The fact that I didn’t remember being there when she died and the events that followed had nothing at all to do with her and everything to do with me. Indeed, I didn’t even remember that I had been at the hospital. Nor did I realize that I had for most of my adult life erroneously believed that she’d gotten sick because of diabetes only to later discover that she’d gone to the hospital due to problems related to her gall stones. Later, complications associated with her diabetes weren’t addressed in a timely manner by her doctors. I found all of this out while speaking with Aunt Eartha, one of Grandma’s 8 daughters. There were 3 sons. I was shocked to know that for so many years I had not known the cause of my grandmother’s death. Funny how sometimes people tell us things that are not facts and we believe them, or we create our own narratives, which are often never corrected. In the end, though, it was not so much not knowing the cause of Grandma’s death that shocked me but the fact that I had no recollection of being there at the time of her death, nor of what happened immediately following, nor of anything having to do with her funereal.
I could not believe my ears when Aunt Eartha said, “After she died, you and Dorothy walked home.” Aunt Dorothy was Eartha’s sister. It was what I did not, could not say that frightened me, for I surely did not want her to psychoanalyze me. But the truth was, though, at 13, I was surely old enough to have a crystal clear memory of all events, I had not one memory. How could I tell Aunt Eartha that I had no idea what she was talking about? Instead, I drifted away from her words, much like I imagined I must have drifted away from the memory of Grandma’s death, and began to envision me and Aunt Dorothy taking the long silent march from the hospital in that small South Carolina town. We probably walked down the paved road for what must have been two miles, past the local store where I’d get my favorite moon pie and Spirite soda, until we came to a red dirt road and made a left, walked probably a half mile, where we came to Grandma’s mailbox, and then made a right, and probably walked another quarter mile to reach the porch where Grandma and I had spent so many hours rocking back and forth on the creaky porch swing.
This is where my memory shifts into high gear, but not about sickness and death, but–land and fresh fruits and vegetables. My mother’s parents owned over 70 acres of fertile land that my grandfather had inherited from his father. And that land, at least through the vision of a young girl, stretched beyond what the eyes could see. To the east there were apple trees and corn fields. To the west, there was an orchard with a variety of apples: granny smith, golden delicious, and rome. Alongside them, sat the strangest little vines with bitter grapes. To the south, there were plums, more grapes, pigs, chickens, and a private forest that Grandma and I took walks in. To the north, there were fig and pecan trees. Hedges divided them from potatoes, watermelons, peanuts, cucumbers, and more. Behind them, was an horizon where the fields met the sky, that Grandma and I could drift into our very own imaginary world. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a utopia, and being with her was the happiest I’d ever been in my life. Perhaps that’s why it’s the only thing I remember. Perhaps I could not bear to remember anything else.
When the time was right, Grandma made the most decadent, delicious apple jelly along with her pear, strawberry, peach, and fig preserves. Some of the best times came when we picked wild blackberries, and she made a preserve such as I have never tasted since. No one deserved as much pleasure as the homemade jelly and preserves brought me. The apple turnovers and apple sauce were stupendous. And now, as mother myself, I suspect Grandma knew the pleasure she gave me and her own children, which is what likely drove her beyond her boundaries and perhaps even to the the hospital. The guilt that Grandma might have been more concerned about pleasing me and others over taking care of herself will haunt me forever.
As for the pigs, I never actually saw them, but I remember having to carry some buckets of slop a few times and heard them through the wooden planks of the stall. I was intimidated by the fear of them getting out and justifiably charging me for their freedom. But for all my talk of veganism and vegetarianism today, I felt no guilt then when those pigs were finally slaughtered, and we ate everything but the oink. If you have never had fresh sausage and ham seasoned by your Grandma’s hands, then you have never had sausage and ham worth consuming. Strange, though, I felt differently about the chickens being slaughtered than I did about the pigs. After all, I’d seen them running around in the backyard, and I had an aversion to them showing up on my plate. I’d also witnessed Grandma wring their necks, whereas I had not witnessed the pigs’ slaughter. That was men’s work. The chicken legs were skinny things with very little flesh, different from store-bought chicken. It seemed a waste to have even killed my friends. So while I was hungry enough to eat the chicken, I couldn’t bring myself to do so.
Grandma was not just a cook; she was someone whose personality was found not in words but in silence. Indeed, I don’t actually remember ever having a conversation with Grandma, but I suppose that’s how it would have been in those days, children knowing their place. Though I’m not sure if that’s exactly how she felt about me because she was a woman of such few words, and when she was speaking, she was typically giving a directive. Maybe she’d learned to be that way because she had raised 11 children and probably had to get used to telling people what to do or else. She was a fun lady. She liked to play the card game old maids and never suspected that her grandchildren were looking at her cards through her eyeglasses. She also liked to play the stare game. We’d just sit and stare at one another until finally someone cracked under the pressure and started laughing. This was an especially good game during a thunderstorm when the lights would go out, and there was little else to do down in the country with only candles to light our way. Grandma was notorious for chewing gum and would sometimes share it with me. The funniest part of this quirk was when she’d dose off while chewing gum, and just as it was about to fall out of her mouth, she’d somehow slurp it back in without missing a snore. Funny lady, indeed, without even trying. That’s what I remember.
Every day was not paradise, though. One of my responsibilities was to part her hair and scratch her scalp with the tip of a comb. It wasn’t always such a lovely sight under all that curly gray hair. Sometimes I’d run into little scabs that begged to be removed, and that was not pleasant at all. But there was no arguing with Grandma once she commanded you to do something. Sometimes that something was removing all of her little whatnots from the corner shelves and dusting the shelves and the novelties one by one. Once I became an adult, I always wondered why I surrounded myself with whatnots that I hated to dust. It finally dawned on me one day that I kept them because I thought it was the normal thing to do because Grandma had always had them. It took a while before I gave myself permission to not have them as a part of my decor because, though I enjoyed looking at them, I didn’t enjoy dusting my own anymore than I had enjoyed dusting Grandma’s. If she’s reading this, I hope she can forgive me.
Aunt Eartha still doesn’t know that I have no recollection of Grandma’s death, the long walk home with Aunt Dorothy, nor the funereal. I am present and accounted for in the memories of others, but not my own. Something cracked in me when Aunt Eartha matter of factly mentioned I was there when Grandma died. And I have a funny feeling that it was the same thing that cracked that day and allowed me to slip into an abyss that I have yet to climb out of. Now, I find myself wondering will I ever remember the day she died, the long walk down that dirt road towards the front porch we shared, or the funereal. Or will these memories forever be too much for me to bear?
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