What I Learned About 'Legacy' After Losing My Grandmother

There's this song I know from when I was little called "By the Beautiful Sea." I haven't thought about it in a long time, not until this past week when I was jumping a wave in the Atlantic Ocean and noticed the keen absence of my grandmother, who died a little over a year ago.

I have a big family, and right after she passed we were all like cookies fresh out of the oven: supposedly ready, but soft, and vulnerable, and easily squished. The first few months saw us gathering and stretching ourselves to patch up the holes formed by what she used to do for us, how she used to make us feel. There was the question of what to do with the now-free hour on Thursdays, the task of sorting through her profound amount of stuff, the logistics of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Independence Day. Then there were the deeper matters of who would lead us, reassure us, comfort us, chide us, amuse us, care for us, bind us. Who would remind us who we are?

After the initial shock and scramble, I found myself inside a strange split-screen, one in which my daily life continued uninterrupted by her death while I watched my mom ship home to Boston to be near her brothers and sisters and deal with my grandma's estate. As my mother waded through the accumulation of 83 years, I integrated a handful of my grandmother's belongings into my own life: the photograph of us that she had kept in her mirror, two random costume necklaces I took the day of her funeral because I was grieving and entitled, a pink glass chicken she used to keep candy, and a perennially empty perfume dabber. For six months, I arranged and rearranged these artifacts, idly contemplating the word "legacy" one minute, irrationally angry there was no one to exclaim over my terrific pink nail polish the next.

Now, a full year later, we are like toddlers who have just learned to get through a meal in nice clothes. It's still a bit awkward and uncomfortable; we tug at the collars of our new reality, try to kick off the shoes. But on the whole, the outfit stays on. We're adjusting to getting by without her. At a year, time has untangled our loss and our sadness hangs easier, weighed less by our own knots than by talismans of plain remembrance.

Like that song, "By the Beautiful Sea." I've known it by heart since before I can remember, and it's coming back to me now as I splash in the ocean. Over and under, I feel the same weightlessness I felt as a girl of 3 with a guiding hand under my arm or 9, a watchful eye nearby on shore. I lean back in the salty foam and delight as a wave scoops my feet skyward.

To love a pretty monster like a beach isn't linear like a light switch, but exponential, a glowing bell curve created by the interactivity of many tricks and nuances you learn as you go. My Grandma had 100 ways of loving the beach and she taught me all of them. She knew the names of boats and shells and birds. She knew the right way to wear both a sunbonnet and a bathing cap. She knew how to build a bucket sandcastle without it crumbling. She knew how to take a nap in a hammock, and she knew to keep a bin full of water by the door for the sandy feet. She knew when to expect sunrise and sunset, low tide and high tide, the full moon and the new moon. She knew when to be afraid of the ocean and when to play in it.

And she knew that song, "By the Beautiful Sea." I hum through it and feel okay until I get to the end, and then I stop because I can hear her voice and see her face more distinctly than I have in months. My breath sharpens, and I realize it's not actually the distance from her that's making me sad but how momentarily close she feels.

It's hard to imagine that all of her 22 grandchildren could feel they had a special bond with her, but I think most of us do. As saccharine as it sounds, my relationship with her was basically idyllic until the bitter end. I think our pink love bubble was preserved in part because the grandmother-granddaughter space allows for that kind of total absolution, a bit because we lived so far apart that the bubble was never tested by the annoyances of day-to-day life, but also because we just did have one of those singular connections that comes as fully formed as a song; at once finite and eternal, of a substance that doesn't alter whether you experienced it once or a thousand times.

As as I float with an eye on the horizon, the sun melts into a rosy strip and a glowing bell begins to shape around the photograph in the mirror, the two junk necklaces, the glass hen, the perfume dropper, our love of pink, and tendency to Russian doll our stories, and run late... how brave she had to be, how much she had to invent, the number of times she emptied her heart and came up with more. And I think, Okay. This is a legacy.