"Tell your story. Tell it on your bruised knees if you must, tell it at the risk of madness, scream it at the top of your lungs." –Andrew Lam

Category: Grandma


You know that people do things differently in the South. They even die differently. Still, love strikes you. You work in a floral shop up north where the names aren’t familiar and the addresses are foreign. But when you walk in the flower shop at home to pick out the casket spray, you watch your mama get a good forty-five second hug. Because she lost her mama.

You ruin your vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, clean-eating, low-carb diet because people bring you casseroles. And cupcakes. And coffeecake. Southern love is always shown through food.

You discretely throw away dirty underwear and wash the sheets she died in and cups she drank from. You find her eyeglasses on the table. You water flowers because you don’t want them to die, too. You clean the toilet. The washrags crusted with blood. “Bless her heart,” your mom says as her face crumples. “She was in more pain than she ever let on.”

And the collection agencies and bill collectors continue to call. The phone rings. It does not stop. The abrasive cadence to your cleaning as you scrub sinks, pull sheets tight.  Mom holds the telephone to her ear. Listens for five seconds. Throws the phone back onto the receiver. Mimics their fake professional voices, “No Ms. Fewkes is not available. Ms. Fewkes is dead.”

Her house, which used to have tiny walkways through trash she hoarded, is sterile clean. No pictures or Bible verses or notes on the refrigerator. No purses with mildewed receipts in the pockets. No clothes of all styles and sizes spilling out of closets. No termites, no spiders. A toilet that functions. A shower that’s sturdy. Shiny appliances. Attention to detail. A brand new foundation, un-sunk.  It’s nice. And clean. You’re in awe of the work and the cleanliness should be comforting, but it is not. The house is empty. Gone is every little scrap that frustrated and annoyed you and boiled your blood.

I do not cry during the funeral song. “Mama Liked the Roses” only reminded me of grandma impersonating Elvis. The way she bent her knees and posed, stunningly like Marilyn Monroe, grooved to bluesy melodies, called the king a ‘hunky hunk.’ And I heard floating memories of the song that was ours: “I love you. A bushel and a peck. A bushel and a peck and a hug around your neck.”

Silly, beautiful, loving woman. A barrel and a heap of crazy and kind and crazy-kind. And you are your mother’s mother’s granddaughter.

“You’re special,” she said two months ago on the last day you saw her. She tucked it between, “You look just like your mom” and “I like Ashley’s fiancé” and “I’m so glad Kaci didn’t get hurt in that wreck” and “You tell your sister to be careful goin’ to Evansville.” But you heard it—the thing you most needed to hear that day. And remember the rest of your life. You knew somewhere deep that those would be her last words to you. She validates you, still, just as she did after every awkward day of junior high school.

You do not cry until you feel the weight of her gray casket. Until the graveyard part of the service abruptly ends. The end? This wasn’t supposed to be the end. She was supposed to get more life to live. Better life. Better. You look back.  You glance back again, again. Gray casket. Red rose petals in your hand.

“Be careful,” you hear her voice. The tears roll. Finally. The relief. Because you realize she’s the one who is finally free from fear. She’s not merely pain-free.  She is worry-free.  She is safe. Safe and filled. With better life.

What happens to a dream deferred?

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When a woman cooks in a kitchen full of mice and on a stove with only one consistently working burner and she looks at floors that stubbornly refuse to come clean, she no longer wants to cook. She starts believing she doesn’t deserve food. She starts believing she deserves nothing shiny, nothing working, nothing clean, and nothing new. She starts feeling like the women characters from A Raisin in the Sun. Her dreams sag like a heavy load, fester and run.

I had a “hope” plant, too, just as Mama did in the windowsill of Ruth and Walter’s hovel. But even my hope plant died. My plant was a condolence gift from my grandma’s funeral. I have my grandma’s best qualities and her worst. I am gentle. I love Psalms and Proverbs. I see beauty. I can beat you at Chinese checkers.  I also don’t listen to my body. I don’t feel like I am enough. I don’t (verbally) complain. I don’t ask. I don’t speak. I pretend my grandma in heaven is sitting at the right hand of God as an ambassador for the rights of earthly women. In her new kingdom she not only received a new body she can dance in, she also earned a loud and sassy tell-it-like-it-is voice. She points out to God and Jesus that they are men, and sometimes it takes a woman to understand what another woman needs.
My grandma told God and Jesus that I needed to get the fuck out of that house. (I pretend she cusses occasionally now because this was the prim and proper woman who couldn’t even laugh when someone farted). She also told them that it was about damn time her granddaughter had some new kitchen appliances — ones that work and hadn’t belonged to someone else first. I now live in a lovely home worthy of keeping clean, worthy of hanging up our wedding pictures on its walls, worthy of art and photography, candle altars, and anything I find useful or beautiful. Now I have a home worthy of relaxing, of enjoying, of “tonight, let’s stay in.” And my grandma understands that my bright white Whirlpool oven and refrigerator are more than tools used for keeping the milk cold and baking cinnamon rolls. They are symbols of hope and confidence and contentedness.
I am not obsessed with all things new. The house is as old as it is beautiful.  My bathroom is retro mint green and black tile. I like to pretend I’m a pin-up girl wearing fish net stockings and pink sponge curlers and red lipstick while I’m getting ready.  The bathtub is old-fashioned and deep–perfect for my half-mermaid self. As bubbles tickle my chin, I appreciate daily the fact that my cold butt, boobs, feet, and knees can all stay warm under the water at the same time without squirming and adjusting positions. I’m trying not to water-stain the binding at the bottom of all my books. I take time for more books and baths now.
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I take time for pie at Stella’s Café. I take the time to subscribe to Glamour magazine and Poets and Writers because I’ve always wanted to and it is fun to get mail in a new place. I take time to talk to people, to say “I’m new,” to explain that my accent is not from Tennessee or Georgia, and to realize that “God’s country” is everywhere and good people are everywhere, too. I go on dates with my husband. In our future, I see fishing lines and sly crooked boyish grins and “wanna make out?” and “let’s take a drive.” And I think, “Yes. Let’s go. Let’s take these years while we are here to become these hills, to splash in Apple Canyon River, to drink in peace and the view and one another.” I take time to slather on chamomile-lavender lotion and massage my feet, do yoga stretches, wander into the library and antique shops and the Ink and Paper. I simply take the time to be good to myself and love this stranger-me.

Still, I feel in between lives. I wake from dreams in which I stand in the middle of bridges with faces and careers and expectations on both sides. They wave at me; my dear ones wave at me. This darling house has a randomly placed old-fashioned pencil sharpener mounted on the wall in my closet reminding me of the broken one in my old classroom. Each time I pull the cord to light up my closet and grab my warmest coat, I see the pencil sharpener, and I am flooded with overwhelming love and goodbyes and gifts and words and “celebrate good times.” I am filled with the emotion of my final mass, the grandest moment in my life. I experienced the applause, the gratitude and shock of kindness, the floating feeling of Proverbs 31. They clothed me in strength and dignity, laughed and cried with me, taught me wisdom; I watched my children {my students} rise up—the whole auditorium—rise up and call me blessed, and I finally felt like I had done enough. And God and Jesus and Grandma thought so too.      
                As I joyfully clean and organize my home and smell the hearty aroma of dinner, I realize that I am once again trying to prove to myself I am enough. I realize that I can be a “good” wife, though I know Josh loves me anyway, I have nothing to prove to him, and he in no way has ever measured my worth by the fact that laundry is put away, supper’s on the table, and dishes are in the cupboards and out of the sink. I needed to know for myself that I could do something well in an area in which I felt like I was failing. “But honey, you’re not meant to be a housewife,” Josh says, and I know he is right. I feel a heartbeat in my ears constantly, and I know it is more than my Meniere’s, more than my inner ear adjusting to a new atmosphere. The rhythm says, “Hear this? You have a wildly passionate heart. I designed it to love people, to pump passion and energy into others.” “No,” I mutter back, sick at the idea of teaching again, beginning again, and loving different students. But my heart continues to pump reviving blood and faith and balance and slowly brings me back to life. And I am brought back to life in order to do…what? In order to again somehow inspire others to live.