Me and my Grandmother, 1981
Thirty-six hours before my Grandmother drew her last breath, six days before I played "Lily of the Valley" and "The Old Rugged Cross" at her funeral, my children gathered around their great-grandmother's bedside to say hello and goodbye.
The alignment of events preceding her death might be called serendipitous. My in-laws were in town to help me care for Mr. PNU for the weekend. I'd felt the tug to visit her for two months, and that Saturday morning I texted my cousin, Hiedi, to say I was coming up for the afternoon. Would she be available? And the answer—Yes. What's more, in a recent turn, my grandmother was on the decline. Perhaps 48 hours left. The family members willing were gathering to bid her farewell.
I sent out the call to my children. Now or never. Each of them jumped to arrange the next two days free, and by late morning we set out to the geography of winding rivers and wind-blown sage deserts near the North Country where my father's family sprouted from the nothingness of the land into a dusty, salty breed all their own.
My trip before this last visit to Emerald House I fed my Grandmother peaches.
“I always did love me them peaches.”
I cut the canned slices into bite-sized wedges with the edge of the spoon. One at a time, I lift them to her lips narrowed and drawn tight as though ever prepared to receive her coffee cup or to take a drag on a cigarette. Her lips are still very much as I remember from my childhood. Except that now, instead of wearing garish coral lipstick, they are defiantly tattooed an eternal pink to match the lively gray-inked eyebrows dancing immortally above her glassy green eyes.
“Peaches are my favorite fruit,” she goes on. “They remind me of summer. Maybe in the summer you can bring your kids and we can go to the park, and they can swim in the river, and we can pack us some sandwiches and some peaches.”
“That would be nice,” I say. “We should do that, in the summer.”
I lift another bite to her lips and then ask if she wouldn’t mind trying some of the cornbread they are serving tonight in the kitchen of the nursing home. Grandmother opens wide, both mouth and eyes, and I am careful not to put the slice in too far. As she chews I gently wipe the crumbs from her chin.
She swallows and smacks her lips. “That is some good cornbread! I never did like cornbread, but that is good.”
I help her take a second bite and after she clears her palate she asks, "Do any of your boys look like your dad?”
“Yes,” I say. “My oldest son has Dad’s eyes, nose and cheekbones. He’s a looker.”
“I would like to meet him,” she says. “Or at least see a picture of your boy, especially if he looks like Merlin like you say.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I say and offer another spoonful of peaches.
“That is my greatest joy in this life. That people say what a kind, good person Merlin was. That they speak so highly of him. And he’s my son,” she beats the palm of her hand to her sunken breast for emphasis. “Oh, I’ve been an ornery old cuss. There’s been a lot of people who thinks I’ve been too mean. It’s been so’s that’s how you have to be to live through a day. There was a while there when I really had a time of living. It doesn’t matter whether they’re twenty or if they’re fifty. Your dad was only forty-nine, almost fifty when I put him in the ground. It doesn’t matter how old they is, if you lose a child, if you’re their mother, that loss is deep.”
Her eyes mist over, and I take the gnarled fingers of her right hand in mine and feel the softness of her aged skin. The portraits of her three sons, including my father, her first-born, in his handsome Green Beret uniform, and her two daughters hang on the wall behind her recliner. It has been years since I have scrutinized these faces, but I recognize parts of myself now in each.
“Did you see what I done with them? How I laid them all out together? I figured it was the most I could do, to lay them all next to each other.”
She speaks of the Grove City family burial plot, where beginning in 1968, one after another, she began laying her family in the ground. Her youngest son, Sheldon, was killed in action in Vietnam. Her second husband, Dale, a year later took his own life. My father, Merlin, in 1994 after a long battle with astrocytoma introduced by the cancerous agent the U.S. government called Orange. And her daughter, Cheryl, Sheldon’s twin sister, three months later following sepsis from a botched routine medical procedure. I discovered my father’s resting place on Veteran’s Day, 2009, when for the first time I braved the rows of graves bracing myself for confrontation with the inevitability of his name, and found theirs as well.
“I’ve seen it,” I say. “You done good, Grandmother.”
She nods, leans back in her recliner and sighs as if in surrender. “I did what I could.”
I offer her more cornbread. For a woman who never had a taste for the stuff, Grandmother is an easy convert. I wipe her mouth again before giving her more peaches.
“They tell me I just about left this place last week. I don’t know. I was just talking to my Jesus. I love my Jesus. People think I’ve been hard and mean, but it’s just my tough skin. I’m really just a softy underneath, and I always did love my Jesus, always was religious. Deep religious, even from when I was just a little thing. There’s a time when I was a little girl. Oh! How I wanted to go to church! ‘Cept I had no shoes. I was out on my horse, herding my sheep, just a little thing. I was a prayin’ to my Heavenly Father and to my Jesus, Please, bring me a pair of shoes so’s I can go to church! And sure enough that night I had a pair of Sund'y shoes.”
“Do you know where they came from?” I ask.
“Well, sure I do,” she says with a sly sideways glance. “I’d seen them in the store. But who bought them for me I never found out. I prayed to my Heavenly Father and He’s always been there for me. I prayed and I prayed, all last week. And oh, how I love my Jesus! I know I’ve done bad things. I know people thinks I’ve been mean. And I prayed to my Jesus for forgiveness, and He carries me through. He is my friend. He gets me through."
She coughs and points with a gnarled finger, the nail painted frosty pink, “I remember when I was five and I had the pneumonia something terrible. Mama sent me to stay with Grandma Rodgers and Grandma Casper. I was so took with the fever, they laid me between them all night to bring off the chills. I asked them to bring me a Bible. When they did I had them lay it on my chest, and quick as that, I knew I was gonna get better, because my Jesus. He knows me. He knows my soft inside, even though so many says I been mean.”
Before my Grandmother’s stroke in 2012 I hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years. The last time was a clear December day outside the Sunlight Mission in Santa Monica, 1993. The final operation to remove the invading tumor from my father’s brain was complete. He was stabilizing, and Grandmother was headed back to Idaho to use her newly acquired power of attorney to reroute all of his Social Security checks and shift his life insurance policies so that she was the sole beneficiary—a fact I didn't understand at the time. All I knew was that my father lay in the Veterans Hospital in Northridge, only a day past the scalpel, and I was not ready to leave his side. The homeless shelter was my only option for long-term housing, and Grandmother was fine with that. She equipped me as she thought best—with a fresh carton of Camel Lights and a twenty- dollar bill she pressed into my hand. She told me to be good and then drove away in her Bronco. I was just shy of my nineteenth birthday and for all my adolescent rebelliousness, found myself completely unprepared for that immersion in the current below the bottom rung of life. I lived in the shelter for three weeks, and in that time came to understand not only desperation, but why so many turn to Jesus in all His many images and embodiments.
The greatest of those lessons came on the Wednesday before Christmas when I caught the bus from Santa Monica to the hospital in Northridge.
My father was asleep when I arrived at his hospital room. His head was bandaged and he was connected to tubes to remove excess fluid from his brain and urine from his penis. His gown lay open exposing his torso and genitals, and I stood paralyzed in the doorway, helpless to do anything. Here was my father—the great tyrant of my childhood, authoritarian, wielder of gospel and priesthood, and deliverer of so much unpredictable violence—reduced to a mere mortal by his own brain cells gone rouge. Here he lay, weak and exposed. And I couldn’t muster the strength to move a bit of cloth to give him his dignity.
Instead, I sat in a chair and gave over to vigil for a long time. Memory doesn’t serve to tell me the exact length, but long enough that I felt my years of anger and dismay melt into a softness that some might call compassion, maybe even forgiveness. When the nurse came in to administer his medications, she covered him and woke him to say that I was there.
“Bonnie?” he called. I pulled my chair close to his hospital bed. He asked the date, the same question he been unable to answer a week before when the notary public came to evaluate whether he was of sound mind to transfer power of attorney to my Grandmother. He hadn’t been able to recall the name of the president either.
“It’s Wednesday, Dad.”
“Wednesday,” he repeated. “Is your Grandmother here?”
“No, she went back to Idaho.” He seemed confused. “But I’m here. I’m here to look after you.”
“You’ve already done that,” he said.
“I mean until you’re better, Dad. There’s still a long way to go.”
“I’m alright. I’ll be fine,” he insisted. “You’ve looked after me, now, I want you to go home.”
“I’m staying in Santa Monica,” I told him. “It’s not that far away. I can take the bus and come and visit you whenever you need me.”
“No, you need to go home. You took good care of me. Now you need to take care of your education.”
“Dad, I want to stay here with you,” I protested.
“I want you to go home and go to school,” he said and then began to drift. “I’m tired. I want to sleep.”
I watched him slip away for another endless expanse lost in terms of length in my memory of space and time. I don’t remember leaving the hospital that night or riding the bus back to the shelter, but I would like to think that before I did I kissed his sleeping head.
That afternoon was the last time I saw my father alive.
Miracles collide with every life; some unreasonably simple and barely ample, others unexplainably complex and satisfying. Somewhere in between is my return from Santa Monica to Salt Lake City that Christmas Eve, sent home with an errand to see to my education. By June of that following year I completed the GED, the ACT, and found acceptance at a nearby university.
On July 1, 1994 my father passed away.
“I always did like them peaches,” Grandmother says, chewing another bite. “We should pack a picnic in the summer and go down to the river so the kids can swim. That would be good.”
“Yes, it would. I remember you taking me to the river when I was a kid,” I tell her. I can see her mind working for the memory, but it doesn’t come. “We went down with poles and went fishing.”
“Did I make sandwiches?” she asks. “I always like to make sandwiches if we’re going to the river. It’s good for the kids.”
“You did. And you showed me how to carve penny-whistles from willows.”
I can see in her eyes that she still hasn’t recalled the outing. Just as well. She’d spent most of it drinking beers with her girlfriend, whittling away at that stupid willow branch that never actually whistled. All the while, the other children and I had free reign of the embankment overlooking the Snake, the same river featured in stories my father told me from his own childhood. After nights and nights of practicing paddling skills in his bed, he told me my Grandmother threw him into the current to teach him how to swim. In retrospect it doesn’t seem the kind of behavior too far removed from leaving a squirrely grandchild on the steps of a homeless shelter in Santa Monica. And perhaps that is how, in terms of inheritance, my people best learn.
Grandmother started having babies at sixteen. She’d been through two husbands, and outlived two long-term boyfriends. She worked most of her life as a sheepherder and a barkeep, drinking as much on the side as she served. Perhaps in terms of survival that’s what my people do.
“Did you know that my Daddy used to ride his horse across the desert to court my Mama?”
“By the desert, you mean from west of Blackfoot into town?”
Grandmother shoots me a look like I must be daft not to know which desert she means. “Oh no! The desert from Blackfoot to Idaho Falls.”
“All that way? On horse?”
“All that way,” she says.
Grandmother’s parents married when Granddad was sixteen and Granny seventeen. I deduce my great-grandfather began his thirty-mile treks at fifteen-years-old, probably navigating by the Snake River as it cuts through the lava and sagebrush of the East Idaho desert. Wandering in the heat of summer to win the hand of my great-grandmother. Seventy two years later they'd replenished the desert with ten children, lost one, worked and played side-by-side before passing away within a year of one another.
“You should ask Daddy to tell you the story the next time you see him,” Grandmother says. “He is so much better at telling it than I am. Be sure to ask him to tell you the story, before he goes.”
I’ve been told that in the final weeks prior to birth, a developing fetus spends much of its time asleep, including periods of rapid eye movement we known as REM sleep. It is during REM state that the brain dreams. I have wondered about this transition from one concrete paradigm to another. Somewhere deep within the cortex of our awareness is there a deeper understanding, a preparatory mechanism that stimulates the brain for what is to come, like some deep repository of universal understanding that quickens and blooms just before we press through the end of one cycle into whatever is next? Do those dreams shimmer with memories and faces of what has preceded, or are they images of what is yet to come? Are these weeks of coming and going like existing in an hour glass, shaken so that beginning and end become confused, and so that all that is left are the grains of sand from some great desert and the slithering river of time, head devouring and tail in the endless flow of the eternal? Is that how it is now for my Grandmother before me?
I want to reach through her gaze and touch the faces she sees. I want to feel the hands of my great-grandparents, my great-great-grandmothers Casper and Rodgers. I want to take the hands of my father in my own. But rather, I take my Grandmother’s face in my hands before I leave. I hold it as I hold the faces of my children before I kiss them goodnight, and I look into her eyes so that she knows I have nothing to hide.
“I will come back. Before it is summer, or warm enough to take the kids to the river for sandwiches and swimming. I will come back, and I will bring peaches,” I tell her. I kiss her cheeks, her forehead, her tattooed lips and tell her that I love her, though the words do not match the power of the waves crashing on the sand of my soul.
Sometimes I imagine myself as the first brave creature to try out its fins as legs and to give up the sea in its lungs to experience the air. What am I then? To whom do I belong? The tug-of-war between land and sea has long raged in my blood. While I have no data to support the claim I would surmise that many children raised in abusive homes struggle with this same quest for reconciliation with their identity. Some come away whole. Others live their lives as wreckage, at odds with both the shore and the waves. I think my father understood, and in his final words to me he set me on the path to reclamation.
To know ourselves we must learn all we can, about ourselves and the world around us. We must lay bare every detail, even the most painful parts of ourselves, and lay naked for the next generation to look at all of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Then we must send our children in search of themselves, for we are not complete until all our generations have finished themselves, been reconciled, and come away whole. And when those who have come before us never find that peace of naked self- awareness, we must let them look into our eyes and plead with us, saying, “My Jesus knows me and has never left me. My Jesus understands the softness beneath my mean.”
Then we must travel the desert, on horseback if necessary, thirty miles by way of the winding river, to learn the devotion of feeding one another with our memories, with sweet summer peaches, to learn the healing art of forgiveness.
We must go out to meet our people when they can come no farther.