The Things We Keep

From a pair of unforgettable grandmothers

By Maggie Dodson

Last year, in the oppressive heat of a Brooklyn summer, I moved into a new apartment with my boyfriend. Prior to this move, we both agreed to go through the contents of our respective lives, discarding items we didn’t need in order have a fresh start; a blank slate on which to build a life together. Expecting to find an ungodly amount of junk, I opened a bottle of wine, put on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and got out the trash bags.

If our lives are made up of the things we keep, my life was looking a bit neglected and moth-eaten. Old receipts, expired debit cards, parking tickets, to-do lists. In my 28 years, it would seem as if I hadn’t collected anything of substance. How had I come this far with so little to show for it? I sipped more wine and continued the search for things to keep. I was sure I had a few lying around, somewhere.

An hour or two later I found them: a pack of used and worn mechanical pencils and an elegant black, beaded clutch. The pencils belonged to my Scottish grandmother, the clutch, to my Southern Gammy. I placed them delicately in the “to keep” pile. They were coming with me to the new apartment.

On paper, my grandmothers couldn’t have been less alike. One was an industrial chemist from Scotland, the other a beauty queen from Maryland. Their experiences were so different, their lives and passions rarely, if ever, overlapping. They grew up at a similar time but in different parts of the world. Perhaps the one thing they had in common was how fiercely they loved their families and me.

Finding these intimate items that belonged to them opened the floodgates of my memory. I felt inspired to ask questions and to think about what my grandmothers were like as young women, how their lives took shape and how they shaped mine.

My father’s mother, Janet Dodson, was a generous woman. She’d give you the shirt off her own back, without question. My father describes her as a feisty woman who charmed all those she met, a lady who never hid her feelings about her core values, a true believer in God, and a loving mother and wife.

She was the youngest of 11 children, the daughter of a coal miner and, according to my family, after high school she won the Miss Western Maryland Pageant and was offered a studio contract to perform with a stalwart of the nightclub circuit, singer Tony Martin. She turned it down to marry my grandfather, an ad salesman from North Carolina. My Gammy was a breast cancer survivor, ever the social butterfly, and driven by a desire to give back to those in need. She lived for her garden, her five grandchildren and her volunteer work at her church in Greensboro.

My mother’s mother, Kathleen, was a pioneer. An only child who’d lost both of her parents by the age of 22, she began her career in Glasgow as an industrial chemist, first at Rolls-Royce and then at IBM. She met my scientist grandfather while walking to catch the bus to work, and later, followed him to Canada, Alaska, and finally to a farm in Maine, where they’d settle down, buy two of nearly every animal and start a life with their three children.

She was a voracious reader, a stickler for manners and a lover of classical music. She was fond of sharp cheese, good gin, quiet nights, her family and animals, particularly cats. She had a knack for enduring hardships, even if they threatened to upend her life. She loved to laugh and was revered as a practical, brave person with an enviable book collection, the matriarch of her tiny village in the highlands of Maine.

As a progeny of both women, I hear the stories of their lives and search for a glimpse of myself. Am I a charming spitfire, too? Would I be bold enough to lead a group of government wives into the Alaskan frontier? Was my smile just as enigmatic? Could I record an album? How does one run a 250-acre farm, earn her master’s and essentially a Ph.D, with three mouths to feed at home?

These questions are vital when I think about how I will take on the world, how I will ultimately make my mark and what I will leave behind. My beloved grandmothers have both passed on, and these questions are more important than ever, if yet unanswered. But in some ways, having these intensely personal items — a box of well-used pencils, a glittery black clutch and the memories they evoke — is enough for now.

I use the pencils when working on a new essay or underlining a striking sentence in a book. Pencil in hand, I’m reminded of how my Scottish Grandmother passionately stressed the importance of knowing and developing your own unique voice.

Meanwhile, I carry my Gammy’s beaded clutch on special occasions. Its glamor makes me feel fancy, feminine, and socially brave in a way I’m sure Southern Gammy would have appreciated and wanted.

Perhaps some day I’ll move again and have to sort through the contents of my own cluttered closets, dressers, and drawers. Maybe by then I’ll know what to keep and what to pass along.

But for now, these things from my grandmothers?

These are the things I will keep.  OH

Maggie Dodson is the daughter of Jim Dodson and lives in New York

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