Easter is so early this year! I can’t remember it being in March before. This March happens to be the two year anniversary of the passing of one of my beautiful grandmothers. I always think of her at Easter because, when I was a kid, myself, my brother and all our cousins on my mom’s side, would gather at this grandmother’s home and have a HUGE Easter egg hunt in her pasture. Eggs were everywhere, even tucked into the manure. Inevitably, some of the eggs were never found. Always, we had a grand time. In honor of her, I wrote an essay about visits with her when I was a teenager and how I wish I’d made the effort to spend more of my days with her back then:
This is a story of loss. So many have written about this topic that it is hard to know how to begin. The poet Elizabeth Bishop, in her poem One Art, tries to convince us, as well as herself, that loss – the loss of keys and cities and loved ones – is really no big deal, “The art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” How disastrous can a loss be if it brings us a better understanding of our place in the universe or, at the very least, gives us insight into who we are and what we value? Who among us would describe such a thing as “disaster?”
Disaster, the way my eighteen year old mind saw it, was never having had a “real” boyfriend. It wasn’t for lack of trying. When your nickname in school is “Olive Oil” (we shared similar traits – tall, too thin, gawky with big feet. Just add acne. . .), boyfriend acquisition isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish. Adults at any given family function would, inevitably, ask the boyfriend question. Thank goodness for my grandmother, my mother’s mother, a woman with five children, who in the end would live more years with her husband deceased than with him alive. She would ask about a boyfriend but was much too pragmatic to let my shame over the lack of one get me down. “You’ve got time,” she would say, lifting my spirits. She was right. Years later, after college I finally found my first real boyfriend, now husband. It seems ironic then that one of my biggest regrets when it comes to my grandmother revolves around the lack of time I spent with her.
Growing up in a suburb of Atlanta, we visited my grandmother “down in the country” monthly. As I got older, obtained a drivers license and car, I still made the two hour drive down to see both her and my other grandmother, my dad’s mother, who lived nearby. I was young, so, yes, I let a little too much time go by between visits. My high school life was typically busy – school, homework (I had a GPA to maintain), after school activities including years of dance, drama, and a short, failed stint at basketball camp one summer. Once I made the decision to spend a weekend in the country, it was good to be on that long stretch of I-85 headed south, listening to music with the windows down. Even as a teen, I could appreciate the “me time” a weekend road trip can provide.
On these visits, I usually spent Friday night with my grandmother and Saturday night with my dad’s mother. I saw my mom’s mother first because she was closer. Once you get off the highway in Greenville, going through the randomly European round-about in the town center, what’s left are little stints on alternate state routes and back roads with turns largely of the you’ll-know-it-when-you-see-it-because-you’ve-done-it-so-many-times-before variety. On my grandmother’s property is a modest pond of varying depth depending on the time of year and extent of drought each endless summer. I don’t know the number of car lengths away, but I can tell just by the trees and the look of the sky when the pond is only minutes from view. It must seem like a super human power to any passenger that isn’t family and hasn’t driven those roads like we have.
There is something about the air of a place that one calls home. Getting out of the car, inhaling deeply while stretching my long legs, it always brought a smile to my face seeing my grandmother come walking out onto the front porch, if she wasn’t already swaying gently on the swing in wait for me. Usually, we didn’t make it farther than that swing for a quite some time unless I was late arriving. Dinner, supper, rather, was probably an appetizer of buttery oblong Ritz crackers followed by a main course of the best pimento (pronounced “paminna”) cheese sandwich on Sunbeam white bread you’ve ever had and homemade sweet tea to drink. After dinner, we’d retreat to the den to watch television, a rerun of The Dukes of Hazard or Magnum P. I. if we could find it on one of the four channels the rabbit ears received. In truth, I think we talked more than we watched, but it was that lazy sort of talk where a question comes to mind, is answered and then we resume watching until something or someone else popped in our heads. In a bit, I’d be handed a Corningware bowl in the Spring Blossom pattern whose little green flowers always seem to me like clovers growing unwanted in a patch of grass. In it, my “ice milk” with coca-cola poured on top making a float.
I’ve always been a night owl and my grandmother was one to get on to the next thing as soon as it was time. Promptly when the 10 o’clock news out of Columbus ended she would head off to get on her nightgown and housecoat, cold cream her face and come back to ask me wasn’t I going to bed. I had brought a book or magazines and was going to read just a little while longer. I would be sure to turn off the porch light and lock the doors when I headed to bed. And, yes, I would let her know if I got cold in the night, smiling at the knowledge that my own mother clearly had inherited the same worry from her mom.
In the morning, Jack Frost nipping at my nose while the rest of me is bundled toasty and warm under the covers, I force myself out of the beautiful four post bed and put my bare feet down on the cold floor, more appreciative of my grandmother’s worry over the possibility of my sleeping cold. Making my way across the room in just a few steps, through its swinging door and into the warm kitchen where the little one room gas heater has already been lit is a relief. Better than that is the sound of the percolator brewing wonderful smelling coffee which, try as I might, I have never been able to drink. My grandmother and I sit there, eating our toast and jelly and chatting before taking the scraps out to the horses, coming back in to get dressed for the day. No doubt at breakfast, and throughout the morning, she will ask if I can’t stay a little longer, spend another night.
It would be nice to stay on and not rush off. We’d walk around the house a couple times, the key, we both agree, to how well my grandmother, now in her 70s, does out here on her own. Every morning and evening she does this walk by herself, unless one of her children or grandchildren happens to be visiting. It is where some of our most thoughtful conversations are had.
If it is shaping up to be a nice day, at some point we will take a little mini Butterfinger from the drawer of the frig out to the porch where we’ll rock away, listening to the sounds of the season. Periodically, we hear long before we see a lone car or large truck zooming down the highway passing quickly in front of my grandmother’s little house in the country. In all likelihood, we will have visitors at some point during the day, a friend, neighbor or distant cousin on their way to or from Columbus who will stop in unannounced just to say hello. This is the accepted custom; a phone call first is not necessary. In fact, it is relatively rare to hear the rotary phone ring at all during the day. Truly vintage, the heavy black phone was one of my favorite things to play with as child. I loved to sit at the phone table playing “office,” making pretend calls, having imaginary conversations with the recorded voice “If you’d like to make a call . . .” on the other end. I’m amazed to learn that this Bell South relic was originally rented from the phone company, not purchased outright.
But, as Robert Frost has written, I have “miles to go before I sleep.” And so, instead of staying on, I pack up my things to head further down the road. As she sees me to the door, again my grandmother requests that I stay on for a spell. Come back when I have more time and can stay for a week. “Oh, I will,” I assure her, thinking a second time that it would be nice to have a little more time with her, feed the horses in the pasture, take a walk down past Mr. Shank’s old store, check in on the lake my uncles own or take her to the hair salon. I could visit leisurely with whichever surprise visitor might pop in that day (even if it would mean having to explain the no boyfriend thing again – and again). “I’ll make the time, Grandma,” I reply, though I never would.
Why is it I so regret that lost time with this grandmother of mine, would even describe it “a disaster?” When I think about it, I realize not too much ever really happened at this home she made. And, yet, what happened there clearly has meant more to the person I’ve become than I realized until recently. When I think how much more I could have absorbed from my grandmother’s wisdom, how much better I could have known her, learned about my own mother and myself, I have regret. Had I just taken the time to spend even one week during those years long ago when she was still in good health, not yet in a nursing home, before I met the love of my life and moved thousands of miles away, before she passed away at the age of 96, eating her favorite ice milk, surrounded by children and grandchildren, perhaps I would have realized sooner how lucky I was that she wanted to spend that time with me and how much I would lose in not doing so. Unlike Elizabeth Bishop (Write it!), I cannot convince myself that this lost time with my grandmother is anything other than “a disaster.”