Sunday, April 24, 2005

It's that time of year again: I miss my grandmother.

Mary Fulghum Menefee died in April of 1974. You'd think, after 31 years, I'd be able to handle her yahrtzeit (the anniversary of her death) in a calm and collected way, but the truth is that I never know how it's going to hit me. Some years, I just feel sad. Some years, I fall apart.

My earliest memory of her is of sitting in her lap, on the front porch of the house on Otter Creek Road. We were in the big white rocking chair, rocking back and forth to a mostly tuneless little song she used to sing on such occasions: "Loving time, loving time, loving time, loving time..." She had a soft, cushy lap and I liked to curl up in it and abandon myself to the rocking while I sang along with her.

She loved to rock in that chair. Sometimes she'd rock so enthusiastically that at the "top" of the rock there would be a moment of weightlessness, as if we were going to launch into flight and sail over the geraniums and fly off over the hills of Brentwood, maybe to do circles around the WLAC radio tower on the next ridge. She used to tell me that one time, when I was too small to remember, she got a little carried away on the "rock" and we tipped over backwards; she held me up in her arms so that I didn't hit the ground, and I just laughed as if it were a game. I don't remember that, but I believe it. Meme loved to fly in planes, to drive too fast in cars, and I don't see why the rocking chair would have been any exception.

Meme was a religious woman, one of those Irish-Catholic ladies for whom Sunday Mass was an opportunity to say a rosary and talk to the Blessed Mother. She and the Blessed Mother had intense conversations, I gathered, judging from the tightness of her jaw and the way her fingers pinched when she prayed the beads. It wasn't until years and years after her death, at another family wake, that I finally got a clue what all those prayers might have been about. The person who told shouldn't have, so I won't repeat it. I'll just say that my grandmother didn't have an easy life.

She always wanted to travel overseas, especially to go to Ireland, and my grandfather wanted none of it. I had a secret plan that when I was grown, I'd take her to Ireland, but she died before that was possible, carried off by pancreatic cancer. I know it is useless to hate a disease, but I hate that disease: it made her miserable, it destroyed her dignity, and it gave her an awful death. As a good Catholic, she believed that suffering on earth would be rewarded and made right in heaven. I watched her suffering, and at 19, I could not understand. I am not a good Catholic. The only way I can make any sense of that good woman's pain and misery is to say that it makes no sense to me at all.

She's still around. I can see little bits of her in my children, and it is consoling to know that those bright blue eyes seem to be a strong element in our DNA. Mine have faded to green, but theirs are as bright as hers. I think of her when I see scarlet lipstick, or a fancy hat, or when I hear "Ave Maria" played on a violin. I think of her when I set the table with my good china; we picked it out together at the Cain-Sloan Department Store when I was about twelve. She's where I got my stubbornness, and my love of words.

It's that time of year again.

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