My grandmother's hands are veined tributaries of deep, blue memory, as warm as her famous Sunday dinner rolls, as even and steady as a taut clothesline. Whenever I visit, I make sure to hold them at least once, while we're sharing a pot of tea, or during our afternoon walk, or when we're cleaning the dishes.
That connection makes me feel safe; it always has, since I was a small girl, when she would run her hands across my back until I fell asleep. Now a woman myself, I nurture a longing for that connection again, to sleep away the world's problems on her couch, wake to the small sounds of chores, the clink of plates stacking in the cabinet, the spray of an aerosol cleaner against a dusty surface.
Then there are the photo albums. Sometimes, if she remembers, she'll already have them sitting out, like they're waiting for me. My favorites are the ones of her as a girl, where she looks so much like me that every time I see them, I gasp a little, at how the only differences between us are the yellowing corners of the photos.
In my favorite photo, she is on the sandbar of the river 50 years ago, her bathing suit exposing shoulders so freckled you can't tell where skin begins and freckles end. She grew up swimming the waters in our little corner of the world, between the Iowa and Mississippi River valleys. She had been famous once, for her speed and fluidity, besting any number of male contenders who thought they could beat her in a race. They came across the county to try, and went home with their tails between their legs. She had been known as River Woman once, sorted into a category of legends, myths, and wives' tales.
She calls me, deep into an uncommonly cold December evening, asking if I would like to come to dinner, that she's made my favorite--homemade egg noodles.
"Listen, now," she says, ladling out a bowlful of noodles, "They've told me I haven't got long."
"Wh-what do you mean?"
After she explains the diagnosis, the expectations, I try to keep the routine as normal as possible by asking to see the photo albums. But instead, she grabs the car keys and begins piling scarves around our necks. There is a pure, clear light burning behind her eyes as I look into them.
Hand in hand, we walk through the dark, accompanied by the hollow breeze and soft crunch of our shoes through the snow, our car parked back at the edge of the gravel road. We are gripping each other a little too tightly, for support, for comfort, for just a little longer, a little longer, please. In front of us, the Iowa River sits, sunken and forlorn in the cold air.
This far into the Iowa countryside, the stars cut through the frozen air with alarming clarity. When we reach the water's edge, I test it with the heel of my boot, and a dull thump escapes and fills the air for an instant before dying away in the echoless dell. It is frozen solid and ready for us.
"Let's get on," she says, the words escaping with the fresh steam of her breath in the cold. Together, we step onto the frozen river, unable to fully perceive the sensation of walking atop the frozen world that lives below. We know, somewhere deep down, the water is still flowing on to that place where all water flows, back into the clouds to fall again.
"Is it like you remember it?" I say as we scoot further and further away from the edge of comfort and onto a space that almost feels illegal, intrusive.
"It is and it isn't. Standing in the same place never feels the same. I must have seen every stretch of this river in my time, but there are always differences."
We stop to scan the long, frozen river. "Time, like my photo albums, is a collection. I'm here now, hand in hand with you, but at the same time, I'm here then, young and beautiful just like you are now, lacing up my ice skates with my girlfriends. Ah, the water," she says, drawing a line with her toe across the ice. "I wish I could feel it again-- the feeling of being hugged by the world."
We're halfway between worlds, directly in the center, when I ask, "What were you hoping to find?"
"Something I've lost. Something that was taken from me."
"And just who took it?"
''Not who," she says, inclining her head.
We had reached a stretch of river where the wind had blown away the snow to reveal black, marbled ice. On the surface of the ice, there rested a lone, finch feather, its slender rachis as bright as molten lava in the moonlight, its shine resonating from within.
"A goldfinch feather," she says, stooping to pick it up as if it was something she had dropped. "Years and years it must have been. I had almost forgot." Her hand still in mine, the feather in the other, she holds it at a distance to examine the delicate thing in the light of the moon, the subtle yellow, the barbs' lined pattern, the tip as dark as ink.
"We used to collect feathers," she goes on, whether to me or to someone long forgotten. "The old saying mother taught us, remember? 'Feathers appear when angels are near.' Don't you think that's lovely?"
In the space of time between my nod, she disappeared as she always did, as I knew she would, the warmth of her beautiful hand not yet gone from mine. The feather had taken her, fulfilled a promise, answered a prayer.
Wherever she was now, I thought, as tears froze at the corners of my eyes, I knew she was swimming, overjoyed, sunkissed and vibrant as forever.