May 1, 2008

Lifestyles

A Letter

by EJH


Dear Grandmommy,

It’s still dark when my radio alarm goes off in the morning. Jolted awake by the sound of a rock musician wailing a tune I cannot identify, I look through the blinds hanging haphazardly from my bedroom window to discover that the sky is ink. Don’t worry – the buzzing lights from the car wash next to my building file down the sharp edges of the darkness somewhat. Throwing the covers from my reluctant body, I get out of bed and pad my way into the kitchen to make oatmeal and hot tea, my two obese feral cats the only witnesses to my morning routine.

Cramped in my dented Honda Civic, the one with the faded bumper stickers, I brave the 4-lane interstate that will take me to work. Sometimes by this hour the sky has turned the color of cantaloupe mixed with a bit of grey. One of the last times I stood in your kitchen, you asked me to go to the store to get you cantaloupes because they were not only in season, but more importantly, on sale. I brought you back two Rocky Ford cantaloupes because you had carefully instructed me that they were the best kind.

A few months later, they moved you to the nursing home. True to form, defiance was ignited in you. It wasn’t simply that you didn’t want to be moved from your home of 30 years to an unfamiliar facility with a faint yet ever present smell of urine and disinfectant; it was that you had ceased to want to live at all. As always, you had made it clear that your present life was not up to your standards. During your time on this earth, many things had not been up to snuff when viewed through your exacting eyes. And others had felt the judgment, the scrutiny. So much so that when you died, their tongues were covered with bitterness as they verbalized their condolences to me. You left a mixed legacy. While no one could deny your integrity as a person, it was all too easy for labels to be slapped upon your history. You were loved by many, but seven years after your death most share the opinion that your merciless ways drove your husband to alcoholism and broke your son down in a way that ruled out full recovery.

But during my commute to work this morning, I have a question I want to ask you. Where did you get that inner core? It was like a solid block of crystal growing inside of you, reflecting light in the most beautiful ways if someone was only paying enough attention to see it. You hung crystals from your kitchen window, and as a child I marveled at how the light would glide through those prisms to produce rainbow patterns on your linoleum floor. Inside of you was a forest of draught-resistant plants. However, your brilliance was not only in your ability to survive. You had a distinct personality in a generation where women were not known for their unique identities but rather as extensions of their husbands and children. You were a wife, yes. A mother too. But you were also you. Outside of the context of family, church and community, you were an individual who stood on your own in ways others did not. You reached beyond what was handed to you. Within your soul, you knew you were capable of more and you exercised that in glorious ways.

Many days, Grandmommy, my life feels like a glass jar of colored beads a child has dropped, shattered on the floor.

Growing up, I remember the dented hardwood floors in the bedroom you shared with Granddad. And the books. Shelves of hardcover books. There was never any doubt in my mind that the books belonged to Granddad. Since he was the man of the house, I assumed him the natural reader, the one who would have possessed the intellect and interest for books. It wasn’t until after he died that I learned all those books belonged to you. You had blazed a trail to college and had become a teacher while Granddad was a bus mechanic, and yet I experienced surprise when I discovered you had been the owner of all those texts and not he.

You died in the summer. To be honest, I barely remember the airplane ride across two states to attend your funeral. I insisted on reading at your service, even though I had not been asked by anyone to do so. Remembering how you had leaned on faith to navigate challenging times, I read from the Bible. I remember numbly getting into the backseat of the limo as we prepared to drive away from the cemetery. Looking back through the rear window, I saw your gray coffin alone under the green canvas tent surrounded by flowers. I felt like we were abandoning you. I think I was the only one who looked back, the only one who needed to keep your casket in my gaze until we had driven so far I couldn’t see it anymore.

Where I live now, the days are usually warm. I bought yellow tulips for Easter, and they are flamboyantly blooming from their little green plastic pot. Canary yellow flames emerging from pale green buds they appeared one day, but soon they’ll wilt, and I may or may not have the will to throw them away. I try not to discard things because they become less than their ideal. Years from now, I will remember the fragrance of the tulips even when ice covers the ground.

Love,

Your granddaughter