Just between afternoon and evening when you're not quite sure how to address the next stranger fate or the current or your job throws you against. Reading for the second time (first, as a senior in high school) Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Now there's a woman who can write. A good story read washes away any electronic distractions and entertainment. I also, this morning, it being my day off and all and I feeling a little under the weather, watched the movie Everything is Illuminated. Not bad. I enjoyed it and it made me think afterwards about my Meme and how I hardly know her anymore. Maybe not at all. We are coincidentally related. She's my mom's mom. I used to write her letters frequently as a child, wrote her about what an amazing woman she is, how much I admire her and how I want to grow up to be like her. Then one day, during a scaffuffle of family fights and counselling, I realized she didn't love my mother the way she should have. She didn't defend my mother against her good loyal husband's greatest weakness, his brutal words. And that was the turning point. I haven't written her a letter since even though she always and always will send me birthday and christmas cards with a check inside and a nice, longish letter telling me about her birds and squirrels and the goings-on of her tiny corner of Peoria, Illinois.
I feel sick to my stomach when I realize what role I haven't played in her life. I don't know why I stopped being her grandchild, the way I used to. I guess I made a decision one day and then promptly forgot about that decision and continued on with my life. Every once in a while I think about how I don't take the time with her, but then I stuff it back under a pile of old journals that I only read but once in every three years.
She just turned 96, I believe, or is it 97. I'm not quite sure. I remember at fifteen years of age, she could do pushups and I couldn't. I think she may not be driving anymore, but that changed only in the last year, year and a half, since my older sister moved in with her. They had a pretty heavy tiff when Meme, that's what we call her, realized that her oldest grandchild was no longer a Christian, nay-an atheist! All her dreams of her remembered moments with SJ, serious prayer and Bible-reading contentment over the coziest kitchen table you've ever sat at or the breeziest freshest card table under the most familiar maple tree you've ever drunk tea at, drained slowly through the muck of wet spring mud, down her narrow driveway and into the gutter marking the end of her lawn and the beginning of the street, guarded by her ever-busy, ever-worn out mailbox. That was a hard moment for both of them. They've adjusted, I think, over the months and appreciate each others' company in other, more subtle ways.
I don't call her on the phone anymore because her hearing is nearly gone. She's had hearing aids since she was forty. When she takes them out, these days, she's quite deaf as a log. She started getting real nervous on the phone and spouted quickly a list of greetings and best-wishes and then passed the phone off to my sister. So I stopped calling her. She's a beautiful woman, with skin softer than the softest comparison anyone can make, softer than the down on the underside of a dove's wing, well softer than a baby's bottom. She's got pure white hair, thin by now. She's always taken care of her looks. She dresses with class and taste, matching accessories. I'd be proud to still dress as she does when I reach her age. She's got a house that connects all the way around, in a circle, all the rooms together, you never have to backtrack. And in the winter, when she can't realistically make it outside to take her daily walks, she does her rounds, keeping her limbs as strong and nimble as her age will allow. I have a feeling and a deep hope that she passes on in her sleep. The Jugo culture says the best people pass on in their sleep, if they make it to old age. She's got some physical health problems but nothing major. She's had arthritis as long as I've known her. Her feet have always been sharply angled, gnarled in pain that she never ever utters. She never complains.
She grew up, first generation Swedish imigrant, working like a healthy ox on a farm in South Dakota with her other six brothers and sisters (one died at birth). Almost two years ago, in one week of days, she said goodbye to the last three remaining sibblings alive. We all wondered if she might join them in their restful journey beyond. But she stayed on. I'm not sure why.
She lives in silence, for the most part. And she's let her bodily controls go with the time. She has no issue, nor barely notices, farts and burps that have grown deeper with a large man's tenor. She is one of the strongest women I know. And I have abandonned her. I think Ive told myself that my sister lives with her and that's good enough. That's SJ's doing the job for the rest of the grandkids, that she'll know vicariously that we love her through SJ.
I wonder what passes through the mind of a 97-year-old woman who was born before the normal telephone (when anyone who wanted some gossip could just pick up the receiver and listen to the neighbors talk and, if they got really into it, might add their own two cents to the surprise of the talkers), before cars were common. She lived through both world wars, the second of which her husband fought in and had a bomb blow up in his ear, nearly litterally. She cooked, during the wartime for that famous bakery family, I forget their names. She met Pawpaw (that's her husband) when he was on leave and on a whim, had a double wedding with her cousin a few weeks later. She's lived in one house her whole married life. She's generous to a fault. She's one of the best cooks I ever met, too. You ain't never tasted a roast like Meme's, she's famous for it among our friends and strangers that happen on her doorstep. Her baking's the best too--chocolate chip cookies, brownies she's famous for over in Africa, cinamon cake, peanut butter chocolate bars, lemon cake, cinnamon rolls (one of my very favorite, directly out the oven, steaming hot with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter dripping lustily between my fingers, but that not for long), apple crisp, apple pie and on and on and on.
I don't know what to do. I keep saying I'll do something and then the nagging fear bites my behind like a beesting, that she doesn't have too many days left and the longer I wait, the shorter is my chance of making things right, of not abandonning the strong, beautiful, woman who made it possible for me to be alive and who loved me very very well.
Florence Quimby. She keeps a journal, and has for the last forty years at least, and records every day the passage of time. I believe it is more of a list of thises and thats and whos than whys and feels, which is what I would rather know. But still, one day, when she finally kisses this world goodbye and sleeps, I will read all of them, and then maybe learn something more about her, about this stranger that I should know and love deeply but uncertain about for lack of memories and proximity and now, the mystery and limitations of old age in communication.
Guh is what I feel in my belly and my heart. I think I'll write her a letter, like I should have done years and years ago.