“Grandmother’s Gifts” by Valerie Kinsey

Issue 15 / Fall 2018

 

Grandpeg—that’s what we grandkids all call her—gave us gifts every time we drove the two hours to her house for a visit. Upon arrival, my brother and I would run to our beds, throw down our backpacks, and open presents wrapped in her “all-occasion” wrapping paper, which was meant to look like old newsprint. I can’t remember much about these gifts, but their material existence lingers—the proof of her love we could touch.

“I always had something waiting for you to open,” she murmured in a phone conversation not long ago.

“Always,” I agreed.

Grandpeg gave gifts wrapped in black and white and gifts wrapped in technicolor. She took me to Disneyland for my sixth, seventh, and eighth birthdays. Twenty-one times in a row we rode my favorite ride, a long gone attraction called Inside the Atom. At night, she watched as I twirled before the dancing fountains—water illuminated with multicolored spotlights set to music—outside the Disneyland Hotel. She taught me to sew and gave me her old sewing machine. After my brother was born and I was displaced from the nursery, she paid to have the spare bedroom done over. I was allowed to choose the peachy floral wallpaper.

For her grandkids and extended family, Grandpeg made advent calendars. She personalized these with photographs, creating for each child twenty-four shadowbox scenes out of miniatures, felt, beads, greeting cards, glitter, and glue. Mine was a replica of my actual childhood playhouse—also a gift from her—white with blue shutters. These days, I open each little box with my own little girl. Behind the door of my favorite shadowbox is a photo of Grandpeg holding me. We are both beaming. Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland is reflected in the lenses of her sunglasses.

The craft closet where Grandpeg made the advent calendars was dismantled some years ago due to her cataracts. That roll of newsprint wrapping paper, once thick as a salad plate, was left behind when she moved. She now lives in a place that looks like many planned communities in suburban California—ranch houses, golf course, and clubhouse—but has facilities for end-of-life care. Residents buy places that are spruced-up versions of the homes they left, and as they age, they downsize into smaller units until they live in what is basically a hospital room decorated with some mementos. I know this because Grandpeg is the only one of my four grandparents who is still alive. Three others died in one of those rooms.

At just over a hundred pounds and just under five feet, Grandpeg fancies herself a kind of living doll. She has “her” colors and her sizes. During our phone calls she describes choice outfits. She is particularly fond of sumptuous wraps that shield her from the institution’s air-conditioned dining room. She loves turquoise jewelry. When I lived in New Mexico, I’d shop for brilliant stones mounted on clip earrings and imagine her bright eyes as she opened the package. Grandpeg will soon celebrate her ninety-fifth birthday, and it is time for me to select a gift. What to choose? Something that honors the past? Admits the present? Acknowledges the future?

Gifts send messages from the clear to the opaque. Grandpeg’s gifts used to communicate adoration. Today—really since I reached adulthood—her gifts convey different, often mixed messages. Often, they sting. For many years, her gifts have been the source of much confusion and pain as I have tried to reconcile my childhood memories with my decidedly different experience as a grown woman. Did she change? Did I? What happened, I have wondered again and again.

Last year, I spent Mother’s Day with my mom and Grandpeg. My daughter was entering the terrible twos—fiercely independent, unruly, challenging. I was pregnant. My daughter and I gave Grandpeg a twisted bead necklace. I hoped, at the very least, for an acknowledgment of my status as a mother—in a card or a box, it didn’t matter. Almost as an afterthought, Grandpeg offered me a package swaddled in tissue. Inside were two scarves: one in pastel colors and heavily stained; one with a fall leaves camouflage pattern.

I tried to be gracious. I knew I was feeling emotionally fragile; it wasn’t Grandpeg’s fault that I was hormonal or that my husband couldn’t be there. But after she left, as has become our custom, my mother and I rehashed the worst of Grandpeg’s gifts.

There was the time she wrapped up and gave my mother for Christmas some pairs of “expensive” but “uncomfortable” underpants. “Worn only once or twice,” she explained without irony.

She gave me a beautiful lace dress that had been hers. Then she asked for it back.

There was the broken pitcher. The broken nutcrackers. The man’s belt.

Still smarting from the soiled handkerchief, I boasted, “For her birthday, I’m giving her a paperweight, or a garden gnome, or an encyclopedia set of The World’s Greatest Military Generals!” Why not let her puzzle over the meaning of an inscrutable and possibly useless thing? Fair payback for enduring years of such “gifts.” But I do not play recklessly with her heart, even though I have felt, from time to time, that she has done so with mine.

This past Mother’s Day, Grandpeg sent my children a package that included two cards for me: one for Mother’s Day and one for graduation. The second weekend in May, I’d finally earned my doctorate. In April, she asked me what gift I wanted to commemorate the event. She insisted she wanted the gift to be meaningful—something I’d treasure. Soon after our conversation, I had this weird, dreamlike thought.

Ten years ago, my home was burgled. I’d been living with my boyfriend and working as a waitress. I wanted love. I wanted to revise the novel I’d spent the last three years writing. But things were not working out. When my jewelry was stolen, I felt bereft. In the aftermath of the burglary, I believed I’d lost everything: my self-respect, my way forward, and even the special gifts that made me feel valued when I wore them. The theft of the pearl choker that my other grandmother gave me bothered me the most. The pearls came in a case from my great-grandfather’s jewelry store that bore our family name. I had not thought about those pearls for a long time.

When I told Grandpeg what I wanted, she said that I asked too much. Perhaps I did. I felt ashamed, even grasping. I would not have requested such an extravagant item unprompted, or without an awareness of her financial well-being—without, in short, the understanding that she could, if she so desired, choose to make such a gift.

In reflecting upon my mistake, I searched myself. Watching the movie Annie with my own little girl and explaining that Annie, an orphan, wants desperately for her parents to come and get her, I realized I was holding onto a conventional fantasy—the fantasy that something precious, once lost, can be restored.

That pearl necklace is gone for good. What I knew the day it was stolen, I know today: it can never be replaced. Time flows in one direction. Grandpeg will never again carry me across the threshold of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

Grandpeg’s gifts—and her feelings toward me—changed because I changed. Slowly, irrevocably, uncontrollably. I grew up. I am no longer a child. But that child who reveled in the glow of her adoration lives on and wants more. I want returned what was unfairly, even cruelly, taken away. When I am with my grandma, I am still that little girl, just transformed. But that is not what she sees.

After my graduation weekend, Grandpeg told me over the phone that her pearls had been stolen too. Like many others in her situation, she has had help divesting herself of worldly possessions. One of her former employees stole checks, golf clubs, and the opera-length Mikimotos my grandfather bought her in Japan. She confessed that her greatest fear was that whoever found her body would take her wedding and engagement rings. She sounds scared sometimes. My heart hurts that my grandmother entertains thoughts of being violated in death.

“Not to worry,” she told me in a steadier voice. “Everything is locked away in a safety deposit box.”

I am not worried about your rings, I want to say. I want to tell her that I am sorry if I ever, ever, ever led her to believe that I confuse an item’s material worth with its symbolic weight. I want to tell her that I do not believe our possessions are our legacies, but the way in which we give of ourselves to those we love. I have the sudden urge to take her to Disneyland where we can sit in the cool shade of the castle. My yearning is so vast, and our time together is so short.

Gifts are but one way we communicate, and they stand as dubious proof of love’s presence or its absence. And yet there is something comforting in their tangibility. Gifts given at the right time and in the right way, regardless of their intrinsic value, confer feelings of dignity upon the receiver and the giver.

For her ninety-fifth birthday, Grandpeg has asked to spend time with our daughter. We have our plane tickets. My sense—untested from afar—is that Grandpeg’s desire to surround herself with beautiful material objects is suddenly, irreversibly on the wane. But I am still bringing something for her to open. Among the belongings that have vanished from her home is a pale blue throw. I nearly bought the same one as a replacement. Instead, I ordered a blanket decorated with photos of our children. As our family’s celebration of Grandpeg’s ninety-fifth birthday approaches, I want to give her something soft to keep her small body warm.

 

Valerie Kinsey earned her MFA and PhD from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She now lives in the Bay Area with her husband, children, and dog, and teaches writing at Stanford University.

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