a small lake to swim across

Posted by on January 20, 2008


My sister called today to relay news about my grandmother. The hospice workers have said that she will probably not live past Tuesday. I did not feel emotional at this news for the usual reason– because she is ninety-two and has not been doing well since her second stroke four years ago. She has languished a long time, giving me ample opportunity to adjust to the idea of her most real self already belonging to the past. Perhaps because she has not really been herself for so long I have already done some of the work necessary for securing her in the place of memory.

I held the phone while sitting on the arm rest of our futon, facing the open door of the bathroom. As my sister talked to me about flights and funeral arrangements and who would sleep in which room at my parents’ house, my gaze fell trance-like onto the toothbrush holder, with its two adult and one baby toothbrush. It looked so very static, but oddly, like a symbol of my own binding entanglement with energy and all earthly cares. I learned that my grandmother has stopped drinking water and tried to imagine what state one would have to be in to no longer desperately desire water.

Even though this end has been long in coming, I still cannot process the dissolution of a ninety-two year old life, and all of its indescribable essence. Being too-much engaged in the thick of my own life, I am not sure I can properly ponder the ending of hers. I can only think about my own acquaintance with her essence–the sound of her voice, her gestures, or the tasteful way she decorated her home, which to me seemed like a grand extension of herself. Part of this was lost when she and my grandfather moved into a retirement village, and divided up a lot of their belongings among the family. Part was lost through strokes. I think about the loss of this and also of the stories she told over and over again, and how I’ll never remember the details exactly right, and how, even though they reside as partial things in my brain, one day I will die and they will reside no where. That, most of all, is hard to think about.

Her father was a minister and founded Park Lake Presbyterian Church in Orlando, when Orlando was a small town, with pristine lakes. After church services, she and her sister would sometimes swim across the small lake between the church and their home instead of walking. She had a favorite story about involvement in a community play in which the entire cast started giggling uncontrollably and couldn’t go on with their lines. I always pictured this in my head as a black and white movie. She had one sister and four brothers, and according to her account they all had big personalities and loads of talent. One of her brothers was nick-named “Curly,” and apparently never tired of playing the piano and entertaining people for hours with his songs. Another brother was named Harry and became a surgeon in Nashville. Her sister was Elizabeth but went by “Ibby,” and was my mom’s favorite aunt, because she was an entertaining story teller and practical joker. I knew Aunt Ibby too and saw her right before she died, still crackling with personality. She collected early American antiques, ate out every single meal, and really was “a riot,” as all the older members of my family dubbed it. But my grandmother, named Lucy, outlived all her siblings.

My grandmother went by Gogo to us. She was constantly quoting scripture, holding forth on table manners, and beckoning us to bring her a pair of scissors and stand close so she could remove a stray string hanging from the hem of our clothes. She rode a camel in Egypt and traveled all over the world with my grandfather as a tourist, even to India and Ecuador, at a time when the world was much bigger than it is now, but never carried her own luggage or voluntarily perspired. She always had certs, kleenex, and moist towelettes in her purse, and always wore very large, stylish, tortoise shell sunglasses. I actually remember the kind of face cream she used and that she had several unopened jars of it in a closet. She never cut and permed her hair like other women her age, but wore it up in a big gray bun, held in place with combs. When she would take her long hair down in the evening and brush it with a soft bristle brush in front of the grandchildren, we could not believe how much it made her look like a wicked witch, and actually told her that, but she did not take offense.

Her legacy is potent, with extreme weaknesses and also extremely lovable qualities flowing through it. She led a privileged life, with a maid, countless country club luncheons, vacations, a nice home, nice clothes, and a doting husband. Even now my grandfather has hired the very best hospice care he could for her at the end, and I picture him with one of those over-size checkbooks, freely writing out checks for her care throughout the course of their long marriage. But anyone close to her would perceive that she also suffered inside from unrealistically high standards and a binding, life-long perfectionism that would make anyone miserable. She also struggled with chronic headaches, nervousness, and depression. She was always taking different kinds of medicine.

Maybe it is not proper to write all of this down. It may only the perspective of a child, since that is the only perspective anyone can have of a grandparent. And if I wanted to go much further into detail, about anyone and everyone in my family, and the complex legacy they have handed me, I, like most people, would have to write a novel in which all of the characters “are entirely fictional have no relation to actual people whatsoever.” In a literature class I took in graduate school we talked about how everyone has a village of people living inside of them. My grandmother is without a doubt a primary inhabitant in my own internal village. I hear her voice, her advice, her politics, her religion, her criticisms, and her goodness, her heart, and her suffering and best virtues and charms, all jangling around inside of me quite often. They also formed my mother, binding and repelling her by turns, and pass down to me in yet another, modified yet potent version.

For a long time I have lived far away from where Gogo lives and felt distant from her, despite the fact that I know she loves me and I love her. As of this moment, I feel peculiarly detatched from the reality of her death. But I hope to fly down to Orlando for her funeral, which will be at the church where her father was a minister, with stucco walls, a beautiful Spanish tile roof, and oak trees hung with Spanish moss–now a historic building on a busy street near downtown. The lake is still there too, though no one would want to swim in it. It will be difficult to go down with Esme, lugging her portable crib and all the rest, especially because she is in the process of weaning now, and I’m afraid she will regress when taken out of her familiar environment. This is not a time in my life when I want to travel. But it will be warm and green and I will see my sisters, all of my cousins, aunts, and uncles, who mostly all still live in Florida or the South, and who I rarely see anymore. I’m not sure how this trip will go, but I know that I am still young, and, despite all my talk of feeling tired and depleted most days, I still very much crave hydration, and life, my daily tooth-brushing, and in a pinch can always scrap together the necessary energy to make a trip. I hope I can be closer to my grandmother in death than I have been in life, especially in my adult life. I hope her funeral, where I will gather together with everyone who cares about her and holds her in their village too, will carve out that space I need to meditate upon and genuinely honor her ninety-two years.

(This is a photo of my grandparents at my wedding in August 2003.)

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  1. anna j
    January 22, 2008

    This was fascinating to me, Julia: I’ve always wondered about your grandparents, from snippets gleaned as we have spent time together over the years . . . the little I knew made me curious to know more of their lives. While it is sad to hear of her imminent death, I do understand how it can be a normal passing, in the sense that sometimes death is simply another inevitable event in life as we know it.

  2. Julia
    January 22, 2008

    Thank, Anna. I thought I might be boring people with this, so I’m glad at least one person found in interesting. I thought of you while writing and all of the experience you must be getting in your current job.

  3. Manuela
    January 22, 2008

    Hey, this is not boring at all. I actually red it just now and I was interested all the way through. This is part of who you are, part of your upbringing, part of your past.
    I always find it fascinating to read about prior generations.
    This is a very nice and appropriate tribute to your grandmother.

  4. Ser
    January 23, 2008

    What a lovely tribute to your grandmother. I always enjoy the scope of your blog, Julia. I feel like I get little glimpses into so many different aspects of your life.

  5. Molly Sabourin
    January 23, 2008

    I sincerely hope that my own grandchildren pay such loving attention to my life. This post reveals so much about the beauty of your grandmother, your family and yourself. May Lucy’s memory be eternal.

  6. Anonymous
    January 27, 2008

    The truth of my love for you is real and potent. My heart is heavy for Popo, you, and all of yours.
    much, much, much love and many prayers,
    beth