Today I was scrubbing out a stainless steel pot Justin brought home from his grandmother’s house. He made beans in it, and they had burned. I wondered if his grandmother, Marie, had some really awesome old-timey trick to get the crap off the bottom. I didn’t know any tricks, so even after two days of soaking in soapy hot water, I had plenty of time to think about the pot’s history while I cleaned it.
Justin’s grandmother passed away in April. Marie was a sweet lady with an unforgettable laugh. She loved to ‘visit’ and could talk the ear off a stalk of corn. My sister-in-law and I were always happy to sit and listen.
She remembered everything. This always impressed me because I have trouble remembering things when I walk from one room to the next. She somehow managed to cross an entire lifetime and could tell you thirty year old stories like they had just happened yesterday.
Marie raised her four kids then went back to school for a Master’s degree in Mathematics. Then she taught calculus at the local high until she retired. That’s impressive enough by today’s standards. When you take into account that this was during a time when women were expected to stay at home, she takes on super hero status.
When I studied Mathematics in college she always made a point of asking me what class I was in. I will never forget sitting at her kitchen table discussing theories from Linear Algebra.
She had a lot of stuff to go through after she passed away. She and her husband, like a lot of people who survived the Great Depression, kept everything.
We went to her house over the Fourth of July weekend. I can’t imagine how much work organizing all that stuff must have been for her kids. The house looked like a giant garage sale. Tables were full of stuff like fifty coffee mugs, enough bed sheets and blankets to service a hotel, and enough Tupperware to fill a pantry.
There were knick knacks of all shapes and sizes, even some hand-made pottery pieces with Marie’s initials etched into the back. I took a pretty purple leaf that I’m using as a soap dish. I liked that her hands had crafted the dish, fired and glazed it herself.
Even though my sister-in-law and I had an open invitation from Marie’s kids to take what we wanted, we still felt like vultures. We’d pick things up only to put them back down. It made me sad to see all the stuff. I thought, is this what we’re reduced to in the end? A pile of stuff that our families have to clean up and give away?
Justin’s aunt saw me pick up a beautiful old table cloth and walked over.
“That table cloth is old!”
“It is?” I held the table cloth more reverently.
“My mother only brought it out for special occasions. Like if we had company. We weren’t allowed to touch it. After everyone left, she’d pack it back into a trunk until next time.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
Justin’s aunt told me the story behind everything I picked up. I listened, fascinated with the bits of family history. But I also listened because I could see she needed to tell. I badly wanted to help in any way I could, even if the only thing I could do was nod and ask questions when appropriate.
I loved going through the family pictures. My favorite is the one of Lee and Marie with their four kids. Your standard American family photo.
Except for the bullet hole.
According to family lore, my father in law—surely no older than ten at the time—got into an argument with his mom. Later, he claimed shooting the picture with his Red Ryder BB gun was an accident. If it was an accident, it was a damned funny one because the bullet hole is suspiciously close to Marie’s head.
Marie’s pragmatism is showcased beautifully here.
So what if the glass has a bullet hole and is webbed with cracks? The frame still holds a picture, therefore it should not be thrown away.
It just has an extra awesome detail.
Marie never forgot what her grand kids were interested in either. When Justin was little, he loved this ridiculous set of stuffed frogs. Marie made sure to include in her Will that those frogs should be left to Justin.
So we are now the proud owners of the taxidermied, pool playing frogs pictured at the top of this post.
These things are old. O.L.D. If you look closely, one frog’s arm is falling off. I’m trying hard not to analyze the ‘meat’ on the broken arm. Or look too closely at the graying eyes. The mouth of the one on the right is splitting its fifty year old seam. They are probably coated with lead paint.
When we brought them home, Tilley was a little too interested in them. She sniffed them once and her eyes lit up like Christmas. I imagine this is what crack heads look like when they’re about to score their next hit. Tilley was clearly on board with eating their little lead-paint-covered bodies, but I didn’t want to pay that particular vet bill. So now the frogs live high on a shelf.
In the garage.
I thought about Marie while I scoured the pot. I poured some more dish soap from a pretty little glass jar I’d brought home from her house and converted into a dish soap dispenser. Finally, I got the last bit of black crust off.
I smiled, pleased as I rinsed the pot.
It was then that it occurred to me that Marie’s hands had probably scrubbed that same pot, and had likely cursed it while doing so. Marie’s hands had rinsed it in warm water while soap slipped down the drain. And Marie would probably have held the pot up, pleased when she finished.
And then I wasn’t sad anymore about all the stuff Marie had left behind. Yes, it was just stuff. But it was stuff she had touched. Stuff she had used. Stuff she had, in some cases, made. This stuff was a part of her life. A part of her story. And now it was a part of mine.
Even those goddam frogs.