Sonne Natal was born in Cleveland, Ohio and currently lives in Greenville, South Carolina with her husband and two small children.
A Gift Received
As I looked around my grandmother’s living room that day, I realized what it was about death that horrified me: the ruthless denial of a tidy resolution to the threads that make up a life. This vague idea assumed a more tangible form as my eyes took in the half-smoked pack of cigarettes that used to occupy my grandmother’s mouth and hands while she watched television; her knitting, a half-finished afghan that was carefully laid on the side of the couch; and the little green bowl that contained garbage too small and inconsequential to be hauled to the big trash can in the kitchen.
Just then, the rest of the family came in from the cold of the funeral service we had all attended. As often happens at a funeral, someone asked what was to be done with my grandmother’s things. What, for instance, would happen to the family photographs, dating back to World War II and beyond; the wicker monkeys that were in no way financially valuable, but that nevertheless hung from her bookshelf since before my birth; all of the half-abandoned crafts and projects left upstairs in her attic; plus all the furniture left behind, the figurines of TV characters, Easter eggs that she kept even though they were never hollowed out (the meat having long since turned to dust); the photographs we’d drawn as grandchildren, and before that pictures our parents had drawn as children; souvenirs from every Sea World in the country and spoons bearing the names of most of the fifty states. It is clear from this eclectic inventory that my grandmother collected everything and threw away nothing. They were her “treasures,” as she called them.
Because such objects as these were appraised for their value based on emotions rather than on criteria related to the pocketbook, she saw no reason to leave a detailed will. Instead, this decision fell to my aunt—not out of any sense of favoritism on her mother’s part, but because it was she who, after all her siblings had moved away, remained in the same city as her mother. My aunt was very tasteful and approached the distribution of her mother’s possessions with a reluctant sense of duty. A job whose difficulty was, perhaps, assuaged in part by the fact that, in her later years, my grandmother became somewhat macabre: It got to the point that if you commented that a piece of furniture or a knick-knack was particularly nice, she would tell you to put a sticker with your name on the bottom to claim it after her death. Every member of the family got this grim offer at one time or another; and, although most of us turned it down, my Uncle Henry’s wife Christine did not. She brazenly turned over objects throughout the house to look for her stickers, almost gleefully going from object to object as if to pronounce those possessions of my grandmother’s as now “hers”. This married-in aunt drew looks of contempt from more legitimate members of the family. Nevertheless, these glares did nothing to dampen her treasure hunt. (The term “married-in” aunt is an expression used by certain family members who do not wish our kinship with this woman to mistakenly be carried further than was legally necessary.)
Needing to get out of the company of this overbearing and insensitive woman, I went into my grandmother’s kitchen to get a drink. Upon opening the refrigerator, the sight of a half-eaten loaf of bread and an unfinished jar of jam struck me as strangely overwhelming. Once again I was made conscious of the idea of a life unfinished, the horror of the disjointed fragments of an incomplete existence. I lost control and began sobbing violently. She didn’t know. When she went to purchase these things at the grocery store, she didn’t know that this would be the last jar of jam she’d buy, or that she’d never have the time to finish the loaf of bread, or even to smoke her last three cigarettes. When she started her afghan, knitting as she always did while she watched television, she couldn’t have known that she’d never have time to finish it. I decided then what it was that I wanted to take to remember her.
When I was twenty-one, my grandmother taught me how to knit. It was no easy task, but she was patient. Throughout my childhood, she used to send us handmade ornaments and sweaters for birthdays and other holidays, which we eschewed in favor of the more desirable presents that my other grandparents would send—especially focusing our greed, with the mercenary rapacity by which children are known, on money that accompanied greeting cards. It was only as I grew older that I came to appreciate the thoughtfulness of her gifts. When we played around her living room as children, there she was: working on some item for a new baby in the family, or a wedding blanket, and everyone got a special afghan knitted for them on their sixteenth birthday made in colors chosen especially for them. It had never interested me before, but after realizing how much time and care she put into each item, how personal they were, and how she had touched everyone’s lives around her vicariously through her knitting, I asked her to teach me. She was only too happy to have me as a novice, and for the following years until her death, we shared something special, a language that only we two spoke. I knew then what I would take home with me. I would finish the afghan she’d started.
That night, traveling home, I pulled out the unfinished blanket and set it next to my couch. Looking at the care with which she’d taken in making it, the same care that sweatered and scarved and hated us as we were growing up, I knew I had a lot of work in front of me if I were to finish it correctly. It had been a long trip home, and after the emotional events of the week past, I crawled into bed seeking respite from the feelings that were weighing on my mind.
I fell asleep.
The next day unfolded in all its banality and boredom. When I got home from my job, I took out the afghan and began to finish the work she’d left behind. As soon as I started I felt my grandmother’s presence there, and could hear her voice in every click of the needles and feel her knowledgeable hands in every stitch. I knew I should unpack the clothes from my brief journey, but such a task seemed meaningless. I set out to start on the afghan right away. In my haste I left the yarn in the bag and just pulled it out as needed for every stitch, row by row.
It took months to work on the blanket, and I was almost finished. Not only was I very careful about trying to get it just right, but I was loath to give up the one thing that brought me close to my grandmother and helped reconcile me to her death.
While working on the last row, I admired once again the skill with which she crafted the afghan, and was pleased that I hadn’t reflected too much discredit upon her teaching abilities. As the blanket’s end approached I pulled out the last of the yarn and noticed something extraordinary. At the bottom of the bag there was a previously unnoticed item. I’d forgotten my birthday was approaching and that item turned out to be a slim piece of paper: a note-card—with my name on it.
She had intended this afghan for me all along.