Here a little child I stand
Heaving up my either hand;
Cold as paddocks though they be,
Here I lift them up to Thee,
For a benison to fall
On our meat and on us all. Amen.
A Child's Grace by Robert Herrick
My grandmother died yesterday afternoon. The poem above was the grace that the youngest child in her father's household would say when the family gathered for Thanksgiving or Christmas or another big family meal. I think that the tradition was more important to her father and to my mother than it was to her, but somehow I always think of little snippets of poetry when I think of Grandmother.
Grandmother was born in Richmond and had polio as a teenager (though they didn't know it was polio at the time). She was always tiny, and Mom told us stories of how a convalescing teenage Grandmother would walk down the street to the soda shop every day, doctor's orders, for a milkshake whirred up with a whole raw egg.
Later in her teens she met my granddaddy who, by all accounts, swept her off her feet. My mother has a set of strange photographs from that time, one of each of the young lovers in sun-dappled sepia, he in uniform, her hair with a soft front 40s curl, where they appear to be leaning toward each other through the frames. Later, after they married, Grandmother followed him around the South as he followed business, Spartanburg, Charlotte, Atlanta, and finally Houston. They travelled together on business, too, to Alaska and Indonesia. Another photo shows tiny Indonesian-dressed 60s or 70s Grandmother holding a be-umbrella-ed drink in a coconut over Granddaddy's head.
But this was all before I knew her. The Grandmother I knew was an artist who painted in oils, rich colors and abstracted landscapes and adobe Texas scenes. When I was a child, my brothers and I were required to write a letter to a family member each month in exchange for our allowances-- we called it our "Grandmother letter"-- the request, "Can I have my allowance?" would be met with, "Did you write your Grandmother letter?" Once, I wrote an elaborate note with pictures replacing as many nouns as I could draw. I was so proud when Mom told me that Grandmother took the note to her art class to show her fellow painters; after that all letters to Grandmother had to be extra-specially creative.
Several years after Granddaddy died, Grandmother moved to North Carolina so that Mom would be close. With her came the modern art collection and the clean-lined furniture that had populated her house in Texas. I saw her more often then, and as an adult. We would sit in her den and talk turkey-- she would tell me stories about her life with Granddaddy. The 'little' apartment they shared in DC one summer that would cost $3000 a month to rent now; the sad one about the beautiful brooch that he bought her that another man had had to sell during tough times.
And always word-play and music. She recited a poem about the first day of spring that I still haven't been able to find. Once, when she picked up the phone and heard me on the other end she broke into an old song with the chorus "but don't. ask. Lulu!" She asked us many times to find her a copy of her favorite love song, Skylark, which has been sung by many different crooners. None of the versions we dug up quite matched the smooth splendor of the singer in her head. And we all laughed together to the tape of a raunchy trailer-park version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas that my uncle Larry cooked up and called in to an Atlanta radio station a couple of Christmases ago.
The last time I spoke to Grandmother was last Thursday, on Valentine's Day. It was a sad call, because she couldn't really hear me, no matter how loudly I spoke. But she did say, "I think I heard you say 'I love you'. That's all I can hear. And I love you, too." She handed the phone to my mother and I could hear in the background, "Tell her I love her."
As a family, we've had some kind of tough times-- Grandmother resented being asked to move to North Carolina and gave my mom a very hard time over it sometimes. But I'm glad that my last memory of Grandmother is one filled with love. I think that's one of the best benisons that's fallen on me in quite a while.
PS to my family: Memory is a funny thing. And a lot of my facts could be wrong. After Granddaddy died, I wrote about sitting on a hard pew in a church with my cousins, and to this day I can still feel that moment from 1994. This is why I'm writing this now--trying to pin down the memories.