Monday, June 02, 2008

"Above the Horizon: Part Three"

In the hour before the church service that would publicly memorialize my grandmother, we immediate family members left the windy cemetery and headed back to her bungalow, where she had lived since moving off the ranch more than thirty years earlier. As we all rattled around in her house, eating bars and leaning against her kitchen counters just as we had in adolescence, I had a few minutes to consider my cousins and who they'd become.

Strangely, although I grew up close to these cousins, geographically, they always felt distant, perhaps because their father's life had diverged so dramatically from my own father's. These two sons of Dorothy always got along, always remained companions to each other, yet one, my uncle Larry, followed the life of ranching and eventually long-haul trucking. On the other hand, my dad became a choral conductor and opera singer. At best, their common ground was yodeling.

As well, my dad had one wife in his lifetime, while Larry had several, eventually ending up with three children of varying parentage and, for awhile, a fourth--a step-daughter who remained in his life as long as his marriage to her mother did. Ultimately, I was left with three cousins: Shelley, Mary, and Luke. They weren't given every opportunity, and none of them had a constant mother. In fact, Shelley and Mary's mother left them when they were toddlers to return to her "career" tending bar in a casino. At that point, it was my grandma Dorothy who stepped in and essentially raised those girls.

Thus, it made sense, on a day of memorial for Dorothy, that I would look to Shelley and Mary's lives as evidence of Grandma's impact. Mary, who lived with Grandma even through the rebellious years of high school, had attended cosmetology school before marrying. Her husband's job took them to Nevada for some years, to a place Mary hated so much that she finally looked up one day and said, "God, if you get me out of Nevada, I'm yours forever." Damned if God and his minions didn't get her husband transferred to Washington, causing Mary and the Lord to strike up a little thing on the side. Luckily, Mary found a way to merge her two passions in life: she shaves "PTL" (as in "Praise the Lord") into the hair on the back of her sons' heads--or, in more spartan months, just a cross. You have no idea how much it pained me to type that previous sentence, incidentally.

Less shackled to her faith and her razor, Shelley, too, married well and is raising successful children. Luke, like the girls, was largely brought up by my grandma; he entered the service and likes nothing more than restoring old cars and, speculation has it, growing marijuana. While I have hardly any relationship with these cousins today, due to our lack of anything in common (blank looks greeted me the one time I ventured a "So, read any good books lately?"), I took a minute, leaning against the counter, to marvel at these cousins, and I credit my grandma with giving them the wherewithal to resist taking up knives in their adulthood and randomly stabbing people who might be loitering outside the Rockvale Cafe, waiting for a booth for five. Indeed, I had a little moment, there by the frying pan in Grandma's kitchen, watching a box elder bug crawl along the linoleum, one in which my bar-fueled brain had a flash: with family in the midst of grief, it doesn't necessarily matter if people have a lot in common--just one commonality can carry the day.

After an hour of kitchen chat and gnosh, we wiped the crumbs off our chins and went to the memorial service at the Lutheran church. At the front of the church, an 8" x 10" photo of my grandma presided up front, which struck the worst part of me as a little hokey, but it ended up being quite affecting--it felt very personal to be confronted with Grandma's steady gaze as the pastor spoke of her life on the plains, about her always knowing if even one of the cows was missing at the end of the day--not because she knew how many cows there were but because she recognized each of their faces--and about her being a helpmate to my grandpa.

Even more, the pastor talked of my grandma's last days, as her health faded. When she entered the hospital, she just wanted to "go home." Later, when she was moved to an assisted-care facility, she was sure it was just a matter of time before she would go home. But my dad knew her stay there would be until the end, which turned out to be only two days. He felt guilty about that. Thus, when the pastor finally said, "Now Dorothy has gone Home," fluttering shudders of sobbing passed through my dad. Sitting next to him, pressed against him, with no gusts of wind to distract me, I eyed the hymnals and hoped my left thigh felt warm.

Most moving was when the soloist sang "How Great Thou Art." My grandma's older sister, Louise, had been suffering from Alzheimer's for seven years and was living in a memory-care home. By the time of Dorothy's death, Louise did not recognize any family members, except sometimes my mom (not a blood relation...but occasionally she would pull my mom to her and ask, "Who are all these people?" when her sisters were visiting). We had not thought Louise would be at the service that day and, in fact, were unaware that one of her daughters had brought her--until that song. The soloist's notes rang through the church, but after the first measure, he had a partner in Louise. Her voice, little used, croaked out the song along with him from her pew; she warbled a final duet. Strikingly, she'd forgotten everything else, from her own children to how to tie her shoes, but she remembered her hymns. For everyone in the room, it was humbling. After the service, greeting us over coffee in the basement of the church, Louise's daughter announced proudly, "Mom never did need a songbook."

As we made the rounds during the post-service reception, I grasped how important it was that I had made the trip to Montana, despite my initial reservations. With my sister in the Peace Corps in Moldova at that time, and my Air Forcean brother stationed overseas, too, I was Dad's only kid that day. My father was not terribly touchy, but he kept me firmly by his side throughout the coffee hour, introducing me to every passing soul. At one point, my dad's 8th grade teacher, Miss Huddleston, came up with her twin, Velma. I asked Miss Huddleston if my dad had been a good student for her. "Oh, yes, he played the piano for our class so nicely!" I pressed her further: "You mean he never misbehaved?" She assured me, "Oh, not Donnie! He was always very well behaved. But that Larry was another story..."

After the memorial service, we went back to Grandma's house, where Mary and Shelley's families were staying. We ate deli meats. We watched the kids play Nintendo. We sneaked glances at interesting bits of inheritance. We marveled at how much Stuff a person can fit into closets (Grandma never threw away a letter or card; she kept every aluminum top off of every yogurt she ate; she didn't throw away milk containers; she had underwear in her dresser that was nothing more than shreds of fabric woven together with safety pins). We leafed through photographs, wondering who some of those faces belonged to, wondering why our mothers had let us wear such hideous orange-striped pants in the '70s,

and we wondered if the presence of these pictures in her house had kept Grandma firm on the earth,

even when she'd left them in drawers for years,

even when her eyesight had failed.




Grandpa, Grandma, Larry, and my dad (looking rather fey)

24 comments:

Claire said...

When my MIL died, it took us two years to go through all her stuff, she was such a pack rat. We found money, food, photos, junk mail, and assorted crap intermingled with clothing and costume jewelry dating back to 1945. It was an amazing trip to see all that stuff.

flutter said...

These are just touching me so, and your brilliance with the written word is so evident here

Jazz said...

Beautiful touching story. You write so well...

Pam said...

How absolutely wonderful. So touching.Beautiful, simple, poignant.What can I say.

lime said...

sometimes we go to funerals more for the sake of the living than for remembrance of the dead. you dad's silent clinging says how much it meant for him to have you there.

and yes, sometimes a single commonality gets yo uthrough.

furiousBall said...

that was sweet lady.

there are lots of good blog writers out here, but you are someone that, if published, would be a great read as a book as well. seriously.

although i wouldn't be able to comment david lee roth lyrics on a book, so screw that shit

citizen of the world said...

I have really been enjoying htis retrospective. But I did want tyou to know that the bit about shaving PTL into the boys' hair was also most painful to read.

liv said...

oh, joce, that was just perfect. PTL, that was perfect. i'm so glad i have you to read, and even happier that your family has you to make such a real account of the day.

velvet said...

I think that the orange-striped pants were required by law back then. I can come up with no other explanation why we had to wear them because they couldn't actually have ever been considered fashionable.

Another wonderfully written and touching post. It makes me want to be with my family.

Say It said...

this is a wonderfully written insight into your family. I'm enjoying it very much. I wish I had your knack for the written words. I need my hands and facial expressions to get most things across.

SQT said...

You are a fabulous writer. Though the shaved "PTL" on the back of a son's head is a disturbing image. Did those boys rebel something awful or what? I would have.

Claudia said...

Beautiful. All of it. The memories, the thoughts, the feelings. You are so eloquent in your mastery of the written word you humble me. Thank you for sharing so much with us, so openly and with such wit and wisdom.

choochoo said...

Great post:) You really do know how to write, doncha?
'Course I already knew that...

Ann(ie) said...

You are such a beautiful writer.

Greta said...

Can't comment for the crying ;)

kimber the wolfgrrrl said...

I'm touched by the familiarity of your story -- do all families, no matter where they live or what they do, go through a similar journey when faced with death? The sense of coming together, getting along, bound by one person and that's all that's necessary -- it rings true. It has been said before that death is the great equalizer, but perhaps not only for the individual who has died; it equalizes families across cultures and customs, cousins who have little in common, and friends whom we haven't seen in years.

Mother Theresa said...

Wow, it's been a long time since I've been here. Looks like I missed some interesting stuff, so I'll just go back and check it out. This was a moving post. I can just picture your cousins in my mind, and imagine all the stuff you had to sift through. And the shaving the heads thing, wow, scary. Come to think of it, those orange-striped pants sound pretty scary too. ;)

Franki said...

I thought PTL was a reference to Michael Jackson, but then realized that was PYT (pretty young thing). Silly me.

Gorgeous writing, as usual.

pistols at dawn said...

Well done, as per usual, miss. It almost made me miss the awkward conversations with my relatives who work in the beet factory.

Diesel said...

"Read any good books lately?" Well, la-dee-dah!

Very nicely written, as usual.

That Chick Over There said...

*wistful sigh*

I love the way you write. I would just say, "My cousins were a bunch of crazy-asses" and then I'd say douchebag a bunch of times and everyone would laugh and I'd die just a little more inside.

I like your way better.

Minnesota Matron said...

"My dad was not terribly touchy, but kept me firmly by his side."

The Matron sniffed at this image and will retain it, leaving 'Praise the Lord' on the scalp to someone else's memory.

Princess Pointful said...

Even though he is now legally blind, my grandfather keeps photos all over his apartment. It strikes me as similar.

Glamourpuss said...

There's such a strong sense of catharsis running through these posts.

I feel for you, lovely.

Puss