After my grandmother died, my family went into a holding period. We boxed up the contents of her attic, sorted through troves of old photographs and jewelry, argued who among us would inherit her wedding ring. And then we retreated to our separate homes for a while, unsure of how or where to reconvene without this central matriarch.
In most cultures, the grandmother is the primary figurehead, the person through which all of the family recipes and traditions are passed through. She is the grounding force that keeps family returning home, for holidays and birthdays and funerals, no matter how far away everyone may live.
My grandmother was no exception to this. Her house was a place that felt warm, even in the dead of winter. Booze flowed plentifully there and food even more so. There were card games and cartoons, ‘Nilla wafers eaten at the kitchen counter. It smelled like...mothballs, and meatballs, and her. So when she died, it felt like the death of something much larger than a person.
But in the months that followed my grandmother’s passing, my aunt bought her house and moved in, replacing the decor but keeping a place for family to come and gather. So we did, slowly at first, uneasy to embrace my grandmother’s house as a place separate from her. Doing so felt something like betrayal. But over time, and out of simple necessity, we began showing up there for holidays, gifts and drinks and food in tow, ready, finally, to celebrate with each other.
On the first Christmas after my grandmother’s death, we pulled out a deck of cards and played Pinochle–my grandmother’s game–for the first time in a long time. My dad and his three sisters sat around the kitchen table and played under yellow light while I perched myself beside them, trying my best to learn a game in which the rules constantly seemed to be in flux. Snow piled outside as they drank freely, and I watched their grins grow bigger and bigger until their cheeks dappled red like the wine.
I don’t know if it was the booze or the game or the simple fact that we were together after a period of separation, but I noticed a shift in us that night. My dad brought out old tape recordings from when he and his sisters were kids, and we listened to the crackly voices of a much younger family. There were my dad and his sisters excitedly talking about school and sleepovers–kid things–and then there was my grandmother, her tongue sharp and biting, a looming figure even on tape.
It was a portal into a version of my family I did not recognize, or at least had not seen in quite some time, and I wanted to linger in their shared history for a while. We laughed a lot, listening to those tapes. I cried a little, too.
From that night forward, we were a family bound by alcohol and a deck of cards, these simple, human things that somehow allowed us to discover each other again. My grandmother’s old house became marked as a place where we could continue in her absence–I could keep trying and failing to learn the rules to Pinochle, the wine could keep flowing, and, most importantly, we could keep coming together again.