Monday, September 8, 2014

Elizabeth Gardner Is My Grandmother

this little girl is Elizabeth Gardner, my grandmother. she died in november years ago, before my birthday november tenth, silencing my birthday for me completely in the sacred hush of grief. she was in her eighties and had been ill for years with Parkinsons. the last year of her life was in an assisted living facility just ten minutes drive from where my i lived with my family, and where my mom lived. at the time Lola was a baby and i a stay at home mom, so i was able to visit my grandma Elizabeth two, three times a week. between myself and my mom, she was hardly without family for a day. Mr. Curry often came with me, I'd wait until he came home from work and we'd take whatever kids were home. Lola was such a docile, sweet child that the nursing home presented no parenting stress- she quietly and calmly moved in grandma's small, shared room, not shouting and pulling plugs and cords and folding electric beds the way i know, with all my heart, her little sister would. all of the nursing home residents were thrilled to see Lola, and Lola shyly and kindly spoke to each one. i require- not in fashion to 'require' your children to do anything, but it is the way i do it- my children to make eye contact with people ( often explaining to them when they are young that this is a fundamental way of acknowledging a person's value just for being a person ) and respond when spoken to. Ian was incredibly shy- we didn't require him to have lengthy conversations, but a simple, polite response is always in order. i practice this with Ever at the ice cream store, which we visit at least once a week. last Friday night we walked there for Family Night with Ian, Lola and Ever, and i hoist Ever up and tell her to make eye contact, communicate her order herself, and say please and thank you. i've found these are good teaching opportunities because children are happy to do these things in order to have treats. 

at times we'd visit grandma Elizabeth on Friday Family Night. this may not seem like a festive way to start a family night, but it was extremely meaningful and satisfying and bonded our growing family together in the most human of ways- through work, through love. the work of honoring your elders, the children watching me as i cleaned grandma's feet, rubbed them with lotion, clipped her toenails that were thick and gnarled and ignored by the nursing staff, or helped her awkwardly to the bathroom and then cleaned up the puddled urine on the floor that often, she didn't even notice. the simple acts of witnessing with open eyes and arms the reality of age and illness was a balm to any kind of shame. i never once saw my grandmother look ashamed or weep because i had to change her wet sheets or wipe food off her shirts. i remember vividly a look of deep understanding and love pass between her and i many times as i did these things. she acknowledged what was happening between us more than she gave weight to the betrayals of her body, which was, in my estimation, a great emotional intelligence i honestly would not have foreseen in my grandmother. 

my grandparents lived with my mother until she was so physically depleted that i worried she was going to lose her job. she hung on past what any person could be expected to do who still had to work full time at an intellectually demanding job that required focus. she was up many times a night helping them with the bathroom or aches and pains and then went right back to caring for them when she stepped through the door. although i visited often at this point, i was not there through the nights. my mother did that alone. 

Mr. Curry was often along at the nursing home visits and his spirit shone in those dour smelling yellow lit halls full of elderly people in wheelchairs, often alone with rare or no visitors. he made friends with many of the regular hallway visitors and chatted with them easily. if anyone was in obvious distress, he stopped and attended to them until it was taken care of. once, he reassured a man who was sitting in his wheelchair, unable to move it, and almost weeping with frustration at his loneliness and impotence. Mr. Curry sat with him and talked, and at the end of the conversation as his hand slipped off the crackle vein topped hand of this old man, Mr. Curry turned away from him and toward me and tears began to slide down his face. the pain that was most intense in this care center was not physical, it was the emotional loneliness of these people, and during our visits we always ensured that we included others in our time. usually we would stay for at least two hours, and although i often left with a strained mouth and tears in my eyes, my heart was satisfied that i was doing as much as i could do. 

my grandparents were very blessed in that although my mother and her brother were the only children living close, all their other children, three others- my Uncle David drowned in a Mississippi lake aged fourteen- all took turns visiting. almost every month one of them came for a weekend. this level of care was hot gossip at the assisted living facility, and i heard at least once a week how lucky my grandparents were, how lucky to have such devoted family. 

on holidays we'd bring treats for everyone and leave them in the common room, and often my mother brought her poodle Renny, much to the delight of all the residents. there was one woman i remember vividly who was almost paralyzed, in a wheelchair, unable to communicate, and spent most of her time in an unresponsive fugue. during Renny's visits, we'd let Renny run up to her and nuzzle, and this woman would open her eyes, tilt her head rightly, and a huge smile would erupt over her crooked teeth. it was amazing.

in this picture of my grandmother as a little girl, i see clearly the grandmother i knew, before her cheeks sagged from their own weight, before her eyes were hooded, before a million lines of life's disappointments and frustrations and pain shot around her mouth like a threaded needlepoint but when they were already beginning to dart. she had a hard childhood with a hard mother. she was such an intelligent woman, my grandmother,  went to college and became a teacher, learned and played beautiful piano, giving lessons most her adult life, and later in life, she became an accomplished painter.  she taught me about art, board games, the South, the land, classical music and history. she raised five children and in her later years finally moved from Jackson, Mississippi and the South she'd spent her life in, and settled here in San Diego. i see her stubborn spirit so clearly in the bent little mouth her. she was a gorgeous woman, and a beautiful old woman, and so loved. i miss her and think of her often. i run at night and am often alone. as i run i look at the night sky, the stars and moon, and many times i say hello to my grandmother. 

the week after we moved into this new house, i went on a run. feeling overwhelmed and run down with stress, i started crying, running on a part of the trail that was not lit, and there were no cars going by to light the bushes aside of me. i looked up at the sky and enormous moon that hung that night, and said grandma, i am so sad. at that moment, a blazing shooting star fizzed and bit and jerked and flung itself down the sky. i laughed out loud. ok grandma, i said, i hear you. i felt peaceful, and ran quietly the rest of the way home.

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