The Artichoke’s Heart by Isabel HouckWe spent the morning collecting seashells. Now, on the hotel room balcony, my grandmother organizes them by color and size and shape. She hums and hunches over her work like a child over a sandcastle.

Through the open glass door, I smell the sweat of the ocean, the iodine and sunscreen. She finishes arranging the shells and sits across from me at the table. Her cheeks—blushed from this morning’s sun—are the same as every old picture, like the one from her wedding when she and my grandfather were just out of high school.

We eat a boiled artichoke. She shows me how: pulls the soft pulpy meat of the petal through her bottom teeth. In a bowl, we collect the scraps of leaves we’ve already eaten. I know which ones she’s dragged through her teeth, marked by a wide gap, because of the thin line of leftover artichoke that remains.

She talks about hearts. Her heart. Her father’s heart. How it was the death of him and will surely be the death of her. How she is the age he was when he died. How I could die that way too. How she wishes she’d lived more.

She eats another leaf, changes the subject to her childhood. Mornings milking cows, afternoons collecting eggs, the squelch between her toes when she stepped barefoot on chicken droppings. How she must have collected a thousand eggs before she was ten.

“Where does time go?” she asks.

She scrapes another leaf. Skins spill from the bowl. Most of the artichoke is gone. It stands nearly bare. She looks out the window to the sea. Her eyes are different. They lack their usual engravings from smiling. They’re mourning, I think. Her childhood is lost and this vacation is her chance to get a piece of it back. She spent her childhood working until she gave birth to two babies of her own, then she took care of her children’s children.

“Anyway,” she says, “I want you to go through the house when we’re back and put a sticky note on each thing you want to have when I die.” She says she’ll make sure to put it in the will. I think of her record collection. Handmade quilts. China. Wind chimes. The tall potted cactus I tripped onto once and the needles she tweezed one-by-one for an hour. She talks of death often, sees it as a way to be closer to God. She thinks it’s clean, that after the initial shock, it is no longer sad. But she forgets death’s clutter. How her records won’t sound the same if she isn’t the one dropping the needle. How all the things she will leave behind are worthless once empty of her. How just like the bit of artichoke meat left on the leaves, her home will decay without her.

And I can see the places where death has already touched her. A scar over her left eyebrow from a car accident. The chunks taken from her arms—harvested skin cancer.

But death doesn’t grasp her today. Instead, she woke me early to catch the sunrise on the shore, to collect shells, to watch seabirds, to walk barefoot to an ice cream parlor and let her strawberry ice cream drip until the world stuck to her hands.

Then we came back here, to the hotel, as if led. Past the outer and inner petals, through the fuzzy center, to the bottom of the artichoke. The heart. She places it in my palm. “It is yours,” she says. The heart resembles a stump, with inner rings like a tree. I count and learn it is young. A childish heart. I hope she sees it the way I do, like a second chance, maybe. The artichoke heart, fleshy and light, wavering in the wispy, unwieldy possibilities between a life and a death.

Photo used under CC.