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Amanda Marek


From Grandma’s Purseamanda marek

I power-walked from one end of Target to the other, late to meet some friends but knowing I wouldn’t pick up dishwasher detergent if I didn’t do it now.  I passed through the shoe aisle, turned right at belts, and cut through purses.  There I stopped; a white purse had caught my eye. I picked up the handbag and explored the pockets.  I replaced it with a sigh and a shake of the head.  This one was too small for what Grandma used to keep in her purse. In my extremely verbose 24 years, my grandmother was the only person who’s ever been able to render me absolutely speechless simply by pulling things out of her purse.

When I was little, it didn’t take much.  She and Grandpa lived in Chicago.  We went to visit them once a year over Spring Break, and they came to see us three times a year.  Each and every one of these trips would be filled with shopping excursions.  When Grandma came to Minnesota, it would mean a full day at Rainbow Foods, where I would drag my feet through rows of misty green produce.  At Target or Kmart I would yawn, bored out of my mind as the grown-ups hustled me up and down rows of hardware or cleaning supplies.  I have to admit, when we got to the toy aisle, I was generally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as I poked at gleaming packaging.  My mother would firmly take my hand and march me through these aisles.  ANOTHER Barbie?  What would I do with a cheap plastic guitar?  Or worse, a doll that needed diapers?  But after Mom and I had passed, Grandma would quietly take it from the shelf and hold it up.

“You want this?” she would ask quietly, her lips curved into a small smile I could hardly detect.  I would nod, mouth slightly agape, eyes round and staring up at Grandma.

“Mom, you really don’t have to,” my mother would protest, already knowing it was futile.  I had more toys than any six-year-old girl would ever need thanks to her in-laws.  But it was a genius tactic on Grandma’s part, as peering at it over the sides of the cart would keep me distracted, quiet and happy until we left the store. But what I didn’t notice at that age was the quiet satisfaction on Grandma’s face as she peeked around her headrest to watch me in the backseat once we were in the car.  I would be too busy staring at whatever prize I gripped in my little paws, forbidden to make a mess of the wrapping until we got home, as I listened to the muted duh-duh-duh-dun, duh-duh-duh-dun of Grandma’s long silver nails tapping on the vinyl car seat.

Grandma was one classy lady.  Her hair was styled weekly at the beauty parlor and her ears, wrists and fingers adorned with gold and diamonds.  She always wore hose under her neutral slacks, her purse matched her outfit without fail, and her sweaters and blouses were always understated and simple.  From first grade I kept my nails long as one of my attempts to imitate her.  So in middle school when she started taking me shopping for school clothes every summer as a birthday present, I was thrilled to explore the couture of Burnsville Mall with her.  She’d help me pick the trendiest new styles that all the cool kids would wear, patiently sitting outside the fitting room as I tried on outfit after outfit, sweater after sweater.  By this point I’d learned to graciously accept her small gifts with a hug, a kiss on the cheek and a “Thank you, Grandma.”  But when the salesgirl rang up the piles of clothes that would keep me in high middle-schooler fashion and Grandma didn’t even bat an eye at the total, I found myself without words and wide-eyed once again as I watched her carefully count cash onto the counter.  This was when awareness started to dawn: she enjoyed shopping for my school clothes as much as I did…  I just wasn’t sure why. 

Grandma giving moneyAs I got older, the surprises got bigger, my eyes rounder, and my jaw dropped further.  When I was twelve or thirteen, my brother and I were summoned to the deck where my parents and grandparents were sitting after dinner during one of their summer visits.  Everyone looked very serious as we stood in the middle of their small circle, glancing from one adult gaze to another.  But Grandma had that slight curve about the lips.  She pulled out two slips of paper and handed one to each of us.  They were checks for one thousand dollars.  As I slowly realized what it was, my dad snapped a picture of our faces staring down at the checks, eyes and mouths in a perfect O. 

“Grandpa and I are starting college funds for you both,” Grandma explained when I looked up at her in awe.  I threw my arms around Grandma’s neck, kissed Grandpa on the cheek, and continued staring at the check for one thousand dollars, made out to my name.  Grandma’s smile emitted a very soft chuckle, and we were sent back inside so the grown-ups could talk. 

When I was a freshman in college, my family descended upon my grandparents in Chicago, packed them up, and moved them up to Burnsville where they could be close to us in case Grandma’s cancer relapsed.  I moved home after college to student teach in Minneapolis and then St. Louis Park.  I hauled my endangered monster of a computer back down to the Cities and set it up in my childhood bedroom.  It’d had serious performance issues off and on through my senior year, and now that I was dependent on it for lesson plans and handouts, I was nervous.  After two crashes, several losses, and planning to finish creating a test I had emailed to myself only to find that my computer refused to connect to the internet, I went to the Apple Store and did my research.  I planned a budget and decided I could afford a small laptop – as long as I kept working retail and paid it off over 3 years.  I presented this idea to my parents, who were impressed with my effort but skeptical of my earning power while I was student teaching.  They no more than mentioned it to my grandparents, and suddenly I found myself on the phone with Grandma. 

“We’ve decided to buy you your computer.  You decide what you need and go buy it, and we’ll write you a check.”  There I sat in that familiar position: phone to ear, eyes round and jaw agape.

That week I bought my laptop at the Apple Store and brought it to my grandparents’ apartment to show them.  They feigned polite interest as I showed them features they’d never heard of.  Finally Grandma cut to the chase, “This is what you need for school?” 
“Yes, it’s exactly what I need for school.  It’s going to make my life SO much less stressful!” 

“Good.”  Grandma sat back. 

After Grandpa died we started shopping together again, now at Kohl’s and Cub rather than the Burnsville Mall.  Grandma just needed to get out of the apartment now that she was there alone.  I would chauffer her to her favorite stores, and we would meander between tables of sweaters and shelves of candles and home décor.  Most times she would tell me to pick something out for myself so she could buy it for me, along with her two or three blouses or slacks.  She always selected her purchases so carefully, eyeing the price tag shrewdly, holding it up to herself and examining the workmanship to determine whether the item was worth that much to her.  Inevitably we’d check out the purse section; Grandma could never find a white purse she liked.  We’d end the excursion at a nearby restaurant for lunch, then schedule another shopping trip the next week so Grandma could return two of the three items she’d purchased. 

The last time Grandma managed to shock me into speechlessness was about a month before her unexpected death.  Mom called my cell phone as I was setting up my classroom during fall workshops.

“Grandma wanted me to arrange to have you meet us for dinner in the next week or so.  We have to take her to the Burnsville Mall to pick up her new glasses.  Want to meet us at Applebee’s?”

“Sure.”  I cradled the phone against my shoulder as I decorated my bulletin board and pondered what Grandma could possibly be up to this time.  I already had a car and a computer.  The only thing I could possibly think of was money in some form, but I couldn’t figure out why or for what. 

The following Sunday evening, I scooted over in the booth I had saved so Grandma could sit next to me.  My parents settled themselves across from us.  We enjoyed appetizers, ordered our meals, and I raised an eyebrow when Mom splurged and ordered a glass of wine.  Our meals arrived and I was just about to wrap my mouth around a forkful of chicken when Grandma turned to me.

“I’m giving you $10,000.” 

Eyes wide, jaw hanging and fork poised, I had no words but simply turned and stared at the tiny woman sitting next to me in the booth.  I heard Grandma’s satisfied chuckle at my shock. 

“I’m beginning to reduce my estate,” she explained, “so I’m giving you and your brother each $10,000 to be saved in a CD.  You can use it for a down payment on a house someday.  We’ll go to the bank right after dinner.” 

Even after her explanation, it took me awhile to recover enough to wrap my arms around her small frame, kiss her on the cheek, and thank her profusely.  We finished dinner in a leisurely fashion, lingering over coffee.  I barely had an appetite.  I was still processing what Grandma had said.  Once the bill was paid we headed to the bank, and I stood next to Grandma as she pulled her checkbook out of her purse.  We parted ways, and unbeknownst to me it was the last time I would see her outside of a hospital.  Several weeks later she had an accident that preceded her passing by about a week. 

A month after the chaos of the wake and funeral had subsided, someone new was able to leave me wide-eyed, jaw hanging and speechless.  My roommate and I were sitting in the living room one evening.  I was plowing through paragraphs of student writing and she was flipping back and forth between sitcoms.  Suddenly she turned to me and offered to sell me the house.  As I stared, she shared the news that she and her boyfriend had decided to buy a new house together.  She thought it would be a good deal for both of us if she sold me the house we currently lived in.  My mind immediately flew to the CD, worth $10,000, filed away in my bedroom.  This opportunity to buy a house I adored in a location I loved had fallen into my lap so easily that I knew Grandma would want me to take advantage of it. 

I did indeed buy the house, and my roommate moved out a few months later.  I wandered around the house on my first night there by myself, a homeowner, and explored each room.  I stood at the top of the stairs and looked down at my front door with a satisfied smile.  I had my own kitchen in which I would cook what I bought after meandering through rows of misty green produce.  My own office, where I would enter grades on my laptop.  My new bedroom had a walk-in closet for the high fashion I’d accumulated.  I curled up in my leather recliner and took in my living room, tapping my long nails on the arm of the chair: duh-duh-duh-dun.  I owned this house.  And she had made it possible.  The last gift that Grandma gave to me was my home. 


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