June 7, 2012

In memory of grandmothers

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There have been too many deaths in the past year: friends, family, horses. A friend of mine told me that their grandmother had recently passed away. I listened to as much as they wanted to say and just kept them company. My friend wasn’t close to their grandparent, but that doesn’t make it any easier. It just makes the emotions more convoluted: a mixture of grief and guilt for not feeling sadder.

My Dad’s mom died when I was in high school. We weren’t close. She and Granddad had moved to Florida when I was young. I never had the chance to know her when I was old enough to appreciate her. When she passed, I didn’t know how to feel. She had stories to tell that I never heard. Now, I learn about her through second-hand sources.

My quintessential grandmother was my Mom’s mom, Gammy. My sister and I spent two weeks every summer with Gammy when we were little. She was always the family matriarch: one look could gather the herd of grandkids into an organized, well behaved group. And we loved her for it. You knew where you stood with Gammy.

Her house was like a small art gallery: filled with paintings both purchased and created. The hallway at her house in Pennsylvania displayed paintings she did, photos of her and Granddad’s various vacations, their children, and their friends. Later, she hung an ink wash I did of skates and scarves in the same hallway next to a painting by my mom.

Every time I was at Gammy’s, I would sit for hours at the piano and play show tunes from the music books kept in the piano bench. Four generations of women had played the piano in the living room.

In July 2003, Mom called and said that Gammy was in her last days. She was slipping away, slowly, and the family was gathering around her. I drove up to Pennsylvania from Tennessee and spent a week with Mom and her four siblings. Gammy’s last days were filled with her children telling stories of her: a joyful celebration of life as seen through the eyes of her kids. It’s a funny thing when you see your own patterns and coping skills echoed in your Mom, aunts, and uncles. You can suddenly see the impact one person had on so many lives.

Gammy hung on a week after I had to return to work. I couldn’t afford to go back for the funeral, so my sister read the poem below for me at the funeral.

I feel incredibly lucky to have had a grandmother like her. She was a huge influence on her family in many good ways. When my friends talk about their dysfunctional families or grandmothers they never knew, I feel even luckier. It’s a rare blessing these days to have had a grandmother like her.

I wish I could have shared Gammy with so many people. She would have loved my friends and invited them to a feast of beef stew, tea mixed with Tang, and the best mashed potatoes ever.

I miss you, Gammy.

Violets and Clay

It was dark when Mom called
She said you slipped away quietly
Like a soft padding of slippers sneaking out
To listen to morning birds in the garden

Last week was a surreal limbo
Waiting, watching, learning
Shared memories of Thanksgiving food fights
High-heeled shoes head-side
Bullfrogs in the shower
Camel rides in the Egyptian desert

Your skin was soft, painted gently
Hair gelled and curled, protected from pick combs
Carefully pampered by your children
Even as your African violets had blossomed for you
Straining light-wards under the grow lamps

Every summer we grandkids visited
Blew dandelion seeds in the garden
Ate blueberries so none were left for pancakes
Caught lightning bugs at twilight
Endured sunburnt skin, poison ivy, and
Blackberry-thorn battles

You healed us with Tang-flavored tea
Rhubarb preserves for pancakes
Topped off with Meadows ice cream
And a knowing, patient smile:
Flashbacks to other children’s mishaps

Those summer excursions have faded
Distant memories full of treasures
Buried on the bottom of the pond
Splashed up to dry on the dock
Fine artisan clay waiting to be uncovered.

–July 30, 2003

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