“Elephants Can Remember” is a sweet, all too brief memoir of a grandmother and a childhood from Hilary Mullins, a Vermont writer I have known since she was a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, yea, these many years ago. Hilary was never my student but she has the gift of making friends, and she used to hang out in Francois Camoin’s room across from me in Noble Hall where a group of us would be drinking wine and talking late into the night. In this essay, Hilary writes about her beloved grandmother, nicknamed Germ, who was a force of nature, a tank, as one of her children called her, and a puzzle. One of the puzzles is how much she loved puzzles and mystery novels, especially the novels of Agatha Christie. This is Hilary’s fourth contribution to NC; she has previously published two sermons and a piece on Hurricane Irene in Bethel, VT. And it’s a gorgeous addition to our growing list of Childhood essays.
As an added perk we also have photographs of the girl writer by the renowned New York photographer bill hayward who happens to be Hilary’s uncle and who took the epic Gordon Lish photos we published a couple of issues ago. In an email, Hilary wrote: “For the record, the black and whites from my childhood were taken by Bill–check out that cowboy hat, eh? He gave it to me for my 5th birthday as I recall, and oh what a big deal it was. When I was 10 and he lived in Vermont too, I really couldn’t think of anything to do that was more exciting than going to visit my uncle Bill.”
One late summer day this year, I went up to the attic of the old house where I grew up, climbing the steep and narrow stairs to the open, slanted space, a familiar musty smell of aged wood and bat dung thick in my nose. Turning right, I walked along the top of the west ell of the house, threading between two long, chest-high mounds made by the sheets my father draped over shelves and boxes long ago to protect them from bat droppings. Though the bats are all but gone now—those little mummies wrapped in wrinkled sackcloth hanging upside down in clusters along the joists like dark seed pods everywhere–the sheets are still here, a sign of hope for their resurrection left so long I’ve forgotten what lies buried below.
But I’ve not forgotten what’s down to the right of the small, spidery window at the end of the ell: my grandmother’s things, boxes of pots and pans and chotzkes. Germie’s corner is how I think of that spot, and my guess is all of us in the family think of it that way: her stuff has been here twenty-five years, since she died one night in January of ‘87, when I was just twenty-five myself.
Of course not everything my grandmother, whose name was Ethel, had is still here: five years ago, for instance, around the time of the anniversary of her passing, my dad and stepmother brought out a couple boxes of her jewelry, each of us at the dinner table choosing a few things, laughing as we picked through the baubles, fingering clip-on earrings, shaking our heads as we remembered the woman one of her sons, now gone himself, used to refer to as “my mother the Russian tank.”
So I knew the jewelry was gone. But that wasn’t what I was after: it never was. I was coming at last for the books. I had decided to write a mystery. Never mind I’ve never been a mystery reader myself: my grandmother was, most emphatically, and I thought I might take a clue from her. So pulling away the thin and dusty sheets, ashy attic grime smearing onto my fingers, I began to dig through the boxes until I found what I’d come for: a book by Agatha Christie, the one writer I could remember for sure my grandmother had loved. And this particular book, called Elephants Can Remember, I even vaguely recognized, a hardcover book clad in an off-white cover, an outline image on the front of an elephant made up of puzzle pieces with one missing, a skull-shaped hole gaping just below his neck, the skull itself floating eerily just above, a bit of levitated, mock ghastliness I dimly remembered, the elephant and the skull and the book itself sitting on the shelf in her place, the top of which I could catch a glimpse of even now through the window in the attic, my grandmother’s two little kitchen windows below.
There in the little apartment fashioned out of the first floor of what once was a barn-slash-woodshed, a place we called, after her own joking suggestion, Ethel’s Luncheonette, she had read this book and done her crossword puzzles, my grandmother the Russian tank, a first-generation German born just after the turn of the last century, a stout woman with big feet and hands and a tissue stuck under the strap of her bra, a working class woman who liked her fancy clothes when occasion called for it, but usually wore colorful sweatshirts and polyester pants. Which, in my mind’s eye, she’s wearing still, enthroned in her large, wood-framed easy chair, sneakers propped on an overstuffed orange plastic hassock before her, cigarette adding its idle punctuation to her nonstop talk, that perennial bit of smoke drifting up from her fingers.
So, too, at night when Johnny Carson was over and we’d all gone to bed, she was in that chair, sipping her rum and Cokes, smoking her Pall Malls, drifting with her puzzles and er books long and late into the night, immersed in the word.
I, too, already, was immersed in the word back then, was famous—or infamous depending I suppose—for churning out book reports as steadily as our hot-air popper spewed out popcorn, reading books in bed, in trees, in class behind my Junior High English text book. And I was writing. Badly, childishly, but still. Writing. And as I got older and went away to boarding school, my stuff got darker.
My grandmother did not approve. “Why do you always have to write about sad things?” she’d chide me. “Write about something happy. People don’t want to read sad stories.” What did I say to her? I don’t know. All I remember is a little smoke between the ears, that particular keen-edged resentment young people can feel towards their all-knowing elders when they haven’t yet figured out how to articulate their own dissenting sense of a thing. Now, all these years later, it occurs to me we perhaps were after all, the same but different, going to books for analogous causes but in search of different balms. I wanted to find some expression, however transmuted, of the quiet disasters I was enduring. But my grandmother, I’d guess, went in order to think of different things altogether. And for that I cannot blame her.
Ethel Weippert Mullins had grown up poor in a large immigrant family, the oldest daughter of a violent German father who, I’ve been given the impression, would knock you across the room soon as talk to you, a policeman so infamously brutal that African Americans in Newark would cross the street rather than walk in front of his house. Though in the end my grandmother herself was a proud survivor, far as I can make out, life in her family was a series of catastrophes, her brothers drowning themselves in their bottles, one of her sisters becoming a drug addict, later murdered in the bathtub by her husband.
No wonder then my grandmother ran off just as soon as she could, fleeing with a handsome Canadian Irish man named Bernard who did not drink but gambled with the same reckless abandon her brothers had all taken to booze. For a while she lived with him in Montreal, doubtless hoping for a new and better life, but three little boys later, in the midst of the Depression, when that better life was not coming to pass, she left him, still so very young herself, and fled again back to the States to live with her mother in Connecticut, raising her sons on the rough side of Danbury and never marrying again.
So my grandmother, who’d had her fill of sad, quite understandably had no wish to go to books for more. Instead, I imagine her during those long nights alone, savoring her books and crossword puzzles like sweets, using their plots and grids to chart her way across the vast hours of darkness.
Because my grandmother stayed up so late, she also slept in, sometimes till as late as eleven, snoring so loudly that in the summer when we were little, we could hear her through the open window and catch scandalized glimpses of a high lump under the covers where we knew she was sleeping with no clothes on. But she was not to be wakened, a boundary she always reinforced by last thing at night locking her door, a Dutch-style door with an upper and lower half. Many a morning I gave that door a careful, quiet tug to see if it was still latched from the inside, but many a morning, it would not budge. Finally a half hour later, maybe a whole hour, you would hear it, the characteristic iron-striking-iron sound that door made when she popped the deadbolt open and threw back the cast iron swivel-arm that held the two halves together.
Then you were glad: the door was open and you went romping in, hoping for the spaghetti she would fry up with peppers and onions and eggs, hoping for her chipped beef, hoping for a hundred things. Because my grandmother gave continually, putting before us not just breakfast but dinner too some nights, and in between, brownies and chocolate puddings and games of cards, clearing her table to spread out another hand of Go Fish or Kings in the Corner. Summers she took us swimming, stowing a cooler in the trunk of her old Rambler which skittered up and down the dirt roads like an oversized Pepsi can. Then, at the lake, at a place where you could park all day for $3, we kids immersed ourselves like pollywogs in the miraculously clean water while she presided from the little beach in her lawn chair, the kind with aluminum pole legs and colorful plastic webbing, one leg crossed over the other, her big red painted toenails prominent even from out in the water. Finally, at some point she would always heft herself up and come in too, wading her bulk in, letting my little sister and me shimmy underwater through her legs a few times before she headed out for her own swim, using a stroke I still like to use myself from time to time, a combination of side and breast stroke, a strolling way through the water. Or she would roll over and rest there on the surface like a pontoon, placid and still. Her ability to do this mystified me. When I tried, I sank like a little barrel filled with sand. But she floated without even effort, imperturbable, content with her portion of water and sky.
Given all this, it was only natural we were keen in the mornings for our grandmother to wake. True, like any Russian tank, she might run us over from time to time—but never with malice, for though she was, to put it bluntly, bossy, she was not unkind. The only way any of us I think ever felt truly flattened by her was through her talk, which at times had a kind of stunning endlessness to it, a tendency which became more pronounced as she got older, the way she would neglect to finish the end of one sentence before taking off on another, fumbling for that tissue under her bra strap to wipe the sides of her mouth and yet still scarcely pausing, her words endlessly surging at you, as if you were trapped beneath a falls, the water coming constantly, bombarding you senseless.
Looking back, it seems to me some of this barrage must have found its springs in her loneliness—to come with us in the late sixties to rural Vermont, with its farmers and fields, our grandmother had left behind the rest of her family and friends back in Danbury, a move that had worked well when we were little, but to a large extent left her stranded as we got older and began to scatter and my parents’ marriage broke up too, leaving her alone for days on end three miles out from town on a back road, a situation that understandably made her not only angry but overly chatty.
Be that as it may however, much of my grandmother’s talk was more than chatter in overdrive: it was conversation, for she was a woman who had things she wanted you to know. And yet, for all her intense need to convey this or that or the next hundred things, there was also a way I began to understand she was not exactly communicating, at least not in the hopeful sense of the word. For that was the other thing: when it came to my grandmother and her talk, I often had this sense of her standing back behind the flood of words as if behind a tree at a river, calculating what she intended, peering out from her shelter to gauge your response. She had a way of leaving a key piece out, of hinting around it to see what you might know or think yourself, as if trying to flush you out first, rather than hazarding a clear statement of her own to begin with. She was always holding something back.
Of course I know now this is, more or less, the way the whole world talks. Always we too are leaving a key thing out, too afraid, too defended, or just too insensible, mis-trained as it were, to clearly say what we see and feel and think. I do it myself. And yet my grandmother did it more, feinting and dodging, retreating behind her words, where, in spite of all she said, she would not declare herself. And that made her, as my sister-in-law commented recently, “hard to understand, that’s for sure.”
But let me be fair. There were things plenty easy to understand about her, even when I was little. If I close my eyes for instance, I can still feel her hug, the way she would draw me close in, smushing me right up into her big mamma bear body, her large arms wrapping warmth around me. Truth is to be loved by my grandmother was to have a place in the world and be anchored there.
And so she held us, and so the years went on. And so too, even as we grew older, we still tugged at that door in the morning, and we waited, and we tried again. And we also saw she was getting older herself, a fact which began to give her locked door another significance: I doubt I was the only one who began to regard it with some misgiving, dreading the morning that door would not open.
As it turned out, when that morning came, I was not there. My sister was though, home from college, with one of my brothers, the two of them finally resorting in the early afternoon to pushing open one of the small windows over Germie’s sink from the outside, my brother boosting my sister up so she could clamber in, crawl across the sink, and lower herself carefully down. And when she came around the corner to the little sitting room, she found our grandmother still in her chair, crossword puzzle in her lap, already gone.
No more puzzles then, no more books either for our grandmother, just a poem I read at her funeral a few days later, a poem about a child and her kite, a poem that closed with the kite doing what it wants most, what the soul perhaps wants most of all in the end, to burst past night and rise through haze/ of radiance to a sky beyond these skies/where brighter beings float free of earth’s ties.
Was that really what we all believed? I don’t know: everyone has their own ideas about these things. In the end, the only thing we knew for sure was like the kite, she was gone: all we had left was a canister of ashes kept in the cupboard by the fireplace. But we knew they were not ours to keep either. Finally, two and a half years later, on a late summer morning, we took a row boat out into the lake she’d taken us to so many times and sowed her ashes to the waters, watching the strange trails those powdery shards made across the surface, windings garnished with the wild flowers my sister had cut that morning from a field, a bright yellow profusion strewed out behind us.
Twenty-five years now it’s been, and I miss her still, not with that stunning acuteness of first loss, but with a kind of keen wistfulness. Because of course I want her back. More than anything that was what brought me up to the attic to find her old Agatha Christie books. Fifty now, gaining on the age my grandmother was when I first knew her, I thought I might get a better sense of her through her treasures, even if those treasures seemed to me a little gaudy, a little cheap, the literary equivalent of her old costume jewelry. But that was ok: I was ready to be wrong about that. I wanted to like Christie. I was looking forward to digging into her pages, to casting around in her passages for some echo of my grandmother, of how she thought about things. Really, to be frank, I would say I was looking for a little philosophy, a little love.
But half a dozen Christie books later, all I can really say I’ve found are puzzles. True, they are most often well-wrought puzzles, wrapped in a requisite amount of deft characterization and dialogue, but it’s a comic world my grandmother’s favorite writer conjures up, not a place of depth. Where I look for meaning, Agatha Christie is producing clues. And yet that must be the key, I figure, when it comes to my grandmother. She loved her crosswords just as much as she loved Christie, probably because both are built on clues, and because the pleasure involved, I suppose, is what you construct in your mind with those clues as you read–along with the completed perfection of the thing at the end when Bingo! all the pieces connect.
Still, for someone with a poetic, even scholarly bent, this is not much to show for my efforts. So what if I’ve discovered my grandmother enjoyed putting clues together? And so the world is round, they say, and goes about the sun. And tomorrow is another day.
But let me temper myself. My disappointment is making me sell them both short. Christie may have thought of herself, for instance, as merely clever, but at her best, she does have a kind of mad genius for these puzzles of hers, especially in her inexhaustible churning out of those clues. For as limited as the settings in her books tend to be—a little clutch of characters in a teacup—Christie’s clues come in stupefying superabundance, the tart Miss Marple or the smug M. Poirot amassing bewildering thickets of them. In Elephants Can Remember, the book for instance, I found in my grandmother’s things, the murder is a dated one, but the same pattern holds, Poirot and his confidante, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer of all things, flushing out aging clues from aging characters, many of whom make cameo appearances just long enough to contribute their little clue.
And yet even with this potentially slow-as-syrup scenario, Christie keeps the clues coming like a pitching machine gone haywire. And these clues have energy: they direct your attention. One tugs your nose one way, the next yanks you in another, and meanwhile, ten more are coming straight on at you, a blur in succession, a blizzard in your headlights.
Did my grandmother hang on through all this? I wish I could joke with her about it because I certainly didn’t. I just got buried, barely hanging on as chapter by chapter M. Poirot or Miss Marple navigated the way with lanterns, lead explorers in a cave at last clicking on the light, banishing darkness at book’s end to reveal a marvelously intricate design on the walls.
So yes, I can see the pleasure in all this. And yet my grandmother was right when she did not try to share her books with me, the way she did with my mother and sister-in-law, eagerly passing her favorites on. I think even if she did not approve of my tastes—and I’m afraid she didn’t, thinking of me as arrogant–she understood I did not go to books for Bingo, that I was not interested in that delicious moment when the chips all line up–a fact time has not changed. For we are different readers still, my grandmother and me. The only puzzles I really care about are the ones we cannot solve. And she was one of them.
A couple of years after I graduated from college, my grandmother asked me to drive her up to visit her sister-in-law Bernice in Toronto. I remember specially the drive north, the particular pleasure she took in that autumn day, a day that in my recollection is filled with an abundance of light, light on the glittering waters around the Champlain Islands, on the glowing swaths of the still green fields, light suffused in the richly brilliant reds and yellows of the maples.
Then we arrived at Bernice’s. Though she’d left Bernice’s brother so many years before, having nothing to do with him afterwards, I knew my grandmother had always stayed close with Bernice herself. I also knew she had once been a great beauty, but it was hard to discern even faded glory in this nice but shrunken old woman who hosted us, this continual smoker who seemed not so much caved in but hollowed out, as if the gods had sucked at her bones like straws, leaving her skin dry as old paper. She seemed to blink often and never once went out the whole time we were there, never once changed out of her bathrobe, slowly making her way around that small, smoky, always darkened apartment, a cave I was glad to escape from once or twice a day for the long weekend we were there, walking up to the wide open grounds of a local school to breathe and feel my legs again.
Meanwhile, back in the den as it were, my grandmother and Bernice were having their great visit, their last one in fact, something they both must have known was likely. One night they got into their cups and, stationed at one end of Bernice’s bed, which took up nearly the whole of the room, commenced to spin out some story, the two of them made merry and wise by drink, each adding bits to their patchwork of recollection, chuckling and chucking their chins, as people who have known each other for years will do, nodding sadly in one spot, smirking in another.
Because there was nowhere else to go in that stuffy, tiny place, I was in the room too, reading at the other end of the bed but made privy to their talk, the realization gradually dawning on me as their words filled my ears that for the first time, I was seeing someone who wasn’t just my grandmother, but a woman in her own right, a woman like me with an entire life teeming full of friends and work, heart-felt things, dramas, things I was suddenly keen to know about.
So as they sat there, mildly tittering over another thing somebody once had done, I asked a question about it, aware I might be trespassing, but feeling somehow that my motivation was good. Unfortunately my execution probably wasn’t. I think I went about it stumbling, the way a child does on skates the first time, awkwardly stiff, lofting my words self-consciously—or at least that’s how it feels in my guilty recall.
Because no grace came of it. Instead my grandmother turned on me as she never had before, rearing back with a snarl. “You might want to know, but you never will—you will never know the truth about my life!”
Think of a bear that smacks its young with claws out. Without moving from where she was the other side of the room, she landed a direct blow, one that even seemed sharpened with the pleasure she took in her ability to withhold herself from me, some spite in it surging across the years now as clearly as it did then, dazing me even yet because I still don’t understand it, why she reacted that way. And standing alongside her, Bernice in her bathrobe seemed to be wondering at it too, blinking, shifting her weight to another foot, looking away. I retreated.
The next morning I was back outside, walking the windy grounds behind the school up the block. Overhead, the dark sky was thickly blanketed in gray, a color that seemed to be overtaking everything–the field I was walking in and the trees that bordered it, their branches stripped, thrashing in the gusts that now and again tore across the exposed landscape. It was a Saturday or a Sunday, no children in sight, and I had no particular endpoint in mind either. I was just walking, chin tucked into my jacket as I crossed the gradual slope.
Then I saw it, though at first I did not understand what it was, some strange flurry of white in motion that only gradually came into focus: an old dictionary, sprawled on the ground in pieces, as if some defiant student had just ripped through it, shredding out the innards and heaving the covers aside. But rather than being destroyed, the words now were liberated, the pages everywhere, each one intensely peopled with words, and now in the wind they were scattering across the hillside like big bright leaves, they were swirling like a thrumming, eager flock, a gust lifting them at last in an eruption of wings, my baffled heart lifting with them.
The morning our grandmother’s door did not open came a few months after this, on the coldest night of that next winter, my sister finding her in her big wooden chair, the pen she’d been writing with still in her fingers but her spirit flown, her big friendly body uninhabited, an empty place all of us came home to circle around and grieve. And yet, now, even after all these years, we find it’s us she inhabits, secured behind a lock she will not throw back, but dwelling all the same deep within the marrow of our bones and brains, floating in us word on word, our grandmother, exquisitely puzzling, like the line of flowers and ashes she left behind, a bright and silent trail I am following still.
Hilary Mullins lives in Vermont. She supports her writing habit by teaching college and cleaning windows and has been writing sermons for area churches since 2000. Besides her sermons and essays in NC and Vermont’s Seven Days, she has published a YA novel called The Cat Came Back.