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My grandmother left generations of collected items behind after her protracted death, stuff now tranquilly scattered across the state. Like falling graupel, her possessions landed quickly in our lives. Some items of more exquisite craft were destined for hope chests or pawnshops, but most of the lot landed in dark drawers, obscure donation piles, and shelves in rooms that rarely see company.
For myself, I took very little. On that day with family gathered, we sorted through a lifetime of goals accomplished and dreams abandoned—plastic souvenirs from the county fair, curated collections of mouse figurines, framed landscape puzzles on display, a hearty private assortment of lingerie (and, to my surprise, several leather harnesses in only “acceptable” condition), and album after bound album of lignin-yellowed photographs dating back to the Truman administration.
I hadn’t seen most of my family in several years due to long-forgotten fights about things not worth remembering. I took only two items: one of the frayed albums that Aunt Tricia pushed on me, everyone too guilt-laden to condemn them to a trash grave, and a pair of crystal champagne flutes said to have been from her wedding. As her oldest granddaughter, I likely could have taken more, but, in the end, I didn’t really know Grandma Beatrice too well, nor did she know me.
In a single trip, I chauffeured the solemn parting gifts back to my airless 2-bedroom apartment in the city, a long trek from the modest country home she left to her children, her husband having died a handful of years earlier.
I added the emerald cloth-bound photo album to one of my bookcases and displayed the glasses in a mahogany curio cabinet with its other siblings of significance: shot glasses from recherché trips around the world that my family could never know about, a handmade gift or two from my daughter, and an empty bottle of Meerlust Rubicon from when I kicked cancer’s ass for the first time.
For a week or two—I don’t recall exactly—I passed by the cabinet and allowed my nostalgic gaze to rest on Grandma Beatrice’s flutes. When I was a child, we would play card games together—mostly canasta—to combat the loneliness I felt being both an only child and, at the time, the only young child in a family of enthusiastic hunters and Pentecostal church-going women.
“I should have thought to take a deck of cards,” I said loudly to myself like any good philosophy professor, having grown accustomed to speaking to absent audiences at home: the virtuous man wishes to converse with himself, Aristotle once wrote, the hexis nexus of daily life reforged anew through every uncertainty managed and each tired fire survived.
One by one, memories both surged and trickled back to me, mental postcards big as billboards of banal but now meaningful objects: the Stir-Crazy popcorn maker used on those rare sleepovers at my grandparents’ house. The folding card table used for wheelin’ and dealin’ at garage sales and flea markets. That old, banana bike I spray painted blue, which used to shuttle me alongside my grandma down the country dirt roads. I also remember popping wheelies on large oak tree roots that rose from the ground as if they desired to enjoy summer’s breeze with me.
After returning from campus one day, I discovered another item had appeared.
“Where did this come from?” I asked my partner, Heloise, eyeing a small pile of matchbooks atop the curio cabinet.
“Max dropped them off today with some papers,” she said, momentarily shifting her glance away from her work crafting a miniature book nook replica of the Iolani Palace’s posh Throne Room. “He thought you’d want ‘em.”
“How was he with you?” I asked, knowing my family—especially my uncle—had met our relationship with restrained objection through a series of well-placed silences. Not openly hostile, but staunchly committed to repressing knowledge of my bisexuality.
“Fine,” she said, her eyes not deterred this time from the intimate work of artistic externalization. “He met my eyes this time,” chuckling a bit.
“Progress, I suppose,” I offered rotely as I fingered one of the matchbooks in my hand.
The Pearl. That’s what the matchbook said alongside an image of an empty oyster shell and an address and phone number with an absent area code.
“I wonder where this is from.”
“Couldn’t tell ya,” she replied.
I placed the matches in the locked curio cabinet next to pleasure mecca artifacts—shot glasses of Jessie and Rex from Toy Story and a pair bearing the name Cap d’Agde—if only as a prophylactic measure to prevent our daughter from accessing them. Now 10 years old, she is a highly-skilled detective-scientist who loves conducting experiments using all manner of stuff foraged from around the house.
Week by week, new items from the estate arrived at our home.
One week, a silver microcassette tape recorder and accompanying tapes appeared containing notes for a novel never written. Another week, some handwritten letters were delivered by mail, ones signed from an Ada in Catawba Falls, Colorado. How she even knew someone as far west as Colorado was a mystery to me; the bowling alley in her tiny Midwestern town was the farthest I ever saw her travel, besides that yearly, sun-filled pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach with my grandfather.
I saved the recordings and letters for another less hectic time of the term.
And then one day, a single deck of tattered cards appeared within the curio cabinet.
“What’s going on, Ellie?” I asked my partner, “Where’d these come from?”
“Haven’t a clue—didn’t you put them there?”
“Nope.” I said. “Julie?”
My daughter just shook her head and half-rolled her eyes: “I don’t have a key,
It was in that moment that I noticed the cards shared the same logo as the matchbooks, and a timeworn memory began to sidle its way to my conscious mind.
“Grandma wanted me to know but couldn’t tell me,” I thought.
After some digging, I discovered that The Pearl was a long-foreclosed lesbian bar in the city during the 1980s.
“Look at Great Grandma drinking champagne with her friend!” Julie announced one day, thumbing through the photo album as curious as ever.
“Could that be Ada?” I thought, having since read the letters that left little doubt that my grandmother knew more about love and passion than I had given her credit for. The posthumous revelation left Heloise speechless and my daughter tickled, and I felt equal parts admiration and hurt, especially at first, with a lingering seabed of questions I knew that now I could never ask.
As though Grandma Beatrice had curated and couriered these objects after her passing, they came together in that sacred cabinet to remind me that, perhaps, she and I were not so distant in some ways after all.
And each year thereafter on our anniversary, my wife and I would enjoy a glass of champagne in those time-tested city flutes in honor of Grandma Beatrice and the secret lives we all live.
Mike Piero (he/him) is a bisexual writer living in Northeast Ohio, where he teaches courses in writing, literature, the humanities, and game studies as a Professor of English at Cuyahoga Community College. As a first-generation student, he got his postsecondary start at a community college, earning an A.A. degree from Cuyahoga Community College in 2005. Going on to earn a B.A. in Secondary Education from The University of Akron in 2008 and an M.A. in English from John Carroll University in 2011, Piero returned to school to finish his Ph.D. in English at Old Dominion University in 2020, specializing in critical game studies, cultural studies, and critical theory.
His short fiction and poetry have appeared or is forthcoming in Impost: A Journal of Creative and Critical Work, Midway Journal, Moveable Type, and The River, and he’s currently working on a gaming-themed novel, Rogue Burnout. He is author of Video Game Chronotopes and Social Justice: Playing on the Threshold (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) and co-editor of Being Dragonborn: Critical Essays on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (McFarland, 2021) along with other peer-reviewed articles that have appeared in the CEA Mid-Atlantic Review, Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture, The Popular Culture Studies Journal, Transnational Literature, and MediaTropes. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, reading fiction and philosophy, gaming, writing, woodworking, cooking, and spending time with his daughter and partner. He can be reached at www.mikepiero.org.