The Things She Salvaged

Other grandmas baked and knitted. Mine went to the junkyard.
Nick Fewings 7broti Qaa4 Unsplash

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

My grandmother’s garden was an enchanting place—but not the English garden variety where one might expect to find little girls in pink tulle throwing tea parties amid the lilacs and hydrangeas.

Jane’s garden was a craggier sort of hideout, tucked into the pirate’s-hook curl of land that is Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was an unruly spot where scrubby pines intermingled with tribal totems carved from driftwood, buoys rescued from old lobster traps and primitive concrete tiki figures.

When the wind picked up, the fence door would creak open, joining a discordant symphony of homemade wind chimes. On calmer days, sunlight skipped across a mosaic garden wall that, upon closer inspection, was made of empty wine and whiskey bottles entombed in rough masonry. I remember peering into the green glass and wondering what I might see on the other side.

The Wellfleet town dump was one of Jane’s favorite haunts, and I was thrilled the time I was invited to tag along. We picked up a hitchhiker and deposited him at the beach on our way into town, then rummaged through piles of stripped boat siding and rusted machine parts in search of buried treasure. If we were lucky that day, the yield might include a pipe segment to complete the trickling water element in her frog pond, or a scrap of corrugated aluminum that could be jerry-rigged into a planter.

A true artist, Jane saw magic in the mundane and beauty in things that some might consider grotesque. Dried horseshoe crabs hung on her foyer wall, lined up from biggest to smallest like taxonomic specimens. A whale vertebrae was displayed on a shelf as sculpture. Her coffee table was the repurposed hull of an old whaling dory.

One of my most prized possessions was a table lamp she had made for me out of a glass bottle filled with milkweed seeds. I liked to chase them around her yard in late summer, catching the delicate tufts as they emerged from their pods and making a wish on each one before blowing it back into the wind.

A visit to Jane’s house was always an adventure. I have a childhood memory—whether truth or mythology I’ll never be quite sure—of her taking me up on the roof during a thunderstorm to soak up nature in all its drama. As a teen, I was occasionally startled awake at 6 a.m. by the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, or Stravinsky’s The Firebird, or an equally fierce work by a lesser-known composer (she was one herself) with the stereo volume cranked as high as it could go without blowing her speakers.

You never knew whom she might spontaneously invite to dinner: The Mexican artist who cooked fish with whole heads of garlic; the aspiring musician she had met at a church function; yesterday’s stranger, now a “marvelous” new friend.

You also never knew when her mood might swing, sharp and swift like a weather vane, to a dark place. But you knew it was best to make yourself invisible when that happened.

Jane wasn’t like other grandparents. Whereas my friends’ grandmas dressed in twin sets with matching shoes and handbags, she was more often found in dirt-stained “dungarees” and a flannel shirt with a pack of Camels in the breast pocket. She wasn’t big on jewelry, other than the clunky silver rhinoceros ring that she wore on her index finger and compulsively stroked—as the evil villain in a Bond film would—until its horn was as smooth and worn as an old mountain.

She showed little interest in my grades, sports, hopes, dreams or love life, save the time she awkwardly asked if one of the guy friends I had brought up for a summer visit before college was “my man.”

It’s funny how familiarity begets blindness. It never seemed weird to me that my grandfather, a clergyman with the temperament of a lamb, slept in a small room off the kitchen, while Jane had her own private quarters downstairs. Or that he quietly acquiesced to the omnipresence of Jane’s “friend,” a silver-haired woman who lived in a small cottage just a few hundred feet from the main house. That’s just how it always had been, for as long as I could remember. In the mornings I would find the three of them in the kitchen, bickering over espresso and The New York Times while Jane cooked bacon and scrambled eggs for her dogs.

The childhood me was naively oblivious to the telltale signs—some bordering on the cliché—of our family’s not-so-secret secret.

The news of Jane’s death (by brain tumor) came not long after I had moved into my first apartment in Aurora Hills. Rather than signing a lease in one of the nearby high-rise buildings in Crystal City, I had opted for quirkier quarters in the “mother-in-law suite” of an old brick foursquare house—a maze of tiny rooms that wrapped around each other like the inner chambers of a channeled whelk.

I have to think she would have approved of my mismatched furniture, the antiquated skeleton key that unlocked my front door (hardly safe, but cool) and the stack of ornate garden bricks I had stubbornly transported 500 miles back to Arlington after driving up to the Cape for one last, anticlimactic goodbye.

It wasn’t until her memorial service a few months later, with its parade of rainbow flags and colorful tales of a woman I never knew, that the picture came into focus. That’s when I finally saw who she had been: a wild and desperate creature trapped in the conventions of her time, every milkweed seed in that lamp a wish unfulfilled. Every bottle in her garden wall a testament to the pain she had swallowed and the self she could never truly set free.

Jenny Sullivan is the editor of Arlington Magazine.


Categories: People