When All of Your Family Heirlooms are Stories
Gina Sorell on her Grandmother's Intangible Legacy
There were six of us cleaning out my grandmother’s apartment after she died—all women, all related, and each with a different relationship to her. We sat on the floor of her cramped one-bedroom apartment, light streaming through the windows and illuminating the dust that scattered from the covers of the books I had stacked to give away.
My grandmother hadn’t really left a will, just her wishes that her things be divided up fairly—a difficult metric to go by, as her idea of fair was always subjective, aligned with whomever was in her favor at the time. My own relationship with her was a complicated one, hindered, as I got older, by the knowledge of her shortcomings as a parent to my beloved mother. I sat among clothes bought on sale, sometimes in duplicates, the tags not yet removed, pieces of fine furniture that had travelled across continents, art books that had been read hundreds of times, and a large tin of jewelry containing the few items that she had not sold. I reached in and pulled out a hand-painted, green wooden box and a pair of silver and freshwater pearl earrings, my heartbeat accelerating at my discovery.
“Oh, I loved those,” said my cousin, “Gran used to wear them all the time. Can I have them?” She reached over to admire them, holding them up to her face to see how they looked.
“They look great on you,” my aunt said.
“You should keep them,” my other cousin suggested.
“No,” I said, surprising everyone. “Please. I gave them to her. I want them.”
It was the only thing that I had asked for all day, my voice lost to the grief of having so many questions that I would never be able to ask her.
“Of course,” my cousin answered, gently passing them back to me. “I didn’t know.”
I was surprised and moved to see that my grandmother had taken such good care of the gift I’d purchased in Florence on a school trip ten years earlier. She had loved that city, and my experience of it was colored by her stories of the beauty of the land and its people. I had found the earrings and little box at a flea market and carefully transported them back in my purse. Green is a color I never wear, and yet, the two things that I hold dear from my grandmother—the jewelry box and the last card she gave me—are both this color. The color of the trees that flanked our weekly walks, the color of the money that drove so many of her motives, and the color of envy—a vice of which I was often guilty, jealous of my younger cousin’s seemingly carefree relationship with her.
Some families have many heirlooms, things that are passed down from generation to generation, but not mine. We have stories. Stories that my grandmother would share with me on our weekly Thursday visits together. It was the one day of the week that I would have her all to myself, giving me a glimpse into her strange and wonderful adult world, a world that she did nothing to alter to meet the needs of a child.
We would meet at her apartment full of books stacked thigh high along the walls, their pages marked with old envelopes recycled into bookmarks, lines of text underlined in pencil, notes often at the margins, and set out on our adventure. Taking the pathway at the back of her building that cut through a leafy green ravine and over a wooden bridge in the middle of the city, we’d walk until we found ourselves at her favorite neighborhood café on the other side. There she would greet her friends, all regulars, eager to talk about what she had just finished reading. She’d introduce me briefly and tell me to order whatever I wanted from the menu while she sipped a cup of her diuretic tea. With no children’s menu offering grilled cheese or chicken fingers, I’d order an egg sandwich and listen in on conversations about philosophy, religion, and spirituality, my grandmother an expert in each, as I ate.
Afterward, when her friends had left, she’d tell me their stories. The lady whose husband abandoned her with two children and no financial support, the beautiful young man whom everyone believed had the makings of a real spiritual leader, the colleague who’d made themselves sick from worry and jealousy. She’d hook her arm through mine and whisper their secrets, stopping in at her favorite bookstore to pick up her latest order before leading me to the pastry shop to buy us each a decadent sweet—what she’d really skipped her lunch for. As we’d make our way back home, the conversation would switch to art and reincarnation, and always, the importance of love above all else.
Looking back, I think of how many of our conversations were not really appropriate for a child, but having never had the opportunity to be a child herself, I’m not sure that my grandmother knew that. And just as she may have had trouble seeing me as a child, I had trouble seeing her as my grandmother. I saw her, as she must have seen herself, as a girl whose broken heart never properly mended, who was damaged and drawn to kindred spirits, who understood what it was like to have loved and lost many times—first her mother, then her brother, and finally her fiancée in the war.
I heard her story the way she chose to tell it, carefully crafted and delivered, the details sometimes changed in the retelling depending on her audience or the point she was trying to make. She taught me early on that sometimes truth can be subjective, memories are ours to shape, and that perspective is everything; lessons as I writer I still carry into my work, striving as she would to empathize rather than judge the characters in my stories.
As we sorted through my grandmother’s belongings, I realized that I wanted something tangible to hold onto as well. When I looked at the earrings, I remembered the stories my grandmother told me, her love of beauty, and the vast, if hidden, impact she had on my life. It seemed to be a symbol of who we once were to one another—sources of pride and inspiration, fellow artists and dreamers, students of life, and lovers of the beauty found in simple things, like the jewelry box I held in my hand.