I wrote the following passages in two separate sections over two separate days.
Part I – 2:00 a.m. San Francisco Time, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2001
The call I was dreading came just ten minutes ago – an unhappy, middle-of-the-night call – word from my exhausted and grief-stricken mother that her mother’s long battle was over and that she was at peace, finally. The call was more than simple news of a passing; it also evoked a curious mixture of grief and relief and joy and tears. Grief that a beloved woman, who was in part responsible for my existence on earth, had reached the end of her long and hard, but fruitful and accomplished life. Grief for the hole torn afresh in my chest, next to the three scars left after the departures of my other three grandparents. Stating a trite obviousness: Losing family is never nice nor easy. I also carry scars because I never had the priviledge of growing up and getting to know my uncles, Leon Ramsey and Jay Pollock. Yet, somehow, there was some relief that the imprisonment of that lively and articulate brain had ended and joy at the thought of all that she must be experiencing right now – in particular, a much-anticipated reunion with her husband and the healing in her heart of the missing of him.
I’m happy for her; but you’ll have to forgive me, I’m also a trifle perturbed – she was, after all, either supposed to hang around a lot longer or at least take me with her. But good for her anyway. I’m really not that selfish. Okay, maybe I am. A grandmother is something truly special, of course. Irreplaceable. And now both of mine are gone. I have a simple question today: How do you breathe after this? My throat was constricted after Mom’s call (it still is), and I relived the nightmares of 1988 and 1992 and 1993 and the loss of the other three grandparents all over again. As a matter of fact, the moment that stops my heart completely this morning is a memory which came rushing back at me with an overwhelming force after Mom’s call: In 1993, when I arrived at Meme’s house that cold January evening and approached Granddad’s bed and Grandma lovingly cradled his head, woke him up and with a big smile said, “Look who’s here! You know who that is?” and Granddad turned his head and lit the room for me with a huge grin and said, “Well of course I do! It’s Stevie!” And then I saw the tears in her eyes as she looked at him and bathed his face with a wet wash cloth, the knowledge that she was about to lose him sneaking up on her inexorably. The love there was suddenly naked and unabashed and I had never seen it quite like that between them before. These were not demonstrative people. Their 60th anniversary kiss was quite a production, as I recall.
I have to belive that, right now, Grandad’s returning the favor for her, welcoming her home, holding her tight as she adjusts to her new freedom. Just think about how she feels. No more pain. No more loneliness. Together again. And best yet, free from her mind prison of the last eight years or more, able to think and speak coherently again, calling him “Daddy” and asking if he still dips snuff, trades cars every two weeks and how many yards has he taken on to mow?
Because that’s the thing. The pain of loss is sharp, but bittersweet since you remember certain happy things and know other things and that makes it okay. In the first place, she deserves the peace and tranquility and family reunions and everything she’s experiencing right now even as we sit around her body, scarcely able to breathe. She earned this. Years of back-breaking labor over the stove, the ironing board, the cotton field, the cash register at the store at Central High. The labor of five pregnancies. And the price she’s paid and the hurt and confusion she’s endured over the last eight years of one of nature’s most cruel diseases – it was intolerable – both for those who were able to see her every day and those of us who were far away from her physically, yet always had her in our thoughts and hearts. Folks, she was unable to look at a picture and call it a picture; it came out that it was a cow. She could say, “Well, there you are!” oftentimes without being able to recognize or articulate who you were. And so now she’s at peace, whole again, rejoined with her husband and other loved ones who went before, rejoined with her mind. Joy unspeakable is hers and who am I to be selfish and piggish and want her here in the flesh? If anyone deserves what’s she experiencing right now, it’s Brooksie, our mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, mentor.
She’s gone. And I personally hate it. I think it stinks. I’m a selfish lil snot. I so want her here. I want the consistancy she represented – she was as immutable and constant as the Rock of Gilbraltar. And sometimes just as stubborn and unafraid to get up in your face if you needed it. Especially if you and your cousin Jeff are playing with the porcelain spinning squirrel in the glass bookcase for the nine-hundredth time that day and she’s told you before and you’re gonna break the thing and then where will you be? I also doubt if she’d much appreciate me referring to her as Brooksie through some of this narrative. I’m sure to hear about that eventually.
Brooksie’s daughter, Janis Wynona, my momma, says I may be about to turn 38, but she is, after all, my mother and she has spoken and I better hop to it. How high, Mom? And if circumstances are just right, I might hear echoes from Wynemia Jenell, Joyce Lee, Patricia Jane and George Oval Jr. Now, do you think that Janis Wynona, daughter of Brooksie Booth, learned how to keep me in line by reading some book? Not on your life. Nope. She and Grandma had me tag-teamed before I was capable of rational thought processes and halfway coordinated motor skills. There is also some limited video evidence that certain aunts knew these skills also, before I could even feed myself, while I was still known as Porky Pig. By the way, I have to report here that grandma’s disciplinary techniques also work on beagles. Not even a halfwitted beagle like my Bayley can mistake the meaning of the phrase, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out,” delivered in my best Grandma Booth voice and intonation. He minds me quite well after that.
Her kids did turn out pretty decent, I s’pose. Meme showed me how to keep an immaculate house, feed hummingbirds and turtles and how to care for others under conditions which might make Mother Theresa sit up and say, “Whoa! No way Joe!” She hasn’t had a hair out of place in my lifetime. And that’s the one thing I can’t possibly hope to emulate her on; my hair hasn’t been in place since day one. I’m just not willing to make that kind of commitment to hairspray or gel. Her generosity of spirit is awe-inspiring.
I’ve written something about Mom, Janis Wynona, but might not be able to read it. Her inner beauty is in fact her inner strength. This is an intelligent woman who sacraficed herself to serve the elderly of her community for over 25 years – she paid a dear price for it, but I promise that there are stars in heaven because of her. She’s saved lives, both figuratively and literally. And it is due to her and Dad that I have everything I have and am who I am. Speaking of Dad, I congratulate him on his good taste in swallowing hard and taking the vow back on April 10, 1955.
Joyce Lee, always the rebel – after all her slogan is, “The South gonna rise again!” taught me to have fun, not take life quite so seriously and, as David Niven says in Please Don’t Eat The Daisies,” “I shall yell tripe! Whenever tripe is served!” Too bad she yells it for the rightwingers and I yell it for the leftwingers, but she’s such a remarkable woman, I can overlook that rather otherwise glaring fault. I shall never forget the day she gave her Herman the Lion monologue followed by the Ladies and Gentlemen speech in the crowded dining room of Mrs. Hap’s Smorgasbord Restaurant in Clovis, NM. I pray for the day when I find that kind of courage.
Patricia Jane also taught me to have a sense of humor, and adventure, but most of all how to survive. Dolly Parton in my favorite movie has the line, “Why when it comes to suffering, that woman is right up there with Elizabeth Taylor!” Her courage and fortitude in the face of some of the cards she’s been dealt in life is an inspiration to us all.
And what can we say about George Oval Jr.? What did he teach me? Well, he showed me, for one thing, how you can beat your nephew at cards by making sure that his back is to a blank TV screen – that way you can read all his cards without him knowing it – until about 25 years later. I grew up thinking I was truly lousy at “Go Fish.” But beyond the silliness, George, Junior, Son, whatever you wanna call him, shows his deep and abiding faith and plays a mean guitar, drives a mean drag racer and taught me how to build models and whittle sticks and play in irrigation ditches. Not to mention those invaluable “Go Fish” lessons. His biggest asset, in my child’s eyes at the time anyway, was that he was big enough to torment my big sisters, thereby freeing up a significant amount of my time, most of which I used burying their cameras and barbies in the back yard. I owe ya, buddy.
Now see, there’s the rub. These people, all of us, are Grandma’s legacy. There are pieces of her in each of the people I’ve just described. They are the fine people they are because of her and granddad. Therefore, her life should be uproariously celebrated. Her death mourned, but her life, full of laughter and joy, celebrated. And the pain of today does heal with time. While there are still moments when I bump up against the scars created by the passing of my grandparents, it’s made easier when Grandpa Pollock’s voice sounds in my head, saying, “Whoooah Steveus!” or I hear Grandma Pollock saying, “Now, Curt!” and laughing over incidents on a vacation trip to Gal-vest-un, as she pronounced it. And hearing Grandad Booth swap stories with Uncle Charlie and Uncle John, then get up, jangle his keys and start talking about the well running – well, it’s just better when I hear their voices like that. It’s also a bit scary when I hear their voices coming out of my mouth, but we won’t go there. Let’s just say that I came by my ranting at political news on TV honestly – Grandpa Pollock’s favorite stock phrase when referring to anyone in Washington DC was “dern fool.” I’ve changed that to “idiots!” but I doubt that, if he was still alive, that anyone else would want to be in the room with us while the news was on.
The aforementioned Dolly Parton in one of my favorite movies says, after the funeral of another character, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion!” Truer words were never scripted for Dolly Parton. I don’t know if it’s my favorite emotion, but the bittersweetness of it helps assuage the grief and lets me breathe again. And that’s why we remember the good times today, the funny times, the echoes of her voice. Her voice is silenced in the physical world, but it lives on immortally in each of us. As a matter of fact, I think I can almost hear her now, telling me to “get on with it, you crazy thang.”
Part II – 28,000 feet over the Central US, aboard United 138, an Airbus A320, bound for Chicago O’Hare International Airport, 12:15-17:00 local, 15 Nov. 2001.
But what about Grandma’s life? She was a quintessential rural 20th century American with feet in both the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. Consider the events of the span of her life:
At some time in her childhood, possibly while a Serbian national named Gavrilo Princip was officially ringing the curtain down on the 1800s by shooting the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and dooming the new century to perpetual war, and while the killing fields in Flanders were running at full bore, for-real Indians in for-real costumes not made in Hollywood, rode up to the dugout the Ketchum family occupied near Duncan. The menfolk were up at Marlow, cutting firewood, and it was just Hettie and the little ones Dick and Brooksie facing down a couple of braves and their squaws. I’m pretty sure Hettie’s heart was pounding in her chest as she asked what the visitors wanted and was probably fairly concerned at the reply, “This is our land and you must leave.” But the natives rode off and never returned. And maybe quite a few of us sitting here owe our existence to their forbearance. And to Hettie’s brave determination.
Grandma saw two world wars and the infamous depression that would so color their lives. Her father died in 1917, supposedly due to complications as the result of an operation that today would be a 15-minute, out-patient “procedure,” after which you’d probably go ride a horse or play tennis. In other words, she witnessed the greatest and most rapid advances in medical science in human history. She started life in a dugout on an Oklahoma dirt farm, but later watched Walter Cronkite report JFK’s death in Dallas and Apollo 11 touch down on the moon in mankind’s one giant leap. People began flying at Mach 2 in three hours between London and Paris a few short years later.
On a more personal level, my earliest congnizant memories of my grandmother: Out at Dexter, apple butter spread on thick bread slices, the taste of vanilla ice cream from her freezer. Store bought vanilla ice milk. Never tasted the same anywhere else. But at grandma’s at age five – glorious. Her singing while puttering around the kitchen, whippin’ up some red beans and fried taters and cornbread for when Granddad comes in out of the fields. Snippets of conversation, “Well, Stevie, I’ll just tell ye.” The comforting whirring of an electric fan in her bedroom during a nap, a sound which still comforts me and lulls me to sleep every night. My friends think I have a fan fetish; it’s hard to explain that each night I’m able to evoke the security and peace of being five and lying in grandma’s bed with the soothing whirring putting me to sleep by having my own box fan going all night. Other things: The mystery of false teeth. The way my bare legs would stick to her green naughahyde cowboy couch in the hot New Mexico summer afternoon. A dip in the irrigation canal and a refusal, timid child that I was, to take a deeper plunge in the irrigation reservoir. In later years, narratives about Miss McGee and her parrot. I only recall meeting the woman once, but at the time, I possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of her goin’s, doin’s and spendin’s. It was our own personal soap opera, written and narrated by Grandma, with detail so rich no visuals were needed. General Hospital and All My Children may have been on the air longer and have a few Emmys on the shelf, but Grandma’s production of As Miss McGee Turns was a vastly superior and far more fascinating entertainment.
Grandma had some verbal expressions with obscure origins. She said them so often that I’m comforted now when I hear them in my head. She lives clearly and loudly in my memory that way. One example: “Hateful take it!” Well, sweetie, your English major grandson wants to know – what exactly does, “Hateful take it!” mean?! I suppose it’s the verbal equivalent of iodine – at least that’s my best guess. As in: One of the little grandkids falls down – “Well, hateful take it!” A toe is stubbed – “Well, hateful take it!” But whatever it meant, I do suppose it’s preferable to other things that might be said under such circumstances.
She and Granddad both were fond of the following – which has entered the lexicon of family legend, and which I find myself using from time to time. You see, I’m very much like my granddad. I get somewhere and then I’m ready to leave. Sometimes within the same minute. So my friends are sometimes bemused when, after a visit with them, I stand up, stretch, jingle the change in my pocket, and announce, all grandad-like, “Well, I guess I got to get home and turn the well off.” My friends’ expressions are priceless – the word “huh?!” written all over their faces. I know I’m imagining it, but I could swear that the night he died, I heard him whisper, “it’s time to go home and turn off the well.” Or maybe it was that he had to go ‘cause the lights on the car didn’t work. I sincerely hope God’s been allowing him control of the pumps over the last nine years and that there’s a rousing trade in automobiles up there.
I really can’t imagine the need for cars in heaven, but if there are (and I hope for Grandad’s sake that there are), I’m wondering how many he has traded for over the last nine years. Last Wednesday morning in heaven, after the reunion, Grandma undoubtedly had some comments to make about his latest acquisition, calling him “Daddy” and wondering why, if the battery was dead, didn’t he get a new battery instead of a whole new car.
And now I’m now sitting aboard an Airbus Industrie A320, a technological marvel of engineering and physics, flying at 500 miles per hour 28,000 feet above California’s newly whitened Sierra Nevada, headed for Chicago O’Hare, a flight of just three-and-a-half hours in duration, 1,843 miles in airconditioned comfort, being served a, well, United Airlines called it a “meal,” a dubious appellation, yet enough to keep you from passing out from hunger prior to landing. And we didn’t have to stop at the filling station en route; the gas tanks are huge and the potty’s actually right in the plane! To us, mundane. To my grandmother, a contemporary of Wilbur and Orville Wright, miraculous. She was 14 when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic solo, an achievement that was so mind-boggling and thought not to be within the realm of reality.
Not that any of this impressed her; I think the miracle of ice cream in an electric freezer, or television or an automatic washing machine were far more impressive for her. And she certainly would not have stepped foot on United 138 with me; her philosophy was pretty straightforward: When asked if she ever had the desire to fly, the reply was invariably, “Naw sir, don’t believe that I do.” When pressed, you might hear, “That’s for folks ain’t got a lotta sense.” Same as saying, “If God wanted me to fly, I’d have wings ‘twixt my shoulder blades.”
Well, honey, I’ve got news for you. Look over your shoulder. God does want you to fly – he wants you to soar, free and unfettered – no more fear and trepidation and no more worrying ‘bout what the neighbors might say. Just joy unspeakable … finally, joy unspeakable.
Finally, there was something that she would say, over the last few years before the onset of Alzheimer’s, just to me, especially if she saw me dressed up: “Well! How ‘bout you and me a-steppin’ out tonight?”
Sweetie, I’ll step out with you any day, any time, any place. You keep a space on your heavenly dance card open for me, will ya? I’ll be honored.
And, by the way. Thanks for giving life to my mother, and by extension to me. And all the rest of your progeny. A great woman you are and a great woman my mother is. I’ve been all over the world and there’s not a better mother or a better grandmother anyplace on the planet. And we owe much to you for that.
I love you very much. So long and thanks for everything. See ya soon, sweetie.
Love, Steve, who is proud to be your grandson.