Secrets From My Grandmother's Attic
My most interesting summer reading experience came the summer after my grandmother died. After my grandmother's funeral and burial, which it seemed the entire state of West Virginia attended, the rest of my family drove home, while my mother and I stayed on at my grandmother's mountain top home, to pack up her pots and pans, her dishes, her clothes, the things in life that she, and we, considered priceless, but probably wouldn't matter too much to anyone else.
My grandmother had a huge attic. I loved to play up there as a child, loved looking out its windows at the beautiful mountains spread out below my grandmother's home. It always seemed to me the attic held all sorts of treasures and secrets, but little did I know that it actually, truly, really did.
It was hot in the attic. It was hot in the whole house. My grandmother didn't have air conditioning. She believed that people should breath in the fresh mountain air, no matter what the temperature. (I don't think Grandma Jesse spent a lot of time in her attic.)
I was just about to give up for the day when I spotted a small box I hadn't seen before. It reminded me of a treasure chest, the kind you see in pirate movies. I thought it would be locked, but to my surprise, it wasn't. Inside were letters, hundreds of letters, addressed to my grandmother from a Native American man in North Carolina.
I took the little "treasure chest" and my grandmother's letters down to her garden, and there, surrounded by her beloved roses and zinnias and marigolds and daylilies, I began to read. To say I was surprised and interested is an understatement.
My grandfather Guillaume had been an immigrant from southern France, that much I knew. After his death, my grandmother, though she missed him terribly, seemed to be reconciled to his loss and at peace. She seemed to love her solitude - her walks in the mountains, her horses, her cooking and baking (which in deference to my grandfather was very, very French), her garden. Little did I, or my mother, know that there was a huge part of her life she didn't share with anyone.
After my grandfather's death, my grandmother, according the letters I found, had conducted a torrid love affair with a Native American man she had met prior to her marriage and had always loved. Apparently, from what I could piece together from the letters, the man never married, never had children. His heart belonged to only one person and that person was my grandmother, Jesse. My grandmother, it appeared, had been faithful and loving to her Guillaume, but after his death, she rekindled her love affair with her first love.
From what I could piece together, the reason my grandmother never married this lovely Native American man (I later met him in person) could be put down to the societal and family pressures that existed at the time, as well as the clannish attitude of many West Virginians. (And this clannish attitude still exists in many parts of West Virginia, I'm sorry to say.) Though Jesse was able to move on, her first love was not. At least not romantically.
My grandmother's letters taught me a lot about love, and they also taught me that some people can love forever. I'm happy my grandfather was Guillaume Renoir as he was the sweetest man, with a face constantly wreathed in smiles. However, I'm also happy my grandmother finally got to spend time with the man who first captured her heart, I'm happy for her, and I'm happy for him. I was also happy for me, that summer in my grandmother's garden, because I got to know her so much better. I found that so much of her is inside me. Yes, I did feel I was invading her privacy, to certain extent, but I also felt she would have wanted me to read the letters or she wouldn't have kept them. (I knew my grandmother's habits well, if not her love life.)
So, as it turns out, my most interesting summer reading experience wasn't with a book in my hands, though the things I read in my grandmother's letters would easily have filled a book and been more interesting than some I've read. All in all, it was a beautiful way to bid farewell to a person who had been such an enormous part of my life and still lives on in my heart.