Today is the 10th anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s death. He was a brilliant, gentle and stately man, a New Jersey Supreme Court Judge, and I was prodigiously proud of him. One of my prized possessions is a hardcover edition of my favorite novel, All the King’s Men, inscribed to him by his best friend. For all of my childhood and into my early 20’s, we spent two weeks every summer with my mother’s parents at our family summer house in Nantucket, and I found the book in the house a few years after he died. These summers were rich and familiar in so many ways, but it’s the little daily things that continue to evoke the memory of my grandparents. To this day, every time I see half a tomato on a willow ware plate in the refrigerator, I’m reminded of Grandaddy’s chicken sandwiches.
The last summer I spent with him was right after I graduated from college, and it was difficult. He’d begun to show signs of dementia, and we suspected Alzheimer’s. I went to Nantucket to work for the summer, and to help my grandmother care for Scotty. He began as usual, keeping up his daily walks and usual habits, but he was deteriorating quickly and the change of location to the summer house made him worse. My grandmother struggled with his memory losses and difficult behavior, and kept thinking of earlier and earlier instances in which he’d behaved strangely, convincing herself that he’d been sick for some time. The lawnmower story is apocryphal, and several of us can’t agree on whether or not it happened this way, but it resulted in one of the most special gifts I’ve ever received so I think it’s an appropriate tribute for today, true or not.
The yard in Nantucket used to have several big, lush hydrangea bushes along the fence and near the house. At some point they all got cut down, and no one can remember why or by whom. That summer, my grandmother swore that Granddaddy had cut them all down the previous summer while he was doing yardwork and became confused about which plants were flowers and which were weeds. She was sure it indicated that he’d been sick for longer than we thought. It doesn’t seem likely; I’m not sure that he could have done it even before his illness (he would have been 89 at the time). A lawnmower can do a lot of damage, but I don’t know if you can mow down shrubbery with one. But as I say, I don’t know what happened to them, and over the years it sort of became my accepted story for where they went.
My grandparents ended up leaving the island early that summer, and Grammy found a full time care facility for Granddaddy and admitted him early that fall. He continued to deteriorate, although he remained in good physical health, and he never went back to Nantucket. A few years later, I had moved to the island year-round and told the lawnmower story to a colleague who remembered admiring the bushes years before. My grandfather passed away August 21, 1999, and I went to New Jersey for the funeral. When I returned to the house in Nantucket, I found that my friend had left a beautiful new hydrangea bush on the porch for me. It was the most touching sympathy gesture I’ve ever received. I planted it behind the house in a sunny, sandy patch of yard, and it still thrives there a decade later. I took a cutting from it several years ago, and my parents nurtured it into a healthy little plant for their own yard in New Hampshire. My dad takes pictures of it from time to time to let me know how it’s doing. This summer Mom traveled to Nantucket for a couple of days and also took pictures of the original plant. There are some lovely old photographs of Granddaddy in the house in Nantucket, but I don’t have copies of any of them, so in their place here are the pictures of the two hydrangeas that grow in his memory. They seem a fitting tribute to my love for my grandfather and the place that Nantucket has in my memories of him. As hydrangeas go, they’re still young and the New Hampshire one didn’t bloom this year, but they’re growing and thriving and I hope they last for years to come. With love.