My grandma and I are in her kitchen filling two baking sheets with rounds of cookie dough when I realize someday, in the not too distant future, she will be the oldest person on earth. She will not only have grandchildren but great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren and on and on and on. And every Christmas she will make sugar cookies for all of us—trees frosted green and hung with cinnamon candy ornaments; gingerbread men with raisin eyes; almond wreaths with red sugar drops for holly berries.
Because her arthritis will never progress, she will hand-embroider a romper for every grandchild born. She will turn a slip of green thread into the strikingly thin beak of a hummingbird, a length of gray into the twitching whiskers of a squirrel. Her eyes will never fail. Instead of dozing in her rocker, wrapped by the womb-like dark of her living room, she’ll lean into her Singer sewing machine, foot-rocking the pedal with ragtime syncopation, the way her mother taught her.
We put the cookie sheets into the oven. Grandma sets the timer for eight minutes and then joins me at the kitchen table.
She is going to live forever, I think, as she pulls up a chair beside me. At 110 she’ll still be scaring the dickens out of the neighborhood kids as she backs out of the driveway in her tank-like Buick. Even at her peak, Grandma stood only five feet tall. Behind the wheel, she is a snow-white nest of curls peeking over the dashboard. I have come to believe she drives by rote, a map of town stitched in her brain. No one will ever ask her to surrender her license, or sell the Buick. She will drive to the food pantry every Friday, to the grocery store every Monday, and to the post office every other week or so, whenever she has a care package or birthday card to dispatch.
Wanderlust is not, and will never be, one of Grandma’s afflictions. She went to Cuba once, when Grandpa was alive and the border was open, before Fidel, although she never talks about the trip. I found a shoebox of faded snapshots from the 1960s. In every one, Grandma wears a short-sleeved blouse neatly tucked into a knee-length denim skirt. Grandpa, towering a full foot taller, gives the camera an uncomfortable smile from beneath the brim of a straw hat. The backgrounds are palm trees, quaint town squares, and in one photo, a small band of musicians huddled together, mouths open, mid-song.
I have brought the shoebox into the kitchen and placed it on the table between us. When I show Grandma the snapshots she responds with a puritanical scowl.
“Cuba,” she says. “Grandpa took me for vacation once. It was hot, but we had a nice time.” And that’s all she says. If Grandma and Grandpa were a painting, they would be American Gothic.
I press her further, goad her the way a hot burner goads a tea kettle, and finally she admits the one place she’d like to go, a travel fantasy she’s been cultivating since the late 1960s, or maybe longer. “Someday,” she says, “I’d like to go to England and tour the gardens. I’ve seen pictures. Your father buys me those books and magazines.” She gestures toward the living room, where her coffee table is piled high with titles like The British Garden and The Grounds at Buckingham Palace. “But I’d like to visit in person. I want to know how they get the flowerbeds to feel so wild, but still keep them tamed. They remind me of the wildflower fields on the farm in Vermont. I’ve never been able to manage that, myself.” She pauses, taps a finger on the red and white woven tablecloth deep in thought. I think she has finished but, warily, she opens her mouth to speak again.
“And maybe,” she continues, her voice soft, like dough on the rise, “I might like to travel to Wales. My name is Welsh, you know. We have ancestors there.” She leans back, biting her lip as though she’s said too much, as if a stroll through an English garden and a trip to the Welsh countryside were outrageous things to wish for. But she loves this about herself, that at the age of 102 she still has the audacity to be outrageous, even if only from the safety of her kitchen, surrounded by the warm aroma of peanut butter cookies in the oven—cookies which, once cooled, we will send to my brother in Afghanistan, where he’s stationed for the year. “If a cookie has to make a long journey,” Grandma says, changing the subject, “it’s got to be peanut butter. Of all the cookies, peanut butter is the strongest.”
Grandma has made 10,000 cookies, and shipped them to the four corners of the globe to grandchildren in Nepal, France, and London; colleges across the United States; every summer camp from Montana to Maine. Her packages always arrive with each cookie individually sealed in Saran Wrap. The wrapping takes her as long as the baking, but, she says, it’s the only way to keep the cookies fresh.
Grandma will never fall and break her hip. She will never vacate her two-story colonial for an assisted living facility with a kitchen too small for cookies or care packages. She will never lose the strength to wield a rolling pin or carry a watering can. She will forever live across the street from Chuck and Prudy and mutter under her breath about how they come and go. Every morning, she will meet Phyllis at the corner for a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Every morning until Phyllis loses her way in a fog of dementia; after that, Grandma will walk alone.
When Grandma turned 100 we bought her an address book to replace the tattered one overfull of names and addresses she’d crossed out, one by one, year by year: Charles, her brother who died while living in a housing complex for the mentally disabled outside Boston; Marjorie, her best friend whose congested heart slowed and slowed until finally, exhausted, it stopped; Kathleen, Barbara and Margaret, her sisters-in-law, all three of whom lost their hearing and then their minds; Celia, her mother—my great-grandmother—who died at ninety-one.
Grandma was named after her maternal Aunt Rhona, who lived in Boston, married well, and seemed, to my farm-raised grandma, like a society-lady lifted from the cover of McClure’s. Every Christmas Aunt Rhona had two barrels of presents shipped to the Vermont farm where Grandma grew up. Inside were porcelain dolls, intricate handmade board games, fishing rods, any glory of a plaything you could imagine, and at the bottom, a sack of oranges. “It was the oranges we really cared about,” Grandma says. “They were such a luxury.” She smiles. “I always hid one away under my pillow or out in the barn to eat later, when I wouldn’t have to share with Charles.”
Aunt Rhona was named after a Great-Grandmother Rhona, which gives us three Rhonas spread across nearly 200 years—and counting. I consider the name for my unborn daughter, but my husband is Chinese and says it is unlucky—inauspicious—to take the name of someone living, so we must search for a name from a farther branch of the family tree.
In a large box under the guest bed at Grandma’s house is a certified document tracing our lineage to the early 1600s. According to the records, our ancestors emigrated from England, made landfall in Massachusetts in 1636, and eventually found their way North to the small town of Georgia, Vermont, where they can be found to this day. Distant cousins still work the farm where Grandma grew up, a piece of property originally purchased from Ira Allen, Ethan’s brother. The red, 19th Century farmhouse and outbuildings still stand, largely unchanged.
“Those were the happiest days of my life,” Grandma says of her childhood there. She tells me about her pet lamb Tiddlywinks, about falling asleep in the hayloft, about her Canadian cousins with the pet monkey, and about snow so deep she’d nearly been buried alive. She tells the story of her grandfather, who died too soon—gored by a bull; of her father, who died too soon—of bladder cancer; of her mother, Celia, who couldn’t bear life as a widow in rural Vermont so sold the farm and asked Grandma to drop out of business college and return home.
Grandma will never remove her wedding ring. She has been a widow herself for more than ten years now. We buried Grandpa in the family plot in Georgia. Grandma will never admit to missing him—the comfort of his snore beside her, the smell of his pipe smoke drifting into the kitchen, the way his dentures on the bathroom sink soaking in that little glass cup scared her every time she saw them. She has only visited his grave once, but will never ask anyone to take her on the pilgrimage north to visit him a second time because she cannot admit how the rows of tombstones—the Rhonas and Celias and fathers and grandfathers lined up side by side by side—remind her of a life that’s past, and growing more distant each morning. Every year, new tombstones sprout. Every year, from time to time, Grandma picks up her pencil and strikes another name from her address book.
Instead of making the pilgrimage north to Grandpa’s grave, she fingers her wedding band, the gold burnished and worn.
She walks to the oven, pulls open the door, and greets the wave of heat with a low bow. She pokes the nearest cookie with her index finger, then turns to me with a quick smile and says, “Just one more minute. They’re not quite set.”
Rhona Ballard Twombly died at the age of 102 and is buried in Georgia, VT with her husband, Raymond Twombly.