My grandmother passed away in July. She is an integral part of the woman I am today. She was a part of every event in my life, minor and major. No matter where the USAF took us, she would come visit, even though she was afraid of flying. I am not certain how to exist in a world that she is no longer a part of.
I loved her stories best. I will keep those close to my heart, like a warm sweater, when the winter winds of longing and bitterness creep in.
One of my favorite stories about my grandmother, Ellen, involves her older brother and her mother. One time when she was younger, her mother was about to give her a spanking, so my grandmother decided to run from her. Her father stayed sitting on the porch. Her mother stayed standing against the porch column and gave her a head start. Grandma’s older brother, Elmer, looked between his mother and his sister. Once grandma got across the yard, her mother told Elmer to “go get Mel.” Elmer caught her easily and carried her back towards the porch. “C’mon, Mel.” Her family always called her Mel. Grandma could never remember why exactly, just that she was always called that. I love that story because it shows that my grandmother was human, that she was wild and free, and that her family was always waiting for one another on the front porch.
My mother was with my grandmother, her own mother, when she took her last breath. She said it was peaceful and that there was no struggle. One deep breath inhaled and her eyes closed. I know when she took her last breath on earth, she exhaled in heaven. An angel chorus led by Charlie Pride greeted her. I’m sure my grandfather does not mind her dancing with Charlie while she waits for him. I know her younger brother, Waylon, was the first one waiting to cut in. My grandmother helped raise him after their mother passed away when my grandmother was nineteen years old. Waylon grew up and went to Vietnam. Somehow he survived physically, but mentally, from then on, he was always in another place; in a dense jungle trying to save his fellow man. In my childlike memories of him, he always smelled like stale cigarettes and peppermint. He died twenty-five years ago, haggard, exhausted, and worn. He loved the Cal Smith song, “Country Bumpkin.” So I know precisely what he said to her when he first took her by the hand that first moment:
“Hello, Country Bumpkin
How’s the frost out on the pumpkins?
I’ve seen some sights, but man you’re something”
I know he enveloped her in a bone crushing hug and this time no one would have to be careful with her. She was no longer fragile and weak like her last few years on earth. Her heart was no longer failing; it was bursting with love and strength. I am sure that Waylon’s wife Carol was next to him, wiping her happy tear-filled eyes from behind her infamous 1970s glasses. Just behind him was grandma’s brothers-in-law and her sisters-in-law waiting impatiently for their turn to hug her. For some it had been a really long time. I’m sure there were many tomato sandwiches, from Slocomb tomatoes, being passed around. Her step-mother, Inez, that my grandmother had so painstakingly taken care of in her later years smiled, right before she spit her snuff into that same old baby jar. This time she rang the jar.
I know as Grandma waded through the crowd, someone tapped her on the shoulder. Grandma turned around and there standing on her tip toes was her mother-in-law, Martha. I know that reunion was something special. I’m sure Henry Byrd, her father-in-law was there, too, in his faded coveralls, nodding to her in full acknowledgement. On earth, Alzheimer’s had robbed him of his memories and awareness, but now he knew full well how lovely she had always been. A floppy-eared basset hound whined and bayed at her heels. She knelt down to pick Freckles up and caught a glimpse of Cassie, her resolute Chihuahua who hated my sister when we were kids, waiting for her down the path.
Waylon had not yet let go of her hand and kept pulling her beyond. In the distance my grandma could see where they were headed. The old porch was getting closer and closer with every step she ran. I bet her daddy was on the porch, hayseed in his mouth, swinging on the porch swing with her mother who said to Elmer, “There’s Mel, go get her.”
And boy, I bet he ran.