As is usual with these dysfunctional family things, I had unnecessary guilt. My maternal grandmother and I were very close. But when Bessie’s health was failing, I had two babies at home in Massachusetts. I couldn’t get to her in New York as often as I would have liked, and then she was gone.
The week of her death was also the week of her birth, and unknown to me at the time, the week of my blonde haired, blue eyed son’s conception. This was a surprise, since his two older sisters had dark hair and dark eyes. Aidan has always been a sure sign for me of my grandmother ensuring the presence of her Irish pride in our lives. We will never skip corned beef dinner on St. Patrick’s Day for this reason.
My uncle, who was in charge of her affairs, kept me from participating in anything. My grandmother and I shared a relationship she didn’t have with his daughters. He and my Aunt both felt that their girls didn’t get what I got from her. So when I offered to help clean out her apartment he said, “no thanks.” When I asked about her ashes he said, “we’ll call you.” Bessie was cremated, and didn’t want any services, just a private dispersement of her ashes. Again, my uncle made it clear that private meant without me, leaving me the details on my answering machine after the fact.
But luckily, Bessie had started passing her things on to me when I was 20 and I moved to Pennsylvania. Then when I came back, she gave me more of her treasures when I moved into an apartment upstairs in her house. And then once more when I left New York for Boston.
I had no idea that these trivial every day items were not just things, but seeds she was planting, reminders of what life was about, and how to find your way home, even if that place kept changing.
Now 16 years later, the week of her passing had become the week of my niece’s 20th birthday, and my mother in-law’s birthday, who we lost earlier this year. It has turned into a complicated and bittersweet week. So I hope for my niece Monica, I can explain from experience that a heart wrenching loss can contain healing lifelong gifts. It takes time. And patience. But having these simple possessions is a way of making sure that you are a part of your grandmother and she will always be a part of you, and no one can change that. Not you, not me, and not some crazy, dysfunctional uncle.
Bessie gave me some of the most rudimentary items. I’m talking sheets, towels and potholders. Lamps, chairs, pillows. The kitchen supplies were unlimited. I still have and use a heavy bundt pan, a double boiler, and measuring spoons. Other things I don’t use as much but can’t part with are a tarnished set of neglected silver, an impressive collection of pre-war glasses, and  a deviled egg dish.
I had tea parties with my kids with her mismatched cups and saucers. We baked heart shaped cakes for Valentine’s Day in her heart pans, with flour that went through her sifter.
Now I read by the light of her lamp by my bedside, and cut my grapefruit in the morning with her grapefruit knife.
When we host holidays her cut glass bowls are on the table. I serve hot cider in her glass carafe and cup set.
Her porcelain Asian bobble head lady greets guests in the bathroom. The antique beverage cart in my living room was hers and contains other lovely trinkets from her home.
When we have outdoor parties, we use her folding chairs, the aluminum ones with the woven fabric. They have outlasted any other outdoor furniture I have owned.
I iron my clothes with her iron, and I wear some of her great antique necklaces, earrings and pins.
When my daughter Rebecca moved into her first college apartment, she got a Bessie pan or two. And Ariana will hopefully get to sew some things on Bessie’s old reliable Singer sewing machine, complete with table and seat.
There was a time when Bessie’s home was the safest and warmest place for me to be. But times have changed. Her simple and subtle daily presence in my life has made my home the safest and warmest place for me to be.