To photograph my grandfather’s belt, I used a large depth of field. Getting all the details in focus reminded me of how my grandfather’s long life had clarity along the way, with decisiveness and no fuss when adjustments were needed.
I haven’t been like that. But we weren’t so different either.
At a family reunion, during my first marriage, I was sitting across from him. During a break in my chatter, he asked, “Why do you move your hands so much when you talk?” My smile faltered. I listened politely as he lectured me, but I was mortified.
Later, my uncle, who had been sitting next to me, grinned and asked kindly, “Did you see what he did?”
I shook my head.
“My dad started with his hands flat on the table, but as he talked, they lifted higher, then a little higher. By the time he was through talking, his hands were waving like this!” My uncle’s face lit up with laughter as he mimicked my grandfather’s gestures, and mine, perfectly.
I’ve always admired my uncle’s comedic timing. My grandfather liked to laugh, and teared up when he did, just like my mother and I do, but being funny wasn’t what he was known for.
I would visit my grandparents for a week at a time during the summer, initially by myself because my brother was too young. The weeklong visits always included a trip to an odd place we called “The Gourd Museum,” a visit to a planetarium, swimming at the Y, and inventing games with marbles and poker chips, the only playthings my grandparents had.
I loved the lunches with my grandparents. The table always included a plate with a tall pile of whole wheat bread slices. I could butter and eat as many slices as I wished. And there was something to eat with a spoon, like cottage cheese. In the center of the table was a glass filled with silver spoons, each with an interesting fancy pattern on the handle. I loved those spoons and hearing the sound of my grandmother in the kitchen in the mornings. I slept just two rooms away in a bedroom with a large four-poster bed with a white bedspread. I had it all to myself. After dinner, my grandparents would sit in separate chairs—-my grandfather on a comfy red one, my grandmother on one with a straight back—-and watch the MacNeil/Lehrer Report. From the floor, I would look at the TV, then around the room. No one talked, no one smiled, not even me. I was very well behaved.
After my grandfather’s memorial service, an administrator at Homewood, where he lived, walked my family and me to a storage unit. There, we were invited to take what we wanted from a box of my grandfather’s personal belongings—-a comb, a tie, the belt, toiletries. These were what my grandfather had with him during his hospice care. The antique furniture and rugs in his independent-living cottage—-which represented a world to cautiously explore when I visited my grandparents in North Carolina—-had already been sorted and adopted by my mother and her sister.
I remember the afternoon sun. And I remember reaching for the neatly curled belt. It was an unusual treasure—-not too big or small, not fragile, just worn and practical. A belt, as far back as I could remember, always delineated my grandfather’s daily clothing: his pressed pants from his pressed shirt, where he kept his reading glasses tucked in a breast pocket. He wasn’t too thin or overweight, but his belly rounded in later life and the belt emphasized that.
My grandmother had lived at Homewood as well, but in the Memory Care unit. On his visits to see her each day, my grandfather called her “bright eyes” and fed her his homemade applesauce. He reached out to his daughters for tips on how to live on his own. To show him how to thread a needle, my aunt drew a diagram on an index card. He got on well and called the senior living front desk each morning to say, “I’m alive!”
After my grandmother died, I visited my grandfather more and even traveled with him. I met his pals who had no trouble teasing him. I saw him poking at his microwave to cook breakfast, doing his dishes and ironing—-all while wearing my grandmother’s apron. On a cruise together, we happily slurped piña coladas.
When my grandfather moved into assisted living, his dark hair, which he had for much of his life, was noticeably white-gray and fuzzy. Combing it was less of a concern of his, I suppose, as he sat in a chair with a tray table and practiced playing a harmonica. Taking music lessons was a late-in-life hobby. He told me about taking piano lessons, but eventually, playing was hard for his arthritic hands. So, he returned to his childhood violin. Then, violin was hard. Harmonica meant being able to continue making music, when his body and hands lost their ease of use.
My grandfather and I spoke on the phone shortly before he died. He had trouble hearing what I had to say and kept asking, “What?” As we said goodbye, his tenor voice wavered, which was new for me. I was used to him taking charge of a conversation with statements that rarely left room for discussion.
“I’m dilapidated!” he told me during my visit the Christmas before. One day, a hospice worker asked him why he was smiling. “I’m ready to go!” he reported.
While wondering why I selected and kept my grandfather’s belt, it comes to me that my earliest memory, at least the one I share if asked, includes him.
I am sixteen months old and sitting in the front yard of my parents’ first home. They are waiting for my grandparents to arrive, and I am quietly staring at the street. Then, as if being gently woken, I feel my grandfather’s hands on my shoulders. He has come down to my level to greet me. I feel his light kiss on my cheek.
Written Spring 2023 by M.B. Abel