Ode to Owls

(And also to Eva)

  My grandmother’s name was Eva, plain and neat and just like I remember her. The name shares origins with the English name Eve, and it’s derived from the Hebrew for “living” or “alive.” That’s also how I remember her. Alive. Though never short in stature, she was a woman of only few words, preferring to speak softly and listen raptly. She loved to read, she loved to learn, and she loved owls. I sometimes wondered if she saw herself in them.

  I’d often walk into the living room of the house on the hill where she lived with my grandfather towards the end of her life and see her resting in her big, beige recliner. With hands folded neatly across her lap, her clubbed fingernails painted a modest pink, she gazed seemingly unblinking at Alex Trebek reading off the evening Double Jeopardy! categories. Her gently curled grey and brown hair perched politely, but never quite tamely, atop her head, and her unfaltering stare was made more pronounced by the thick, oval glasses that obscured the upper half of her face. As I walked across the gray carpeted living room past my grandmother in the big beige armchair, she’d smile a gentle greeting in my direction, always keeping one ear out, waiting for the next Jeopardy! clue. Turning the corner to head upstairs, I could hear her mumble out loud, to no one in particular, in response to some new piece of information given by one of the contestants. Her magnified eyes still fixed on the T.V. screen, she’d wait for a breath, and say, “My God. Isn’t that something?”

  That phrase, the way those words hung, just for a moment, in that empty living room, that’s the most vivid memory I have of her. Anytime my cousins or I would share a story or some fact we thought she’d like to hear, she’d nod and smile, as if recalling only part of a punch line to some long-forgotten joke. “My God. Isn’t that something?”

  But my grandmother was from Hungary, so her T-H’s always came out sounding like S’s, and even though Eva and my grandfather had emigrated from Europe many decades before, there were certain words that remained distinctly Hungarian. Mayonnaise. Montana. Paprika. Something. When I say those words, I can still hear her voice, low and soft, as if sharing a secret with the floral-slip covered sofas beside her armchair. “My God. Isn’t that something?”

  A few days after her death but before her funeral, our entire family, aunts, uncles, daughters, sons, and cousins, sat in the dining room in that house on the hill, leaving her seat at the head of the table empty. We were brainstorming memories. Every so often, one of us would think of some small story and feel moved to speak, an odd sort of Quaker meeting for those she’d left behind, and we began compiling a list of things that reminded us of her.

  “Peach gummies,” someone piped up. Baked mac ‘n cheese with ham and broccoli. Meatloaf. Elephant ears. Apparently us kids thought mostly of food when we thought of her, and we all shared a lulled, disquieted laugh. There was Jeopardy! of course, and owls, too. I don’t remember who said owls, or even when anyone said it, but I know it was said, and we all fell back into silence as we stared at the empty chair at the empty head of the table.

  When Eva died, I was in the unique position of being old enough to understand, but young enough to move on easily, steadily, without feeling the effects of her entire life weigh on my memory. I had never known her whole. Even in my earliest memories, she walked slowly and saw poorly. As I grew, she seemed to shrink, and each time I visited that house on the hill, she moved slower and slower and saw even less until only her ears could help her with the nightly Double Jeopardy!

  Thinking of her now, the memories of my grandmother are even less clear than they were then; specific moments, voices, events have all but faded, yet my understanding of her has grown. I don’t know anything more about her childhood or her past than I did when she left me, but I do know more about the path she laid for me. For me, and for my family, she laid a path not by telling us, but by forging ahead, quiet in wisdom, wild in beauty, and stubborn in the things she believed in.

  And whenever I think of Eva, I think of her life and her legacy. I think of owls, and I think how lucky I am to be able to look back on my grandmother and say, “My God. Wasn’t she something?”

Eva, with her husband Francis, eating ice cream with all six of her grandchildren in 2006.

Eva, with her husband Francis, eating ice cream with all four of her grandchildren. Philipsburg, Montana circa 2006

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