I’ve been in the living room for ten minutes, and already, Granny has asked me five separate times whether I would like to have a glass of tea. Even if I graciously accept and am holding the syrupy-sweet, cool glass of liquid in my hand, she may ask again. When she walked across the room unassisted and sat down on her daughter’s plush sofa, she was mostly steady on her feet, with only an occasional dizzy wobble due to her 96 years of age. When I asked how she felt, she threw out “fine as a big mud hole” which left me puzzling over whether that’s a good thing or a bad.
Last year, a series of mini-strokes began to affect her short-term memory. If you ask her how long she was married, she will not recall the number of years or even tell you what year it is now, but can instantly summon up the day she married in 1939. She became engaged to Grandpa on March 19 of that year, turned 19 years of age on November 19, and got married on December 19. Nineteen became one of her favorite numbers. She told the story of planting cucumbers that first year after getting married. Instead of putting the traditional six to eight seeds in each mound of dirt, the young bride had whimsically put nineteen in each hill, until “Daddy came along and told me to quit wasting seeds.” It’s hard to tell whether she meant her own father or her husband, who she also began to call ‘daddy’ after raising four children and two grandchildren together.
In her mind, the men of the family had a higher purpose and she was always sure to make sure everyone listened when a man was talking. During family get togethers, Granny would quietly hold back the women until the men had had a chance to fill their plates and get their seats. She explained that the men worked hard out on the farm and deserved a hot meal and a place to rest. She became extremely irritated with me the year that I popped into line and got my plate with the men. To my mind, I had spent the same amount of time as the men out on the farm clearing brush that day, after working all week in my day job. I saw no reason to wait. Granny made no comment on my quiet feminist stand, but I was the last to receive second helpings on the home canned, half-runner beans and my all-time favorite dish. Copying her, I made no comment, but carefully cleaned out what was left in the bowl onto my plate.
When Grandpa and Granny married, they did not then or ever have a honeymoon. They moved in with his parents on the large, family farm. The young couple moved out the following spring to a bordering farm and an empty family farmhouse. The house had been built in the early 1900s and had a plentiful, cold water spring to the east, several hundred feet down a steep embankment. The family garden was in the opposite direction, also a fair distance and sharply tilted hillside away. The barn, an older tobacco barn construction, was above the house. Originally further away, a great, great grandfather had taken it apart and rebuilt it closer. Either way, Granny felt she spent much of her married life either walking up or down a hillside, with buckets in each hand and sometimes a small child on her back.
She had never been a very big person at five feet tall, but she is now less than a hundred pounds, with a face framed with wiry, gray hair. Not that gray hair is new to her since her hair began to turn when in her late thirties, early forties. Despite a life spent with a great deal of time out of doors in the family garden and tending to the livestock, her skin is remarkably smooth, wrinkled only by laugh lines along her cheeks and worry lines along her forehead.
Granny is not sure when she first began writing poetry, but anyone who has visited her home over the years can vouch for little slips of paper stuck on shelves or inside books with quickly penned poems in a looping, elegant cursive script. She would write about everything from the love of her husband, to celebrations of national holidays, down to her youngest son’s green truck. Poetry followed strict rules of rhyming and cadence, much like the songs that she and her brothers would sing together as children.
As a young bride, she once wrote a 100 word essay on why she liked Sunbeam bread. She grins a little when she tells on herself because she won $25 from that contest and she had never actually eaten a slice of Sunbeam. She used the money to buy a gingham dress and a bowl for kneading bread.
When I stayed with her as a child, she would direct me to go outside and find three things of interest. Tickled by this game, I would search the yard between the house and the barn. After years of children, grandchildren, and overworked farmers, I never knew what I might find buried in the driveway or hidden in her carefully tended flowers. If I came in with a button, an old spoon someone had used to dig in the dirt, and a particularly shiny gravel, she would wrap her bony fingers around my plump ones, study my finds carefully, and say, “Gonna make an interesting story. Sit down and tell it to me.” With a biscuit in one hand and my treasures laid out on the table beside a glass of tea, we would create stories together about groundhogs and hidden treasures. After he retired, Grandpa might wander through the kitchen to see what we were doing. He never made a comment or showed any expression on his face. Granny would not stop to take a breath, but continue with what she was saying, until he would quietly shuffle back into the living room and his recliner. He might be the head of the household, but she was the master of the tale.
Grandpa died in July of 1995 of one too many heart attacks. Married for 56 years at that point, Granny continued to add another year to the tally of marriage for every year after his death. They had married for a lifetime, and her life was not yet over.
There was never any question after Grandpa was gone that Granny would continue to live alone on a steep hillside, a mile from any paved road. She never felt alone, always being connected to her brothers, sisters, and members of the community by telephone. Sometimes, it was hard to catch her by phone, every effort resulting in a busy signal as she chatted away, sitting on one end of her worn sofa, beside an ancient window, which looked out past a walnut tree and down into hundreds of acres of pasture and woods, with a small gravel road cutting through the middle to lead up to her yard. Her door was never locked and you could walk straight into the kitchen to snag leftovers sitting on top of the stove to keep warm, and into the living room, to find her with the telephone receiver against one ear, surrounded by snippets of writing paper and dropped remains of quilt pieces and thread.
Granny still talks daily by phone to one slightly younger sister. They are the only ones left of fifteen siblings. She complains that her sister repeats herself, even while acknowledging that she does the same thing. She said, “You get old whether you want to or not. I’m ready to go, but the Lord ain’t ready to take me.”
Gradually, the episodes of high blood pressure and mini strokes increased as did her visits to the hospital. She would forget the day of the week and would take too many or too little of her medication. She would not eat, because she could clearly recount eating meals that day, but which family members suspected had actually occurred days before. She became more confused, disoriented, and lost weight she could not afford to lose.
During one hospital visit, Granny asked about her medication. Very clearly, she recalled giving the Ziploc bag full of pill bottles to a young, sassy nurse. She described her in vivid detail, down to the type and color of shoes she was wearing. The nursing staff swore they had not received any such bag and knew of no one who fit that description. The doctor held her for observation until her blood pressure returned to normal and she was squirming to return home and angry at the theft of her medications. Finally, the doctor released her and I drove her back home. When we entered the living room, the bag of pills lay in clear view on the sofa. Granny stared at it for a long moment and with a defeated sigh, said, “I was wrong.” She gave me a glance and said quietly, “You go on home. I have to call the hospital and apologize.”
Soon after, reluctantly, Granny went for a visit with her oldest daughter, who lives three hours from the family farm. Calling it a visit was a gentle way of saying she might return home, when all knew she would never be able to do so.
Her daughter still lives in West Virginia, but the bustling suburb and busy streets are a far cry from Granny’s creaky, leaking farmhouse. At night, she can be found walking in her sleep, opening doors, and holding conversations with her daughter. None of which she recollects the next day, but she believes what her daughter tells about the night’s events. She turns on water faucets and walks away. She turns on empty coffee pots which overheat. She longs to go home, but grudgingly notes that the mind, which had served her so creatively over the years, is also what is keeping her away from where she wants to be.
Frustrated with the present, Granny tells more stories about her childhood. Her mother would walk five miles to town to clean for a relative, so Granny’s older sister, Bernice, would get her ready for school. She described her very first day of school, when Bernice who was 14 set her up on the table to put on the wine-colored socks, which her mother had dyed for her. She said, “I can still see the color of those socks and Bernice tying my shoes.”
She told her sister, “Bernice, I don’t think I want to go.”
Her sister replied, “Oh, but you got to go!”
She holds onto the memory of the conversation with a fierce determination.
Granny said after she started going to school, she loved it. She can quote poetry that she memorized in fourth grade. In seventh grade, she had a Geography textbook, which she describes as half as big as a dish towel. “We had to learn names of rivers and lines on a map. It wasn’t even interesting.”
She laughed aloud when she told about the spelling book she had to share with her older brother, Bill. She could always see a word once and be able to spell it, while he struggled with spelling. He would go to elaborate efforts to hide the spelling book, so he would not have to study, and she would not be able to find it and show him up. Rising from the luxurious sofa, she walked across the soft carpeted floor of her daughter’s home and stared out the window at the line of houses across the street and the cars cruising past. She held her hands folded limply together, as if just not sure what to do with herself.
Quietly, she said, “It was long ago and far away, but I remember.”
Turning back to look at me, she asked, “Would you like a glass of tea?”