I imagine the scene this way: my grandmother is standing in the yard, and the air is hot and dry, bleaching everything of color. Without trees to buffer the wide lawn, the grass is stiff, resisting movement even when the occasional breeze sweeps out of the west and teases around the corners of the house, brushing through the heavily drooping flowers that edge the tidy back porch. She stands in the middle of the yard, a centerpiece in the hot morning sun, unhurriedly unpinning sheets from the drying lines, one hand over another; pinch, unpin, fold, fold, an accordion movement graceful in the pale parchment light. She prefers the crisp scent of line dried linens, although most households have switched to using electric dryers, leaving the tightly stretched cotton lines that used to criss cross most backyards on the block abandoned and empty, these same lines that you can still see stretching from yard to unfenced yard, even decades later. The sheets flip and snap with the deft movement of her hands; and it is her hands that I can see when I think about this moment. Long, square fingers, short tidy nails, skin firm but lined with weather and work. Hands that look a lot like my hands— especially the freckles scattered over their backs, as if a constellation were patiently marking time, imprinted on each cell and membrane, the place engraved in her very being, as if she has always stood here, and always will.
It is always her hands that I think of when I think of my grandmother, a resemblance and a kinship that I proudly claim, a connection to the stories told of her strength, her independence, and her individuality. And it is as if by seeing her in myself, I can conceive of that same uniqueness of spirit—as if by recognizing our resemblance to one another I can claim my own individual space, secure in the ways I look like my family and confident in the ways that I am unique.
My parents moved a few years ago, nothing new; my parents made a habit of moving from one house to another throughout my childhood and young adult years, and even now as grandparents with almost grown grandchildren they pulled up roots and packed boxes and unpacked the same faded curtains that have hung in every house that I can remember, and I am sure some that I cannot, shifting from house to house more times than I can count. But this time, for the first time, they are leaving us behind, the children around whose orbit they have patiently revolved, leaving us as they move 125 miles south to the town where my father was born and lived a life we had no part in, where his aged sister still lives in the house where he was raised, where two of his brothers have recently returned to live with their wives, where the traffic is slower and houses are cheaper, and although he has been gone for forty years, everything is overlaid with a dusty sheen of familiarity. And suddenly, although we were never in one place long enough to put down roots, to feel connected to a place and a people, I feel unpinned; orphaned by time and circumstance and long miles in between, a universe unstitched.
We would visit my grandparents every year, usually in the heat of mid-July, sleeping on the floor of the spare room, or sometimes when the heat became oppressive, on the screened-in porch with the large chest freezer and tub washer, the sound of insects echoing through the still night air. We would explore the long blocks; wading through irrigation ditches, lifting paving stones to find fat dark earthworms and pill bugs curling away from the sudden pressure of the light against their delicate bodies. In the mornings I would watch my grandmother braid her long gray hair, twisting it into a crown around her head, using countless hair pins to hold it in place, pinned tightly against the work and sweat of the summer day. If you look hard enough you can still find some of those delicate twists of metal in jars and bowls in her house, the two small bedrooms and one bathroom where she raised seven children; two girls and five boys tumbling through the small living space until she banished them to the outdoors, and they wandered much like I did, wading the same irrigated fields, lifting the same rocks to find the hidden treasures living underneath. And I wonder at the need we have to find connections, to explore the hidden spaces of our past, to pick up the rocks and dig around underneath, as if by discovering who our parents and grandparents were we can see something new in the mirror, a depth that adds to what we know of ourselves, as if by recognizing the value of our past we can find new insight into the present.
I sew on my grandmother’s machine, an aged Singer built of cast iron that creates perfect stitches in clothing and quilts, stitches through the fabrics of my children’s lives, through blessing dresses and baptism dresses and prom dresses and quilts and clothes and dolls, stitches through the time and events of their lives, rhythmically moving over seams and bindings as I pin/unpin the fabrics, create something new from the old, a fabric made of bits and pieces of what has been and what is and what will be. And it is my children who will now travel the miles in mid-summer to visit their grandparents, to spend long days wandering quiet neighborhoods, ankle deep in the irrigation water that still floods yards and fields and ditches, smelling the heavy scents of kind black earth and red hills and dusty rocks, binding them to the feel of this land I almost forgot, where clotheslines still hang behind tidy houses, sheets unfurling in the breeze, waiting for strong hands to smooth their wrinkles, pin/unpin, and fold.