There’s a certain mystery to how our loved ones who have died can reach across time and space to connect with us and let us know their essence is still in some way present. I had this experience when my grandmother passed away several years ago at age ninety-one.
She led the simple life of a farmer's wife and yet was still a very elegant Southern lady with a firm handle on social graces and her appearance. Mattibelle always had toothpicks posted at the ready in strategic places to make sure nothing was stuck in her teeth between meals. She would gracefully cover the pick with her free hand while discretely surveying her teeth for debris.
She had boxes of them stashed everywhere she thought she might need them – her purse, the pocket of her house dress, the farm truck’s glove compartment, her bedside stand, and, of course, a well-stocked, tiny crystal vase of them in the middle of the kitchen table. It stood as a silent invitation to anyone treated to her Southern kitchen hospitality. We used to laugh about Mattibelle and her toothpicks. Even after she died and we were cleaning out her closet, we found boxes upon boxes of toothpicks. It was funny to find the vast and secretive stockpile.
On the day she died, long after the funeral home had come to her rural farm house to carry her away, I found a moment to be alone out in the laundry shed. This was a separate building that had stood for over sixty years and had seen various models of washers, dryers, and deep freezers in its time. But right now it was a quiet haven away from the noise and activity of the main house. The excuse of doing my laundry offered an opportunity to be alone and grieve my grandmother’s passing in my own way. I took comfort in the neat rows of washing powder and extra household supplies as well as the familiar chalky smell of the poured cement floor, a modern upgrade in more recent times from the worn and creaky wooden floor it had replaced.
After folding the final pieces of my laundry, I bent over and rested my head in my hands on top of the dryer and wept quietly. It was then that I heard the very faintest of clattering sounds on the floor behind me. I looked around to where the sound had come from and there, just a few feet behind me in the middle of the cement floor, was a small pile of wooden toothpicks. I just stood there in stunned silence for a long while looking at them. The spot where they lay right in the middle of the laundry room was far from any source of deposition I could identify. Everything was still and silent.
Had I been doing my grandmother’s laundry or washing anything from the house, I could have rationalized it away as perhaps loose toothpicks falling out of the clothes I was working with. But I was folding my own clothes that I had brought with me from home several States away. I had already finished with them several moments before I heard the distinct sound behind me. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Eventually, wiping silent tears from my face, I walked over to the small pile of toothpicks and kneeling down I reverently gathered them up. I accepted them in the way I imagined them to be intended, a parting gift from my grandmother as a way to remember one of my favorite eccentricities about her.
Sitting on the cool cement floor, gently rolling the toothpicks between my fingers, I was reminded of a nurse I’d once worked with, who was quite the agnostic and could be sarcastic about patients’ and families’ various beliefs and superstitions around illness and death. Whereas most nurses I’ve known talk comfortably and reverently about the unexplainable, this nurse seemed to get irritated, calling such beliefs nonsense and saying, “People only believe because then need to believe.”
That particular logic always sounded equally nonsensical to me. Of course we believe because we need to, why else would we? What other purpose does it serve? Whatever comfort and perceived benefit we draw from our beliefs is deserving of our care and attention if they nurture and help us recover from whatever grief or difficult situation we are dealing with. It matters little to me how those toothpicks got there. In that moment of personal loss I believed they were a gift from my grandmother because I needed to. I choose to believe.