My Grannie was born in a house next to a graveyard. The graveyard wasn’t there yet, but it wasn’t long in coming. The land the graveyard is on was their orchard. But the town needed a bigger cemetery, so her daddy sold the land and in exchange had a job as its keeper.
She’s Grannie because I’m her oldest grandchild and I said so when I was five and learning to spell. ‘Y’ is a letter you can’t trust, but you can trust Grannie.
According to her, there were three things Grannie wanted to accomplish in life: build her own house, visit England, and have babies. Babies are an obsession of hers. She worked on the church nursery so long that a significant number of the people you run into in town, when they find out who my grandmother is, go, “Oh, Sara Foy! She changed my diaper.”
As long as I’ve been alive, she’s been a white haired old lady. The kind of stereotypical grandmother who thinks astonishingly ugly sweaters are just what you want to wear, who clips on flimsy sunglasses over the large, clear plastic frame of her eyeglasses when she drives, who will not let her purse out of her sight because that’s where her lipstick lives and a woman should always look her best. It’s easy, if you don’t pay attention, to think “traditional fifties housewife, cliché in all the ways except playing bridge.”
I must have been seven or eight when, one Sunday at the dinner table, she scolded me to take my elbows off the table. “Grandaddy has his elbows on the table,” I protested.
“That’s okay for him. He’s a man,” Grannie said.
“Then I’m a man, too.”
Years later, when I’d ask my sister about a strange interaction I had with a cousin, my sister would answer, “Oh, that cousin just didn’t get the memo.”
“What memo?” I asked.
“That you’re a man.”
I hadn’t noticed. But she was right. I’m pretty sure “Take your elbows off the table,” was the last time Grannie chided me to be more ladylike.
In 1998, when Gone With the Wind was briefly rereleased in theaters, Grannie took my sister and me to see it at the artsy theater in Richmond. We’d seen it already, on two VHS tapes we watched on successive nights in her living room, but this was an occasion. We’d been to that theater before, too, but never with her. Never with somebody who remembered when they still had the organ the play the music along with the movie.
She had a copy of the book, too. I borrowed it from her the summer before I started college. It was old, the binding cracked, the pages yellow and disintegrating. The dust jacket was more dust than jacket.
When I was in Richmond at the beginning of November, Grannie was looking everywhere for her copy of Gone with the Wind. She couldn’t find it. “It’s probably disintegrated,” I said.
Grannie loved working in the yard, going to historical society lectures, listening to opera. She organized the local seniors social group until she was in her eighties. She was the oldest person in the group when she retired from doing it. They disbanded rather than find somebody to replace her. Until three years ago, she sang in the church choir. She couldn’t read music. She did it by ear. She loved to sing lullabies, because she loved babies, and music.
“I think I’d like to see my great-grandchildren,” she told me once. “So hang around and see them,” I said. Another time, “I want to live until I see you girls settled.”
Then, when my sister got engaged, I told her, “You know, Grannie’s waiting to see her great-grandkids. If she waits for me to give them to her, she’s going to be immortal. If you settle down and do the marriage and kids thing, you’re basically killing her.”
“That was incredibly mean, even for you,” my sister said.
Grannie was thirty-nine years old when she had her first child, my uncle. In 1959. She’d just about given up on having children. The medicine she was on for the rheumatoid arthritis she had in all her joints interfered with fertility.
“I had a terrible time getting pregnant. But once I did, everything was easy. I loved being pregnant. And I loved being a mother. Being a mother is the best thing.”
“If you say so, Grannie.” She never once, not a single time, asked me when I was going to get married or have children. She never referred to male friends I introduced her to as my boyfriend. She never demanded anything from me beyond, “When are you going to write a best seller? You should get on that.”
Three years ago, just before Thanksgiving, Grannie fell on the walk in front of her house. She broke her arm and hip, had to have surgery to repair them, and lived in a skilled nursing facility for rehab until the following February. My sister had just given birth to her first child. I’d already planned a long trip to Richmond to help her cook and clean and wrangle her infant. Instead, I spent hours a day with Grannie.
For about a year after, when I’d call on Sundays and we’d talk about that time, what Grannie would remember and comment on was visits from my sister and her precious child. Who was just the most adorable thing. My sister is such a good mother. Don’t I think she’s a good mother?
It stung. But Grannie loves babies. She was in pain and on drugs most of the time I was there. She’s still fairly sharp, but her memory isn’t what it used to be. Mostly I’m glad she remembers good things from then. The rest of me is glad that, “She’s seen the next generation, and now she’s fallen,” wasn’t a portent.
I don’t know what changed, whether somebody mentioned something or the memories reshuffled in her head or what, but one Sunday she goes, “You spent an awful lot of time with me when I was in there.”
“I did. I was there and I could.”
“That was so nice.” And then, because she’s still sharp, but her mind does wander, “Do you remember when I took you to see Gone with the Wind?”
When we were kids, Grannie took my sister and me to Lurray Caverns. And Monticello. She drove us down Skyline drive and told stories about visiting the mountains when she was younger. We learned to navigate by road atlas and highway markers. She’d take us to Jamestown and Williamsburg. To the Science museum in Richmond, and to Maymont. We’ve watched the park at Henricus change from just a park to a reenactment site with a working model village on it, because she’s been taking us there since we were small. She’ll tell stories about having picnics with the people who lived in the house there, where all that’s left is the ruined foundation.
Out to lunch with Grannie and my sister and her child. The child is two, has made an unholy mess, his face covered in his lunch. “Neil,” Grannie says, “You should kiss your mother.”
I glance at my nephew. At my grandmother. At my nephew. “Grannie, you’re a terrorist.”
She shrugs. “You have to spread your wings.”
I mentioned to a cousin a while back that I was planning to, someday, move back to Chicago. That cousin mentioned this to Grannie.
“Where’re you?” Grannie asked right away, when I called her the following Sunday.
“In my living room?”
“Where are you living? Haven’t you moved?”
I silently cursed myself for opening my big mouth when I shouldn’t have. “No Grannie. I’m in Seattle.”
“But you are moving.”
“Someday. It’ll be a while.” We did this every week for months.
My last trip to Richmond, after the great search for Gone with the Wind came up empty, my sister and I made the rounds of used book stores. I picked up copies of The Illiad and The Odyssey to give Grannie as Christmas presents, because she mentioned that she wanted to reread them, she hadn’t read them since she was a teenager, but she couldn’t because she didn’t have copies. We looked for copies of Gone with the Wind, too, but didn’t find any suitable ones.
“Would you like your Christmas present early?” I asked her on my last day of the trip.
“Oh, yes!” I gave her the books. I hadn’t bothered to wrap them. She lit up, excited to have them. “Have you read these? I don’t remember anything about them.”
“I have,” I assured her. “All you need to remember is that one is about how you should never get between Achilles and his boyfriend, or his girlfriend, and the other is about how you shouldn’t keep a plate warm for Odysseus.”
“Was he late for supper?”
Grannie is where I get my interest in history from. Her interests are fairly narrow: all things Virginia, and all things England, with dabbling in Scotland and the rest of American history, too. She will tell you, repeatedly, about how they had the first Thanksgiving in Jamestown two years before there was anybody at Plymouth. Her stance on Civil War monuments was, “If they want to take them down, just take off the people and leave the horses. I like the horses and they didn’t hurt anybody.”
She wasn’t a housewife. She loved being a mother, it’s the best thing in the world, but she worked. She spent years working for a lady doctor. The doctor’s husband had died, leaving her with a little boy to raise on her own. Grannie thought that was tragic, but it’s one more baby in her life. The boy is all grown up, older than my parents, living in Oregon. Grannie is what he has for family. He surprised her by flying out for her 95th birthday party. She was flabbergasted and charmed for months after.
At Christmas, she made gingerbread and iced sugar cookies. The Joy of Cooking recipe for applesauce cake was her standard cake to have on hand or take to potlucks or send home with you. She stopped cooking after she fell, when my uncle moved in with her to take care of her so she could live at home. But she still loved ice cream and lemon chess pie. If you asked what she wanted for dinner, she’d lean toward you and confide, “Oysters.” Then grin, because she knew you weren’t going to do it.
Last time I cooked her dinner, I made a stir fry with oyster sauce. One smart ass deserves to be answered by another.
“You know, Sara’s doing very well,” my other grandmother said. “I really think she might live to be a hundred.”
“She has stomach cancer. I’m crossing my fingers that since my sister’s pregnant, she’ll hang on to see the new baby.” That’ll get her to late March, just past her next birthday. She’ll be ninety-seven.
“I was telling one of my friends that you want to move back to Chicago,” Grannie was telling me. “And she said, ‘Oh, but that’s a terrible place! Why would she do that?’ And I just told her I figure you can take care of yourself.”
“You should have told her she didn’t know what she was talking about,” I said.
She shrugged that off. “Have you seen my copy of Gone with the Wind?”
My sister found a good copy a week after I left. She was bragging to me about how the wrapping paper she keeps is actual brown paper, and her ribbons this year are thin and ropey, so all of the presents under her tree are going to be brown paper packages tied up with strings.
“She won’t stop asking about Gone with the Wind,” my sister said.
“She’s got books on her mind lately. She keeps telling me how excited she is to reread The Illiad and the Odyssey,” I replied. By the end of the phone conversation, Gone with the Wind was wrapped.
Last Thursday, about an hour after I first woke up, I got a text from my uncle. “Call me. Mom isn’t doing well. I’ve had no sleep.”
He hadn’t called my sister yet. He didn’t want to bother her at work. I called her for him. “What you’re saying is, I need to take the babe and go see her tonight?”
“It might be nothing but, yeah, I think so. And this might be silly, but take over the rest of her Christmas presents, too.”
Sunday a week ago, when I talked to Grannie, she was sharp and animated. She was hungry. She’d been to church that morning, even though she’d had some stomach troubles the day before. Generally when she has stomach troubles on a Saturday, she doesn’t go to church the next day. And generally she protests that everybody is forcing her to eat too much, she doesn’t want to get fat. (Grandaddy’s mother got fat, and he never liked that, so she doesn’t want to.) This sounds really promising to me.
“They talked about your Granddaddy at church a few weeks ago. About how he’d do anything they asked of him, and what a good man he was. I was really glad I got to hear it.” This is the fourth or fifth week she’s told me about that service. “What have you been doing?”
“I got a job. I’m moving to Chicago. I’ll be there in January.”
“Oh, good. I know you’ve been wanting that.”
There’s this problem with just taking your white-haired old lady grandmother at face value. Even when she loves babies. It’s that you make the wrong assumption about what she means when she says “settled.”
My Grannie died in a house next to the woods. Out back a bridge crosses a small creek, on a path that leads up to an abandoned garden patch with a shed that used to be a pony stable. In front is a red maple that just finished dropping its leaves, and the tallest magnolia tree you’re likely to see anywhere.
She never unwrapped her new copy of Gone with the Wind.