My grandmother, Millie Kanaan, wasn’t big on giving gifts. She kept a wad of cash in a bathrobe pocket, and crinkled fives and tens made their way into our hands for birthdays, departures, holidays. She bought us sweets, or sent us home with fushettes–fried Syrian bread dough and homemade chocolate icing. Five years ago, she gave me one of her rings and made sure it fit: I’ve worn it every moment since, except when swimming in open water. It wasn’t the first time she talked about dying, but it was the first and only gift she gave me for the purpose of remembering her when she was gone.

And now that she is gone–her body, her house, a whole material universe of her presence in the world–I found myself drawn to mementos not of her, but of her mementos of others; basically, memories of memories, symbols of people and places sixty years removed. What I don’t know or didn’t ask makes me sad. This feeling of regret over lost history is probably, largely, a universal one. (I hope it is, because even shared grief is lonely enough.) But I like to think of her using these objects, looking at them, thinking about someone she loved or missed or about a place beyond the pink-carpeted rooms of her old age.

  •  The family ring, seven small diamonds to represent my grandparents and their five children;
  •  Her father’s rosary and its tin box, shaped like a bible;
  •  Her red Orthodox prayer book, with her husband’s obituary card in the back cover;
  •  Her husband’s WWII Army Air Corps unit photograph;
  •  A Heinz pickle pin (small and green, a cheerful object to Pittsburgh natives);
  •  Carved wooden giraffe, a gift from her son-in-law after his trip to Ghana;
  •  The smaller pair of binoculars, used for birdwatching and deer-watching from her kitchen window;
  •  Plastic wall clock, which ticked loudly in her room in the nursing home.

The last isn’t sentimental. But it was one of the first and last things she looked at every day for her final year. Among other assets, my grandmother was a punctual and practical woman. And really, at the heart of all these mementos, is time: shared, lost, turned back, erased, treasured, limited.

Obituary, Millie Kanaan (January 29, 1924–January 15, 2016)

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