“A village means to not be alone, to know that there’s something of you in the people, in the plants, and in the soil, that even when you are not there it waits to welcome you.”
— Cesare Pavese, “The Moon and the Bonfires”
My grandmother died this year on a Monday night in September.
My brother called me at work that night and told me she had been admitted to the University Hospital. He said it was serious, so I left work, got on my bike and frantically pedaled over to the emergency room.
She was already unconscious when I arrived, a respirator keeping her alive as the doctors and my aunts and uncles decided whether to turn off the machine. The aneurysm resting near her heart had finally burst, and there was nothing left to be done. They turned off the respirator. I watched her heart rate slowly drop to zero on the monitor. I held her hand as the doctor felt for a missing pulse.
In a way, it seemed fitting that she should go on a Monday. Every week from when I was about five years old, I had spent Monday evenings sitting in the armchair on the left side of her living room, “America’s Funniest Home Videos” playing on the TV while I ate bowls of strawberry Jell-O and butter pecan ice cream.
Monday nights didn’t vary too much from week to week. They started with opening the sliding door to her condo, being greeted by the smell of rosemary, the warmth of the stove, the pitcher of mint iced tea ready to be poured and she, looking very much like a little Italian grandma in her purple blouse, pearl necklace and glasses, waiting for me to hand her the mail.
In the evening, while I ate my Jell-O, she would sit in her recliner on the other side of the room, thumbing through a magazine or looking at old pictures. Between commercials, when both my brother and my dad had dozed off in their chairs, we would talk about her friends Rose and Diana, her latest bingo winnings at the senior center and about the new Spanish mass at her church.
We would say goodbye at around 10 — a kiss for my dad, a hug for my brother and I — and as we pulled away she stood behind the glass of her sliding door, waving until we were out of view.
When she died, I didn’t have any regrets. Having spent four or five hours with her every week for the better part of 15 years, it wasn’t like there was any dinner we could have had together, but didn’t; any words we never got the chance to say.
If anything, it had seemed in recent years that we were running out of things to say. She was 94 and it was getting harder for her to stay up talking until 10 o’clock. She started repeating the same stories week after week, the TV filled up longer and longer silences. I hadn’t spoken to her in three weeks before that last Monday night in September.
In hindsight, she seemed to be slowly fading away. And after the funeral, after the out-of-town relatives had returned home, after the tearful remembrances and divvied up assets, she was gone.
What bothered me was how different this type of “gone” felt from simple absence. Even when I think of her now, I don’t hear her voice or see her face. I remember the smell of warm rosemary, Tom Bergeron narrating crotch shots, tears dropping on a wrinkled hand hanging off the side of a hospital bed. A set of disjointed phrases, the faint residue of smells and sounds, a missing feeling of home.
She was fading into the background of faces from my childhood, becoming another one of the dead relatives lining the pages of our photo albums, turning into a set of anecdotal stories. She seemed, with each day, less and less like the person I knew, with all her affectations and complexities, and more like an ossified, idealized caricature of herself. This was what it really meant for her to be gone.
Three weeks before she died, I was driving with two friends on narrow mountain roads, listening to Biggie Smalls and eating almond brittle.
We were 3,100 feet above sea level in Davis, West Virginia, the tiny coal mining town where my grandma grew up and where her younger sister Lucy retired after a long career sewing car seats at a GM factory in Detroit. Their parents had immigrated to Davis from Sulmona, a small city in Italy’s mountainous Abruzzo region, to join the community of expatriate Italians digging tunnels into the peaks around the town.
Aunt Lucy had moved back into her parents’ house in the ’80s, but she died last spring and, since then, the precariously perched, sheet metal-encased building was sitting empty, waiting to be used as a vacation home by any of the Michigan DePollos willing to make the eight-hour drive.
My friends and I stayed in her house for a few days, cooking pierogies on her stove and watching her DVDs of “The Andy Griffith Show.” My aunt used to call TV the “idiot box,” which sounded more like “ijit box” in her West Virginia twang. She thought it was an unnecessary waste of time, which she preferred to spend spying on the neighbors through her windows and listening for the slightest crackle coming from her police scanner.
As I lay in her old bed, watching a young Ron Howard cavort across the screen, I remembered that she had been learning to play the piano in her old age. She wasn’t done being a person. I wondered if she had changed her mind about the “ijit box.”
On our last night in West Virginia, we went to watch a five-piece band from Alabama play rockabilly at the Purple Fiddle, a café built in what was once my family’s general store. I paid the $10 cover charge while looking at a sign resting over the hostess’s shoulder, mixed in with the other antique odds and ends lining the café’s shelves. It read “DePollo’s Store.”
An obituary for my great-great uncle John, the last DePollo to own the family store, was hanging in the café’s bathroom. I never knew him, but my aunts and uncles always told me that he was a real lady-killer.
As I buttoned my pants and dried my hands, the uncle I never met smiling back at me through the glass, I felt myself trying to stifle a chuckle. It was a funny scene, after all. Here we were, the only DePollos left in DePollo’s Store, having a wordless conversation over a toilet. Maybe he was a pretty charming guy.
Following the calendar, it was still summer when I was in Davis. But fall comes early in West Virginia. At night, cool, moist air blows down from the mountaintop, condensing into a thick fog when it meets the tree-lined roads warmed by the August sunshine.
Our last night on the mountain was one of those foggy nights, when the air is thick and the houses are out of focus. Looking down into the mist from a window in my Aunt Lucy’s bedroom, I thought about what I would tell my grandmother when I got back to Michigan.
I thought I would tell her about meeting my uncle in the bathroom at DePollo’s Store, about watching the “ijit box” in her sister’s house, about the fog on the mountain, about the pierogies and almond brittle.
I knew the stories she would tell me about her uncle-in-law John. I could see the bittersweet smile that would come across her face when I told her about watching Aunt Lucy’s TV. I could hear her laugh when she tried to picture me, the grandson that never learned to cook, burning pierogies and setting off smoke detectors in her sister’s kitchen.
I didn’t get to tell her about West Virginia before she died but, in a way, it didn’t matter.
In that moment, though she was 400 miles away, watching her last few episodes of “Dancing with the Stars” in a condo in Novi, I could picture her with as much clarity as if she were in Lucy’s bedroom with me, looking down into the fog-filled streets.
In that mountaintop town in West Virginia, there’s something of her that’s much more real than an old face in a photo album.