My Grandmother passed away last week. She was 95. I'd seen her only three times since 1988--how this happened will vex me for some time, but rather than provide excruciating details as to why, I'll say it was not because I'm a complete asshole, but because I'm a sincere asshole.
At one time Grandmother was a rural Avon lady, and we always left her house with some fragrant bath or grooming product or another--I recall a bunny-shaped wash cloth made from foam that I dearly loved. That it served a utilitarian function and was simultaneously fun was thrilling. I remember it's soapy chemical smell, and that when I was four or so, and wearing it on my hand like a sock-puppet, traveling to some multi-family beach trip in the back of a station wagon, watching the bunny-glove-wash-cloth whip out the back window and flop down some two-lane Spanish moss-laden road.
She was my Dad's mother. (Dad was killed when I was five, so that may provide some insight.) I visited Grandmother two years ago when my sister and I met down South to scatter my Mom's ashes at a vista along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This was Mom's wish, to rest (finally) where she'd gone on day trips as a child, dates as a teenager, picnics as a young family, and nostalgia visits as the aging mother of a sullen and irascible teen. Her written directions to me were actually quite funny, "You may not remember the spot as you drank most of the two bottles of wine we brought for the picnic, but you should be able to find it."
Coincidentally, my Grandmother's nursing home was in the lot directly behind our hotel. I'd unwittingly selected the nearby hotel because it had an indoor pool, and my wife likes to swim. The hotel was owned by an Indian man from Jackson Heights, Queens. He was a nice guy, missed New York, so chatted us up every chance he got, but he wore entirely too much cologne.
Grandmother was sharing a room with her sister, my Great Aunt Melba, (who I mistakenly and consistently called Velma as a child, but that's okay, as she called me Kevin) and also, coincidentally, My Great Aunt Melba introduced us to another of our Great Aunts, on my Mom's side, Grace. Living in the same nursing home. My Mom had sometimes mentioned her Aunt Grace, often in the vein of who in her family she favored, but I'd never met her. I was glad Melba introduced us, because Mom did indeed favor Grace, and gave to mind an ancient version of my Mom, what she may have looked like had she aged into a graceful elder Southern matron over thirty more years, and I'm happy to have that image.
Once, in some sort of private and personal writing quasi-therapy I attempted, I tried to write my Mom a letter. (It seemed fitting, as I'd received a long instructive letter from her, together with bits and fragments of other writing, gathered in a zippered, plastic bank pouch she'd written my name across with an indelible marker.) I tried to write this letter the year after she died, which was about a year before my sister and I got it together enough to meet in the South to scatter her ashes. I'm not sure what I was after with the letter, what I wanted to say, as I didn't get very far. Shortly after I typed "Dear Mom" I noticed I had actually typed "Dead Mom" and then when I re-typed to correct it, again, and again, I typed "Dead" instead of "Dear." The rest of the short letter consisted of a few sentences explaining what had just happened, what I'd done, typing dead instead of dear, and that she would think it was funny, as she had a dark and melancholy wit.
The ashes got all over my nephews, both of whom my Mom adored. The youngest kind of grimaced, pulled on his front and said "Ma'am's all over my shirt." He said it again, a little louder to make sure we heard, as likely, he has that same dark humor as she.
We discovered it was illegal to scatter the ashes. My Mom would have liked that. I would have paid a hundred fines, a thousand. Jail time, however, would not have pleased her. When I was a teenager, and maybe on my way to a life of crime, my Mom often warned me I was too pretty to go to jail. I scoffed, ignored much of her advice, too much, but not that however. (Who wants to find out in jail their Mom was right after all?)
Mom would have liked the place we chose, a sun-drenched vale with a burbling creek running through it. It wasn't, however, the place she asked for, the picnic spot where I'd scarfed down all the wine, but very close, and probably better, as we (as a family) hiked down the mountain for half an hour until we found the right spot, Mom's box of ashes hidden in my little nephew's backpack.
My Grandmother once took me to an old fashioned mountain baptism--maybe some nearby branch of that same river. Or perhaps I'm remembering a photo album and was never actually a witness. She loved the church. She was church treasurer, and her church ladies group took chartered bus vacations together for at least twenty years.
Grandmother switched my bare legs with a willow branch fairly often when we visited. I'd have to select the rubbery branch from either the giant willow that dwarfed their house, or the small trees near the pasture, wherever she'd directed. I'd strip its leaves until it was bare, careful to remove any knotty leafbuds, and bring the makeshift whip to her. Clearly, I was a burgeoning asshole or criminal even as a small child, which Grandmother dutifully tried to thrash and threaten out of me.
Writing this, it strikes me like something an old man would remember, as if I was raised in the 19th century. I suppose that was a bit how visits to my grandparents' farm seemed--their root cellar filled with crates of chestnuts and apples from their little orchard, shelves of canning jars filled with stewed tomatoes and string beans; brass spittoons, the ominous leather strap (used to sharpen razors and frighten wayward children) hanging from the ceiling in the closet-sized room lined with my Grandfather's collectible aftershave bottles. A pasture filled with cows, dotted with salt licks, a duck pond.
I should stop now, as I have letters to write, cards to send, and people to call. Send your grandparents a card if it's too awkward to speak in person. Everyone enjoys getting a card. I cringe when I imagine I very well may have addressed the last holiday card I sent (last year) to "Grandmother and Aunt Velma." But it's okay, as I'll write again soon.