Then, two nights ago, we went to see a movie and when I came out I saw a text from my family:
Nana just passed away.
I'd expected it. My grandmother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma nearly eleven years ago and her ongoing level of not only survival but quality of life the last several years has been nothing short of amazing. She took a turn last year and was even in hospice care earlier this year but was taken home when it seemed she wouldn't have much time. But she just kept holding out. Day in and day out. Until, a few nights ago, it was clear that she likely only had a day or so.
I was four years old when I learned to read. My grandma, a second-grade teacher, taught me a letter, a syllable, a sentence at a time. She also taught me the wildflowers of her beloved Blue Ridge Mountains as well as the animals, the trails around her house, the edible wild berries, the best way to cut a rose. She and I had a secret code. In little notes, in letters, on gifts, she was always GrC. I was ARW. She taught me the Golden Rule and to always put family first. She taught me to crumble crackers into my chili and scoop up the salty, crunchy, spicy mess with a spoon. She taught me to scratch a bar of soap before I worked in the garden so the dirt would rinse cleanly away.
My grandma loved me and I will always cherish those memories.
My grandma cut my fingernails to the bleeding quick every time she caught me trying to grow them long because, "Only bad girls have long fingernails." She washed out my mouth with Dial Soap when I said curse words and whipped me with an Easter bush switch when I (often) misbehaved. She took me to her school one day and they served chili and when her coworker admonished me for the way I ate my meal my grandma scolded me without irony and asked, "Where on Earth did you learn that? That's bad manners." She had a few more grandchildren down the line and exchanged "Grandma" for "Nana" and eventually (before her brain was addled by her sickness and its cure) she forgot all about being GrC. And one night, when I was seven years old and the cold wind of February was ripping through the break in the mountains where her house sat, she stood beside her husband, my grandpa, and watched as he told my mother and me who were homeless and penniless and afraid that we couldn't take a step inside, let-alone take refuge with them. She slipped my mother a few dollars--as much as he wouldn't miss--and we went back into the night.
My grandma loved me and she made mistakes because she was human and I will never be able to forget those memories.
My grandma was the youngest of three girls--and ten boys--the daughter of a legitimately badass farm woman and a father who got his thumb shot off in WWI. She grew up deep, deep in the mountains and moved into the comparative metropolis of Asheville, North Carolina when she got married. She had a daughter, a son, and another daughter. She read the King James Bible every day and she went around handing out Bible tracts to complete strangers. She visited the sick. She prayed several times a day. She loved arts and crafts. I knew all this stuff a long early on.
Somewhere along the line I found out she'd been a poet once upon a time. She had written verses and read voraciously. She'd painted. She had wanted to go to art school and paint the natural world on big canvases like Georgia O'Keefe. She had been a desperately creative person... once. But life takes turns: A bad marriage. A hearing impaired child in a place and time with few helpful resources. A likely severe undiagnosed case of postpartum depression. A desperate need for comfort and companionship found, for whatever reason, in the arms of an oppressive, dogmatic, fire and brimstone church.
My grandma raised herself out of hard situations within the confines of her own beliefs. She found a school for the deaf and sent my uncle there--though it must have been hard. She taught herself and my mother and aunt ASL--my grandpa never learned. She started taking night classes and put herself through college and got herself a teaching job she had to drive an hour away to do. For a time, once all her kids were gone from home, she even had a little apartment nearer to her school. She nursed me when I was sick. She treasured every piece of art her grandchildren made. She gave money and food to strangers. She was a good-hearted and gentle woman moving quietly, unobtrusively through life, constantly reconciling her boundless human compassion with the ugly limitations her dogma provided. She was kind.
And she was flawed. It's tempting, in these times, to write about the dead as saintly. My grandma, for all of her good intentions and all of her beliefs and all of the time spent singing flat hymns in a church that always seemed cold and joyless to me, for all of her work as a dutiful wife and for all of her slipped fives and tens and twenties to people who needed it, my grandma was not a saint. She was a human. And that's better and sadder and happier and warmer and colder and, god damn it, hell of a lot truer.
A human being is never one thing. A human being is many things to many people. To me, she was GrC and she wasn't perfect. And that's ok.