i was just visiting the east cost, with my son. we road tripped on out, taking our time, signing loudly and lost in thought. we saw my family, played some skee ball, cooked out and went to the swimming pool, picked blueberries and made jelly. we traveled into the city and even passed by where i once went to high school, though the building had changed so much, hardly recognizable. still, the stories were there. they live there, place based, and in me, forever. and that week, they came from and in all directions. and so we ended up taking other trips, the kind that took me back into my own childhood and some corner gets turned, where time is relative and everything is alive all at once.
he asked about my grandmother, as he sat there with his own. the answer to the questions were the stories, the kind that are bits and pieces, recollections like torn off scraps of paper, and it is strange how it happens, that all of the sudden i could remember in all its tactile particulars my mother’s mother. the way it was, to be with her. the way memories fuse and create stories and no one really knows anymore if they are true or if they have just been told so many times they are mythology more than memory. either way, they are real. they are where i come from. and i loved her. and so i remember, and tell him the stories.
"my mother's mother: true grit, true love"
- i remember her house, in the dry heat of colorado summers. the screened in back porch where i would make up games and stories, and how there was a metal cabinet that i would hide my treasures in, all the mountain rocks i found when out exploring and believed to be as precious as gemstones. there were iris there, at her house, so many of them, that grew around a stone ledge in the back yard. when i remember her, i think of the blue and purple, and the way they felt wild to me, taking up space, spilling out into everything.
- her lap was soft, and you could climb onto it. she wore pants that were just a little scratchy and her arms were like a strong and sturdy pillow. it was her elbows i loved the most, sitting on her lap, head resting on her shoulder, my hand playing with the wrinkled skin of her elbow that was crooked around me. and she always smelled the same to me. like the roses in her backyard that grew along iris, like liquid dish soap and yeast and sun.
- she was born in 1904. a teacher in a one room school house in the roaring twenties, and there was a picture of her wearing a flapper dress and i was envious and admiring and in love. she married a farmer and struggled through the great depression. she was a widow when my mother was only four, and suddenly had to start over. she sent her sons off to war and dreamt of their life even after everyone told her to give up hope and accept him as dead. but she didn’t, and he wasn’t. her name was hazel. her sister’s names were bertha, myrtle, velma and violet. this was endlessly fascinating to me. they were like storybook people, almost not real. except they were. and the young her became, over time, the soft and wrinkled skin grandma who peeled potatoes with a knife instead of a peeler and knit us christmas stockings in red and green triangle patterns. how was this even possible? It was some kind of mystery i could never quiet unlock. not until i was older. until my mother was older. until i had my own child. until i knew, in my own evolutions, just how many lives it is possible to live in one lifetime. then it all made sense, and i knew some kind of set jaw of determination made its way from her to me.
4. when we would take walks together we would talk about the street names, speculating on origin. when my family lived in the split level house with the sloping yard, she came to visit. she told me, during one of the walks, that her favorite street sign in our new neighborhood was isabella.
5. she often came to see us in the month of october. we would rent a television because we didn’t have one, and she watched daily, sitting there at the kitchen table and watch daytime television, “her stories,” while she peeled apples for pies. she baked so many pies, golden crusts and sweet cream filling and i remember her hands that were caked in flour. maybe it was her hands i loved the most.
6. when i was young, three and four and five, i would sit there patiently while she made finger curls in my hair. your hair had to be wet, and then she would take locks of it and twist them around her hands and slide pins in place to hold them. you had to sit there while it dried. in the morning ringlets fell to chin and shoulder, and it felt silky and lovely, so different than the rat’s nest of wild child tangles i usually walked around with. and it was about the hair. but really, it was about the attention. the way she gave it complete and steady, and it was safe there, in those hours.
7. i wonder sometimes, still, how the happenings of life changed her, who she was before i knew her, and if it felt cohesive to her, some kind of narrative that stitched it together into meaning, or if there were those occurrences that never made sense and changed everything, separating life into before and after. either way, i think she was the strongest woman i have ever known.
8. she affectionately referred to me as a bag lady, because i liked to carry around my things in purses and bags, keep them on me at all times, and i was very organized, knowing exactly what was missing as i dumped the contents and sorted and re-bagged. she made me a special bag, for my birthday one year. it was made out of fabric and had animals on it, a giraffe and lion and elephant, and i loved that bag, the way i could carry it over my shoulder with its long strap, filled heavy and heaving with library books. i remember, growing up in a large family, growing up with so many people around all the time, how there was little that felt like it was all mine, belonging to me. that bag was all the way mine, and i loved it, and i knew she understood me.
9. she insisted on my gymnastics class, which was some kind of lifeline and gave me a place to put the need for heights and speed and throwing the body into the air. when she came to visit she would attend every one of my practices. she brought her crocheting and sat in the chair, watching and working. she bought me soft soled shoes they sold at the gym, that helped you not slip when working on sticking a landing when hurtling off the vault. she believed in me.
10. i remember the way she snapped thread from the needle with her teeth, and snapped the ends off of green beans and put them in a metal bowl. and how i assumed she had been born with white hair. and how she was practical, and i liked this about her. i remember thinking, “i come from you.” i remember warm pudding, and the recliner chair in the living room, and her love. i remember her love.
11. she let me be. and this may be one of the truest kinds of love. she didn’t need to be anything in particular, or ask me to be anything to make her feel one way or the other. she just loved me, and let me be. and so maybe this is why when i think of her, even all these years later, i cry. and i want to find a way to go back in time and talk to her, to sit out on the little balcony in the apartment she lived in after the house, where she would plant flowers in boxes, and tell her thank you. for the kind of love that is space and comfort both. did you know then, I want to ask, what it would mean to me? or is it just who you were? to show her pictures of my son. to say, look at this, look at what this kind of love you gave to me creates, and see how it spills over into what comes after us? like the finger curls coming out of the pins. like the flowers that cascaded from the boxes, bright pink and the deepest purple.