Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. It’s late at night, almost one. While I type this, I am alone in bed in my apartment in Georgia. It’s much warmer than Maine (my home state) these days when the sun graces us, but at night, the breeze wafts in from cracks in the old windows and I am chilled through and through. The only thing warming my body is the old woolen sweater I have wrapped around me. I pull it closed with one hand as I type with the other.
I went home for Thanksgiving this year. It was my first Thanksgiving as a free entity; I’d never lived farther from my parents’ house than twenty minutes and the drive from southern Georgia was an adjustment.
Arriving several days before the celebration meant helping to clean the mess I’d left in my rushed escape months before. My mother, in a fit of physical and spiritual cleansing, had begun to purge my old bedroom and the basement simultaneously. The clutter had become synonymous with two somewhat prodigal rooms, and she vented her frustration on their mess like she was purging her suppressed rage with a therapist.
In her warpath, she stumbled upon a pile of old sweaters that my grandmother had worn. She deposited the pile at my sister’s and my feet, demanding they be distributed as we wished; the rest would go to Goodwill.
They were a bizarre conglomeration of sweaters: a combination of ones my grandmother had bought in passing at the garage sales she browsed when still mobile and higher-quality designs she’d purchased before her grandchildren were born.
My sister and I hemmed and hawed, not wanting the sweaters to be lost, yet neither seeing ourselves wearing the items on a regular basis.
The more we pawed at the pile, the more we began to recognize the significance of what we were doing: we were letting go of the last remnants that served as proof of her existence.
At one point we stopped arguing over who got the dark blue sweater (it’d fit me better, but the shade would match my sister’s skin tone, et cetera) and realized, with a jolt, that this had been her favorite. Our activity turned from a playful spat over aesthetics to a divvying of portions of our grandmother’s biography. These sweaters were pieces of her history. These sweaters were proof that she was human; she breathed; she had taste; she had silver hair (which still clung to the shoulders of many of the pieces); she was more than a memory.
I ended up with a substantial portion of the pile–my pseudo-hipster fascination for vintage sweaters joined with a personal investment in preserving my grandmother’s memory, winning out in the end. My sister hadn’t known our grandmother as I had; I think my sister knew what they meant to me.
I wear a cardigan now. It is white, cable-knit, pure wool and slightly scratchy. It reminds me of watching her paint, sleeves rolled-up, hand darting from water to pallet to paper to water. She’d been a landscape artist and was teaching me how to make waves with the color.
“You see, Jessy: Even though this part of the surf appears white, I’m using all sorts of colors to make the shadow. All the other colors disappear and all your eyes see is the white.”
My arms are too long, however, and my wrists pull far past the length of the sleeves. A mix of moth balls, old wool, and the rose perfume she used overwhelms me as I inhale. I imagine it’s her shoulder, not mine, that is pressing back at my nose.
It’s almost Christmas. Funny how nostalgic you can become this time of year.
Sitting with my sister that day was a reminder of how difficult it’d been to clean my grandmother’s room after she’d passed. I could never have guessed what becomes precious after a loved one dies. I always thought you would be remembered by the expensive items divided in your will or the heirloom china you never used. Now that she has passed, it’s the day-to-day items that I’ve come to associate with her.
She had a particular taste in sweaters. She’d get cold and need to wrap them tightly as I do now, buttoning them all the way to her chin. She made mistakes like forgetting where she’d put her keys. I remember searching for hours before she would find them, snagged on a piece of yarn and stuffed under Kleenex in the front pocket of her cardigan. These sweater, these memories, are proof of her mortality.
As I sit typing I am listening to the classical Christmas music station I’ve qued on Pandora. I think of how much she adored this time of year and how much light she brought to the celebration. It is a task to compensate for the joy she would bring just by her presence.
I pull my sweater more tightly, giving myself a squeeze and hoping, somehow, she feels me hugging my shoulders, wishing she was here.
Thanks for the sweaters, Granny.