** On October 30 of this year, my Grammie had her 100th birthday. There was a party and everything; everyone who’s anyone was there.
Oh, you hadn’t heard. So sorry you missed it. Me, too, alas.
But I bragged on my Grammie the Centurion all day to my students and anyone who would stand still. Last year, she gave me the ring pictured, and the subject of this missive. I have hardly removed it since I got it. It reminds me to stand taller than I feel. What a life; I am so thankful for her. (All factual errors in measurements, ages, and numerical stuff are mine.) **
For all I know the stone in my new ring may be colored glass. In fact it’s probably Mexican Opal, also known as Bohemian art glass. The manmade, smooth oval stone has captivated my imagination since I was little: engrossed in Grammie’s “sunset” ring instead of the lesson at church. Now the ring is on my left pinkie finger, my hand freckled like Grammie’s, my nails not so nicely manicured, and hands that have never known the same kind of hard work that her hands knew. The ring, beloved, feels foreign and out of place. Even though I know it was freely given, I was afraid to wear it when I went to visit in December of 2016; afraid she might think I had “snitched” it from her jewelry box without asking.
At her tallest, I think Grammie was about five feet tall. The last time she stood next to me she just about reached my shoulder – maybe four foot ten or eleven. When I saw her last month I felt like a giant next to her. But then she didn’t really stand, just shifted her weight from sitting on the bed to sitting in the wheel chair. When they were young, I’d guess she just came up to Pa’s shoulder, maybe not so high – he was six feet tall, I think.
When I first walked into her shared hospital room in December she was a tilde, that wavy mark above the “n” in Spanish that softens and lengthens its sound; a toppled over “s” underneath the brown and blue-fringed plaid blanket. She lay with her eyes closed on the small twin mattress. To see her so frail, diminished took me aback, even though Momma had told me how much she had shrunk in mind and body since I saw her just six months ago. I wasn’t sure she would know me. But she turned to me from under the blanket and said my name, the way she has said it my entire life. Turns out that being the oldest granddaughter matters.
But maybe that’s not what matters. Maybe what made my name cross her lips with relative ease were all the years we spent together making memories.
I was a baby in her house, my nineteen-year-old mom and me living in the spare room. I don’t remember that time, but snapshots in photo albums tell a piece of that story: me shuffling around the house, my feet swallowed in Pa’s hard-to-fill work shoes; riding Fritz the dachshund – I remember his soft, soft ears, and that I loved him; eating strawberries from the garden; sitting with my little legs stretched beneath the TV set to watch my programs; baths in the kitchen sink. Later, when me and Momma and Daddy lived across town, staying over to go to church on Sunday; “coffee” (mostly half-and-half with a little coffee and sugar for color and flavor) with breakfast; meeting cousins to pick up pecans and dig holes to China (oooo did we hear about it over the holes to China), to prowl the drainage ditch, and turn the green house into a castle or mansion. Later still, in college, I lived with Grammie and Pa one semester and laid on my bed — that had been Aunt Sharon’s bed and Grandma Williams’ bed — reading The Federalist Papers, listening to fifteen-year-old rock-n-roll – Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the rest; practicing my Spanish with them at breakfast; hopelessly trying to work chemistry formulas through tears at the dining room table; rehearsing choreographies in the den surrounded by Grammie’s coleus, geraniums, violets, and other assorted plant life – always colorful, always vibrant, always thriving under her gentle fussing.
Most nights that long summer and fall I helped wash dishes; I don’t remember cooking, but Grammie made boiled potatoes for me nearly every day because she knew I loved them with butter and a little salt. I sat on the kitchen counter and talked to Grammie while she made supper, like I had done when I was little. Sometimes I went grocery shopping with her. Sometimes I drove over to the fix-it shop for lunch after class. Even though I was struggling in myself that year, it was a good year in many ways.
Principally, it was good to participate in day-to-day life with my daddy’s Momma and Daddy. I absorbed a lot of lessons about love and hard work and perseverance from their nearly seventy years of experience. Some lessons I learned easier than others; some I’m still working on.
Whatever I didn’t learn right away, stayed in my toolbox of life skills for facing adulthood with a greater measure of confidence; I learned what it meant to be a life-long learner by listening at breakfast to their practice conversations in Spanish, the dictionary close to hand. They worked hard to get better: as people, as Christians, at their relationship, and to stay busy and to make time for study and family every day.
They both worked at Pa’s fix-it shop; they both still drove; they were both strong, and even though I thought they were “old” they didn’t seem “old” the way some of my friends’ grandparents did. There were no wheelchairs or canes in the house. Pa wore a hearing aid and false teeth. But Grammie did her own nails every week and her teeth were whole, complete, and her own and until about two years ago, her hearing was as sharp as ever. There was much for 19-year-old me to learn.
I’m still learning. The weight of this silver ring, its oval aurora borealis dulled with time and use, reminds me how much. Grammie’s world is continually shrinking, from the big house and yard on Pecan Park Drive, to the small apartment where she and Pa lived with some assistance, to a tiny efficiency apartment with just one room after Pa died, and now to a single twin bed in a room with a closet, a nightstand with Pa’s green banker’s lamp, and a bathroom and a roommate. Meanwhile, my world and my work is still growing, and I still have room in my heart and in my body to grow in these ways, but Grammie’s legacy is heavy, and I feel sometimes that it may be more than I can carry, strong and broad as my shoulders are.
I need to get to a jeweler to have the stone in her ring — my ring — polished, so I can see the sunset there again, and be inspired to keep expanding while the motivation is easier to come by than it will be when my eyes and ears betray me and the world begins to shrink to the size of a piece of polished art glass.