The Inscape of Grief

By Allison Backous

Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?

—Hart Crane, “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”

Last Wednesday, my grandmother, my father’s mother, died. She had been fighting lung cancer for over a year, and was eighty-three years old. I learned about her death an hour before I had to go teach, and called my father after class.

“She had a good long life, Red,” he told me, the typical Backous stoicism flattening his voice. “There’s not much more to say than that.”

I say typical because the Backous brand of stoicism, of passing over grief and trouble, seems genetic, as strong a trait as our red hair and fair skin. We mimic Epictetus, whose words I underlined in a college textbook:

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

For my father’s side of the family, sarcasm is the primary way to cease worry, to fight fear. “Feelings? We don’t talk about no stinkin’ feelings!” my dad has laughed, his coffee cup gripped in his hand, a measurable, containable control: pour more coffee, make a joke, move on.

And then there comes the silence. As I write this, it has been a whole week since I heard from my father, who, my siblings tell me, stays up late at night, shuffling plates and muttering, his grief kept at a distance from us, from him.

My grandmother was a quiet figure in my life, a woman that I barely knew. While she was famous among my aunts and uncles for her homemade fudge and noodles, I didn’t taste that fudge until I was a sophomore in college, almost seven years ago. That was the last time I saw her, and I cannot recall a single thing that we talked about.

None of our distance was out of bad blood—my grandparents lived in western Nebraska, two states removed from our life in south Chicago. We were also fairly private people, keeping our life (and its explosions) separate from the lives of my father’s family, the only extended family we had.

And my grandmother was not completely absent from my life. She paid for me to take a ten day trip to Greece during college, tucked the fudge recipe into my suitcase on that last trip. She read the copy of The Screwtape Letters that I, misreading her lapsed Catholicism, sent on an evangelical whim.

“I couldn’t quite follow what the book was saying,” she wrote me. “Not my usual reading material.”

Grandma demanded no funeral, no visitation, leaving my father and aunts and uncles no way to grieve together over her loss. Her ashes wait for my grandfather, and sit with the ashes of my uncle Mike, who died from cancer before I was born.

To me, it was another example of that Backous stoicism, another way to avoid suffering. “Your grandma is just clipping along,” I would hear from my father, who heard similar things from my uncles, who believed what my grandmother told them.

And then there was the image I got second-hand from my sister, who somehow caught this from my uncle: “Your grandma would just sit still in her chair all day because the cancer made it hurt to move.”

Is there any way that I can get at what my grandmother felt and knew? Is it possible to enter her life, and what I could catch of it, when the pain she knew seemed to further distance her from each of us, from our life itself?

And how can I even ask these questions when I keep throwing myself through daily tasks, busying myself to avoid what I grieve: a lost connection, a lost life, my grandmother gone to me, forever?

Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his book Lament for a Son, writes that grief is the “existential worth of the life of the one loved.” That grief, no matter how distant it feels, testifies to the inscape of that person, their particularity, their place. Even if that person was someone who lived on the periphery of your life.

There will never be another woman like my grandmother, private and distant as she was. As I let her be.

The things that I do know about my grandmother are about her household—her recipes, her hollyhocks, the way she scanned the Nebraska sky for owls, her favorite bird.

I imagine that she tried to find and treasure beauty for the sake of relief in a household of boys, out in the west, the daily routine of laundry and meals unchanging. I imagine that she did these things both before and after my uncle Michael’s death, ways for moving through the shock of losing your oldest son, a death that my family barely speaks of. Another particular beloved one, lost.

I imagine that my father, in his silence, wonders about all these things.

My backyard is a pit of gravel—my landlord gave me permission to dig up the weeds, but the project proved to be too much, and I settled for pots of rosemary and nasturiums, which won’t bloom until July.

I did not plant the flowers for my grandmother. It would be too deliberate, too false for what we had between us.

But I imagine that she would like me planting seeds. I imagine that she’d survey my small pots approvingly and return to her own plot, quietly tending her hollyhocks, their tall pale stalks rising in the air.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.