This piece spins off from a Ben Huberman Daily Prompt post of January 17. Thank you, Ben! The first part of the question he poses is “. . .when was the last time you wrote something substantive—a letter, a story, a journal entry, etc.—by hand?” This post tells the story of my most memorable writing by hand.
The dark of the moon makes the call more believable, a storm cloud moving slow and inevitable across familiar terrain that suddenly shifts. Jolts.
“Come home. Your grandmother is in the hospital. Heart attack.”
It isn’t really my home anymore and hasn’t been my home for decades, but this time I don’t feel compelled to point it out.
The drive is too long. Vermont roads that usually give comfort or pleasure now simply twist and annoy. The entire State of New York is in the way. Despite the beauty of the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania goes on forever. On one trip to Ohio, my mother was at the other end, dead. Now my grandmother is gravely ill, perhaps dying. My elders are conceding their ground. Not ready, I protest to the empty passenger seat. I am not ready.
Grandma raised me while my mother worked to support us. “Divorced” was a pejorative in Ohio in the 1950s.
Grandma taught me that you had to be good in order to be loved.
Grandma was a perfectionist.
And Grandma fed me nourishing home-made food, breads and soups and pies. She kept me warm under hand-stitched quilts and hand-made feather-beds. She taught me the value of a dollar and the worth of a bird in the hand, a place for everything and everything in its place. On rocky ledges above Ohio strip pits, Grandma taught me how to hear the floating, haunting voices of the fish. Beneath the grape arbor, she introduced me to life’s incongruencies. I was Annie Oakley and she shelled peas.
When I left home, Grandma wept inconsolably.
When I moved into a commune, she wouldn’t answer my letters.
When I was arrested for political activism, she helped post my bail then took me home and placed me under her own scary version of house arrest.
When I veered off toward addiction, she shamelessly went through my bureau drawers, my backpacks, my closet. She pushed up my long-sleeves-in-the-summer, searching, scrutinizing the soft skin of my forearms for track marks.
When I had my first child, she came to New Hampshire and cleaned my house.
When I had my second child, she came to Vermont and alphabetized my spice rack.
When I left my husband, she snarled at me in alarm and disgust: “You’ll never have a pot to piss in.”
She ironed wrinkles out of $20 bills and sent me one every birthday, every Christmas. She sent the same amount from 1968 until 2004, never thinking to take inflation or food stamps into account. Never forgetting to send the card.
When my kids did poorly in school, she worried endlessly, then sat back against the worn afghan on the back of her couch, folded her arms, tightened her mouth, and conferred the blame entirely on me.
When I came out as a lesbian, she stopped speaking to me entirely and for a very long time.
When I visited her with my partner and my mandolin, she was puzzled: which one of us did the cooking?
When we left the next week, she hugged us both good-bye, then called me back to her door and hissed into my ear, “You’re out of my will. Drive careful.”
She looked at my lifestyle, over and over, but she could hardly see me. She couldn’t sort me out. “How did you get so twisted?” she often asked. It was a question that nagged at her so much that she puzzled over it every time we saw each other. I found the question devastating, and for me the visit often ended in tears, my adult self wilted, my still-child’s heart broken. Twisted. Not a very kind word.
I met my son at the airport, and together we went to the hospital.
She was sitting in a blue recliner, newly transferred from the ICU, watching a game show. I sat on her neat hospital bed, wrinkling the bedspread. But her eyes sparked with utter love. “You look beautiful,” she said. “You look like your mother.”
She looked at my son, awkward, frightened, stoned. “You look so handsome, sweetie. You be a good boy for your mother.”
We stayed with her for an hour, and absolutely no unkind words were spoken, no recriminations made. She pulled out flannel memories from a softened heart and handed them to us with shaky, generous hands.
We promised to come back after dinner to watch Wheel of Fortune with her.
“Pat Sayjak!” she exclaimed. “I love that little Pollack!” I had to roll my eyes, but she laughed and said how delighted she was to see us, and now she was ready to go home. Of course, she didn’t mean her apartment in elderly housing.
We were eating something fried, standard fare at my aunt’s, when the phone rang, shrill, into the neat suburban house. It was decorated by what wasn’t there anymore. My mother, my uncle, my grandfather. Young cousins, all grown up and gone.
We drove back to the hospital. Grandma was panting, in congestive heart failure. The nurse was putting in a foley catheter. I held her gently by her shoulders, put my face close, looked in her faded blue eyes. Said, “I love you, Grandma.” She smiled. It was the sweetest smile. She spoke some garbled words. Her eyes closed.
My cousin and I sat vigil with her. Sometime after midnight, I saw her hover above her body, in the rocking chair from my little-girl years. It’s in my bedroom, still. She was half seated, half rising, trying to decide whether to stay or to go.
She died at 4AM.
I went alone to the crematorium the next day. My cousins found the idea peculiar but generally in keeping with what they had come to expect from me. What else was there for me to do but to go on listening to my truth? What else was there to do but to listen with my heart?
I dressed warmly and brought my journal. I sat in a private room in a faded floral easy chair that I dragged across the room so I could be close to her body. It was on a gurney. She still wore the same hospital johnnie that she died in. I could tell from the tiny Betadine stain on the front of it. Her eyes and her lips were shut tight. For a long time I stared at the tiny line of epoxy glue that sealed her mouth.
I sang her favorite hymns, without flinching. I sang songs by the Sons of the Pioneers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, 50s tunes from my childhood. I sang Sinatra, Perry Como. Tony Bennett. Then I sang Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Brokedown Palace:
“Goin’ home, goin’ home / by the waterside I will rest my bones / Listen to the river sing sweet songs / to rock my soul.”
I talked with her body for a while. Mostly I cried. It felt good to be there.
When I stood up to kiss her goodbye, some inner choreography changed. Instead of pressing my lips against her cold forehead, I purposefully placed my journal over her silent heart. Then, holding my own body at such a peculiar angle that, afterward, my back had a crick in it for weeks, I wrote. I filled page after page in my journal, which was supported by the hard surface of the shell of my grandmother’s life.
That day, my own epic redemption poem was born. It sang, it wailed, it witnessed. And it transformed.
The cover of the journal was black. The figure of a woman, dancing, was etched on it in gold. The binding was big, fat, and spiral so the pages stayed open beautifully. I wrote with a fountain pen, given to me by a dear friend to honor a special occasion. But to this day I haven’t found it necessary to open that journal ever again, nor to read any of the writing. It has been enough to realize, after all those decades of feeling not enough, not seen nor understood, that my Grandma loved me the very best way that she could, and she loved me so much that she waited while I drove a thousand miles so I could be there when she died.
“What the hell does someone DO that long at the crematorium, Pat?” My cousins were waiting for me at my aunt’s house. Dinner was ready. I was late, and they were hungry.
I smiled and reached for the deep fried zucchini.