There is so little to remember of anyone—an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh . . .
-Housekeeping, Marilyn Robinson
Recently I was trying to recall some childhood memories with my grandmother, to record for my own enjoyment. I was surprised to remember very few discrete episodes; although I know that we baked and sewed and played and knitted, I can barely recall what or when. Perhaps such is the nature of memory, that atmospheres and eras are much more vivid than events themselves, just as sometimes it is only possible to look at a halo, not the blinding light at its center.
This discovery—the paucity of anything for my memory to grasp at—was puzzling because I know that, for me and for all of my family, my grandmother is at the center of most of my fondest memories. Though I can think of many moments of transcendent, euphoric happiness that have nothing to do with her, I can think of almost no seasons of peace and contentment from which she is absent.
The power of my grandmother is that her presence brings with it the ability to make happiness replicable. Though by consciously pursuing fun, or excitement, or humor, one automatically loses the quality, which is present only unlooked for, we know that we can always find quiet joy where she is. We know we can find rest with the right combination of ingredients; it is the most joyous scientific experiment ever conducted. Christmas after Christmas—after Christmas after Christmas—is warm and intimate. Long weeks of summer vacation were never either more or less tranquil in her Minnesota home, which was like a retreat to us all. There, nothing could interrupt us without first overcoming the barrier of the single ancient computer equipped with dial-up internet. The size of the mosquitoes and the hardness of the water were the usual topics of conversation.
We used to think it was that Minnesota home, in Comfrey, an unknown town named after an unknown herb. My family collectively grieved when she and my grandfather left that house to move nearer to my parents in Kansas, but we immediately found—-to our astonishment—that nothing changed. Even the blankets smelled the same. When Philip and I began looking for a house in Grand Rapids, we bought one exactly like her Kansas house, and we are happy.
I thought that surely I would be able to fill a book with apothegms from a woman so wise and good, but though my memory searches, I can recall nothing particularly salient in the thousands of conversations we must have had over the years. But there is no dearth of meaning in my shared years with her. Her presence colors everything; it gives context to our plot, and so it will continue, until our lives give context to other plots.