Celebrating the roots of a traveling family
Just after Christmas, we had a visitor who came bearing gifts from afar. Among them was a packet from my mother with thirty-three postcards from my paternal grandmother (plus one I wrote to her as a child but never mailed.) They are dated from May 1984 to August 1998. I was surprised and incredibly pleased to see them. Several years ago, in a cleaning fit, I threw away a stack of postcards (one of those “What am I ever going to do with these?” moments) and have never ceased to regret it.
The first postcards are sent from Binghamton, NY, where my grandparents lived when I was a child, and places like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the United Nations Building, and Niagara Falls. If she wasn’t traveling, she would send a note with a bird (one of her favorite things) or some other cute picture. The births of several of my cousins are chronicled on the backs of these cards.
From the postcards, I can journey up and down the east coast with her and my grandpa. The lighthouses, specifically in Maine, were her favorites, and, while she thought they were incredibly elegant, she couldn’t imagine riding around the Pennsylvania countryside in a carriage.
Around 1988, I perk up. She is starting to go places I have also gone. Her sisters live in California, and postcards from Highway One, Laguna Beach, and La Jolla start showing up. She sends another note from Pittsfield, MA – the setting of many of my father’s childhood tales (including the one about the still-unidentified monster that came crashing out of the lake while they were ice fishing) and a town I drove through in recent years with Adri.
As I continue to read, I am overwhelmed by the heritage I have been given by my grandparents – one rich in travel and love of family. My grandma has fifteen grandchildren – six of them in my family. Being one of many can be difficult sometimes, but with my grandma, I always knew that she would think of me. Every trip she took, she sent me a postcard. As they began traveling overseas, they often brought back gifts for each of us.
This brings me to the second reason I was so happy to get these cards. Many years ago, after a trip to Jerusalem, Grandma gave me a necklace. It wasn’t the first necklace she gave me, but after our house fire on Christmas 1994, it was the only one I had. The fire started next to the bed Joy and I shared, burning its way through the floor to the crawlspace below, and baking everything else in the room we shared with Christine. All my special things had been on a table next to my bed, so we dug through the piles of ash under the house trying to salvage anything. This pendant was the only thing I found.
Through all my travels and work as a flight attendant, I have only seen two similar pendants. It has been a great conversation starter, and with a few exceptions, it has been around my neck every day for the last 15 years. It has seen every exciting country and every lame flight attendant overnight I’ve ever had. This may sound morbid, but I would bet there are twenty people who could identify my body based solely on this pendant.
After having enough people question me about it, I learned that it is called a Jerusalem or Crusader cross. It is a Greek cross (cross whose arms are equal lengths) with four small crosses. The larger cross stands for Jesus Christ and the four small ones represent either the four Gospels or the four corners of the earth. It was the coat of arms for the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Our faith is another piece of the heritage they are passing on.
So, every day when I wear this necklace, when it hits me in the faces as I attempt awkward yoga poses, when I get sunburned and it leaves a white square on my chest, when I hold someone’s child and they inevitably try to shove it in their mouths, it reminds me of my family. And, specifically my grandma.
It reminds me that she and Grandpa loved to travel. It reminds me that we share a middle name – Jean, a slightly wicked sense of humor, a love of the raspberries in her garden, and an interest in herbs and plants. It reminds me that postcards and letters are still important.
And as I write, I think of both of my grandparents and all the writing they have done over the years. My grandma didn’t just send postcards. A birthday card was guaranteed, and notes on Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving were highly likely. All the while she is sending notes and postcards, my grandpa is writing bi-weekly family letters – chronicling their lives and the lives of his many friends, children and grandchildren.
Recently, when we were in Phu Quoc, I woke up and my neck felt too light. My pendant had fallen off – something I’ve worried about for years. It was, strangely enough, the morning after I exchanged a few emails with my Grandpa chatting about how much we loved Grandma and how she doesn’t remember as much stuff as she used to. Thankfully, I found the cross in the bed and it was quickly back on my necklace where it belongs.
Today is my grandma’s 86th birthday. I wish I could hug her and take a walk with her around the pond by their old house. We could watch Jeopardy, listen to the clock that has a different bird call for each hour, go through shells she’s collected, and talk about books. I hope she knows how much she means to all of us and that we are all much better children, siblings, lovers of nature, travelers, and people because of her.
Happy birthday, Grandma.