Thursday, July 29, 2004
I just had an encounter that sent me back 40 years.
I stood at the crosswalk at Lakeshore and Trestle Glen, feeling impatient about the long stoplight. A boy (he looked about ten) seemed to feel the same way I did -- he kept banging his fist on the "Press for Crossing" button. I looked down at him, and said, "These things sure do take forever, don't they?" and he grinned at me and said, "Yeah." We were instant allies. Just then, the light changed and the signal to walk flashed at us. I stepped off the curb, and the kid yelped at me. I stopped, and a car screeched to a stop (she had been about to run the light). Without missing a beat, the boy galloped across the street, and I hollered, "Thanks!" He didn't even look back.
As I got to the other side of the street, I saw him run over to a woman a little older than myself. When I reached the curb, she turned to the group crossing over, holding out a copy of "Street Spirit", a weekly published by the American Friends Service Committee, that is sold by homeless folks around here. "Buy a copy?" she said, rather tentatively, "My grandson is here with me, I'd like to take him to the fair."
I stopped (after all, her grandson just saved my silly neck.) "I just met this young man -- he kept me from walking in front of a car," I said. She beamed. "Do you have kids?" she asked me, "Because there's a nice little street fair, and we're going to take the bus over so he can ride the rides." "Oh, my kids are grown," I said, digging in my purse, "Big guys. But I hope you have a good day. Some of my best days were going places with my grandmother." I handed her the cash from my wallet. She gasped, and turned to smile at her grandson. He wiggled and smiled back up at her.
All of a sudden I missed my own grandmother so much that my eyes were filling up with tears. I wished them luck and a good day, and half-ran into a nearby coffee house (where I am sitting now). I looked out the front window after I emerged from the ladies' room, and they were gone. I hope they have a good day at the street fair.
I remember some great days, when I was that kid's age, sliding around on the front seat of her old Buick while she drove from Franklin to Murfreesboro through Triune. We'd have had cottage cheese and tomatoes at her house, and then we'd stop furtively at Ole Taylor's Candy Kitchen in Smyrna (where they make Saturn cars today) and get a piece of chocolate.
Then we'd hit an antique shop in Murfreesboro that we both loved; she'd pay a dollar for which we could fill a grocery bag with used books. Thanks to Meme and the Antique Barn's back room, I read Dickens and Twain from old books that sometimes smelled odd but that were always nicer to hold than a paperback. We'd examine the china and she would tell me all about France, where they make Limoge china and where my father spent his Army service. She'd never been to France, would never in her life travel outside the United States, but she'd talk about it as if she had.
She'd show me old tools and we'd talk about how people lived in "old times." I remember a thing that looked like a wastebasket with teeth: it was a cranberry picker. She said people had to wade in water to scoop the cranberries for Thanksgiving dinner. I am pretty sure that Ocean Spray has something more sophisticated, but I never eat cranberries without thinking of men standing in cold water.
Other times, we might drive up to Nashville and stop by Elder's Bookstore on Elliston Place, where she'd chat with old Mr. Elder, while I'd watch young Mr. Elder organize books on the shelves. She had an arrangement with old Mr. Elder: she'd bring in a bag of paperback murder mysteries, and exchange it for another bag. We'd talk history with the Elders for a while, then get back in the car and drive to the Cathedral, where Monsignor Albert Siener lived in the rectory. Before he went off to seminary, he had gone to Cathedral Grade School in the same class with Meme. He lost a leg to phlebitis, but before he got sick and they sent him back to Nashville, he and the man who became Pope John XXIII had been friends and fellow-students in Rome.
We'd visit with "Msgr. Albert" for an hour or so. Meme would hand him the bag of mysteries, and he'd hand her the bag we'd brought last time. Msgr. Albert was the holiest man we knew. I learned a lot from listening to the two of them talk -- everything from old Irish Catholic Nashville stories to Vatican politics -- but the most important thing I learned was the humanity of the very holy: Msgr Albert loved mystery stories, and he kept licorice candy in a jar, and when little girls got bored during a long Cathedral Mass and got squirmy and irritated their parents, he'd beckon (and since he was Msgr Albert, my parents simply waved me off to him). We'd go to the back of the church and he'd hand me the tails of his cincture (rope belt) and we'd be off, me "driving" him in his wheelchair back and forth across the back of the church while the service droned on. He believed that children should not be miserable in church.
[A side trip: I get angry these days, when I hear jokes about Catholic priests and pedophilia. First of all, the horrors that have come to light recently are no joke. But secondly, the sick priests (and the bad bishops who protected them) were not the whole church: in my childhood, I knew lots of priests and lots of nuns, and they ran the gamut from kind and saintly to crazy as a bedbug. There are some I could have done without, true, but there are others, like Msgr Albert Siener, without whom I wouldn't be the person I am today, people from whom I got a glimpse of holiness.]
But back to the day: we'd leave of Msgr Albert with his mystery books (he had lots of theology books, too; but Meme was his source for the fun stuff.) We might go downtown to window shop at the Cain-Sloan department store, or at Harvey's, and then we might -- might! -- stop by Candyland for a dish of peppermint ice cream with chocolate sauce. (Do you notice the recurring theme?)
Over ice cream, we'd talk about books, and history, and life. I got advice from my grandmother that I value to this day:
"Don't ever sign anything you haven't read, no matter who tells you to."
"Vote every chance you get."
"A woman should always have a little money of her own."
"You need an education, Punkin. College. I only went to one year at Belmont, but you're going to get an education."
There was also information that -- well, she was opinionated.
"The liquor business is bad luck. That's what happened to the Kennedys. He made his money bootlegging, and now poor Rose has to live out all that bad luck. Don't ever have anything to do with the liquor business."
"You can't tell me I'm descended from a monkey. God made monkeys and he made people. And little babies have been growing in their mother's stomachs ever since Adam and Eve."
"We're lace-curtain Irish, not shanty. And your ancestors were kings in Ireland."
... and so on. Actually, I did some research, looking for her in reference books the terrible summer after she died -- she was right. The Carrolls were kings of Ely, in Ireland, in about the year 1000. "King" meant something a little different in 1962 than it meant in 1000, but still, she was right.
She died 30 years ago this past spring, and I still miss her.
I hope that boy has a good day with his grandmother. I cannot bear to imagine my grandmother begging; I feel sick that his grandmother has to.