Saturday, November 22, 2014

To Shirley...

We were the lucky ones.

We were the ones that got our grandmother twice a year for weeks at a time.

We would see her in the summer, leaving behind the heat and the sticky air and the small town gossip and drive up north to where it was just then spring, pink blossoms and her huge yard exploding with color.

We would see her in the winter, for Christmas, for New Years, for snow, for cookies, for presents, for hugs.

And when we didn't see her, we talked to her on the phone, for hours.  She entertained our little stories, believed in our little worlds, told us about her little garden fairies causing mischief again and her little poodle that could never quite catch them.

She taught me to paint, my memories of this as blurry as the water colors on those thirsty pages.  I was never any good, my creativity in the arts leaked out of me and was swallowed up by my mother and sister.  My poppies looked like red upturned umbrellas with a giant black hole in the middle, my grass and sky separated by a thick black line broke the picture up too violently, my people drawn too large or too small to scale with my simple houses.  Her pictures were like pictures out of a book, like the paintings that hung on the walls of the museums she would take us to, showing us Monet, Manet, Renoir and Van Gogh.  But she never let on that mine were not perfect.  She always praised.  She always kept them, framed them, showed them off to all of her other artful friends.

She taught me how to string popcorn and cranberries to hang on the tree.  She taught me how to make deviled eggs.  She showed me how to make cakes and would tell me all the stories about working in a bakery and helping her father and about how pretty her dresses were that she wore to her high school dances.  She was brave and strong enough to pull out our loose teeth and she promised it wouldn't hurt, and it never did.  She told me about the trouble she would get into with her brothers and sister.  She made me feel less badly about fighting with my sister because she said that's what kids do.  She made me feel like a person.  She let me know that I counted.  She filled me up.

When we would drive home, I would cry until almost Kentucky, so sad to be away from the magical woman for another boring six months.  And then our mother would let us stop and talk to her at a payphone along the way, checking in, hearing her soothing words that summer break would be here before we knew it, and oh all of the fun things she already had planned for us.  She was going to take us to Fernwood.  She was going to teach us to draw in nature.  She was going to take us to tea.

She always had short hair, effortlessly stylish.  She wore purple, even though she was so young.  She smoked, but I never remember her smelling like it.  I only remember peppermint and lilacs.  I made her a chart once; a thirty-step guide to quitting in a month.  I allowed her a pack a day, and then eased her off day-by-day, cigarette-by-cigarette.  It was misspelled and the drawings of the come-to-life cigarettes with scowls on their faces surely brought a great deal of laughter from her and her siblings as they all sat around the dining room table in her mother's house, my great-grandmother, for a family reunion.

But then she got sick.  And her heart didn't want to work anymore.  And it was terrifying.  And I wasn't allowed in the room.  And I remember my mother crying.  After hearing all of those words and too-big thoughts and so-many-months to live, I was aware of my own heart like I had never been aware of before.  I felt like I could see everyone else's heart, we were all beating and pumping and working like nothing had ever happened, like they all hadn't just been broken, like they hadn't all been pierced with the possibility that there would be one less among us.

I had just learned fractions.  I remember that.  And I remember them telling us, or telling my mom and her sister and then they telling us in words that were softer, were easier, were simpler to swallow, that she had only a third of her heart left working, the rest of it, the upper two-thirds had simply quit.  And because I had just learned fractions, I knew one third was much smaller than two thirds.  And that it wasn't good. They didn't think she had more than six months left with us.

So we moved home, we moved to her home, we moved to the wonderful place that once was but was now just a shell and ticking clock.  She wasn't the woman that once made me feel like anything was possible.  We were there to say goodbye, to pray, to hope they were wrong.

And they were.

That was almost fifteen years ago.  And the approximate 186 days after the doctor had delivered the blow that would change our lives forever, she kept on breathing.  Her heart with only a third of its power and strength and will to live kept on pumping.  She stayed with us.  She woke up smiling.

I believed in magic that year.   I believed in angels and God and miracles.  I believed they were as close to us as we were to her, sitting in her garden, helping her weed and mulch and set up her easel.

She has never stopped being part of my life.  I am a woman now, a grown up that moved far far away.  But we still share secrets.  We still talk and giggle and commiserate over the phone.  She still encourages my creativity, prints out all of my stories and saves them in a file for when "I'm famous."
Well, Gram, this one is for you.  Thank you for everything.  Thank you for staying alive.  Thank you for making me want to live this life creatively.  Thank you for making fairy furniture and reading me books and teaching me to bake.  You left your mark.  You influenced my life.  And I will forever be grateful.

Happy birthday.

All my love,


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