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adapted from journal entries

cw: family grief


Of all the moments here at my grandmother’s, the one that felt the most… important? I dont know, words fail—was going through the top right drawer of her dresser, looking for the ring. Being in Dee’s room at all. Mom and me and my sister looking at her bookshelf. Not the floor-to-ceiling numbers like my professors, but two-shelf subtle things in most rooms. Carrying things I hadn’t seen before, as I stayed only in the den with the histories and writing manuals. She was reading later than I thought, said S. Some of these books are recent. A copy of Eat Pray Love, but also all the books from the One City One Book project. A shelf of well-kept, humble old Steinbecks and Waughs, across the room from her bed. (Did she keep her most important books near to her, the way I do?) Books on organization, cookbooks, health books. Some of the older literary texts, maybe first editions.

There’s an urge to take, to grab, and looking at it up close I don’t think it’s about wanting a thing just for yourself, at the expense of other relatives. There’s a need to grab so that things don’t slip away. So they’ll be with you always. But then, I don’t want a single star in the constellation of this house to move out of its orbit. I realized—maybe again, maybe I had seen this before—that the portrait of her father in the den is gazing across the room at the beautiful portrait of her mother. It’s not just above the little shrine to him. I want badly to take a piece of the shrine with me, but I would be frantic should any of it move.

The bins of things Dee tidied up and labeled for us, so we came away quickly with our own childhood art, some pictures. That tremendous orderliness about her we all talked about in the memorial—even Mom’s roommate did. But that’s not all there was, and that’s clear from the precious contents of her drawers. And the tops of her cabinets. I thought of her as not a knick-knack person, but among the beautifully-curated family pictures, there are a few stuffed animals. There are still the owls around the edges…. Somehow she still just didn’t come off as knick-knacky as some grandmas. The tremendous amount of taste she had, I guess. Or I just can’t see it through the eyes of love.

In Dee’s drawer, wheat pennies from a safe deposit box in Lake Forest. More than one gold medallion with the Poly logo; more than one engraved with love from various classes. (The gifts, perhaps, I used to see on her modern brick hearth at Christmas and think of them as offerings, we spoke of them as offerings, from superstitious families hoping to earn her favor in college admissions.) Pens from dozens of NACAC conferences. Pins that said, “I’ve got the same genes as Jules.” Some change, a stray medicine cup and a stray Band-Aid. A drawer so much like my own jewelry drawer, just neater. Something I’d never seen, never dared to see before. You go into someone else’s room and you don’t pry, it’s their space. All the while, that Jacques Brel song running through my head—“All doors are open wide/they poke around inside/my desk, my drawers, my trunk/there’s nothing left to hide…” We didn’t laugh like the mourners in that song, but there’s something vulnerable and poignant to look through the life of someone you knew.

Mom snapped at her sister, she said, because her sister wanted her daughter to help sort through my grandmother’s clothes. When you die, she can sort through your clothes, Mom said, but this is my mother. Mom was sort of feeling like they came through like “a white tornado.” Sitting with my grandmother’s stuff I could see how that wouldn’t do: you need time to reflect. My aunt and cousin are clearly coping with her death by “taking care of” things, getting them out of the way. And I can understand that. I guess I see now where all the fighting comes from after someone has died, even in stable families like ours: we do grieve differently, and even doing that and maybe not being able to articulate about it can lead to misunderstandings and strife that you just don’t see at other times.

Something about the death of my two grandmothers… maybe it’s who they were, but there feel like many more openings and ways to read Dee’s story in what she left behind. Maybe I was just exposed to their remaining artifacts in different ways. Maybe because Grandma told the same stories over and over, filling all her space. Dee was more reserved, more engaged with people where they were, at whatever moment they met. Maybe because there was more mystery to Dee, more story? No, we all have story. I don’t know.

There were all my own letters and clippings, reflected back from her collection. She even knew about the Surveillance Camera Players. Saw myself in her eyes.

I was just gripped by the heart with the fierce need to have grandkids for my mom. Not to bear them, obviously. But to share her with tiny kids before it’s too late, to see her on the floor walking a doll through a story, doing a bear voice, making a silly grimace face. I need this. It’s probably not mine to need. But it’s not happening right now, and some kid out there needs it. (ok, there’s my nephews.)

I need to be home, with my family. The hardest thing is how modernism let us split up all over the country.


At the memorial for Dee at Poly, I went to hug Mrs. Battelle. “Jill Andrews—is it still Andrews?” she said. Well, yes, I said. And it will be, I’m published under that last name.

You’re still writing? they all asked. And I was at a loss to say. Not really, working at TW, no. When Mrs. Hamilton asked—well, when I saw her, I just broke down and cried….

What was I to tell them? Nothing I write looks anything like what I wrote in high school, except this. The motives are more or less the same here. The motives everywhere else are unrecognizable, until writing isn’t even itself, just a part of everything else. A tool. (There’s the Neruda.)

The Poly memorial was the family reunion I never knew I needed to have. All the faculty. I couldn’t stop exclaiming, could hardly keep from weeping. They all meant so much to me.

I couldn’t tell them what I probably needed to: that part of Dee making me a strong woman was her sending me away—well, her insistence on that. How my feelings about the school at the time were hung up in feeling like I would be trapped, that like Mom and Dee I would only just ever do Poly and never realize myself. My distress back then at the idea of being unfulfilled in teaching and not doing, never seeing the teaching as the real doing. I couldn’t tell them I had seen my teachers that way—why would I hurt them that way? So how, then, was I to explain that I am always now pained not to be on that campus, that life feels empty without that history, that family. That I worry that going away cost me precious years with my mother, cost me precious years building community.

Maybe the grass is always greener. Traveling to Delaware for work has unpinned my compass entirely. (I ignore that one woman who kept approaching me at the memorial, who is the exact sum of the privilege and provincialness I was looking to avoid by staying away.)

The question of where to live feels unmanageably heartbreaking. TW, at least, feels like it will keep me moving in the global flows.

But the global flows stream past the local. And it was Poly that was the local. Like Kellan said many years ago, my life wasn’t characterized by moving, before I went to college, no matter how huge the move across the country seemed when I was five. It was mainly about staying in one place. And I miss that place.

I miss having a campus. It wasn’t until after a semester or a year in grad school that New York finally started to feel like home. Having students and teachers is life. I don’t know who I am outside of it.

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