When I’m Dead and Gone

“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.

What I loved most about these visits was getting into bed with my grandmother at night, squeezing next to her in her single four-poster bed and pleading for a story. She always made me say my prayers first, and afterward, in her cracking alto, she’d sing me lullabies that contained disquieting references to the afterlife.

Then, in the dark, the stories would spill out. The truth about her childhood was this: My grandmother had been a cowgirl on the Montana plains. When she was just 5 years old, her mother, Glenna Stewart, left her husband, Vernon, in Ohio and boarded a train for Montana with her two little girls–my grandmother and her sister, Kathryn–a trunk filled with her collection of fancy velvet dresses, and a few relics from her life. In Montana, Glenna became an itinerant schoolteacher, traveling around the state for months on end, leaving her two daughters to fend for themselves in small coal-mining towns. The stories of the abandoned girls were infinite. Their house burned down. They got lost in blizzards. They spent a summer on the Lame Deer Indian Reservation, where Louise Big Foot and Mary Shoulder Blade taught them Cheyenne.

Like her daughter, Glenna had a large imagination and a great passion for life. She loved music and men. She’d ride into town every so often, give my grandmother money, then ride off again. My grandmother, meanwhile, dreamed of growing up and leading a sophisticated life in the East with a tall dark gentleman who would love her enough to give her a Tiffany diamond and a house filled with treasures.

As it turned out, my grandaunt went to grade school and my grandmother did not. She was too busy mothering her younger sister. At first her dreams of escape seemed futile. But she read incessantly, especially about medicine. She was fearless and learned quickly. When Kathryn was bitten by a rattler, my grandmother broke the crystal on her watch and used it to cut out the venom. She learned to make poultices from bread doused in milk to heal open wounds, and to extract lice with larkspur and ether shampoo.

At 18, using her sister’s name and school records, my grandmother was accepted to nursing school in Brooklyn. Nursing was what she loved best. In Brooklyn she thrived, and soon after she finished her degree she met my grandfather, heir to the dying Buster Brown shoe empire. In his youth, he’d been the model for Buster Brown.

Some nights at my grandmother’s house, a strong Maine wind howled and it seemed the entire ocean was curling into a wave to devour Last Morrow. Grammy pulled me in tight against her chest and talked just to comfort me. In Montana, during winter, she’d lie on a mattress on the floor with her little sister, all the blankets they could find piled on top of them. Outside a blizzard raged; their mother was far away. She would hold Kathryn close in her arms to keep them warm, the way she held me now, and tell her the same stories of our family’s past. “I wanted to know where I came from,” my grandmother explained. “Knowing makes me feel I’ve always been, and will always be, alive.”

In the mornings my grandmother became concrete again: “What would you like when I’m dead and gone?” She wanted me to choose objects, as if somehow my choice would teach her who I was and who I would become as a grown woman. In a sense, it was a way for her to peer into the future.

Actually, and among other things, I coveted a bowl. A small, simple Cantonese bowl of white porcelain painted blue with a leafy geometric design that crept up the sides to its scalloped rim. The bowl sat on the melodeon in the upstairs hall, beneath a mirror, illuminated by an overhead light. Inside the bowl rested a leather-bound Bible and Temple’s notes on Shakespeare, a shrine to the original owner of these objects, Nancy Cooper Slagle. “The cousin of the great James Fenimore Cooper,” my grandmother would say proudly–as if we owned him. “And the bowl is very rare. One of a kind.” It was china from China, she said, the real McCoy. It reached back into our family six generations to the Civil War–It was the oldest treasure she possessed–and she loved to tell its story.

Nancy was my grandmother’s great-grandmother, a tiny woman no taller than 4 feet, 10 inches. She was from Cooperstown, New York, but left at the age of 16 to study theology in Virginia, where she fell in love and married James Slagle. He became chaplain of the Libby Prison in Richmond, where he contracted amoebic dysentery and died, leaving Nancy a penniless Yankee in the confederate South with six children and an infant. “Intrepid,” as my grandmother described her, Nancy walked more than 200 miles, her children in tow, to the safety and resources of her husband’s family in Gallopolis, Ohio. The trip took many weeks; they had to eat off the land and rely on the generosity of strangers. The infant died of malnutrition as they crossed the Alleghenies, but eventually the rest of them made it.

At this point in the story, my grandmother would tell me that the only things Nancy carried from her old life were Temple’s notes on Shakespeare, the leather-bound Bible, and the Cantonese bowl, which had been a wedding gift.

Nancy gave the bowl to her son Albert, who gave it to his daughter Glenna, who gave it to my grandmother Thelma, who gave it to me. I see the bowl as a baton carried forward and passed on in a relay of ancestors, a relic linking us to one another, to the past and to the future.

My grandmother died at 91 of heart failure. It had been her ambition to live to be 106, the age of her oldest female ancestor. But on a very hot August day, her heart started to give out. We had her zipped off by helicopter to a big hospital for an emergency angioplasty. “I don’t know what a helicopter has to do with my heart,” she said at the time, “but I trust you.”

I’d been hearing that question– “What would you like when I’m dead and gone?”–for 30 years. Now she lay dying on a stretcher in the big hospital, and I held her hand as her heartbeat faded.

Not long after she died, I started going to flea markets. I found them sad because they represented so many lives gone by. Possessions once treasured were now for sale, their stories lost. Just objects, no history. I started noticing little things–marble-topped end tables, an ottoman, chairs, china, a Cantonese bowl.

The bowl. Items that looked just like my grandmother’s treasures were on sale for a song. I found many variations of that bowl for a hundred dollars or so. That bowl was not unique. It was common. China from China? The real McCoy? I started to wonder about my bowl, about its story and Nancy Cooper Slagle. For a moment the truth of my grandmother’s house disintegrated. I questioned the stories that were her legacy. Her immortality? The key to who I am?

Back during the summers when I was a child, my grandmother and I lay in bed at night while she told me elaborate stories born of half-truths, stories that are firmly part of my understanding of who she was–a little girl whose mother recklessly took her west. This much is true. But while I used to imagine the people she talked about, now I imagine a child lying on a mattress, a blizzard blowing outside, inventing from small truths an entire history for her sister and herself, to transport them far from the realities of being neglected in Montana by a mother who did not care.

Examining the bowls in the flea markets, I noticed subtle differences in the designs. Leaves painted more thickly, a lighter blue, a chip. Each one was individual. Mine was a deeper cobalt. A faint crack webbed the base. A chip scarred the scalloped edge. Like birthmarks, they identified the bowl. But it was larger than the details. My bowl, and mine alone, held Nancy and thus my grandmother. It was the stories that I wanted when she was dead and gone, and she’d done a good job of pasting them to the objects–objects that, like books, could be read. My bowl had life. My bowl had history. It did not matter that its story was not factually verifiable. My grandmother mythologized her past, and in these myths she lives.

In my bowl, I see my grandmother in the upstairs hall of Last Morrow, telling me about Nancy. I see Nancy with her seven children, the Cantonese bowl in her hands, hiking over the Alleghenies. I see a line of ancestors marching over time, whispering to each other stories that, like stories told in the children’s game of telephone–like history itself–are utterly transformed along the way. Like great fiction, and no less real.

From Women Outside (Sept. 1999), issues available only on newsstands.

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