Her Things Should Keep Her Marks


She washed the dishes. He dried. That’s how I knew what love was.

My grandmother, Bernice Helen Kosterman Zens, died tonight at 6 p.m. at the age of 91. I can tell you the outlines of her life, the things we always tell the newspapers: three children, eight grandchildren, a home, a nursing career, a life, a story of fight and survival. She was tough, all 91 pounds of her soaking wet. She loved gardening and hated pets. She was as devout a Catholic as anyone I’ve ever met. And she was stubborn as the day is long and wouldn’t do a damn thing she didn’t want to do. I get it from somebody, after all.

I have the outlines, and then I have what reminds me of her: Her old stovetop percolator, birthday cards with spidery unreadable handwriting, and a collection of photographs in which she scowls with a look that would freeze your blood if you took it seriously. She hated being photographed. Just hated it. She’d cover her face with her hand or hide behind a cousin.

She thought she was hideous. In my entire life I’ve never thought anyone was more beautiful.

But I have more impressions of her early life than facts. She didn’t believe in looking back. If you’d grown up poor, one of 11 children during the Depression, you wouldn’t look back, either. Press her for stories, and she’d distract you with a game or a cookie, but those childhood hardships left their marks, like old healed-over burns, or long-gone limbs that itch and ache in the night. We joked that she would save the dust bunnies under the bed in case they could be of use some day. She washed and folded used tinfoil, bread bags, mended socks until they were more mend than knit. She grew carrots and beans and rhubarb in a huge garden and canned everything in sight. The root cellar could have withstood a siege of years. It was funny to kids growing up with comparative plenty, but: nothing was wasted.

She lived like that, too, wasting nothing. She was a nurse in a Chicago hospital between the World Wars, when the city was growing up and outward, straining its boundaries and the patience of its populace. She spent her days treating poor and orphaned children, stepping over drunks in the skid row gutters to get to work and then going out to give those same drunks a sandwich on her lunch breaks. She returned home, after a year, having gone the farthest from her small town that anyone in her family had ever gone, and married my grandfather, because he was kind and caring and endlessly patient, and they bought a small house near her sisters and their husbands. And for 49 years they did the dishes together. He worked in factory and she kept the house, but this he did: He helped with the dishes.

I spent every Wednesday night after school with them, doing homework in their living room and listening to them talk low in the kitchen, over pots and pans and cups and saucers. Every night, no matter how bad the day had been, no matter what was going on with their kids or grandkids or in the world or on the moon, they washed the dishes together. Come ruin or rapture. They stood beside one another and worked together, and it doesn’t look like much, written out like that.

But love is a choice. All love is a choice. All love is work. When people say relationships are work, what they usually mean is that there are times when relationships, especially marriages, are drudgery, misery that must be endured, but that’s not what I’m saying when I say it. Relationships are work because you share a common task to which you put your hands, and work like that, in concert, is meaningful and joyous, fulfilling, a reason to get up in the morning and smile every day. “Marriage in Spanish iscasarse, to build a home with,”Jacob wrote once, “you build a cabin, and live there together.” You are building something together. A house. A home. A family. And you do it like this, two by two, night by night, at the sink. She washed. He dried.

When she moved out of her house five years ago, I wrote about it, and them:

… there, he’d protect you, she’d comfort you, give you that smile that split her stern face and lifted you up out of your shoes, it made you that happy, you felt that loved.

Five houses down from a church, on the east side of the block round the corner from the bakery and the Italian restaurant and the dime store. A brown-sided bungalow with two dormers in front where each Christmas he hung baby dolls against tin foil wings, Joy to the World written above them. The Lord is Come. Joy, joy to the world, and the warm Christmas mornings you walked over, presents piled in paper bags.

You’d go upstairs, up the curving staircase past the window that let into a crawl space where your baby things were stored, and into the bedroom your mother and aunt had shared long ago. It was yellow, with desks beneath dormers and a door that led to the attic space.

Her wedding dress hung from the ceiling in a plastic sleeve, ghost of a love story, with your mother’s many bridesmaids’ dresses you loved to play in hanging behind it, 1970s green chiffon and bright blue velvet. Tins she used for Christmas cookies, ice skates, old watercolor paint sets and board games you see now at antique markets and think of buying. Spider webs. You hated spiders. She’d catch them and throw them outside. You wanted them squished.

You played with her old jewelry boxes; on the bookshelves there was a book from the 1950s about beauty that said tall girls should stand up straight because slouching was useless and only made them look slovenly. You always stood up straight after that. People ask if you’re a dancer and you think, something to thank her for that neither of us even noticed she was doing, putting that book where you, awkward teenager, would find it.

They were the best grandparents anyone could have had. He died the year after I got married, after complications from heart surgery took him down. The last day he saw me, the last day he was really coherent, he said, “You were a good granddaughter. We had fun.” The last time I saw her, a few weeks ago (too long) she said to one of the nurses, “This is my great granddaughter.” The nurse thought she meant it literally. “No,” she said, “this is my GREAT granddaughter.” Those are the things I think about when I can’t sleep and I’m wishing I had done more, spent more time with them both, been a less willful, selfish brat, been less of a burden, been better or kinder or smarter. Those are the things they remembered, and those are the things I will try to remember, too.

A lot of people will say comforting things in the coming days, especially since her death comes at the end of a long, cruel illness, about them being together forever now, about them being young and beautiful and no longer apart, as they were so terribly in the ten years between his death and hers. They may be right, those people who will say those things. I don’t know. And I don’t think it matters what I believe. It matters what she gave to me, and what I learned from her. It matters what I know, what she taught: Waste nothing. Choose your life. And work hard with someone, side by side.

What I know is that for 49 years she washed the dishes, and he dried. And that was everything.

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn-out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
rubbed down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small —
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard.

— Kay Ryan


41 thoughts on “Her Things Should Keep Her Marks

  1. “They stood beside one another and worked together, and it doesn’t look like much, written out like that.”
    But, as you say, “that was everything” – and it always will be.
    My grandfather passed away in early 2008; and I think my grandmother only now, this holiday season, has begun to reorient herself around his absence. Acclimation is a journey, not the destination.
    Wishing you well-

  2. Oh sweetie, wish this could be a hug instead of a comment. So sorry it happened at this time of year, too, which I know is an already tough month. You’re absolutely right though-she left you so much.

  3. Condolences Athenae (and to your family) on your loss. Your post is beautiful and loving and many good things. Your good memories of her will last forever, as they should.

  4. Condolences on your loss. She loved and was loved, lived a successful life, and left behind people who will miss her — this is what we should all aspire to. Thank you for writing about her.

  5. Ohhh, A! Big hugs and a honkin’ big box of tissues. She obviously loved you (and they still do) SO much!!! Sending you peaceful, loving energies…I’m crying here. What a beautiful piece. She lives on in you.

  6. Thanks for sharing her with us. Deepest condolences on your loss. Now get out there and be extra stubborn in her honor.

  7. Lovely tribute, A. Thank you for sharing your love for her with us. It shows in your writing.

  8. I lost my mom more than 20 years ago. A human perpetual motion machine, a ferocious organizer, ALS killed her inch by agonizing inch. I still find myself missing her opinion and advice (usually unsolicited) after all these years.
    Condolences help those most who extend them, I’ve found, but none the less, you certainly have mine. This too shall pass, but realize she will never really die as long as you live because of the place she has in your heart.

  9. Athenae,
    What a beautiful tribute. Just stunning. And what a wonderful, meaningful, life. I’m sitting here crying–can there be any greater tribute to her life and to your understanding of it? You were a great, great, grandaughter and she knew it an d loved you for it. Thank you so much for writing this. I know the memorial service for your Grandmother, should you have one, will be a time of great healing and joy for you.

  10. A wonderful tribute A. Thanks for sharing a bit of her love and your life in this remembrance.

  11. Thank you A. for sharing such a moving tribute with us. So much of it brought back memories of my parents. That was a great generation, and your grandmother was a great representative of it. I’m sorry this had to happen at this time of the year.

  12. How do you illustrate a life with words? Read this piece above.
    Thank you A. The beauty of your writing is here to the match beauty of your grandma.

  13. What a beautiful, moving tribute that is. I’m sorry for your loss, but grateful for your words, and your sharing with us your memories of a life and such strong, brilliant love.
    You’re right – she was gorgeous.

  14. grandparents can be a wonderful thing.
    grandpa f did the dishes. thorough kraut he was. grandma dried before kids took over.

  15. I always wonder if “they really don’t make them like that anymore”… until I read something like your tribute.
    You’re it, Sweetheart, bless you.

  16. How lucky you were to have such a grandma and grandpa, Athenae. I had that, too. They’re supposed to go first, of course, but it’s always hard when that day comes. So sorry.

  17. Oh, darling, I am so sorry. That bond between grandma & grandgirl is a special thing. My grandma is still with me. A day doesn’t go by in which I do not think of her or wish she were still around to blanket us with her peace and lack of judgment.
    We are lucky to have had these women in our lives. Hugs, sweetheart.

  18. My sincerest condolences, Athenae. The best tribute is to carry loved ones in your memory, and to share that memory with others.
    My maternal grandmother is the last of the older generation still alive — three of them have gone in the last two years. I miss them all, even the great-aunt I didn’t get along with very well; she deserved better than what happened.

  19. You are a magnificent writer… this was wonderful.
    Celebrating my 15th anniversary this week — and shared this with Mr. Drunken. We both cried. It is a gorgeous thing — the love between your grandparents. And an even more wonderful thing because they passed it on to you — you learned so many great things from them.
    So, while I am sorry for your loss and feel your sorrow, I also congratulate you for the great presence in your life that was your grandma!

  20. Thank you.
    Every weekend my grandparents still go dancing. He’s in his mid 90s. Shes in her late 80s. They go to the same place that they have gone for years, talk to the same people that they talk to every week, and they dance. Several years ago they moved 40 minutes or so away to be closer to my parents. Neither can drive at night, so now, every week, my parents drive them 40 minutes each way and go to dinner with them and dance. The place they go isn’t too far from our house, so, once a month or so, my wife and I pack up our two year-old son and we go to meet them. Four generations on the floor (with grandma showing off her great-grandchild to everyone there.. every time we go). It is wonderful. Time spent with family is something that you can’t buy, and when the family passes on there is no amount of money that will get it for you. I’m glad you had such wonderful times with your grandmother and that she is still so alive in your heart.
    Thank you for sharing your story. I think I’m going to go dancing again soon.

  21. Zichron L’vrachah – may her memory forever be for a blessing. Not that I think that will be a problem in any way…she has a GREAT granddaughter to carry her on.

  22. Athenae, brilliant writing with a personal perspective. As always.
    My condolences – but also a degree of celebration that you were able to connect so well with her and with the stories of that generation.

  23. There is nothing more I can add to that beautiful tribute, but you know how I feel. My thoughts are with you always. Much love.

  24. Athenae – you were so lucky to not only know your grandmother, but to have had a wonderful relationship with her. This seems to be turning into a bit of a rarity as families move around the country these days.
    May your fond memories help in your time of sorrow and remembrance. {{{hugs}}} and sympathy to you and your family.

  25. Athenae,
    I grieve with thee. She sounds like my mom. I know you’ll miss her. I hope your memories of her are all filled with joy and delight.

  26. Your grandmother had a purposeful soul and a strength of spirit. This is apparent by the memories you have of her. It is also something she’s passed on to you. We can tell by the way you write of her.
    Condolences on your loss but rejoice in her life and the life she gave you.

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