lately i’ve been remembering.
my memory has been pretty much shot by several years of drug use in college and immediately following. i wonder, too, how much of the memory issue is due to hypomania or full-blown mania – i don’t tend to remember things i do in medias mania.
but some things are coming back – from college, and from before.
the summer harvest here has brought with it memories of my maternal grandmother.
when we lived in indiana, i think, my mother wrote for a travel magazine – it may have been when she wrote for the saturday evening post. (dad, correct me on any of this and please fill in details in the comments.) she was writing a story about a cruise to finland, so that summer i stayed with my grandmother for two weeks while my parents went globe-trotting. i wet the bed once while i was there, so i couldn’t have been too terribly old. or maybe i was just upset and neurotic.
i’m not entirely sure why mom changed jobs – it seems like it would have been a perfect job for her. maybe it was the move to pennsylvania. again, dad, if you have any insights here i’d love to hear them.
my grandmother’s given name was beulah, but she was always known as bootsie. she had a little vegetable garden in the backyard of her house in winston salem. she showed me how to snap beans one afternoon. the memory came back when i was showing duckie how to do the same thing – she, up on a chair by the cutting block (no knives in sight, folks) happily snapping beans and tossing them in the pot.
bootsie had long hair the color of candlelight – that buttery shade of white that redheads turn in their old age. she kept it up in a perfect Gibson girl bun. i never realized how long it was until i caught her brushing it out one evening that summer. it fell all the way down her back. i remember being a little disconcerted. it wasn’t something i ever expected to see, you know? an elderly lady, a preacher’s wife, who always wore demure flowered dresses, caught in her evening toilette. she wore a white slip with lace on the bodice, brushing that long, thick fall of hair. i think that was when i noticed that she was missing a breast.
she used old-lady powder – cashmere, i think it was called. ick. the smell still drives me nuts – and it’s a smell you meet a lot, here in our mountain retirement community.
she used to make me toast with margarine and peanut butter. i still love it even now. even though i use whole-grain bread, yogurt-based spread and vitamin-enriched peanut butter, i keep to the essence of it – you have to have just a bit more spread than peanut butter to get that salty tang. a perfect partner to a glass of skim milk.
her homemade sticky buns were the stuff of legend. i have simply got to start working on that recipe. i’ve tried to find my aunt barbara – she might still have the recipe – but i’ve had no luck. anyway, i wish i could have been able to learn from bootsie.
she washed my hair in the sink. i hated it.
there was a hedge of mulberry bushes on her block – i’m not sure if they were hers or a neighbor’s – i never asked, lest i be told i couldn’t pick them anymore. maybe that’s where my love affair with summer berries started. eating berries always seems naughty, covert. it makes them taste better, i think.
across the street, there was a plot of land inhabited by nothing but trees and kudzu. you couldn’t see the trees for the huge kudzu leaves. it looked like the body of a dragon, with leaves for scales. sometimes it was the doorway to another world. i daydreamed about walking through the kudzu to Narnia, or somewhere like it.
bootsie died when i was in college, right around easter break. the cancer that took her breast returned and metastasized to her brain. i heard stories about her last few months in the nursing home, a kind of madness upon her, her language and demeanor – well, i really don’t want to go into details, but let’s say it wasn’t what one would expect from our bootsie, a preacher’s wife.
i have her barrister’s bookshelves, unspeakably precious. i don’t have any memories of my grandfather, but i do have a picture somewhere of us tucked together in a chair, reading a book. i might have been duckie’s age or a little older.
if you've ever grown beans, you might know that when you string them up, the vines can jump from their neat rows to overhanging plants, trees, or rooftops. memory does that too. in just such a way, even though i don't remember ever seeing them together, the bookshelves mean my grandfather as well.
when i pull the books out and dust, i sense the light presence of my grandmother. or maybe it’s just an echo of her, cleaning the bookshelves so long ago.
i sing to my daughter at night sometimes. one song we like is "down in the river to pray." it's a wonderful lullaby - especially if you slow it down just a wee bit to counterpoint the rocking chair.
i think bootsie would be quietly pleased.