My grandmother never met him. She heard about him, from my mom. I remember holding her hand as she lay in bed after her fall. “Your mom told me you’re dating
someone new,” she said. I don’t remember how I responded, those last few conversations a blur. I thought about a few years earlier when she had been visiting Boston to meet my sister’s new baby. I had complained about my dating life, or rather, lack thereof. We were driving through the city, my mom in the driver’s seat and me and her in the back. “Why don’t you try going dancing?” she had suggested as Boston brownstones whizzed by. “But go to a place where there’s no alcohol, that way you’ll get to know someone better.”
I laughed, “Where would that be?” I wondered aloud, thinking about a prohibition-style dance hall.
The conversation, I remember, ended in humor. “What about him?” she asked when we were stopped at a red light. “Or him?” she said pointing to some unassuming boy walking by. We laughed, holding our stomachs, my mom shaking her head in the front seat. “Or him, should I roll down the window?”
As it turns out, I did meet my person a little over a year later, on a dance floor at a wedding, one where neither of us had had that much to drink. I texted him a month into our relationship from a vacant lot on Cape Cod where I had spent New Year’s Day at a friend’s family home. I had received the call a few hours earlier.
“She passed away,” I said into the phone, my eyes welling up as I spoke. I wasn’t expecting it. I knew she hadn’t wanted to live that way, reliant on others, not able to get around, not even able to make her own food. But I thought she was going to get better. I thought she would recover.
My mind went back to right after her fall, when I had spoken to her on the phone. “Don’t worry hunny girl,” she had said to me. “I’ll get better soon and then I’ll be even stronger than before. I think I need to start exercising,” she had told me, my hope rising as she spoke. Nanna in sweatpants, jogging around the block. That’s what I had needed to hear.
He cooed into the phone, comforting me. We were practically strangers then, only having known each other for a few months, only really deciding to date a few weeks earlier. He had gone to India for the month to visit family.
He would never meet her, I thought, not knowing how long our relationship would last. It could be fleeting. I could never get to know him that well after all.
But our relationship did progress. Eventually we moved in together and I scattered pieces of her around the apartment. Her old soap dish sat next to our bathroom sink where I placed rings and earrings while I washed my face at night. A photograph of her and my grandpa kissing on their wedding day perched on a shelf next to our window. Another one of me as a toddler, arms wrapped around her neck, on our bookshelf. A quote from the Emily Dickinson poem I had read at her funeral in a frame-a present from friends-hung on our wall. She was well loved, the apartment said. She was remembered, if not hourly, then daily for sure.
As weeks and months went by I found ways to feel connected to her. Spending time with family, making efforts to stay close to the aunts and uncles and cousins that had resulted from her and my grandfather. “My greatest accomplishment,” she said once, “Is that all five of my children still talk to each other.” I knew she would have loved seeing me happy. During one particularly difficult period after college, I remember sitting on the couch in her living room, wrapped in a blanket. I was home for Christmas and spending time with her, but unlike most of the joyful time we spent together, I felt sad and despondent and had started crying. I couldn’t describe exactly what was wrong and the more I cried, the more pain I saw in her face. I could always make her laugh. She seemed to derive joy from my happiness, reveling in how full my life was when I would call her from the airport, off to visit another friend, to travel across the country for work.
I knew she would be proud that I kept my kitchen clean and that I had learned to manage my money well, ensuring I wouldn’t have to depend on anyone else. My favorite place in the world used to be at her kitchen table with a snack and coffee while she told me stories about her life. The more times I heard them, the better they got.
“Haaannieee,” she would say, faking exasperation when I asked a detailed question. What was her name? What did he do for work? How many siblings did she have? But still, she would tell me the stories over and over, recalling the details willingly.
I started a blog in which I interviewed people about chance meetings or events in their lives as a project to honor her, naming it “Pair of Us” after her favorite Emily Dickinson poem. I think she would have liked that.
She was a woman who wanted to control her own life and who did. A Jungian analyst who hadn’t even started college until after having children, she had told her patients that they would have to find a new therapist by the start of the new year, which was when she declared herself to be retiring. She passed away January 2—a day after the one she had set as her retirement date months earlier.
One time, when I was sitting in her living room, she pulled out a box. “Don’t tell your mom,” she said, as she unfolded all of the contents. It was filled with plans for her own funeral, including a casket that had already been chosen and paid for by her. She didn’t want anyone else to have to do it. She wanted control.
“Nannaaa,” I shrieked, not wanting to think about it. “Hannie, everyone dies,” she
said matter-of-fact. “It’s not something to feel sad about.”
I wish she had seen a lot of things. I wish she had seen me start acting again. I wish she had seen me join a company that was working to treat a disease her brother died from in his early teenage years. I wish she had met the man I decided to build a life with.
I’m not sure what I believe about ghosts. I don’t know if I think they are versions of themselves floating above us or if they are more integrated into the earth. I swear I smell her sometimes. I’ll walk down a block and circle another time. More than once, I’ve moved closer to someone in an elevator or on a sidewalk because they have her perfume. I think about when she used to raise her eyebrows up and down. “I’ll come back and haunt you,” she would say, laughing.
A while back, my partner and I were talking and in the middle of the conversation, he casually mentioned something about my grandmother as if he had known her.It was only later that it struck me he had never met her.I had talked about her so much that she had become a real person to him. His mother, too, who I had spent hours upon hours talking to, learned about Nanna—who she was, what she was like, what she did, the ways in which I missed her. His mother had lost her own mother at an early age and knew how important it was to keep people alive in our minds.
I still wish everyday that she had met him, but I’m learning that there are different ways you can meet people.You can meet someone when they’re here on earth. You can get to know them in their earthly form. Or you can meet someone when they’ve passed away. You can hear about them, learn what they loved, what they hated, what made them cry. What they thought about this and that. Just like a character in a book, you can take all of these pieces of information and form a person. It might not be exactly how you knew them if you had met them in life, but they become a person nonetheless.You can learn to love them, because you love someone who loved them. And if you were lucky enough to know them when they were on earth, make sure you keep telling their stories, over and over, so if maybe one day you forget a detail, someone else will surely remember. That’s how you keep a ghost alive.
Hannah Napier Rosenberg resides in Boston, Massachusetts. She loves writing about magic in the ordinary and is wildly interested in seemingly mundane details of daily life. Her writing has been published in Vita Brevis, Uppagus and Nightingale and Sparrow and is forthcoming in Minor Clash. You can check out some of her other writing online at hannahrowrites.com, find her on Instagram @hannahrowrites, and get in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.