Train whistles & Grandma’s ghost

by | Apr 17, 2024

This morning, I’m sitting in a pull-out, single bed in the apartment attached to my aunt’s house outside of Spokane, Washington, the coffee I made hitting my taste buds like modified battery acid (going for metaphor here, not an experienced comparison to battery acid. It’s just that I’ve never been able to make a drinkable cup of coffee using a French press).

My maternal grandmother lived in this apartment from the time she sold her home in Pennsylvania and moved in with my aunt, until her death. (I found out my grandmother died from my mom, and my aunt, who were alternately laughing and crying when they called with the news. But that’s a story for another time.) Physical reminders of Grandma Dorothy’s presence are everywhere in these rooms, and it dawns on me that very little has been removed, or even moved from shelves. Furniture legs sit in decades-old grooves, labelled bottles hold spices turned a uniform pale brown, and tiny perfume bottles sit in a wicker wall shelf I remember seeing in Grandma’s bathroom when I was a kid.

I walk through these rooms hesitant to disturb the various tableaux. A sticky layer of dust coats most of her things, from the tea pots and matching cups, to the Wallace Nutting photographs. But when I lower myself into a familiar upholstered armchair and close my eyes, I can picture myself decades ago, sitting in Grandma’s reading nook, perusing bookshelves filled with paperback romances by authors like Barbara Cartland, Jackie Collins, Jude Devereaux, and Kathleen Woodiwiss. I don’t remember if I read any, but I remember marveling at the saucy covers, and noting how over the years the spines faded to shades of blue.

My aunt set aside Grandma’s darning basket for me to take home. I slip my fingers through snipping scissors; open gold foil packets of needles; run my fingertip over a packet of Coats & Clarks assorted “mending and darning” threads purchased for 15 cents. A well-used wooden sock-darning tool fits snugly in my palm.

My grandmother was a professional seamstress and accomplished tailor, and if I take all this home, I’ll have no excuse when my own socks show a bit of wear and tear. She had an amazing wardrobe, most of which she made herself, and I loved watching her get dressed. I’d perch myself on her canopy bed’s poufy, snowy white spread, and marvel at her process of assembling the day’s outfit. From her undergarments and stocking, to her make-up, to shoes and hats. And when it was time to add perfume, I’d slide off the high bed and run my gaze reverently over the bottles arrayed on a silver tray. Glass stoppers, heavy glass, evocative names, heady scents… and the tiniest touch on my inner wrist.

Memories hovered in my head all last night, even as whistles from nearby tracks lifted me from sleep to announce a passing train. I’m here for three more days, visiting with relatives I rarely get to see. And at night, visiting with Grandma’s ghost and all the blessings she bestowed on me.

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