Today is my grandmother's birthday. On what would be her final birthday, the local newspaper noted that she was now the oldest person in town, a fact that she rolled her eyes upon sharing with us.
Grandma was the only child in a family of nine who wasn't born in France. Her father died not long after her family came to America. Her mother hated having anyone underfoot while she was in the kitchen, so Grandma didn't learn to cook until she herself had gotten married. My mom still marvels at what a great cook Grandma turned out to be given that, but I am more impressed that someone who had never met any of her own grandparents back in the Old Country ended up being the epitome of a sweet old-fashioned grandmother.
To her fellow high school students in the Class of 1927, she was "Frenchie." Papa called her "[his] little Napoleon." To her nieces and nephews, she was "Aunt Hen." Her name was Henriette, in tribute to her brother Henri who had died not long before she was born, although it was informally Americanized into "Henrietta." She hated it, she told me when I was a kid, and I was surprised and responded honestly that I thought it was pretty. Her foreign name conjured up to my young mind happy images of both cozily-roosting chickens and lovely French ladies.
Grandma taught me how to play cards and bake bread and peel an apple in one long unbroken strip. I taught her that when an apple is sliced in half horizontally, a star of seeds appears. She once said that it was impossible for her not to laugh when she heard me laugh, and she called me "[her] sweet girl."
She cried while holding my younger brother for the first time, and since his, our older brother's, and Grandma's birthdays are all in February, she would always make a special birthday dinner sometime that month in shared celebration.
The next-to-last time she and I saw each other was a May afternoon in a city hospital far from her home, and I was wearing a tie-dye t-shirt. When I leaned over her bed to give her a hug and kiss, Grandma took in my wildly-colored top and weakly commented, "My arms look like your shirt." Poor Grandma's skin was splotchy with bruises in various stages by that point. Her observation was the last dry-humored comment of hers that we smiled at together.
A rainbow appeared soon after she died, and as she had requested, she was buried with a letter my dad had written her from Vietnam. She had wanted me to have her writing desk and handmade crochet tablecloth, and I do, but it is her scrapbooks and recipes and family papers and photos I treasure more. She has appeared in a few precious dreams since I've died, and one helped me gain perspective at a time I felt I was spinning out of control in life.
I think of her when I see cottage gardens, round loaves of homemade bread, delicate script handwriting, canned goods, cantalope, Poinsettias, political cartoons, poetry anthologies, pastel mints, and barkcloth. When my ex-boyfriend and I visited her grave a couple weeks after she died, I left her a letter promising, among other things, to try always to be her sweet girl. That I am forever her granddaughter is one of the most beautiful-to-me things about my life. I miss her more, not less, every year. And I hope she still laughs when she hears me laugh.