Last Grandma Party
We called them Grandma Jo Parties and they worked like this: every Spring when Grandmother Josephine Crocker was cleaning house she sat all her clutter in the living room, slapped a little paper number on each, put a copy of the numbers in her favorite old Wieboldt's ceramic bowl--the one with the big blue flowers on it--and invited all the cousins and their families over for barbeque. We could eat our fill provided we each pulled a slip out of the bowl upon entering and left with the item next to the number that matched it.
In this way my parents over the years accumulated #26 (bamboo bathroom wastebasket), #16 (box of paint brushes--some still usable, some gummed to death with old projects Gramps Crocker never seemed to finish), #5 (snow globe of Hawaii, which never made sense to me), and all sorts of jiggers and doodads. Trading was allowed but not in the house, nor on the lawn near Grandma Jo's petunias, so the street before their driveway became famous for the Crocker Clan Swapping Fights, audible to neighbors for three blocks at least.
Grandma Crocker died when I was twelve and we thought the tradition was lost along with her recipe for peach cobbler and her funny up-and-down laugh. But Gramps surprised us three days after the funeral with invitations to one last party. We figured he planned to give away some of Grandma Jo's things--stuff too sad-making to stumble on every day without her--but we arrived to find numbered slips of paper beside every stick of furniture in the house.
Grandma and Gramps Crocker were never big readers, but their one shelf of books was offered along with a ledge of crystal figurines and the bookcase that held them all to the lucky drawer of #21. The kitchen table and all the cookware gramps could load on it were reserved for #8. Their bed, piled high with all of her and his clothing, was #1.
Gramps spent an hour assuring us he didn't plan to jump off the roof of the Sack's department store downtown. "New bed delivered tomorrow," he said, and refused all our invitations to stay the night, the week, the year at any of our places. "We can come get the bed tomorrow," said Cousin Sandy and her beau Louis, who'd pulled #1, but Gramps shook his head and ordered my big brother Patrick to load it on his truck and deliver it, and headed out back to put steaks on #11 (grille). Mom thought I'd want some of #5 (Josephine's old jewelry), or #3 (throw pillows with her rainbow embroidery), but I kept coming back to one item that made me sick to my stomach with want.
It was a lamp, fat and funny: a squatting great green-and-purple frog with a bulb screwed into its cranium, one eye open and the other closed, as if frozen in a wink. I was twelve then and starting to prefer clothes and boys at school to toys, but I remembered playing with the frog lamp when I was the little girl who refused to wear dresses, even to Grandma and Gramps' house. At one point I thought it was a real frog that I could wake up with a true magic word. It was my favorite thing in the whole world once and I knew it was just right for remembering Grandma Jo, but my cousin Jimmy got all the lamps when he pulled #19 and no matter how much I tried to coax him onto the street for some trading he would not budge from his plate of steak and corn. Worse, Jimmy's sister Cynthia wanted the frog lamp, too, and I didn't think the bathroom cleansers I got with #25 would win Jimmy to my side.
It took most of the afternoon but I finally wrangled my uncle Garret into trading me #17 (paintings) to swap with Aunt Clarissa for #14 (grandfather clock) which I bartered Cousin Gloria for #13 (Gramps' rifles) which I was sure Jimmy would take for the lamps. On the way to the final deal, though, I passed by the Choosing Bowl and saw one last slip of paper inside. All the family was present and accounted for, and everyone had taken a number except, I remembered, for my mom, who as Grandma Josephine's baby always spent parties helping with food and taking whatever number was left over at the end. My mom hadn't cried once in front of my brother or me, but we heard her when she didn't know we were near, through her bedroom door. The last slip in the bowl was #6 (mudroom boots and shovels) but what really got me thinking was the bowl itself. My mom told us more than once how she was six-years-old for Grandma's first party, the youngest of nine children, and she remembered holding this very bowl and handing out numbers to her older siblings and their families. I could guess what she would want from Grandma's things if she wasn't so busy helping everyone else. Gramps had labeled the bowl #28, taped to the side like a loose shutter shaking in the breeze from the open door, through which my cousins were busy emptying the house. It did not take long to find out Jimmy's sister had #28, and, saying goodbye to my frog, I traded her the rifles for the Blue Wieboldt Choosing Bowl and kept the boots for myself.
I waited until we got home to present my mom with Grandma's bowl. She sobbed the moment I held it out, the only time she ever cried in front of me. I felt her tears in my stomach, a ball of fear and excitement that I have kept safe all the years since and would not trade for anything in the world.
That night I imagined my gramps alone in the house he shared for fifty-four years with Grandma Jo. I pictured him prowling alone in the dark, with only the full summer moon for company, making a wide blue ocean out of the oak floors. I wondered if he thought he'd made a mistake as he undressed to use the clothes on his body for a bed and lay down to sleep, naked as when his own momma brought him into the world, waiting for Grandma Jo to call him out.