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Good Letters

We were having dinner at a friend’s house: a gathering of colleagues enjoying one another’s company with good food, relaxed conversation, a glass of wine. While we spoke of neighborhoods, children, and schools, it dawned on me that my friend, Doug, lived just doors from my grandparents’ old house.

My grandparents are now long dead, and they moved from that house to an assisted living complex years before that, but the mental image—simple yet powerfully evocative—unleashed unanticipated cascades of memory, leaving me astonished as Proust’s narrator with his petite madeleine or, better yet, Anton Ego with Remy’s ratatouille.

For Monsieur Ego, a forkful of peasant fare transports the imperious critic to his childhood. In a triumph of Pixar’s narrative economy, we see a boy at the door of a French country home, a mother turning from the stove, a soft touch of maternal hand on child’s face as she serves him, a spoonful from bowl to mouth, a smile. The trigger is taste, but eyes—longing, loving, astonished, grateful—bridge what might otherwise collapse in a rush of images.

In my transporting moment, it was Doug’s words—not taste or scent—that unlocked a memory garden of intertwined, untended specimens spreading from beds and flowerpots, the borders overgrown, hedges effaced by trailing vines. In a movie, there might have been a dissolve, alerting the viewer to the temporal discontinuity. For me, there was only a sensory flood, recollections of disconnected images from childhood eyes.

Heavy coats peeled from young shoulders as we kicked snow from our shoes by the front door. Windows frosted from stovetop aromas and body heat. Peanut butter cookies, their tops grooved with fork tines pressed crosswise before baking, a thin layer of black on the bottom assuring crisp perfection. Red and clear glass plates of desserts, nuts, and hors d’oeuvres, some looking and tasting forbiddingly sophisticated, stacked on the dining room table.

If there’s any ordering principle, it’s this: my grandparents’ house was built of hospitality.

Relatives by the dozens were shoehorned into the living room on holidays: aunts, uncles, and so many first cousins I struggled to remember first names. That so many were and are consistently, genuinely delighted to see one another is both childhood gift and lifelong mystery.

More distant relatives and family friends brought an array of quirks and ambiguity. Aunt Alma, looking more embalmed than alluring with her painted smile and layered face powder, doled out her usual gift: a dollar bill in envelopes with a center oval cut out for Washington’s face. Doctor Springer, breath stale as last year’s fruitcake, wheezing as he hovered overhead, peppering me with the same questions he’d asked every time before, making me regret I’d ever mentioned a career in medicine.

But at the center around which this universe turned, stood my grandparents. My grandfather had an air of kind gentility, his oval face solemn long before Parkinson disease robbed it of emotional range. It also stole his pianistic touch, though his ear remained keen enough to detect, from the next room, an errant E natural in a dense C minor etude. As the disease progressed, he stiffened into a mannequin; his gait became a furtive shuffle, his voice a whisper.

My grandmother: dark-rimmed glasses, white curls, luminous smile, unreserved affection. She was sweet mistress of revels, the benevolent genius behind the black-bottomed peanut butter cookies, possessor of many talents. She once wrote, my mother often said, an unpublished short story, “The Rose that Smelled Pink,” which long ago vanished. I knew little of her love for words until late in her life, after emerging miraculously from months of mental confusion, she wrote two short memoirs, distributing copies, illustrated by my aunt, to her many grandchildren.

I have no way to know how my grandmother’s memories of courtship and marriage changed with time, how much of what she wrote for her grandchildren is more refraction than reportage. I suspect she had a head full of memories she wished to honor, and weaving them into a narrative was her way of doing so. That’s the nature of memoir, including what I’ve written here. Memoir simultaneously recovers and constructs.

I could drive today to see the house—the exterior at least—again. Would it seem larger or smaller than I imagine? In my memory, it’s little more than a cottage, a small place, inseparable in my mind from welcome and food, rather like the dinner at which my colleague’s words prompted my reverie. But I know from many sources that my grandparents’ house was famously hospitable.

And I know it from memory, too. A boy couldn’t pass through the front doorway without knowing what it meant to be welcomed. Even on steamy summer afternoons when I came to cut the tiny patch of grass, there was iced tea at the kitchen table and a slice of spice cake for the road home.

Do memories, after travelling years just to meet me at a dinner with friends, deserve a little hospitality? Maybe so. It’s certainly been a joy getting to know them again. Consider this my first attempt at repaying their kindness, at honoring their witness.

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