Eventually, in a painted purple dresser of my favorite grandmother, I find the widows I seek. GG, called Frana by others, was the first-born daughter of turn-of-the-century Slovenian emigrants who came searching the golden dreams of America, from Alaska to California. GG was a delicate girl, an artist, who was raised in rambunctious Truckee, an ice mining, train-stop of a town in the snowy Sierras. GG was a painter I never saw paint. My mother says she was mean when she drank. She remembers her with a paintbrush in one hand and a glass of gin in the other. By the time I knew GG, she didn’t paint, she didn’t drink gin, and she wasn’t mean. Nor did she speak to me about her years of being a painter. Her Cubism-influenced paintings are portraits of angled and stone-faced characters in bold-colored, Dali-esque landscapes. GG was widowed in her sixtieth year. After she died, I found most of GG’s paintings, boxed away neatly in her garage where they had rested for years, hidden, quiet and still.
I sort through GG’s purple dresser drawer, uncovering her handbags that smell like an old department store, her single stockings that have lost their garter belts, and her crystal earring, which is absent a mate. Under her once-crisp linens, I find the embroidered hankies of all my widowed grandmamas. I see the stitches of a sturdy old woman proudly sweeping the city sidewalks in front of her home where I find my great-grandmama, Nonie Teresa, Italian born, San Franciscan buried. Grandmother Mary’s stitch shows Irish Catholic rigidity with a temper. I, too, have thin, Irish skin, its transparency stretched across the veins of a too-quick anger that reveals all my sins inside. My sinsides, I call them. I see the hankies with the stitches of black-laced bootstraps and I find Mama Til, from Berlin. Mama Til was widowed in a freezing Truckee winter with a three-year-old boy to grow and keep warm. Hmmm, I was widowed with a three-year-old boy too. They say I have Tillie’s thick hair. The hair I've always called "too thick" and "too coarse." The hair I've always tried to contain within buns and braids in the day and the hair that cradles my neck, and warms my shoulders when I sleep. Could it be this hair that carries the curse of widowhood?
Reverently, I take my grandmamas’ hankies from GG's drawer, and tuck them into the back pockets of my low-rise jeans. I’m feeling both the heaviness and the comfort of belonging to my family of women. I realize I’m packing a family of widows’ weight in my slim hips. The sinsides and hips of my story mirror my grandmamas’ stories and their grand mamas’ stories. I have simply stepped into a long walk of widows.
I decide to move from the churchhouse, a complete house now, five bedrooms, three bathrooms, new stained glass in the arched windows, a blooming garden in what was once a parking lot. Despite all the work, post-Peter, to make it a reflection of the boys and me, the churchhouse still feels like it’s locked in a time when I was coupled. The upkeep, the bills, the memories, are all too big for a single woman with slight hips packing heavy hankies. Against the pleas and protests of the little ones who can’t imagine moving from the cocoon where they were born, I list our home in the booming North Bay real estate market, where houses are selling over asking price.
But the churchhouse doesn’t sell. You’d have to be a musician to appreciate the acoustics, an artist to appreciate the wall space, wealthy to afford the gas bills in the winter, they say. I lease it to a screenwriter, who wants to fill its hull with an artists’ community. I watch the tenants move in, two by two—palettes, canvases, massage tables, musical instruments, dishes, books, clothes—all filing in like Noah’s animals to the ark. I feel relieved to be embarking from the vessel that has held my grief. I feel like I am cutting off some of my heavy hair.
Aside from the boys pounding out cacophonies with grimy, careless hands, Peter's piano had been un-played in the years since his death, and I post it on craigslist.org with the rest of the big stuff I am selling out of our nave. Shortly after Peter died, and it had abruptly become “ours” instead of “his,” I had named the piano Mathilde. I used to lay my body and my hair across Mathilde’s ebony shine and together we’d long for Peter’s familiar fingers to dance upon our keys, playing our songs. I would polish Mathilde’s smooth and silent surface trying to summon Peter’s playful Dixie and scat-time Rag. He used to ask me to sit beside him on his piano bench and be his girl as he crooned his Berliner Blues. That’s okay, I’d say, play some more and I’ll just keep on dancing over here. I could feel the steam of his eyes as I teased him with my hips and saucy legs in a bedtime shuffle. I was plugged into the neon-blue of his eyes, knowing my rhythm fueled his syncopation, and likewise.
Magda, a Russian bombshell with full lips, tight blue jeans and spiked heels, says she’s a concert pianist, says she played for the Prince of Wales once, says she wants to buy Peter’s piano. She arrives with a cashier’s check from her telecommunications business, paying twice what Peter had paid seventeen years before. Ebony Mathilde, with her dark shine, leaves our altar to be played by buxom, blond Magda, and I shudder as I watch the piano movers close her hood. When Mathilde exhales her last churchhouse breath, she sounds like a coffin being shut. All these years I thought I’d been peeling away the layers of Peter from my skin, yet his coffin had remained open in the hollows of our sanctuary. Next >