April 2018

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Grandma and Grandpa

Grandma and Grandpa are three-foot, apple-faced dolls who hold hands and look vacantly towards the middle of our living room. They came to live with us in 2004 after an auction at a high school where Ann was consulting. I had come to the auction late, working long hours at my own school, and went through the silent auction by myself. I was the only person who bid on them: $27. Heck, I thought, the bench they’re sitting on was worth that much.  What luck!

Grandma and Grandpa looked a lot like older people I’d met in the small town of Spring Hope where my dad grew up in Eastern North Carolina: Grandma’s white hair is pulled back in a bun. She’s not smiling. Her face is somewhat wrinkled, but not overwhelmingly so, and her blue eyes look intelligent (even if she is in this moment staring vacantly: I’m guessing Grandpa was telling a long story). Grandpa’s hair is white and thinning, and he is smiling (pleased with his story, I’m guessing). Both used to have glasses, but when my nieces Lucie and Gretchen were in town for our wedding eight years ago, they tried them on and broke them. Since then, G and G have been without glasses, but they’re still holding hands unless our friend Ellen has put them in compromising positions. (I never saw that in Spring Hope!)

Spring Hope was once voted most like Mayberry, Andy Griffith’s small town. It has a couple of stoplights and several churches. The cemetery is across the railroad tracks from where Von’s Beauty shop (also her house) was, where my Grandmother got her hair done. The town’s best restaurant is The Grill, where I would get a North Carolina barbecue sandwich (no coleslaw) and fries with a real chocolate milkshake instead of the sweet tea everyone else was having. The country folk lived on farms, mostly tobacco, like the ones where my grandparents grew up: a detached kitchen (in case of fire), a gazebo (for curing pig meat), and a giant bubble in the green linoleum floor (where Uncle Bill had installed an electric heater when they were invented.) Dad grew up in town.

My favorite Spring Hope story gives me a sense of the people who grew up with my dad: When his teenage friends wanted to look wealthy one hot August day in 1956, they drove a convertible to Chapel Hill, the nearby college town, with the top and windows up so that pretty college girls would think they had air-conditioning. (In my day in the state capitol, convertibles were cooler than air-conditioning, but this was their day, and this was Spring Hope.)

I never came out to any of my grandparents. My Granddaddy Edwards died when I was three and my Granddaddy Matthews died when I was 23, and I didn’t come out to myself until I was 30, so I never came out to them. Still, I didn’t come out to either of my grandmothers who were 88 and 78 when I came out. My parents’ greatest fear, I believed, was that my grandmothers would find out I was a lesbian, and only the good Lord knows what would have happened. Therefore, when I mailed coming out letters to my whole family, I did not send my grandmothers the letter that I wrote everyone else. Both grandmothers, however, let me know in Southern code that they knew my secret and that they loved me.

When Dad, Ann and I visited my Dad’s mother in Spring Hope, he and I left the room to dish up ice cream for everyone. Ann stayed in the spare living room with grandmother, who sat in her red faux-velvet chair near the window where she could see the pecan tree and yell at the squirrels in the bird feeder. (The squirrels were not faux.)

As soon as we left, Grandmother said to Ann, “Are you the one who lives with Mary?”

Ann said, “Yes.”

Grandmother said, “I thought so,” and that was that. Grandmother was a woman as frugal with words as with money.

(When Grandmother was in her early nineties, she told my father that her dryer was on the blink. He said, “You should get a new one. You have the money….What are you saving your money for?”

(Grandmother’s blue eyes twinkled and her dentures grinned when she replied, “My old age.” I imagine my silent Grandma doll would respond the same way if she came to life.)

I imagine my Grandpa doll might have been a Yankee visiting Grandmother Matthews and family in the state’s Queen City. Though I don’t know if the Matthews family ever hosted a Yankee, I feel sure that they would have been Southern-friendly, asking about his family and life up North. They would have wanted to know about his kinfolk. What did he think of Sherman’s march through Georgia? Was he Southern Baptist, they would have asked, and if not they would have wanted to know about his religion. If he’d shown up without being expected, Grandmother would have pulled a Thanksgiving spread from her two refrigerators. In the summer, Granddaddy would have brought in some fresh “maters” from the garden, and there would have been a chocolate cake to top it off. “No,” was not an option. Not even, “No, thank you, ma’am.”

I didn’t come out to this grandmother either.

My partner Ann met this grandmother when Ann and I visited my mother’s family in Charlotte. Aunt Mary Ann had everyone over for Sunday dinner, the main meal in the middle of the day, after church. (It's not a meal with this family unless there are at least 15 people at the table, so aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins and Grandmom came to the table with Ann and me.)

Grandmom took a seat in the middle of the long table, seating Ann to her right and me to her left. Auntie Susan said, “Pass the potato salad,” and Cousin Lori said to her son, “Would you like some gravy with your fried chicken?” We focused on the food. Then everyone was talking at once.
Aunt Mary Ann told me about my Great Uncle Bubba. “He looked just like Clark Gable. I’ll tell you. We’d walk down the road together and cars would stop to look. Once someone got out to get his autograph. I’ll tell you. Did I tell you that the cat next door had kittens? They’re so cute. I’m keeping one that’s completely white. Her name is Snowball, and she’s so cute.”

Uncle Tommy heard her desultory story and said, “Dear, the train has left the track.” (I admired the sweetness of his observation: both have family histories of Alzheimer’s, and they’re helping one another notice when they lose track of a conversation.)

In the midst of this chaotic conversation, Grandmom turned to Ann and said, 
"Who does the laundry?"

Ann responded, "We both do."

My grandmom said, "Oh! That's good."

Then she turned to me: "Who does the cooking?"

I said, "We both do."

Grandmom again exclaimed, "Oh, that's good!" before going on to the next chore of her life. Grandmom, like God in Genesis, looked at my world and called it good.

These dolls remind me of my family and our stories. They have been a grounding tie to my past in these years when so much has changed after my brain tumors, and I have sometimes felt like I’m dangling in this world, not entirely tied down. Now, however, I’m ready to move on.

In July, Ann and I will welcome our puppy Dosey into our family, and I don’t see Grandma and Grandpa being a delight for Dosey like they are for me, so we have put them up for adoption, and before Dosey comes, Grandma and Grandpa will go to live with my friends Susan and Rod. (They weren’t home today, but Susan said we could leave on the front porch. By themselves?! With squirrels and bees and all manner folk around? No way!)

I’ll miss Grandma and Grandpa in our home.  I’ll miss the way that older women go directly up to Grandma and say, “Hey girl. How you?” (or in the case of Sister Josefina from rural El Salvador, “Hola Senora. Como esta?”)

This feels like a marker in my new life, a letting go of the old dolls and an embrace of  a new puppy.

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