Family, Things I Can

39. Things I Can Deliver: Her Eulogy

The girl who climbed trees in Durant, Oklahoma, ignoring as long as possible the suggestion that this activity may be less than ladylike, she was long grown by the time I came around. But I caught a glimpse of her when she and Dick outfitted that van for the open road, and she scrambled over hillsides all around this country collecting gems and geodes.
 
The college graduate who came to Dallas and strode through downtown with her girlfriends, in awe of the fashions at A. Harris and the big city bustle? She was a distant memory by the time I was old enough to have joined her on those walks. But a glimmer of her appeared when she’d stroll through the aisles at Neiman’s on the way to the Zodiac Room, pausing to stroke the beaded silk and saying, “Oh, just imagine the places we could wear this!”
 
I wish I could have met the young woman who whirled around the USO with her flyboy, but she showed up at the bridge table, and stocked her cabinets with board games and playing cards, and let us flounce through the house in the puffed sleeves and petticoats of her square dance dresses, and opened her treasure boxes to gild our necks and arms with costume jewels.
 
That girl who’d let her big sister Cecil take the spot as Mima’s culinary apprentice while she herself was skinning her knees climbing all those trees? When she became a young Navy wife and realized she’d actually have to cook for that husband of hers, it would have been a kick to see her rooting through the barrel at the PX and choosing a nickel edition of Fannie Farmer and stumbling through her first pot roast. But I saw a bit of her when she cranked a whole orange through the grinder for cranberry salad, and tossed just the right splash of ice water across the flour for pie crust.
 
I could have learned a lot from the dedicated young mother who cared for those five babies while setting up house and community in Hawaii, Maine, Florida. But she appeared in front of me when, at 86 years old, she got right down on the floor and played with her infant great-grandson.
 
I wish I could have held the hand of the young widow with two of her children still in school, who took the searing tragedy of losing a husband and transformed it into the courage to up and move to Germany. But I did see her seek adventure in the everyday, driving all the way down to the Dallas Farmer’s Market on a Saturday to marvel at the cantaloupes and east Texas tomatoes, lifting them to her nose and wowing at the fragrance, the warmth, as if each was the first she’d ever held. I saw her boldly stay open to the world even as her body set its own limits. Walking the pool, gabbing with friends; accepting every invitation to travel; serving families in need through her volunteer work; consuming the Dallas Morning News every day; and meandering all the way through each new issue of National Geographic.
 
Mardy was Gramma Mardy by the time I came along. She would sit with me in the breakfast nook and drink her tea. But she was so much more than a tea-drinking, nook-sitting gramma. We’re working the crossword together, digging through the dictionary, patching together word origins and giggling at the rickety bridges strung between the gaps in our knowledge. She wants to learn it all. Then the puzzle is done and she’s reading the headlines out loud and punctuating them with fiery commentary about this senator or that scandal. Then she’s up feeding birds whose habits and classifications she is eager to grasp. Then she’s skimming the arts page for a gallery or a foreign film.
 
Then, invariably, the people come.
 
The phone rings and it’s one of lunch ladies. Rick and the kids stroll up the patio waving. The doorbell rings, and Nelda is there with a question.
 
Gramma invites them in. Curious, affable, delighting in whatever is going on in their worlds, she offers a chair and questions, and soon they’re re-drawing the blueprint of old neighborhoods on the map of their collective memory. Where did Sleepy Reese end up? Did the neighbors actually lay that driveway on Daddy’s property? Which year did Eddie Dominguez graduate? Oh, and what about old What’s-his-Name? Then we’re laughing and hollering, trying to reach consensus, and barring that, nudging the discussion into more agreeable territory. Soon someone’s going to pick up Dickey’s barbeque or getting suited up for the pool or arranging for church then lunch then a trip to Durant. And all of this activity just blooms up from the mere act of being in Gramma Mardy’s house.
 
I say I wish I could have known the girl, the young wife, the mother. But maybe I did know her. All those glimpses had stories behind them, and the stories were right there, still very much alive, ready for me to weave into my own. I knew a much fuller version of my Gramma because people called and came to the door knowing they’d be invited in. Made comfortable. Asked to share.
 
Witnessing and learning about the lives of her loved ones – that was Mardy’s way. She cultivated openness, welcome, HOME. Everyone who was part of Mardy’s circle knew they’d have a place where they could come and where they could belong. Cherino, Crestover, Allencrest, Hideaway. She opened the doors to Paul, Lissa, Brin, John and Nancy, Rick and Carrie, Jamin, me. Giving all of us at one point or another a waystation and a launch pad, or just a place to catch our breath. And the other grandkids – Jonathan and Jennifer, Brendan, Dylan, Sadie too – all of us knew that Gramma’s home was ours.
 
This is not an accident. This is a way – Gramma Mardy’s way – unique and extraordinary. And because all of these generations of friends and kin have sat at her breakfast table laughing and arguing and telling the stories, I met that red dirt girl who became the kind of woman I hope to someday be.
 
It breaks my heart that my Gramma didn’t make it out to Virginia to stay in the condo I bought two summer ago – the first home of my own. It would have been so nice to share my table with her for once. I spent the first year there guarded and shell-shocked, protecting my solitude, my hackles up against the obligations attached to membership in a community.
 
But this year, as Gramma’s health declined, it’s almost as if some fragment of her spirit rode the currents over 1500 miles and took root in me. I’ve finally started to look up and become friends with my neighbors. To host parties even when my house is a mess. To follow my son when he jets off with his buddies, and go meet their parents and siblings.
 
Maybe that woman I only caught in glimpses over 41 years waited for me to grow up enough to meet her, fully formed, as the curious, vibrant, tough, and tender person she always was.
 
I am lucky – in fact, we all are so lucky – to have been on the receiving end of her love. She’s here in that love, in me – in us – every time we open the door and invite someone in.
 

Love, Relationships

Don’t Blink

Maybe when the moving van is idling in the driveway. Or as the plane lifts off. Maybe when the only ones left encircle the bed with whispers of permission. Or when chain link goes up around the place where lovers learned to fox trot long before they could imagine what would be lost.

It’s rarely so clear when we have our last shot.

Endings don’t come with a narrative pause.

When they do, the impulse is to fold like shutters. Pain approaches on horseback. Voiceless momentum, the vibration down low, the faint stink of iron and scorched powder. Get small and douse the lights. Better yet, dash out the side door and don’t look back.

My grandmother told me about the dust coming like night. More than a vision of it choking out the horizon, it was a growling, quickening pulse. Like the collective hackles of every living thing — mule deer, jackrabbit, gnat — bristled to action. Burrow. Batten down the hatches. Take cover.

Run.

It takes an act of will to unclench. That ending is not going to put on rouge or slow its gait. To look it right in the eye means staring down something whose ugly keeps expanding as it shambles into view. No wonder the urge is to cut it off before it can fill the frame. Call it claiming the story. Call it authorship. Call it power.

Call it for the cowardice it is.

Dare instead to turn towards that death. Creak open. Blink clear. See the arrival of the departure.

See it whole.

The architecture. The clay shards. Cracked paint, rusted locks, weathered lips. The polished steel fragment of a fallen bridge.

See the lines in its face. The leathered scar that masks its soft place.

Dare to love completely what you already mourn.

The chance won’t come again.

 

Change, Poetry

Dead Ringer

The ting a single note was key
against coin, a passing
pocket, the handyman pausing to light
the corridor after a week
of burnt filament
and shadow. It was not
the dog turning
a corner. Of course
I look up anyway
because it is easier to recall
than to forget
her and easier still to forget
that recollection
is all I have left.
The last time tag tinged collar
was the last time.
I will get used to this
too soon. I will fail to catch
the first moment
that note chimes
and I don’t look up
anymore.
 

Choices, Growing Up

Fill in the Blank

Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.

– Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses

Is silence, by definition, cowardice?
 
Impossible. There is no silence in silence, after all. Language is always there, elbowing and grunting its way through the heady determination shut up I’m trying to be quiet of quiet. Thought is all voice. But without throat and tongue to give it an address, where does it land? On the page, perhaps. In the letter she writes with the pen squeezed in her fist but never sends. In the steel echo of a John Lee Hooker song bouncing off the walls of his skull. In the clanging, fists-swinging noise of ideas backed against the ropes. One thought after another dripping sweat, conceived and voiced in some halfway-way.
 
Courage? Certainly not. But neither is the nascent thesis cowardice. It is something between. Suspension, perhaps. A pause in the action.
 
Truth needs a shape, though, yes? One can’t just hesitate forever.
 
She sits across from him, across and far and maybe nowhere near him. The silence is every possible word pushing against the roof of her mouth. Finally, she speaks. “I don’t understand you. You make no sense to me.”
 
He recoils from her and says, “There is something wrong with you.”
 
Every other thing, not spoken. Every other statement about everything also right exactly here, unchosen. Every other truth, from the draping leaves of the ceiling-high houseplant to the taste of sourdough still clinging to their fingers. Every other possible scaffolding on which they could build some structure to hold is left there in a heap. Rebar cascades away in waves. It washes offshore when the tide comes in. It drifts to the bottom of the sea.
 
She says, “I need to catch my breath.”
 
He says, “Goodbye.”
 
Language is multiple choice without an “all of the above.” Choosing a word, even if it is only one, is courage. Even if it is the wrong one. Maybe especially then.
 

Family, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 10

In the hours before we leave for the airport, the erratic artillery fire of footsteps rattles the house. Four of us, up and down and in and out. We somehow manage to eat a full breakfast and pull off an early-morning pre-Christmas gift exchange in the midst of it all. Bug purchased surprise tchotchkes for all of us from Colvin Run Mill’s gift weekend for kids. Volunteers take children through the country store with their lists and budget helping them both pick out and wrap the presents. Parents are not allowed. It if fun to see my little boy growing up enough to take pride in selecting treasures for each of us. He bought me a lime green kitty cat ring-keeper. Considering how much he loves to play in my jewelry box, the gift is especially sweet.
 
During our morning exchange, Bug crawled around behind the tree and made a pile for each of us. It is amazing how quickly he has put the alphabet together into words. He reads the names on the tags easily, tossing each gift into a pile. Never mind that the tags are hand-letters and a little smeary and that each of us goes by different names to one another. He understands whose is whose. He counts them out and makes sure we take turns.
 
Then we are done and off to the bath, the laundry, the packing. Giovanni stops by to drop off gifts and to say goodbye. This is not an easy moment. He is moving out of his apartment in a few weeks and we are seeing less of each other. The New Year will be very different than the last. After giving Bug the winning gift of the morning — a Lego minecraft set  — Giovanni kneels down and says, “Listen, buddy. I won’t be seeing a lot of you. If you ever, ever want to talk to me, you just tell your mommy that you want to call me. You can call me anytime, okay?”
 
“Okay,” Bug says, only half looking at him. Giovanni sweeps Bug into a bear hug and tells him he loves him. Watching him attend to my son through this farewell makes me shiver. I can feel those arms as if they are holding my own heart. I take a breath and decide not to cry as he kisses me hard before driving away.
 
Soon, we are at the end of the morning. We take out the garbage, empty the dishwasher, set up the cat’s food bowl for the kitty-sitter. All through it, the bump-bump-bump the overstuffed suitcases and the last remembered items shake the rafters.
 
Another Christmas awaits us when we land at DFW. My grandmother, still kicking at 92 despite the dementia and the broken hip, will have all five of her children and a good fraction of her assorted grandkid under one roof this year. It will be bright chaos. It will be a story to tell.
 
And we never know when it might be goodbye.
 

Love, Outdoors, Poetry

Happy 100 Days: 46

I have only two left
gloves, a worn
hole in the index finger
of one so I turn it backwards
on my right hand and heft
my end of the 6×6
over to the pit where the small hill
of sand by the gate
will reside
after we are done
(probably not today)
 
The man’s toolbelt drags
down his pants and his pencils
have not been sharpened
in a year. His drill
bit is too short and keeps escaping
from its housing
it is a wonder we manage
to fit holes
three beams deep
with the same rebar we use
to lever the lumber from its
ill-placed seating
(the volunteers did not use a level)
 
Leaves drift into the pit and we lose
the maul and then the last
pencil. My gloves flop like wings of
bats. Nothing stays. We use the flat
side of a hand saw to draw a line
“measure twice, cut once,” I say
so he pauses and smiles and unclips
the measuring tape
before hitching up his pants
again. When he drills backwards
through wood to meet
the hole from the other side, every time
I hold my breath and every time
I cheer when the bit spins free
finding its aim in the dark center
and the light and the air
spill through
behind the shavings
 
The eight-foot beam splits
my right index finger
at the tip and I suck my breath
but he is bleeding too in almost the same place
(the posts are hard to lift from the rebar
we keep seating too soon)
so we both shrug and keep hammering
the business end of one maul
with the blunt end of another
 
The sun sinks. We coil
the orange cord and stand
the shovels and wheelbarrow against the shed
wall, the beams still loose
the sand still piled
by the gate. He gives me
my first and
as it turns out
only hug of the day
and drives off with the circular saw
in his back seat
 
The gloves need a proper burial
but I toss them in
with my tools again
and my skin chafes red and thirsty
as I lift away the leaves caught
in the trunk of my car to make
room. The sting dulls to a throb
and so I do not feel the cut
mouth of the paper frog
my son made for a man
he loved once when crafting
something by hand was enough
even if the the edges
were ragged and maybe
even especially then.