I have been trying to write about my grandmother Alice’s death ever since the end of April when she passed. I’ve had a draft saved in WordPress since then with a single sentence that went no where. I’ve wanted to write about her and her impact on my life every since I dropped everything and made the dreaded public transit pilgrimage an hour north to be with my family. I have wanted to say something, anything, since I spent the afternoon with my mother going through her apartment and sorting through the artifacts of her rich life. But months have passed where I have simply been unable to put into words just who Alice was and who she still is.
Death is fucking inconvenient. And there is nothing about a posthumous tribute that can ever capture the essence of someone who truly lived well. Still, I feel like I have some obligation to try. Alice was the last of my living grandparents. In a family full of loved ones that die and marry often, this is saying something. Aside from my patriarchal grandmother Bert, she’s the only one of my grandparents I remember in any nuanced and developed way. I spent a childhood full of taking Amtrak down to her home in Pismo Beach. Then I spent the last few years witnessing her health decline as she moved away from her big house and into an assisted living facility near my my parents.
I don’t think I’m interested in writing a “goodbye,” but I have been feeling like I want to say something. And then my mother sent me a manila envelope full of her old passports and it occurred to me that (aside from a beautiful Chinese apothecary chest she owned) these were really the only possessions of hers that I cared about inheriting.
The personality trait that I remember most about Alice was that she loved to travel. Her home was a testament to this. It was filled with antiques and pictures from places that even I might have a hard time placing on a map. There are the artifacts from places that I’ve never been but nonetheless feel familiar to me. After years of hearing stories from her time spent in South Korea and so much time spent admiring the prints and photos she brought back, I felt like I had a rough outline of what things were like there. More importantly, it sparked the desire to travel there myself and paint my own picture. Seoul never would be on my list of places I would like to see before I die, but now it resides very near the top.
In January 2011, I flew to Zurich, Switzerland. I had met an amazing man a handful of months before, and now I was flying across the world to a country I had never visited before just for the sake of seeing him. Around this same time my grandmother fell seriously ill and was hospitalized. I remember visiting her before I left, in the ICU heavy with the smell of anxiety and applesauce. Her speech was strained and she was having an increasingly difficult time maintaining lucidity. It was a complete departure from her trademark sass and stubbornness, which I remember would often trigger my mom to half-shake her head and shoot me a sideways glance that I knew was paired with the inner dialogue of “Oh… jeez… Oh, Alice…”
In what little small talk we managed, I told her I was going to Zurich soon. I told her how excited I was. I told her about the boy who was waiting for me there and how wonderful he is. After questioning my sanity in the gentle way only a grandmother can (“You’re flying there to see a boy? Well heavens tibestsey. Is your mother OK with that?”), she said…
“Switzerland… I’ve been there. A long time ago.”
That was really as much as she said about her travels in Switzerland. I never found out what she saw there. Barring stumbling over holiday snaps in the volumes of photo albums we have yet to sift through, I’ll never know if she saw Rodin’s Gates Of Hell at the Kunsthaus. I’ll never know if she was as taken by the crystal-covered Swaroski tree at the Christmas markets as I was, or if she was even in Zurich around the holidays to see it. I’ll never know if she dined at the now-closed French steakhouse that only served one kind of steak one way. I’ll never know if she fell in love with that city the way that I fell in love with it.
I realize now that the only thing I’ll ever know for sure is that each time I travel somewhere, I’ll be thinking of her and trying to see the landscape through her eyes. I am fine with this. She had fantastic taste, and the challenge to travel well in her memory is one that I am all but happy to meet.
One other thing is for sure. The next time I travel, I’ll be carrying one of her old passports with me for luck.