by Anika Schreiber
My grandmother lived alone on top of an empty green hill. That was the synopsis of every family road trip I took to the outskirts of suburban Oklahoma City, punctuated by the busy asphalt streets morphing into winding country roads and finally up a stout, grassy knoll where one little house stood gravely. The hypnotic sway of the brown tallgrass and cattails lining the property gave it an air of desertion that sent chills of unease down my spine, and it became a haunted place to my restless 7-year-old eyes, and resentment festered within me for the lonesome ghost that had brought me there: my grandmother Eleanor.
I loathed the wet, lipstick-stained kisses that were inevitable upon our arrival, hated the scent of mothballs and damp wool and heavy lavender perfume that permeated every corner of the house, detested the drone of classical music playing too-loudly from the brass record player in the corner of the living room. I resented it all in a way that only a child could, and, blinded by my hate, I never stopped to question why my grandmother Eleanor had no photographs of herself, no visible ties to friends or family, no evidence that she lived there at all.
As I grew older, the infrequent visits stopped all together and my grandmother faded into memory: an unsteady scrawl of signature on a yearly birthday cheque, a name on a Christmas card, a passing subject of idle dinnertime conversation, and not much else. When she died twenty years later, I could not say I felt the grief that I should have. So, when my mother requested I go sort through her things before her funeral, I didn’t quite understand why. When I asked, she simply replied,
“I can’t go back there.” She bowed her head, shaking stray strands of greying hair into her eyes. “And you owe it to her.”
I rented a moving van and drove out the next day, beginning the laborious three-hour-drive with only a map and the fading recollection of a contemptible childhood haunt to guide me. When I arrived, I saw that the tallgrass and cattails were overgrown, hissing against the steel bumper of the moving van like tawny snakes, and even growing up through the deck of the open porch, indoctrinating the house itself into the endless field of shrubbery. I exited the van, and, up to my waist in wild brush and weeds, I approached the house.
The red door was ajar, askew on its hinges – from when the paramedics had broken in, I suspected – so I stepped inside. I stood there for a moment, mouth open slightly as I took in the home. Nothing had changed. The same lavender lingered in the musty air, the same Chopin record collected dust on the record player, and the same inexplicable sense of oppression and emptiness that I remembered as a young child hung like a palpable, tangible presence around me.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sorting through my grandmother’s few belongings, eventually finding myself on a derelict wooden ladder leading to the attic. It was more of a loft than anything else, the vaulted ceilings too low for me to stand at full height and the air too thick to inhale evenly. Thin beams of balmy white light filtered in through a small, round window to my left, illuminating motes of dust that dipped and hovered in the still air. On the floor stood a leather and iron trunk covered in a thick layer of grey dust.
I opened it.
It took me a moment to recognize what was inside, because inside was my grandmother Eleanor.
Dozens of photographs of her, neatly catalogued with dates and titles, smiled up at me with yellow, fraying faces. She was young, lean, and tan in many of them, posing with equally young people in front of old cars, on the beach, at the cinema. Tucked to the side of the trunk was a journal bound in cracking black leather.
I didn’t know what I expected to read when I opened that mysterious book inside that abandoned trunk within that neglected house, but it certainly was not the story of Eleanor Altman, a girl raised in poverty during the Depression under the dictatorial rule of a nightmarish father. Certainly not the story of a girl who ran away from home at the age of sixteen, hiding bruises and scars under her canvas overcoat. Certainly not the story of a girl who never fell in love, but married nonetheless when she could no longer support herself. A girl who lived alone all her life, beaten and abused and forsaken, just like the old house she had died in.
I read until the sun had long set, feathery moonbeams spilling in through the window and shining down on brittle pages that bore the handwriting of birthday cheques and Christmas cards. My eyes faltered and strained to see the words, soaking in the novelty of this beautiful spirit that was Eleanor, so young and so sad and so alone. My throat constricted in a soundless sob. Shame burned painfully through my chest. I closed the journal.
I realized that this book was everything my grandmother was, everything she had been, and I didn’t quite feel worthy of witnessing it after the childhood resentment that I bore for so long. I gazed into the open trunk at my feet, feeling old photographs staring back at me with faded, paper eyes.
“You owe it to her.”
I knew that I did, and so I let myself see my grandmother. See her truthfully, not as a irksome echo of my youth. See her for the struggles that she survived, and for the toll that they took on her. See her as more than my grandmother who lived alone on top of an empty green hill, dead as brown grass and hollow as a lonesome ghost.
Because she was also Eleanor, and through her story, I saw her.