I don’t often remember my paternal grandmother, and when I do, I don’t remember her as a particularly warm person. But recently I chanced to remember her. She was mostly house bound, often even chair bound, accompanied as she was by her oxygen tank and her life sentence of emphysema. A registered nurse later told me that pulmonary patients were the crankiest; it’s hard to be polite when you can’t perform the most basic of bodily functions without pain. I didn’t understand that at the time.
I remember her retirement apartment and the sidewalks surrounding it. I remember how she rarely moved from her seat at the kitchen table, and I remember how the grassy terrace right outside her kitchen window sloped steeply upward. I remember the taste of her beef-noodle casserole and the sound of her television shows (most prominently Wheel of Fortune) playing always in the background. I remember the hospital bed in her bedroom and the shower stool in her bathroom and the closet in the back bedroom that was good for playing in.
I was named after her, you know, though at the time it was coincidental. My parents gave me her middle name. Mom tells me Grandma always seemed so pleased with it, though she didn’t know why until much later. The original reason I was named “consecrated to God” – a meaning I’ve always cherished – was that Mom herself was supposed to have had it for a middle name. But when she was born on a holy day for the Virgin Mary, she was given the name Mary Joan (instead of Joan Elizabeth). When Mom was grown, she passed the name on to me, and I in turn passed it on to my daughter: a legacy from both sides of the family.
When my grandmother died, the priest droned on and on about how much she loved the crown vetch outside her sitting window, and how we each needed to take some crown vetch with us when we left that day. He even had little baggies of crown vetch ready for us to take away. It was during this funeral memory that all of a sudden the light went on for me and I realized why Grandma Hunzinger was so obsessed with the crown vetch: she was catching hold of the only beauty she could find, imprisoned as she was in her kitchen chair and imprisoned as she was in her failing body. She was reaching out for the little magnificence available to her isolated existence. I remember that window, and I remember that hill. It was green and shady and reinforced with rough-hewn logs. As a child I didn’t know about the crown vetch. I only remember the green.
In that moment, in that memory, I felt a kinship with my paternal grandmother that I’ve rarely felt. There is something of her in me, though I’ve never thought much about it before. I am always hunting for beauty. Hemmed in by the filth of this Asian city, I seek it out, sometimes almost desperately. I can look at the same plant, the same leaf, over and over again and still be amazed. I can marvel at its ability to create nourishment from electromagnetic radiation. I can wonder at the arrangement of its leaves that enables it to catch the most light possible. And I can look in awe at the pure beauty of its shape. Every leaf, lovely. Every plant, perfect. Every look, every time.
At the funeral, the name “crown vetch” sounded so ugly that I couldn’t imagine the plant itself being anything but ugly. And I didn’t take any home with me. I just thought the man talked too long. I dismissed the words and I dismissed the thoughts. But now I know that crown vetch is beautiful. Now I know that crown vetch is tenacious – and sometimes hated for its tenacity, for its complex root system that crowds out any other plant, including weeds. Now I know that crown vetch is resilient and grows in a variety of soil and climate conditions. Now I know that the hardy crown vetch plant can help with erosion control, which is probably why it was planted on that hill in the first place. And now I know that after it takes hold – a process that can take several years – it needs little tending.
I want to be like that crown vetch. Persistent and resilient and adaptable. Able to grow and thrive in unpredictable conditions. Both rooted and blooming, if also at times a tangled mess of a creation. And I want to be like my grandmother, stubbornly seeking beauty, no matter my impairments. Clinging to my amazement, no matter my location. Refusing to be dulled to the presence of beauty in this world and fighting to keep it in my life. This is my inheritance: an unexpected gift from a cranky, ill grandmother.
I wrote about an inheritance from my mother’s side of the family here.