Happy 101st Birthday, Grandma
Today my grandmother would've been 101. Here we are together at Christmas, probably in 1996. She was never a tall woman, but goodness, I look like a veritable giantess next to her in this picture!
My grandmother was my mom's mother, and was my only grandparent I had a relationship with. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are from time I spent at her house. Really, how could I possibly forget burning up slugs on her side porch on the Fourth of July by holding sparklers against their flesh? She actually encouraged us kids to do so because the smoke would keep the mosquitoes away.
I loved smelling the fresh scent of the phlox that grew under her kitchen windows, and she always had a little garden with something growing--tomatoes, greens, radishes. Before trash burning was outlawed, she had an oil drum in the back by her garage. No putting the trash in a plastic bag and flicking it into a dumpster. Instead, she'd set the trash on fire, lighting it up with sturdy wooden matches. I loved watching the flames lick around the metal lip of that can, even as I coughed at the black smoke that rose into the darkening evening sky.
She couldn't drink alcohol. I remember one Easter she insisted on having a little something, and after a few sips, the next thing we knew, she'd pretty much fallen over in her plate. And if I spent the night at her house, I knew I'd better fall asleep before she did because she snored like a freight train. Like many people who lived through the Depression, she tended to hoard canned goods. She'd open the cabinet and say, "I need some more wax beans," and I'd be looking at three cans of wax beans.
I could always find a bar of Tone soap next to her bathtub. Her pantry was full of Mountain Dew and she kept a candy jar in her room. Sometimes she put those super sugary "orange slices" in it for me. I still like eating those every once in awhile. She loooved the Price is Right, and I saw Alexis and Krystle's lily pond Dynasty catfight at her house. She also owned a gun, had lovely handwriting, and enviable fingernails. Really, she was a true Renaissance woman.
But she also wasn't perfect. One time after my cousin and I spent the night, she made us breakfast. We were maybe seven, and hoping for Cream of Wheat. Instead, we watched in horror as grandma scrambled eggs with grease drippings. My cousin, a notoriously picky eater, decided to complain as grandma set a plate of food in front of her. "I don't like these eggs. I don't want to eat this," she said--and my grandmother slapped her in the face with the metal spatula. Hard. Needless to say, I cleaned my plate.
As the years pass and I grow older, I think about those memories, but I also think about what I don't know about her. A couple years before she passed, I was on this kick of interviewing people with a little cassette recorder, and of course, I talked to her. I remember her smile as she told the story of how she'd met my grandfather. Sadly, given how much I moved back then, I lost those tapes before I had a chance to transcribe them.
I wish I'd spent more time with her, being nosy, trying to coax her into talking about the happy times--and the experience of living when Klan membership was at its height and most white people didn't bat an eye over the lynching of a black man. I wish I could hear from her all the stories that are whitewashed away in our modern American history classes, but which are fundamental to understanding who we are.
We never know how much time we have with someone, how many birthdays there are to celebrate with them. Today, I can't give my grandma flowers, or call her up on the phone to tell her how much I love her. But I hope that she knows I'm praying for her and wishing her a happy 101st.