Dear Grandmom

Dear Grandmom,

Happy Mother’s Day, a few weeks late. We celebrated with Mom and Rick. I made this coconut chicken she really enjoyed, with special cauliflower rice and sautéed bok choy. We had coconut ice cream for dessert with a bite of cake leftover from church. I didn’t go to church that morning. I know, I should have gone, but I’m holding a grudge against that whole thing. I’m sure I’ll get over it soon.

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They miss you in Rising Fawn, a lot. And I miss you, too. There are so many things I want to talk about with you. Sometimes, some days, without realizing, I’m more connected to you than ever before. Today I got my first Remicade infusion. I don’t really remember you having to take that, but I know you tried everything to relieve your joint and body pain. I was on prednisone for the better part of a year to try to quell the inflammation in my guts. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis about a year and a half ago. Chronic diarrhea leaves me with little energy. I feel like I’ve been sidelined from my real life, and that one day the curtain will be pulled back—surprise! This is all really a scheme, some elaborate joke.

But it wasn’t a joke, and I shed a few tears driving to the infusion clinic on a sunny spring afternoon. What I would give to pick your brain about how you lived with arthritis, the reality of waking up in pain all the time, maybe for the rest of your life, and how that changed how you lived day to day. Your decision to go to church. The way you took care of us grandkids and your daughters.

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Clowning around in your apartment

I would also want to share with you the most exciting news—that in exactly one month, I will elope with my best friend, Charles Cole. I think you would like him—he’s quiet, tall and gentlemanly, though with an incredible sense of humor and humility. He makes life worth living as a pair, as a team, and he eases some of the pain of this chronic condition at age 30.

He also found me at a time when I could uncover my niche in the world, or at least for work. I’ve been employed at a public all-girls school near where we live. You would like it—it’s a wonderful place with a lot of heart and soul. I got to teach a class of 8th graders this last semester, and it changed my life. I wish you could feel the sensation of these young lives looking up to you, what it feels like when a young person learns something. The feeling of being able to facilitate knowledge, to expose them to something new and interesting, something about the world, about themselves that they didn’t realize existed before that moment.

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With two other inspirational teachers—Mr. Hansard and Mrs. Walker

Before my infusion today, at school, we had a tornado drill. It’s the next to last day of school, and one of the 8th grade teachers had just announced to her students that she wouldn’t be returning next year. Many of the girls looked shell-shocked, upset, and others were crying, hugging each other. I saw the teacher have a private moment in the hall just seconds before I walked in the room. She was obviously upset and emotional, but wanted to appear collected and calm to her kids.

So we all trooped down the hallway for the tornado drill. The students knelt and curled up against the wall. It was the second drill I experienced, and it hit me the same way. I had to hold back tears. I don’t know why, but seeing these young girls, curled up against the wall, their backs exposed, so tiny and vulnerable, just represented so much to me. Some of them were crying, still upset about the teacher’s news.

As educators, as adults, as humans it is our duty and responsibility to care for them. To ensure they have the best education and are prepared to live in the world independently. When they’re all lined up on the floor, practicing for the threat of natural disaster and catastrophe, it’s impossible not to see their youth, vulnerability and the growth they have ahead of them.

And all this in the face of drastic budget cuts for education, which hopefully won’t be worsened in Tennessee…but I’m realistic. I’m sure we’ll survive, but it won’t be pretty. You wouldn’t like this new president, not one bit. The photo of the first family posing with the Pope (who I think you would LOVE) is laughable. But I’ll save that topic for another letter.

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I write to you as a touch point as I swirl through these days, caught up in my work, my life and unfortunately my disease. Who knows, we may have shared some of the same genetic discrepancies that led to such things like rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. And maybe those diseases, or at least commonalities, will bring us back together again. Mom and I have remained close. I reached out to my cousin to ask her about her health. It’s a new calling, I think, connecting with other people who struggle with similar conditions. It allows me to use my words and language to connect, and hopefully soothe and reassure.

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I think at this point you would insert either some Italian phrase or anecdotal story, about how that’s life. And you would remind me to not take for granted the gifts I’ve been given, and the positive things I have going for me. I’m thriving professionally, I think; I’m marrying a wonderful man whom you would approve of; and overall I’m quite satisfied. But you would also appreciate the connection, the stories and shared wisdom I glean, not yet as a mother, but as a teacher. As an adult. As a woman.

Thank you for your genes, for better or for worse. Thank you for the gift of life, for your levelheadedness and love. I miss you dearly. I wish you could have met Charles, and I wish you could be at the wedding next month. But I’m sure you will be—we’ll leave a tiny glass of wine out for you, and make sure everything is salted just right, and never “too sweet.”

With all the love in the world,
Your granddaughter,

Laura

Sharing Simple Things with Grandmom

“What if we hadn’t been each other at the same time

Would you tell me all the stories from what you were young and in your primce

Would I rock you to sleep

Would you tell me all the secrets you don’t need to keep

Would I still miss you

Or would you then have been mine

If sound is a wave like a wave on the ocean

Moon plays the ocean like a violin.”

Andrew Bird, “Sifters”

So often, the simplest actions take on the greatest meaning.

I don’t know what’s more frustrating—not getting to know my relatives who died when I was young, many of them taking or burying their lives, secrets, heritage, traditions and habits with them; or watching my Grandmother suffer from debilitating arthritis that cripples her with pain, knowing her mind is as sharp as a tack, yet feels burdened with the figurative weight of her aging body, having lived and suffered in this life, in this body, since 1923.

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Miso soup with Grandmom

 

I drove down to Rising Fawn at 10:15 Saturday morning. We sat in the living room of her small apartment and talked, then moved to the dining room table. She pointed me toward a green, single subject wire-bound notebook that showed signs of wear, pages ripped out. As she opened the notebook, I saw her signature handwriting, tall slanted letters that, if a specialist saw them, clearly indicated or showed how arthritis had so significantly affected and changed her right hand.

I shed a tear or two as she asked me to transcribe these pages of account numbers and instructions. It was her will, her final wishes, what she had left, all nearly tracked, documented and updated through now. She can no longer write because of the pain in her right hand.

I, as neatly as I could, copied al of the information. I then watered her plants and prepared a simple meal out of ingredients I brought with me in a grocery bag packed earlier that morning. The same miso broth with mushrooms and kale, cooked sweet potatoes and a small cup of fruit salad, which I knew she would love (and did).

Our conversation floated around boys, marriage, religion, the South, conservatism, parenting, equal rights, you name it. My Grandmother brings a great deal of thought and perspective to these conversations, and I know she enjoys them. Her body having word, aching and pain now dominating, her mind, her Self, preserves, sharp as ever. She lived through the Depression, born of Italian immigrants in New Jersey, and she raised a family—three daughters, my mother being the middle child—and lived most of her life with her husband before coming to live close to my Mom  in Rising Fawn after her husband passed away years ago. I am amazed not by her longevity, but by her humility, honesty, strength and grace. While she did not lead a life of glitz and glamour, or even ease, her heart and compassion still shine so brightly in her blue eyes, her skin.

As I got to the last page of the transcription, I read aloud the last note on the page. Her signature, and beneath it, with capital letters and underlined, “Have Fun!”

We laughed together.

“I could sit around and cry all day every day about this,” she said. “But you just have to laugh from time to time.”

If only I listened, instead of crying so much as I collect my own thoughts here.

I finished the transcription, and asked her to sign the latest version, complete with her great closing words. She grasped a ball point pen and wrote, in larger, uncharacteristically scrawling text, under her name, “Have Fun!”