Every Christmas, my family drove for two days or flew, on special occasions, to Fort Lauderdale to stay with my grandmother for two weeks. When we were really lucky and could get our homework ahead of time, we stayed four weeks. My grandmother was a widow with a three-bedroom house in a retirement community in Lauderdale Lakes, and we loved every second of our green Christmases.
We filled our days with jaunts to the flea market (Mom! Really really cool silver-metallic-leopard-print watch wristband! I MUST HAVE IT), trips to the beach in my totally 80s argyle-print swimsuit, shopping for v-backed sweaters in neon colors at The Limited at Broward Mall, and playing gin rummy with my card-shark grandmother. These were the days that we watched The Sound of Music every year on the TV when it came on, because there was no such thing as a DVR. These were the holidays that I fell in love with Band Aid and played “Feed the World” ad nauseum. Not to mention the all-day cooking fests featuring Grandma and her sisters.
Why aren’t you eating these meatballs?
Whaddayamean, you don’t eat veal anymore?
As my sister and I became teenagers and outgrew our annual perusal of the Sears catalog to pick out toys for Christmas, we needed a new outlet. At some point, we made a game out of creating our grandmother’s will, dividing up all of the knick-knacks she kept in her living room. It sounds morbid, but my grandmother had an amazing sense of humor, and she got a kick out of the whole thing.
I’ll take the white couch, I would say to my sister.
No, you can’t have the whole couch, she would protest. You take those two pieces and I’ll take this end piece.
I want the Lenox pedestal, I would say, writing it down in neat cursive on my piece of scrap paper.
Then I want the pink elephant statues, she would counter.
This went on and on, usually a few times throughout our stay each year. We spent hours looking through the house for treasures and dividing them up and negotiating who would get what, and then we would present our lists to Gram. It’s not as if she would ever really die, we thought. We were just playing a game.
There was one item in the house that was non-negotiable: the massive crystal punch bowl. For as many years as I visited my grandmother on those December days, that crystal punch bowl held court in the middle of her coffee table, untouched and unused. It was always meticulously dusted and cleaned, each facet in the glass sparkling in the sun. Each dainty cup was anchored to the inch-thick crystal by a small translucent hook. The ladle sat grandly with its regal, ornately carved handle bursting from the punch bowl with defiance. I am the queen of this living room, it said to me.
The punch bowl was mine. Always mine. My sister didn’t even try to convince me, as she knew that I wasn’t going to budge. It didn’t matter that this crystal punch bowl weighed as much as a baby hippo, or that I had no need of a formal punch bowl set now or in the foreseeable future. It belonged to me as surely as my brown hair and eyes.
Years went by, and my grandmother started giving us little things from her collection, tiny things that would always remind us of her, and we remained in denial of her advancing age.
Late in December 1999, my grandmother pulled me aside to show me something she had made for me, tucked in her dresser drawer: a baby blanket. It was unfinished, but barely so. It was a white blanket crocheted in a loose weave, soft and so fuzzy around the edges you’d think it was a dream.
“Gram, I’m not even married yet!” I laughed.
“I just want you to know where it is, in case,” she said. She gave me her wedding band that night.
A few weeks later, I got a call at 11:47 PM on a Sunday night from my keening mother: Gram had passed away in her sleep, quietly and peacefully. I made arrangements to fly to Florida the next day to meet her at the house to start the process of boxing up her things. I fell into my mother’s and cousin’s arms when I arrived at the airport, and arm in arm we walked out into the sunshine toward the end of this chapter of our lives.
As we worked through the house over the next few days, we shared funny memories of this nightgown, and this pair of earrings, and this lasagna pan. We laughed about the tissue box full of gag gifts stuffed behind the bed (complete with a “three carrot” ring – as in, “Do you want to see my three carat ring?”, a huge plastic spider, fake poop, and fake vomit she liked to leave in various places around the house), the two freezers full of orange juice and meals “just in case”, and the statue wearing as many crucifixes as Mr. T had gold necklaces. My Depression-era-survivor grandmother saved everything. She tried to get me to take that box of gag gifts home with me more than once, and I turned it down every time. I’d kind of like to have that back, now; my little boy would get a huge kick out of it.
When we came to the living room, I saved my crystal bowl for last. I boxed up each item reverently, in cartoon papers and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinal news. I labeled the box FRAGILE on every side, and readied it to ship to my new home in Atlanta. I thought about the fragility of both this bowl and life itself, and I missed Gram like crazy. A smile crept to my face through my tears thinking about all of the times I claimed this gift, and I started to laugh. I laughed and laughed about that big, silly bowl, and I kept the memories and let the grief wash over me like a waterfall.
My bowl met me in Atlanta, and it made the move to Texas, still in that box with red pen markings all over it. I took it out once, to look at it, and remember, but I don’t have to. It’s as clear in my head as that well-loved glass ever was. Someday, when I’m older and our son has outgrown baseballs in the house (this is why we don’t have nice things) and we have more room for knick-knacks, I’ll take it out and give it its special place. Frankly, when am I going to need a big crystal bowl with 12 little cups and a massive ladle? I may not. But I have it, and all of the memories that go with it.
The punch bowl is mine, Gram. Thanks for holding it for me all of those years until I could bring it home.