What a wonderful word. What can it mean to realize 90 years on this earth and to be able to look in the faces of 10 grandchildren and 8 great granchildren and see your own parents’ and grandparents’ DNA in iterations of individual beauty? For my grandmama it is to have have bred babies and lost babies, to have worked at home and held down jobs, to have taught herself to cook, to crochet, to do needlework, to have supported her kids through dancing school… to have been a steady and constant wife and companion until holding the hand of her beloved as he passed from this earth, to have moved far from home to be close to her daughters and to have watched her only son pass away before her…
I don’t think i’ve often been in town to share my Grandmama’s birthday, since we’ve lived in different cities for 20 years. So this year, when YERT discovered that we were going to be just a few hours’ drive from her, the boys conspired with me to make it happen. We left Chicago Saturday afternoon and drove directly to St. Charles to meet my St. Louis family. I warned Mark to expect a somewhat raucous reception as there are many women in my family with lively blood. The girls did not disappoint. Jubilant calls greeted us from the street before we even set foot out of the car and were only compounded by sheer numbers once inside my aunt’s house. I love my family.
Grandmama sat in her chair at the kitchen table looking pretty but smaller and paler than the last time I saw her. The skin on her hands, always brown and tan, seemed almost translucent. She looked stunned to see us, and a little confused. “I’m so surprised,” she said, in her still gentle Georgian accent, “I didn’t know you was coming!” Her eyes cried a little, for the house’s being filled up with still more of her dearly-loved ones. And she told us stories that began and began with no endings and moving on to limbs of other stories we might have heard before…
The next day all relatives reconverged on the house and the food came in waves, with presents, cards, and my aunt Karen, Grandmama’s caretaker for many years now, brought a new pink walker out of the garage, tied up with ribbon, complete with a little pink horn and its own headlight. And then there was the cake. The cake was decorated with Grandmama’s portrait, (something I had never seen before) and had 9 candles, one for each decade. When we started singing Happy Birthday, she hid her face in her colorful bib and wept. She tried to talk but could only say that she had only asked for plain yellow cake, which got us all to howling. Aunt Karen asked her if she was sad and Grandmama said, “No, I’m so happy!” And she was.
Still, she cried pretty hard when my mother left this morning with my brother and his wife. Which of course made my mom cry, even harder. sigh. So today I spent all afternoon with Grandmama going through old photos in her room, as I know it is a thing of rare satisfaction for her, revisiting pictures of people she loved and times she remembers. She loves to remind whoever will listen of how we are related and whatever became of Tardy Fensterbush…She doesn’t have her stories quite as crisp as she once did and certain names start becoming interchangeable…but she nevertheless has her wits about her and remembers the most important stuff…who was “a really nice man,” who was “a lovely person,” who “never did have any children…”
After supper, Aunt Karen pulled out a box with more old photos, some of which I placed into Grandmama’s album so that she can see them easily. Her eyesight is no longer what it was either, so she can’t always see exactly the person in the picture, and we are finding her habit of labeling backs of photos in ink a rather useful tool for identifying relatives who died before we knew them.
It is getting late and I’m losing my thoughts so before I wane like the moon outside, I’ll say to the grand matriarch of our family, our true southern belle: We love you, Grandmama, and we hope you know how much we do.