The coolest spot in the house was the living room floor.
Grandmother would wait for me there, with her arm stretched out, for my head to find its usual resting place for our afternoon nap. I would have followed her anywhere. Like a duckling fallen into a city storm drain, she rescued me from the apathy of my mother and the selfishness of my father. The soft crook of her arm was as much my home as anywhere could be. She smelled of lemon and salt and sweetness.
I don’t know why she took me with her on those days of errands and outings. We passed time in old-fashioned ways. She understood books and donuts and walking in the park, so that is what we did. I realize now that she came from a simpler time, where honesty was strength and had more value than cunning. Could a woman in her 50’s really find happiness in spending time with an impetuous young girl like me? I can’t quite conceive of the immense selflessness of this act. It’s one trait that I did not inherit from her.
I occasionally caught glimpses of what other children of the 1980s did to pass their time: going to movie theaters, playing hand-held video games, riding bikes and skateboards. I never wanted any of that. The things Grandmother showed me had a sense of magic about them. She must have made a point of speaking to me gently and with an attitude of patient love to have engendered such wonder through our simple ventures together. Maybe it was the inherent dignity of her person, and the quiet way she carried herself like ladies used to do. This was a woman who never bragged or begged. Her strength stemmed from goodness and longsuffering. Personal loss never really lessened a woman like that.
Grandmother attached a red plastic seat to the back of her bicycle, and we went everywhere together.
The park was a frequent destination for us. In my child-mind’s eye it was enormous. There I learned how squirrels play among the tall tree trunks and how to blow a dandelion. We had picnics on a thin checked cloth, just the two of us, with egg salad sandwiches and crystal light. I don’t think it was ever too cold or too hot. There was nothing but perfect weather in those days. I only wore dresses then, because pants were for boys. I had a pair of green slacks in the bottom drawer of my chest, but I don’t think I ever put them on. Someone gave them to us, and we would never throw away something as useful as clothing. They must not have known that my grandmother knew better than to dress little girls in shorts or pants.
My bedroom smelled faintly of the onions and potatoes that we kept under my bed. It was close to the kitchen. Each morning I could hear her making breakfast and singing a song on her way to my bedroom door, ready to wake me up for school. She had a thin, sweet voice when she sang to me, like a young child might speak to a kitten. I would often pretend to be grumpy on those mornings, hiding under my handmade quilts against the morning light in my window, but she was persistent and always knew best. With her characteristic gentle determination, she provided the home for my grandfather and me that we never quite deserved. We had our own lives and dreams; she had us.
My grandmother belonged to my four cousins, too. They had their mother and father to raise them, on a big farm in the middle of rural southern Illinois, but they were my siblings, all the same, whenever we were together. I was not theirs, though. They had each other. My aunt hadn’t the time or patience to treat me specially, and I was another child to feed and discipline on the busy farm. This is what joined us: we answered to the same authority and felt the same pull of force from this formidable woman – their mother. We shared bathwater and fought over prizes in cereal boxes. We sighed and giggled together with childish abandon when the drone of a box fan in the window joined the chirp of crickets to lull us to sleep.
Grandmother and I took the bus to the Evansville library on summer afternoons. The musty glue-paper scent of all those old pages still makes me dizzy. I became a bibliophile in an instant. I knew that no one could love those books like I did. I loved them more than Grandmother did, which is why she let me stay there as long as she could, rifling through the long, tall stacks of literary creation. The colorful children’s books sat on short shelves in a room with tall windows and long couches, but I outgrew these illustrated versions of literature almost as soon as I had begun.
I wish the books I read now had pictures. What happened to the art of literary illustration? And why don’t “adult” books have pictures in them? Don’t grown-ups like to fuel their imaginations with the pen-and-ink sketches of characters to help them come to life? And isn’t the mind of an adult even less creative than a child’s? I could have much more readily conjured up an idea from nothing more than words and ideas back then. Much more readily than I could now. My mind is too full of pre-conceived notions of how things ought to look these days. I could use a drawing or two to expand my mind and see what an author sees when they put words to paper and spin their tale.
I kept the books Grandmother gave me in a stack near my bed.
Most of them were sweet little childish books, with pastel colored pictures that held little more than captions under them to tell a story. They smelled almost like the library, but not quite.
The very best moments were the lazy afternoons we spent in the kitchen. We listened to records with little glossy magazine-paper books to help tell their stories. I sat on Grandmother’s lap in her big wooden rocking chair, with the window unit air conditioner blowing away, sweeping the refrigerated air over us and across the room. The window there had a metal frame, with tiny paper butterflies on magnets all around it. She had affixed several sun catchers in the shapes of hummingbirds, monarchs, cardinals, roses, robins and cherry blossoms to the half-window above the A/C because I sold them in 2nd and 3rd grade for a fund raiser. They were made of real glass, not plastic and prone to become cloudy like the ones you find today. They sparkled in translucent rainbow hues as I day-dreamed along with the record player in Grandmother’s lemon-scented arms.
My mother never saw Grandmother the way I did. She warned me of her temper, which I never knew. This younger, more impulsive version of the woman who loved me and raised as a young child must have been more like me, the way I am now. This thought gives me hope. If my fate is to become the woman I most admire, the most beautiful soul I’ve ever known, I would wish for nothing more. My children are now at an age where grandchildren, for me, is a new possibility. Although I don’t relish the idea of becoming a grandmother or helping to raise my children’s’ children, I suddenly wonder whether my own grandmother ever wanted it, either. Certainly, we never anticipate our own children’s shortcomings in parenting, just as we could not have anticipated our own.
She looks the same to me now, in my mind’s eye. My dreams often portray her as a speechless specter, dead even in dreams. I suppose this must mean I’ve accepted the loss of her in my life. Without her, ever since I moved away from her care at a young age, I have felt I was half an orphan. I raised myself after that. I cooked and cleaned and did my own laundry. I was my mother’s roommate. Mother couldn’t have known that I had become accustomed to having someone lying next to me at night or awaken me with silly songs in the morning. I never desecrated Grandmother’s memory by telling anyone about the way she was with me. Some beauty is beyond words, and could never be re-imagined by anyone.
I carry her with me everywhere I go.
In many ways, I know I am more like her than anyone knows. My finer self resembles my grandmother, and because of her, and me, my children will carry a peace inside them and smile, knowing that they are truly loved.