This weekend, the family will gather to celebrate my grandmother’s 84th birthday. I wrote this short piece (entitled “Saving”) in honor of her.
I started saving her phone messages instinctively about a year ago. Today, I went to erase my old voicemails and found five from her — one wishing me a safe trip to Puerto Rico, another telling me she had made soup for us out of the hambone, the next one thanking me for helping her clean for her Easter brunch, and a couple just to say she was thinking about me. I resaved them. Likewise, her thank you notes and birthday cards containing messages written in flawless script are stowed away in a shoebox in my closet. The natural explanation for all this is that I would want to preserve her, to have the ability to hear and read her after she’s gone.
In reality, my (subconscious until this moment) reasons go beyond that and are, to a certain extent, extremely selfish. Though I try not to think about it, deep down I know she’ll leave someday, and I’ll lose an important part of my identity. Humans are a narrative species, and she is an integral part of my history, of my understanding of the world and my place in it.
It was a week before she’d hold me after I was born. She was sick with a cold and worried she’d pass it on; a new grandma, she exercised ultimate self-control and smiled at, loved and talked to me from afar. My childhood memories include hugging her polyester-clad legs, listening to Make Way for Ducklings read in her inimitable throaty voice, her manicured fingers handing me sticks of black licorice, her smile as I paraded around in her fur stoles and costume jewelry, hunting for johnny-jump-ups together in the woods, snuggling with her on “the Davenport” as I curled my toes in the shag rug.
She has been a refuge during my adolescence and adulthood, offering pearls of insight nestled in comforting conventional wisdom, welcoming me with pride in her eyes when I succeed and ultimate acceptance when I fail. The combination of her moral and political convictions, candor, and sense of humor has always inspired both confidence and curiosity in me and many others.
Years ago, I found a photo from a party she had thrown for my parents before they got married. Perfectly coiffed with cigarette in hand, she’s sitting on the steps next to her future in-law, my paternal grandfather. The image is not of a Midwestern doctor’s wife and mother of 5 and a North Carolinan custodian and father of 9 — individuals who had lived disparate lives, their meeting simply a bi-product of their children’s happy union. It is of two friends, laughing and talking. This is her most impressive gift, the innate ability to cut through superficial boundaries and find common ground, to accept — not simply to converse, but to understand.
I stand in awe of her acumen and compassion, the bonds she has forged and the lives she has touched. I will continue to save her phone messages and notes– I know I’ll need them someday. They will serve as quotidian reminders of who she was, what she taught me, and who I aspire to be. Today, I’ll raise a vodka gimlet to toast this remarkable woman in her 84th year and watch helplessly as she beats me at croquet.