The story goes that I came out of day care and climbed in Grandma’s car and said, “Ms. So-and-so says I’m tiny and I’m not tiny, am I, Grandma?” And she, of course, had to explain that I was quite tiny, but that wasn’t a bad thing. I could do whatever I wanted, be whoever I wanted. Being tiny didn’t hold me back, but it was also something to be proud of. It made me unique.
That was one of her favorite stories to tell about little me. I don’t know if I remember the incident itself, but I’ve heard it so many times, I feel like I can remember it. I can envision her white Chrysler with the blue interior and the bench seat I’d slide across to sit right next to her. I remember the little purple sticker I had put on her steering wheel to remind her to put on her seat belt because she never did. After three months with that sticker, she remembered without prompting. I was so proud. Even years later as a middle, then high school student, when I saw her put on her seat belt, I’d give myself a mental pat on the back.
The story followed me well into my twenties. Even when the dementia began to set in, she told that story. Sometimes I wondered if she didn’t remember having told it, but most the time I knew she just felt like telling it again. She would say to my then-girlfriend “Meegan, have I told you about Ashley in Kindergarten?” And Meg would gleefully prompt her to tell it again. And my mother would shout, “Her name is Megan, Mum, not Meegan.” Grandma would pat Mom’s hand and nod. “Now, Meegan, as you know…” Ultimately, Megan and I decided it was a Canadian pronunciation. Neither of us really believed that, but it sure was fun trying to convince my Canadian mother.
When I got my license, the first road trip my parents let me take was to my grandparents’ house. It was the spring break of my senior year and it was decided that my brother and I would be visiting Gram to help with her yard. She loved that yard. In her younger years, clearing the walkways and scrubbing the stone benches, pruning the plants and raking the leaves were arduous but pleasant tasks. As she got older, the work became too much. She slowly eliminated the upkeep of certain areas, allowing them to go wild. As long as she had her wooden barrels of herbs and her favorite bench to sit on and stare at the garden, she was happy. I don’t remember that spring break, really. We resented being sent away when all our friends were allowed to stay and lounge in town, but as soon as we left the county, we were happy for the distance. My brother and I shopped in all the geriatric thrift stores in town, drove through the mountain roads too fast with the windows down, and, of course, helped Gram clean her favorite spots in the yard.
I still remember the cool, familiar smell of their house. Fresh cotton, musty books, White Linen by Estée Lauder, reams upon reams of fabric, cigarette smoke on a cold jacket, maple syrup. When her dementia became too much to handle, when his emphysema became cancer, my mother and her brothers decided to move them to a small house near my uncle. I drove up to help pack the house. Within minutes, I realized my uncles planned to gut the place, memories and keepsakes be damned. She had already forgotten them, so what did it matter? I gathered all the journals of hers I could find, her favorite books of poetry, the boxes of fabric I’d always admired. I tried to find the stacks of letters from when we were pen pals in my late teen years, but they were gone with the other worthless trinkets she had collected. Within an hour, my uncles gave me the task of grandma-sitting. I was too small to help carry anything anyway.
The house was sold. I’m sure the new owners changed the backyard. The walkways probably shifted. Maybe the flowerbeds became overgrown. But the tall pines continued to grow, their needles littering the places where Gram and I walked. She used to stop at the barrel of mint to pinch off a sprig for me to chew. Maybe some other five-year-old would delight in crushing the fragrant leaves and staring up at the blue mountain sky.
Not knowing was a comfort. If I didn’t know, then maybe it was all exactly how I had left it, exactly how she had left it. Perfectly preserved in the mist of memory. But now I know it’s gone. The house was in Magalia. About ten miles north of Paradise. Now the only comfort is that Gram died before her garden. She’ll never know the trees didn’t even make it.