His face is etched into mine. As a child I studied that face as he shaved in his boxer shorts standing at the mirror over the sink, his face white with shaving cream, his eyes occasionally glancing over at me with amusement. I was captivated because he was my hero. He traveled a lot and home without him was not a good place for me, so when he was there I tagged after him like a puppy nipping at his heels. I never wanted him to leave and yet much of what I remember is him leaving with a suitcase in his hand, his suit and tie neatly packed, his blue eyes smiling and his black hair shining. I always wanted to go with him and when he would firmly tell me no and kiss my mom goodbye I remember running outside and watching the black Chevy drive away and then hiding in the Russian Olive tree trying not to cry. He was my touchstone, my protector and without him I felt adrift and frightened. This feeling lingered for many years until finally I found that some other boys could be equally as fascinating and he didn’t seem to mind the loss of interest on my part. We sometimes still went fishing together on the river or to a party on the 4th of July with my brother and my mom and I don’t remember much alone time with him, but he was often who I called when I was brokenhearted or afraid. He would listen to me and encourage me and let me know that everything would eventually be okay and I believed him and eventually it usually was. He rescued me many times from precarious places and some really bad choices and he let me learn some really tough love lessons too. As we both aged, I began to see him in a more realistic light and he became a friend. I started to worry about him more and want to take care of him and he would do things behind my back (like tell me he wasn’t driving when he was) or that he was fine when he was clearly struggling. We began a slow role reversal and I began the incredibly painful journey of learning how to hold loosely the love I have for the best person I have ever known. This picture was taken this past Christmas. I am 63 and he is 92. He is my Familia, the place I know and am known.
I choose to believe the folklore of my people. That if I listen long enough I can hear their spirits on the wind. That my grandmother was a ghost in a bed sheet, while my grandfather and his brothers ran through the sacred grounds of an Indian burial site. She wanted them to stop going there, so she put on a bed sheet and hiked up the back way. In the early light of dusk she came over the crest of the mountain and began to moan. Story be told they ran like a bat out of hell. My grandmother died one week short of her 100th birthday. She was eating a dish of ice cream and fell face down. We had planned this HUGE party for her and she couldn’t wait one more week. What a send off that would have been. I still can’t believe she did that. It was more her style to be the life of the party. I wish she had the chance to be the belle of her final ball. I miss her every day.
My grandmother was 16 when she married my grandfather, who was the principle of her one room school. Lore say’s that he hiked “nine miles in a snowstorm” to propose. They were married till death do they part. She lived twenty years beyond my grandfather. She cried and mourned for eight of those twenty years. I was witness to some of that. My grandmother spent time in a TB sanitarium. She was a social worker. She took care of people. She was a mother. She once backed up and rammed a driver in a car who was honking his horn at her, one too many times I guess. She was a great storyteller and captivated many people with her words. She was a protector of the under dog. I was in Denver and met a woman from Texas in a store. She said she was travelling through New Mexico and had lost her wallet. A “kind” woman let her stay in her hotel for free. Something told me it was my grandmother. “My family owns the hotel in a little town in New Mexico” I said “What’s her name?” she asked and when I opened my mouth to say “Georgia” she said it too. In amazement we looked at one another. “Your grandmother is the kindest person I have ever met.” and she was…except when she wasn’t.
Lore has it that she once fought a woman over my grandfather when she was young. The woman had eyes for my grandfather ( a 6’3″ black hair, blue-eyed man) and my grandmother didn’t like it. Story goes that they had it out…and my grandmother won. She and I once locked horns over her putting traps out for the coyotes. I couldn’t bear the suffering that caused them. She eyed me and said “I was a foolish city girl.” and her look warned me that was the end of that. She was legally blind the last ten years or so of her life yet she could see so clearly the joys that still held her captive. Her garden, her grand kids, her beloved hats. She loved pretty things (I use her china in my B&B), she sat and listened to the baseball game and knew every player on the team. She adored men. Once when I was trying to help her walk across the room she said she didn’t need any help, but when my husband came in the room she looked at him with her blue eyes and asked if he would help her. He was honored of course, while I just chuckled in the kitchen.
I think of her every time I garden. She actually uprooted some Iris Rhizomes and sent them to me through the mail, wrapped in newspaper. I have dug those rhizomes up and taken them with me on every move we have done. Those beautiful Iris’s called out my name every single spring since she has gone. Her gospel was her flowers.” They brought her closer to her maker” she once said to me “than any church pew.” though she loved a good church service. The more Baptist the better.
She was a southern lady. Born in the deep pockets of Texas, she was a prejudicial southerner that embarrassed me at times in ways unimaginable. I was a hippie type of girl, was in the busing of the early seventies and dated a black boy one summer. It horrified her to no end. She called him the N word and I about cried. “How can you call him that?” I shouted. “It’s what they are called.” she said “NO, it’s NOT.” I persisted horrified. “Granny, stop it!” she turned in her apron and stomped out into her garden and began to hoe the earth with a vengeance. I imagine she wanted to throttle her grand child who was the exact opposite of her in many ways that mattered. We stayed clear of one another for a day. What always worked to bring healing to our rift was that incredible garden. I would sit down next to her and weed while she talked about her childhood and grandfather and their dreams blown away by the dust bowl days. We picked beans and sunflower seeds and carrots and lettuce and tomatoes. We canned and we washed and we weeded and we mended our fences. It was our church. The meanness of the south was forgotten. I also watched her take in vagrant farm workers. As a young woman I thought I was called of God to preach. I was living with her on the 2000 acre ranch that had been her home for 30 years. She bribed the workers with breakfast if they would come on Sunday mornings and listen to me preach. I would stand up there and they would remove their hats and nod their heads and after a month of Sundays I realized not a one of them spoke English much past thank you and yes. They always thanked me after I preached. My grandmother never said a word, (she loved me that much I think). Some of my favorite times with her were laying in a bed somewhere in our pajamas talking. We talked about everything, it was our greatest joy with one another. Our mutual love of the spoken word, that and gardening.
I can still see her today standing at her stove in the chill of the ranch house kitchen, making pancakes and biscuits and eggs and bacon. Pouring anyone who wanted it the blackest coffee, and with that biscuits with the most luscious whipped butter I have ever had. I can still see her in her bonnet and in her garden, while the prairie winds blew and the dust flew, she would tenderly care for that 1/2 acre of love. I can still see the respect on the visitors faces while they sat in her parlor. After removing the plastic from her blue velvet couches, she would serve them coffee and cake with the hands of a rancher in the room of a princess. Blue walls and a chandelier with crystals in a rugged ranch house in the wilds of New Mexico, while mangy dogs begged for scraps and the scent of my grandfathers pipe settled into our pores.
I present my grandmother as all writers do. When she passed I was asked to write the eulogy. She was a legend to many and the glue of our family. We fractured after she passed. The meanness of the south, the bickering of the family over some of her things crushed me. I withdrew from them for a long season. Some of us long in marriages of endurance rather than love divorced. Some of us scattered, moving away to begin our lives anew taking our memories of her with us in suitcases of pain. My grandmother presented her life to us in story and in memories so southern sweet I can taste her on my tongue. She will remain, the lore of her in our decisions and our choices. She is still a living thing, in every flower, in the scent of bacon frying on the stove, in the china I carry to the guests who visit. She brings out in me my finer nature of working the land and raising gardens. I ask her to bless them. She visits often; her spirit visits me in the wind.