December was not only the month where half of my extended family got sick after being together at Christmas, although that's probably the aspect of December that I'll remember. December was also the month of broken appliances at our house.
We went through not one, but two coffee makers. Both were fairly old, but still, it was strange. Our dryer stopped drying, and we've been coaxing the washer to work for the last several years. We finally decided that we'd gotten 20 years of use out of them, and it was time to replace them (they should arrive today). Our refrigerator started dripping water into the floor of both the fridge and the freezer--happily, that one was an easy fix once we unclogged the drain tube.
I thought of this again yesterday, as I tried to burp one of the Tupperware containers that I got from my grandmother years ago--and the lid cracked. Granted, the container is probably only 10 years younger than I am, but I still felt this strange upsurge of grief. Am I weeping over plastic? Has it come to this?
Obviously, I'm feeling grief over larger issues. On Saturday, I experienced this minute at the graveyard when I found myself thinking, does it all really just come down to this? A life, well-lived or not, and then centuries in the ground?
Well, yes, on some existential level. And no, on many other levels. And in between, we must all wrestle with these questions, if we're living lives that are self-aware at all.
Years ago, I wrote a poem that foreshadowed aspects of my current mood. I am not the speaker in the poem, not exactly. I was not in charge of my grandmother. For that matter, the grandmother in the poem is not my grandmother, not exactly. I didn't have to have a solitary wake; we celebrated my grandmother's life in not one, but two South Carolina churches.
And yet, as I threw away a 4 cup coffee maker that she bought my spouse for a Christmas gift almost 20 years ago, as the washer and the dryer that she bought me for a Ph.D. graduation present 20 years ago leave the house today, the grieving feels both solitary and strange. Maybe another poem brews.
In the meantime, here's what I imagined the grieving would be like when I wrote this poem years ago. It was first published in The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review:
With a trunk full of Tupperware as my only
inheritance, I head back from the nursing
home where I have had to incarcerate
my grandmother. She has a tendency to wander
the streets, to rant at strangers.
After a lifetime of constraint and containment,
she has let herself go.
I have no idea what to do with all this plastic.
These containers will outlast me.
Long after people cease baking cakes and buying
heads of iceberg lettuce, they’ll have storage
for them, molded in shapes long since forgotten.
When the call comes, the one I’ve been dreading
with a sense of longing, when the nursing home informs
me of my grandma’s death, I do not cry,
but try my hand at pie baking for the first
time. The chewy pastry, so like hers, comforts.
I dig out my records, old vinyl, black and dense,
with a rich sound no CD can match.
I bought one record with this day in mind.
The Carter family belts out songs
of old Appalachia, songs my grandma used to sing
as she frosted cakes and created feasts.
I turn up the mountain twang, wrap a quilt
around my shoulders, chew on my pie,
and hold my solitary wake.
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