When I’m Dead and Gone

The fiction and reality of remembrances

| January/February 2000

“What would you like when I'm dead and gone?” my grandmother used to ask as she led me around Last Morrow, the large Victorian house filled with the treasures of her life. That was her mantra, along with "I'm just a candle in the wind." Her death obsessed her, and though she lived long enough for my sisters and me to start referring to her as a blowtorch in the wind, she never gave up her sense of the dramatic.

She would clutch at her chest and breathe in short, quick gasps to let me know that her heart was fragile, while still managing to point out the Haviland china, the Orrefors, the Kerman Laver.

Each name was a prize, and though I didn't know what the names meant, when she said them they loomed grand, rare, expensive. She'd wave her fingers so that her Tiffany solitaire would catch the light. She'd point out the ottoman and the armoire and the four-poster bed that came from her husband's line of "blue, blue Bostonians," in whose pasture the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought.

Her house was her art, a monument to her life. Each treasure revealed a portion of her biography. She was determined that I know her stories, as if by learning them I'd carry her legacy forward, assuring her a certain immortality. Or at least a history.

It was funny to me that of all the things in her house, the harp was the only relic from her childhood in Montana. She was proud of her impoverished childhood there. She was proud that she eventually got out to become a fine lady with fine possessions, the kind of woman she would read about in the Saturday Evening Post.

Last Morrow was in Ogunquit, Maine, a gigantic house with three floors, an attic, and a basement. From the second floor you could see the ocean, and all around was the smell of sea air and pine. I would go there in the summer to escape my own large, complicated family. My Grammy would pick me up from the airport in a long, black Lincoln Continental "custom made" for her shortly before my grandfather died. A gold plaque on the dashboard read: Mrs. Charles Mitchell Brown III. She would sit behind the wheel regally, wearing her leather driving gloves, her bone-white hair spun into a full, airy bun. I'd slide into the wide front seat wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, stovepipe patent leather boots, and a denim miniskirt. (It was the early 1970s, and my mother and stepfather were hippies.) But before long she'd transform me into an angel. She'd curl my hair into sausages with rags and tie them with satin ribbons. She'd take me shopping, all the way to B. Altman's in Boston, to buy frilly pink dresses that I'd wear to the Episcopal church by the sea in York.

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