even as we spoke, Grandma whispered and tossed and turned, wrestled with her confessions until she was free of them. Mom rubbed her arm. She listened, even tried to answer, anything to soothe. I clamped my mouth shut except to tell Grandma I loved her. There were no other words to offer a person in torment.
I was awash in hormones, blotchy-faced and lacking sleep. Grandma had lived long enough to meet her first grandchild, but I kept my sweet baby home under the keen eye of my college friend, Ann, since I hadn’t been able to reach Glennie. There were germs in nursing homes. Grief. All of it catchable.
“You can’t catch grief,” Ann had said to me sternly. She had always been matter of fact, precise, and tough, and she had combined her skills to become an accountant, in the end, leaving dance behind. She worked from home in an insanely clean office.
But I believed being around grief would unsettle Amelia, at best, and so Ann marched over and cared for my baby like I imagined a soldier might, guarding against every sniffle, armed with books and extra diapers, keeping a tight schedule. I drove home to feed Amelia and to relieve Ann, and then hurried back to the nursing home. Al stayed with my grandfather, being his favorite. The days were long and overwhelming but few, and knowing the days would be few was both a relief and made me feel guilty.
“Don’t,” said Ann. “No guilt. You don’t want her to suffer. And all these secrets mean she was, is.”
Thank God for Ann, who had marched through her life with every surety and had not blinked. Her confidence gave me permission to release my guilt, let it unwind out and away from me.
On her last day, Grandma interrupted herself to ask for Grandpa. The staff got him out of bed and settled him in a chair beside her, so he could hold her hand. Grandpa hadn’t heard her whispers and now, loudly, he recited his own, forgetting we were there. Walking the shoreline at Lake Harriet. Taking her to a Rotary dinner. Ice cream someplace, when he dropped his cone on the sidewalk. Their first kiss. I thought she was listening because she canted her head toward his voice, let her own still. Grandpa patted her hand as he spoke and smoothed back her hair. Late that afternoon, when she struggled to breathe, he said in a whisper that was a roar, Goodbye for now, sweet Cathy and with his blessing, she passed peacefully, silently. At ease.
After she was gone, we settled my agitated Grandpa by asking Al to sit with him, and Al did, pulling a chair right up to the headboard and doing whatever was required. Holding hands, sharing memories, letting him cry. At one point, Al pulled out a flask, and I opened my mouth to speak, but Mom stopped me, her hand resting on my arm, her eyes clear but flat and without expression.
Al stayed with my grandfather while they removed my grandmother’s body, which he would not leave, and until Grandpa fell asleep that night. I stayed with my mother, helping her manage the paperwork and the battery of tasks that she now needed to complete. My dad arrived late from critical work appointments, stepping in so I could relieve Al, a hug our only communication as we passed in the doorframe.
“She’s okay now, Mom,” I said, before I headed back down to the room. “She’s probably up there trying to organize the angels.”
Mom didn’t laugh or even look at me. In the poor light, her cheekbones showed, and the deepening lines in her forehead, which suddenly wrinkled. “She was the keeper of the stories,” Mom said. “Just more than we knew.”
About a week later, after we thought the crisis had passed and as grief settled into our bones, just when we thought we would be okay for a while, the phone rang, sending me tearing through the streets toward the nursing home. I pulled into the parking lot fast, with a squeal of my tires, and stopped hard in the nearest empty spot. The weather was turning, and against the gray sky the nursing home looked sad and hard up. The last of the fall flowers drooped along the walkway, listing against a new harsh wind. A flyer taped to the front door flapped wildly.
For a moment, I paused to collect myself. I had left Amelia with Ann, again, and Ann was now at my house, punching numbers into a calculator, spreadsheets lined up in columns across my kitchen table while Amelia slept in her bassinette. Ann, who was determined to start her own business. She would probably take over the world. What thanks I could mumble to her as I sped out the door were likely incomprehensible. I couldn’t remember when I had last slept well. I couldn’t remember when I had last combed my hair.
The nurses from the afternoon shift were leaving, but they hardly picked up their pace as they traversed the lot, indifferent to the wind. They waved each other good-bye, each gesture riddled with fatigue. I knew them all. I knew Sally was getting divorced, and that Jane’s daughter won the statewide spelling bee, and that Herman, who is from Africa, hated the cold.
A slow, hesitant rain began, the drops falling heavily on the car roof. Herman drove by in his beat-up second-hand Ford, cigarette hanging dangerously from his lips. Then Sally. Then Jane, a look on her face of hard concentration, a quick, dark glance at the sky.
I shivered, climbed out of my car, and ran through the parking lot with my coat unzipped and my hood bouncing against my back. In the main lobby, my glasses fogged, and my breathing was harsh, and I knew where I was mostly by sound: the front desk receptionist transferred a call to two; an old man asked another about a mutual friend; a metal cart whined by, attended by a blur of white and the smell of cheap aftershave. But I kept on walking, as sure of my footing as anything.
I heard the thin slap of cards and knew that Mary was nearby, playing Old Maid with a volunteer, the only game she could play because those were the only cards large enough for her to see. As my glasses cleared I saw her, all spirit and fire, dressed in a brightly colored blouse, wearing a too bright red lipstick, her hair carefully coifed. I waved, and she lifted a hand, and I sailed past, down the brown carpeted hallway, through the pungent, sharp smell of urine, past the day room, where the television blared news to a sleeping audience, and on down a root hallway, a hallway like a limb or branch, a peace offering, to the very end.
In his room, Grandpa was sound asleep. Whatever had required my urgent arrival, quelled.
Kirsten appeared, from where I had no idea. “He was fighting with the staff, trying to pull out his IV, so we sedated him.”
“Sedated him? What IV?”
“Doctors’ orders. He won’t eat.”
“When did this start? Does Mom know?”
“She’s on her way.”
I thumped down heavily in Grandma’s old chair and looked carefully at my Grandpa, whose mouth was wide open and whose stuffed cat was peeking out from beneath his folded hands. I had hit my breaking point. I put my head in my hands. And I sobbed.
I don’t think anyone wants to be the one who is left behind, and certainly my grandfather never expected it. In the first days after her funeral, a tidy, brief affair with only family and some of the nursing home staff, I visited when I could. But after the IV debacle, I went over every day. Grandpa stayed in his room as much as possible. He wouldn’t talk to other residents. He didn’t even turn on his lights, and so I had to flip them on when I arrived. He wouldn’t play checkers with me or reminisce. He looked at my pictures of Amelia, but he said little. When Al dropped by, Grandpa tried to chat, but he soon wore out, gave up.
That evening, I called my mother. “He’s trying to follow her.”
“What are we going to do?”
I drank a glass of wine while she and I talked. I didn’t intend to, but I had the drink in my hand when I dialed, and over the course of what was a short conversation, the wine disappeared, a waste of breast milk.
I walked in circles around the periphery of the living room as we spoke, unable to be still, whispering, as if our conversation was a conspiracy. Al was asleep on the couch, snoring softly, his old fuzzy bear paw slippers sticking out over the armrest. He didn’t stir.
My mother took a deep breath. “We’re talking about bringing him home.”
“Home? Mom, you can’t lift him. You can’t do what the nurses can do.”
“I know. But you see, he’s my dad,” mom said, voice breaking.
I listened as she cried and when she quieted, I told her I was sure that she’d do the right thing.
I had no idea what that was. None of us did.
But my sister, Glennie, visited him the next day and did the one thing no one else had thought to do. She asked him.
Grandpa returned to the house but not to the basement level. He moved into my old room. He didn’t like it—the flowery curtains, the pale pink walls.
“I never liked it either,” I told him. “I wanted yellow.”
“Why didn’t you say?” he asked, roaring.
I shrugged. Why didn’t any of us say half the things we should have? Like I’m sorry?
A home health nurse came every day, and his aged best friend, Larch, came over to visit every Wednesday, with doughnuts. Larch made all the difference to our lives then. Even Al couldn’t reach Grandpa the way Larch could. Grandpa and Larch had navigated unspeakable things during WWII, and we ought to have known that only Larch could get him through this.
Larch brought the pastries, but I am sure he also smuggled in a secret stash of Scotch. He used his connections to haul over some new furniture. My room became a mix of Grandpa’s things and mine. Navy memorabilia amidst flower curtains. A huge lounge chair that lifted itself to spit Grandpa out stood next to my pictures from graduation, which were now in community with prints of naval battle ships. And Larch talked to him. About the war. About meeting Grandma. About what all his pals at the doughnut shop had to stay. About my new sparkling baby. In the end, Grandpa tried to live for Amelia, whom I brought to visit him each morning, and to whom he read an entire large print Patrick O’Brien novel.
“Rest,” he’d say to me. “We have a whole series to get through in here.”
Grandpa held Amelia and read to her until she fell asleep, and then while she softly snored. If Larch came over, Larch held her, too. Her first months of life seemed to save Grandpa’s, and she grew in a soil I never expected, soil made up of battle stories and bawdy stories, crullers and Oban. She did not absorb their grief. They became a trio, and I settled at the yellow kitchen table, exhausted and needing respite, listening, catching words, lyrics, and sometimes even laughter; and I thought she was enough, Amelia.
I’d thought a lot about what to do with Grandma’s secrets, about what adding them to the family history might mean, but I was unsettled by how I’d learned them all.
“Would anything really change if you put it all in?” Al asked, potato chip in hand, feet up on the recliner, one evening after returning from a long day at the university. Faculty meetings and teaching and office hours.
I sat on the arm of my own chair, unable to fully relax. “Maybe knowing that she wrote to Cecily is important, makes her seem like a better person.”
“I don’t think secrets are good things. Not secrets like those. I’d add them in,” Al said, rifling in the potato chip bag. “Let them out and let the family think what they want.”
“I don’t even know who Pastor Ahrens is.”
“Well, you might spare him.” Al stared thoughtfully at his next chip. “Can I ask you a favor, though? Don’t be like her. Don’t stay bitter about Glennie’s betrayal like your grandma did about Cecily.”
“Stay bitter?” He could not be right. I was not like my grandmother.
But I was.
Later that night, I added Grandma’s secrets into the text, the ones about us, because they were part of us, and one morning when I dropped Amelia off with Grandpa, I told him. About Grandma letting loose, about the family history.
He looked out at his paintings of battleships. Amelia watched him, waiting for her story. I waited, watching him, to learn the fate of ours. Mom came into the room behind me, and there we were, four generations.
“Oh, Sarahstina,” Grandpa said. “Cecily was harmless, really. I don’t remember the pastor or the neighbor with the stolen stuff. Do you want everyone to remember?”
“It’s part of who we are, what shaped us.”
Grandpa looked down at Amelia. “Do you want to know about the thieving neighbor?” Then he pointed at me, punching the air. “If you’re going to tell it all, tell it all, but I have some things to add.”
I hadn’t thought of asking him to share. He had topics that were off-limits. Whole years that were off-limits.
“I will tell Amelia,” he said, “and you write it down.”
He began slowly that morning, describing his childhood on a small family farm in southern Minnesota, and muttered into November, which was his last, unfolding his own life and threading it with Grandma’s. He talked about everything but the war.
“It’s too hard to talk about,” he said.
“Will you at least tell me how you earned the medal?”
He shook his head. “Some wounds,” he said, “never heal.”
For a while, I remembered his voice that morning, gruff where Grandma’s had been soft, loud where hers had been sibilant. But eventually I lost the sound memory. That morning, Amelia cried, and I went out to the living room to feed her, and Grandpa got a phone call from Larch, whom he could not hear, and the radio announcer noted the time. I held Amelia close and listened to the music filter out into the morning, to Grandpa’s conversation.
“I miss her so much,” he was telling Larch. “Sometimes, when I’m alone, I just sit here and cry.”
His own secrets, spilling into the morning, in that last bitter season. I held my daughter with tears running down my face, and when she was fed and burped and happy and snoring in her travel bed, I went back into my grandfather’s room and told him what I had heard, and we sat together with all the secrets out in the ugly open.
“I’m kind of shocked she passed off those baked beans as hers,” I said finally, trying to be funny, which I realized had been my mom’s goal at the nursing home, to ease the pain.
Grandpa laughed. “Oh, she’d told me. She told me everything.”
“So you are the keeper of secrets?”
“I guess.” He laughed again.
“What happened to the letters between her and Cecily?”
“Oh, I think she threw them out, but you brought her home in that family history. I think your Grandma was glad about that.”
“But that was close enough?”
“Nothing takes away the loss, you know,” he said, putting his hand on mine. “Take care of Al.”
I looked at my grandpa sharply then, but he gave my hand a good squeeze, as if to show his strength, as if to imply he was staying a while.
“I won’t add the stuff about the thieving neighbor,” I said.
Grandpa nodded. “Let them be.”
Excerpted from Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie. Used with permission of the publisher, Fomite Press. Copyright © 2022 by Caitlin Hamilton Summie.