I meet my maternal grandmother in antiques shops. Nearly every one that sucks me in—though I try to avoid them—holds pieces of her china (Desert Rose) or her silverware (Washingtonia) or cut glass bowls with sugar cubes and delicate silvery tongs, or crystal teardrops that once hung from glittering chandeliers. Or tall secretaries with their open writing desks wearing faded green felt, perfect for penning a quick missive. Or a large divan, a Louis XIV replica, with plump, ivory damask cushions that Grandma covered with a pale green sheet so Grandpa’s pipe ashes wouldn’t soil the material.
And I look around, half expecting to see a small-boned woman with piercing brown eyes and the whitest hair, perfectly coiffed, a large topaz ring on a hand gnarled by arthritis, her white pocketbook that matches her low pumps, permanently attached to the crook of an elbow. The one who gave me EGBOK: Everything’s gonna be OK. The one who lived by the credo, “Old age is not for sissies.”
I walk around a corner and I meet my paternal grandmother in milk glass chickens with painted red beaks and black beady eyes. Their top halves come off to reveal empty bowls that my sister and I used to fill with marbles. That was the grandma whose mother was born in Sweden, the grandma of tiny meatballs painstakingly rolled by hand and counted, browned in an iron skillet, then baked in a casserole dish, for some reason. The grandma of brownies and apple pie and almond windmill cookies (the latter bought at the store). The grandma, who with Grandpa, loved to watch Lawrence Welk every Saturday night, sitting behind TV trays in the den, getting up during commercial breaks to make brown cows for my sister and me—a funny name, we thought for root beer floats.
I meet them both in needlepoint wall hangings and pillows. In glass slippers and ceramic ladies head vases. In doilies and tea towels. In plates with tiny flowers seemingly watercolored on tender china.
I am not the only one who meets her ancestors here. I hear other browsers say, “My grandmother had one of those,” or “Those were my mother’s dishes.” Women trace their histories through the belongings of the women before them. Perhaps men do, too, but they are more unusual specimens in antiques shops. We are mostly female, moving slowly, casting our gazes over tables loaded with treasures, pricking at our memories, shelves filled with someone else’s stemware, someone else’s dolls, someone else’s somethings that have ended up here, now called antiques.
One of my grandmas, the one who had her own antiques shop for a time and who worked in others, said items had to be a hundred years old, at least, to be considered antique. Other stuff was just old stuff.
I meet my grandmothers—born 115 and 120 years ago, respectively—as antiques and, now past my own half-century mark, I recognize them as treasures I failed to see with much younger eyes.