My paternal grandmother, born in the now nigh-unimaginable year of 1921, shed her mortal coil last week.
She was, in the end, a small and fragile woman, weary and bent with the accumulated cares of a long life. Her health, never robust and frequently under assault by some exotic ailment, finally failed her in her 91st year.
These are the facts.
The facts are what are easiest to share with you, dear readers. They are quantifiable and readily digested, and do not challenge one’s composure in any direct way.
Grief hits us all differently, I suppose.
How could I explain to you a woman who insisted on wearing makeup for any occasion, even if it was taking the trash out to the curb? Or who saw no problem in allowing a child to wring the neck of a chicken, but wouldn’t let me pour coffee for adults until I was 12?
Can I ever hope to put you in the same late-70s room with a group of laughing, smoking, mercilessly competitive Jacksons, trying to kill each other via Canasta, all of them courtiers at the table of a curly-permed queen whose throaty laughter and biting invective were delivered with equal zeal through a haze of cigarette smoke? Is it possible to make you understand how “You little shit!” can be the most loving thing a person can say to another?
How can I make you see that same woman, clad in one of the innumerable pantsuits that made up her mid-life wardrobe, chasing me down the sidewalk as I wobble on my first real bike, sweating in the afternoon sun, silently wishing she could retreat to the cool of the porch for a beer and a cigarette, but relentless in her enthusiasm for my somewhat lackluster cycling efforts?
Mock chicken. Fresh bread. Pie, and fudge, and oyster stuffing, which she hated to make but dutifully provided every Thanksgiving because my grandfather and I demanded it. Homemade Easter Eggs, filled with peanut butter or coconut or fruit creme, artfully decorated and heaped to high heaven along with a thousand other delicacies she would never eat, but created to please her grandchildren. You no doubt have analogues of these in your own life and memory, but they are not the same. How could they be?
Can I illustrate just how many lessons I learned from her? Respect your elders. Take pride in your appearance. Feed any and everyone who crosses the threshold, regardless of protest. Cheaters never prosper – and the best way to avoid cheating is to make sure you’re the one making the rules. Play fair. Everybody gets $20 instead of a present when they turn 18, because who can keep up with you young people and your hobbies?
I learned some of these lessons under her tutelage, and some by being wounded (intentionally and not) by her capriciousness in practicing what she preached. But I learned them well.
Do I dare show you the same woman, older now, in conflict with me because of what is euphemistically referred to as “family politics?” Am I brave enough to admit that I didn’t see her as often as I should have, that I paid careful lip service to her requests for a visit but never came around because I could not quite bring myself to forgive her for the things she’d said and done? Do I risk losing your respect and affection by admitting in this oddly intimate public space that I avoided her because she came to represent everything I feared might be lurking inside me, a genetic timebomb slowly ticking in the dark recesses of my heart, waiting to unleash its black payload and turn me against those I love in the name of spite?
Can I admit that the anger that drove me to resent her flickered and faded like a candle in a high wind when I saw that her death had taken the heart out of my father, her only son, and left him adrift and imploding like a dying star? Do I try to make you understand how heartbreaking it is to feel the strongest, most amazing man you’ve ever known tremble like a leaf in your teary embrace?
I don’t know that I can answer these questions. Not safely. Far better to stick to the facts.
My grandmother, Bernell Irene Jackson, died last week. We loved her. She loved us.
That’s all that really matters, now.
Those are the facts.