On Friday last, my grandmother Constance Joan Dayton passed away, and my mother asked me to help write her obituary. I haven’t started. The truth is, it’s hard to memorialize a person without going through every interaction you ever had with them, trying to drag them back down into the world with the weight of your memory.
Q: Wouldn’t I give almost anything to hear my grandmama say: “Darlink! You’re late! I’m going to heeet you with a beeeg steeeck!” (Translation: I’m going to hit you with a big stick.)?
A: Yes. (She was all bluster about the hitting, do not worry. Though when I got married, her gift to me was a rolling pin sans handles, wrapped in a golden ribbon. I like to think this was her way of telling me I’d graduated to making threats of my own.)
Two weeks ago, one of my favorite coffee shops told me they were collecting old photos, curating an exhibition in conjunction with Tucson’s Dia de los Muertos parade. I have a picture of my grandmama when she was young and foxy, wearing enormous shoulder pads and smirking as the light around her soft-fades to black. I love this picture, and I almost brought it in for the exhibition, but at the time Constance Joan Dayton was still alive, and it seemed morbid. The picture’s on my desk.
Q: Did you carry that photo around in your wallet for years? And did your desire to do so confuse, embarrass, and greatly please your grandmama?
My grandmama was a saucy broad, from beginning to end. She always told you what she thought (with her face if not with her words), lived in China and Southeast Asia before coming to the US, didn’t get married until she was thirty, wrote poems until she got too annoyed at her eyes and shaking hands to write any more. When my grandfather had a stroke, she cared for him at home until she absolutely, almost legally, could not. And she cared for all the grandchildren on her side of the family with varying degrees of parental responsibility. She baked the best apple pie I’ve ever had. She taught me sarcasm, very much by example.
Q: Do your grandmother’s paintings look like one small piece of van Gogh snipped out and pasted on plain canvas?
A: Yes. Flowers and sky-scapes deep with texture, full of colors that in my memory all fade to the same gorgeous autumn orange.
My cousin has been posting more photographs of our shared, lost grandmother to the internet, and I am blown away by their sheer number and beauty. Grandmama told me stories about her youth: the young Jewish man who she loved. The tsunami that killed him. The reaction of her new in-laws when she told them…certain personal facts about herself. I never knew exactly which of these stories were real and which were embellished, because Grandmama was larger than life. She was that way by design. A whole pocket of my childhood world existed at her house, on her creaky stairs, in her salt-stained kitchen.
Q: Do you miss her?
Q: Is there more to say?
A: Yes, always. No, never. Yes, always.