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Thursday
Mar242016

Spreadsheets and Signposts

Whenever I would call my grandmother, she answered quickly. Sitting at the white kitchen table originally from her parents’ farmhouse or perhaps in her nearby blue armchair facing the television, she didn’t like to keep callers waiting. I always asked what she was doing, and she always said, “Oh, first one thing and another.” Then, “Just figuring.” She said that last word the way that all central Texans do—simple vowels, easy on the lips. 

But what did she have to figger? Maybe she’d been checking her scrap-paper list of bills due that month, reminding herself which had come and for how much and whether they were already paid. Or rereading a recent letter from her sister-in-law. Or drying an empty butter tub. Maybe she had been thinking about where these things would go when she finished figgerin ‘em. She certainly spent time there frettin over the figgerin. I reckon she should have fretted if she ever imagined my sister and me sorting her things after she had gone. 

Two sets of encyclopedias, six crocheted coasters,
two boxes of Bingo, the Texas Drivers Handbook 1970,
two rods and reels, three rifles in cases, twenty-two empty jam jars,
the guest book from my grandfather’s funeral.

As my sister and I age, we begin to fulfill the prophecies about us: so often when we were kids, strangers would ask if we were twins, and we would cackle. Two and a half years apart, her tight, white curls and my straight brown bangs were anything but twins. But my hair has gone curly now, and her hair has darkened, and we both wear glasses rather than contacts, and we can see ourselves in each other’s faces. We were in the center of untwinned childhood when our grandmother moved down the street from us. Up to that point, we had seen her once or twice a year, and we suddenly found ourselves visiting regularly for after-school snacks and Bonanza re-runs and board games. 

One day, we grew up, but Grandma didn’t notice. She still thought that I hated nuts while my sister loved all things cheese. She could not be persuaded that people change. She, after all, had not changed in decades. Not a bit of her wardrobe, home decor, reading material, diet, interpersonal relationships, or societal expectations had suffered even the most minor shift. But my sister and I had changed. We had grown up and apart and together. We had tried new foods and had gone far places and still, perhaps remarkably, had come home. 

Six ladies embossed on six drinking glasses,
that piece of petrified wood she used as a paperweight,
a milkglass vase holding plastic orange flowers,
every knife dull, copper-bottom pots and pans like new.

A few months after Grandma died, my sister and I, the only children of her only child, pulled up in her driveway and looked up the street to the house where we had grown up. The azaleas our mother loved still surrounded the pine trees in the front yard. But at Grandma’s house, the front bedroom window boasted but one shutter, and the bushes that never did like living under the eaves along the front porch had suffered their last downpour. We could hope that another widow might one day take the same pride in this home as she had. We could hope that another family might require weekly Sunday lunches together in this dining room. But all we could actually do was walk inside and take charge of things. We handled every mug, bowl, robe, clip-on earring, photograph, handwritten note, figurine, shoe, Christmas ribbon, spatula, teapot, newspaper clipping, map, ashtray, game, nutcracker, book, skivvy. We devoted every piece to “sale” or “family” and wrecked her house.

My sister laughed as only a sister can when I announced my plan to catalogue everything. I took out my laptop and opened a spreadsheet to record the wreckage. She mocked me and then waited patiently as I entered each item into 721 rows of words. It took days, of course, and we marveled each time we returned to the house, but we could not afford to regret the mess. We could not imagine another way to work through it all. At least my spreadsheet suggested a kind of reorganization, an order pressed into the chaos my sister and I had invented. We repaired the breaches by setting every item into row and columns. We rescued the mess with a chart.

A Brownwood Bulletin sweatshirt, her light blue suitcase,
pajamas for every season, a picture of our father holding a Bible,
a calendar featuring a picture of the last car she bought,
rollers and pins, a Broadman hymnal, her wedding ring.

For her first twenty years, my grandmother lived on her parents’ farm in Bangs, Texas. For the next fifty, she lived in Comanche: with my grandfather who built their house, then without him. Ten years into widowhood, she finally agreed to move closer to family, so she bought a house down the street from ours and waited a couple more years to work out the details. Even then, she lived half of every year in Comanche, keeping house in both places. Radiation therapy for breast cancer, diagnosed in her late seventies, made her miss one spring trip back home, and then another, so she decided to let the Comanche house go. One day, without telling the rest of us, she asked a dear friend to sell everything, save a box or so of things she thought special, and she signed the house over to her son. 

She had already moved her vintage Avon, and my sister and I now gathered it from every corner of the house. For more than twenty years in Comanche, Grandma represented Avon and kept various samples and supplies on-hand in a living room closet that smelled of cleanliness, carefulness, crisp corners. But even in retirement, she kept colognes and aftershaves decades old in peculiar bottles shaped like fishermen or chessmen or lanterns. Who would want these now? And what to do with the countless pins, wristwatches, goblets, and figurines commemorating sales goals met or anniversary years achieved? Grandma loved to tell of the Pentecostal women who lived just outside of town and trusted her alone to sell them face cleanser and maybe a little rouge. 

Plates with birds and plates with wildflowers, one pocket watch,
hand mirrors, porcelain figurines of ladies and rabbits,
one Presto Toaster-Broiler, that canister set shaped like townhouses,
Orangatan Bronze Glory tanning lotion in the shape of an orange.

Grandma’s world grew smaller and smaller every year, though its circle had never been large. She packed everything dear to her—from our father’s baby boots to plastic honey bears she painstakingly cleaned out for possible future reuse—into designated spaces in her home, and she packed herself into the smallest space in the middle, increasingly refusing to leave even to visit the grocery store. Her tremors, she said. 

Part of the packing away was resourcefulness, an appreciation of all commodities that her generation learned by necessity. To waste aluminum foil would forever strike her as unpatriotic, so she diligently cleaned and pressed out all small shreds for reuse. So too plastic wrap, wound around old paper towel centers and separated by cut slips of unused check registers. Piles of aluminum pie plates. Hundreds of jars that once held her favorite plum jam, reusable as drinking glasses. Her compulsions were a kind of natural “green” movement.

Yet compulsions they were. My sister and I refused to count the plastic containers so carefully de-labeled and stacked in the lower cabinets. We marveled only for a few moments at the saved plastic wrap. We grimaced at every hard pound of sugar still in its original packaging or poured into a glass jar, then always wrapped in at least one plastic bag and fastened at the top with a twist-tie. But in the end, we divided it all as recycling or trash. Very little of the compulsive greening went to the “sale” or “family keep” piles. It was too much.

One trombone, one shoeshine brush, microscope slides from 1969,
silver baby fork and spoon (tarnished), one red plastic horse,
a plastic coin collector from the Comanche Funeral Home
commemorating her son’s “First Automotive Ride” on the day of his birth.

To assess the secrets we now possessed, my sister and I dismantled every carefully hoarded collection of Cool Whip containers, Styrofoam meat dishes, “brand new” household appliances, and unworn lace. The things no one could use alongside the things someone might want to use. And then there were the things only she loved, the things that told her who she was and what kind of life she had cherished. Things that tell the story of who she thought she was.

We unpacked it all, saved the spreadsheet, and took to our own homes the things we wanted. Our father took more, of course, including that white kitchen table. He understood the trick of the drop leaf. He knew where in the old farmhouse it had sat for all his growing-up years. But I still picture it where my sister and I left it—where Grandma would sit to answer the phone and do all her figuring. 

Hat pins, skeleton keys, dress gloves, mother-of-pearl pocket knife,
Abilene Chamber of Commerce yard stick, two sewing machines,
car coat, car blanket, milkglass vase holding plastic orange flowers.
red corduroy hat with ear flaps and yellow piping in a gray box.


Photograph by Jennifer Strange

Jennifer Strange is a wife, mother of three sons, writer, and editor. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Other Journal, Rock and SlingMakes You MomThe Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume IV: Louisiana, and this blog, which she also serves as assistant editor.

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