My grandfather died before I was two, thus leaving my grandmother to live out the latter part of her life alone, something, I imagine after hearing tales about my grandfather, his sordid jokes, his hyperbolic mannerisms and his defiant womanizing, that my grandmother might have preferred, although, of course, I never thought nor dared to ask her. She lived alone for 16 years, most of which was spent in her little bungalow located a few miles from Charleston, SC, a place we visited often when I was a child.
My grandmother had many passions: African violets, her church, the Eastern Star, reading and writing, steering clear of the kitchen and most domestic utensils, abstaining from liquor and cigarettes, the Lawrence Welk Show and Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom.” Grandmother loved animals of all kinds. She had had dogs but they had passed by the time I was old enough to remember my visits. She did talk lovingly about Liza Jane, one of her favorite dogs that lived with her in that little house, the one with the screened in porch crowded with pots and furniture and the most gorgeous old Magnolia tree in the front yard, under which Grandmother would park her Valiant, complete with plastic covered seats, if she venture into town.
When I was young, she always had cats, Siamese, and she doted on them like they were young children. She let them run wild in the house and I am sure, if I think of it now, those poor blue-eyed creatures recoiled in disgust and terror to see a toddler, namely me, entering into their usually quiet space. Apparently I had a penchant for chasing them, an urge to pet their silky coats and tug on their whipping tails. Grandmother always scolded me, telling me to leave the cats alone. I was fascinated by them, and her.
She slept in a tiny room in the back of the house, an even tinier bathroom attached to it, filled with papers and toiletries and strange Barbie dolls that wore hand-crocheted skirts that fitted over spare toilet paper rolls. Whenever I went potty, I was accompanied by a smiling doll whose ballgown flaired perfectly because she was standing inside a roll of toilet paper. An odd custom but that was mt Grandmother; she was also infamous for her snoring, something that could almost shake the house and when she came to see us, Mama placed her downstairs, in the basement, in an attempt to put her and her adenoids as far from the rest of the sleeping family as possible. Still I heard her. And while the sounds was annoying, they also told me that she was there. At her house she slept with the cats. She usually lay on her back, her right arm thrown out across the bed, the pendulous extra fat and skin of her lower arm strewn across the bed sheets, and those cats, those sleek and shiny fastidious beings, would snooze right up on her outstretched arm, using her dangling underarm as a pillow. I guess they did not mind the buzz and chug of her lungs as she slept.
I wonder how many nights she spent as such, how many times she readied herself for bed, alone, to curl up with a book and her beloved cats. Was she lonely? Did she miss my grandfather? Did she prefer to have us in the house or had being alone, living alone, become so much the norm that she craved the solace her house provided, the punctual sounds of the cuckoo clock that sang on the hour and the almost silent thump and pad of a cat as it sprang from one height to the next?
The last time I saw my grandmother was in 1981. I was eighteen and my father flew me to Baltimore to pay my respects. She had hung on as long as she could, fervently clinging to her independence, abhorrently reluctant to give up her shady bungalow and move to assisted care. It worked for a while, too. For a time, a care-give came by every day to straighten up, check on grandma and leave food. But even this became too much in the end and my father, against my Grandmother’s wishes (although I am not certain of her ability to think clearly), moved her from her beloved South Carolina to Baltimore and into a nursing home. Isn’t this always the beginning of the end? As so I flew up, asked to visit my once lovely and independent grandmother, a woman who adored animals, made violets spring to life, flew to Hawaii and began to wear moo-moos, and taught me to respect all living things, and she now lay in a nursing home bed. No longer resplendent, a robust and noisy figure in her own bed, sleeping with cats, she rested in a bed with bars, a whisper of her former self as time and illness had stripped her body of color and fat.
Tiny and surprisingly timid, she floated in the hospital bed. I sat beside her, unsure of what to say but wanting her to know I was there. I was eighteen, wrapped up in my own world, which seemed so important at the time, and uncertain of death and dying and how one is to behave in a nursing home, as if one can every truly become certain of such things. I recall walking down the hallway to her room, the hyper clean floors, the pungent smell of disinfectant, the faint ring of beepers and alarms. Outside many doors residents sat in wheelchairs, waiting, patiently, for someone to notice, to visit, to say hello. Many reached out to me as I passed and I held hands with strangers, someone’s daughter or mother, father or brother. I let lonely people chat with me, touch me and smile into my eyes, feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness and gratitude and confusion, heading to the room of my Grandmother, hoping that some other visitor might show her equal kindness if needed.
She recognized me, I am sure. Someone had tidied her up, changed her gown and brushed her thinning gray hair. A baby blue ribbon was tied around her head and I recall thinking how strange it was, so girly and coquettish. And so I sat, as instructed, holding the hand of my dying grandmother, who looked to me like a bird, a frail and delicate bird poised to take flight. And she said to me, “Stroke my throat, Carole. Stroke my throat.” Feeling strange, I raised my hand and gently ran it along the wattle and flesh of her narrow neck, a comfort to her, I suppose, and she finally rested on the starched white pillow and closed her eyes, occasionally swallowing as my hand grazed her skin, stroking her as I might have once done with her precious Siamese had I realized the importance of touch.
Years later, on a sunny summer afternoon, I looked out of my bedroom window and I saw a bird, a silhouette against a clear blue sky. I saw my Grandmother, that satin blue ribbon, I heard her ask me to stroke her throat, and in the bird high in the sky, far far outside my window, I felt my grandmother…So many years since her death but she was there, in that bird, flying just for me, and all I could think was how much I wanted to have wings and feathers, bones hollow and light as air, so that I could take flight too and join her in that infinite sky, feel what it was like to surround myself with light and space, to look down on an earth filled with millions of tiny, bustling people going nowhere, earthbound. The beauty was so perfect, held such clarity, that I pressed my head against the windowpane and cried until there was nothing left; the bird carried on in its course.