Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday Musings, 27 October 2012

Good morning,

A small victory: I slept all night without waking. Feeling refreshed is too much for which to hope, but staying asleep for eight hours signals that at least, my conscience rests.

Grey crowds my face, beaten back only by the skillful hand of a kind stylist. I wrench my elbow, and groan for hours, days, weeks, no longer cheerfully rebounding from every spill. I manipulate my neck and feel a crunching that causes me to wince. Middle age claims me; I stand on the brink of the downhill stretch.

Into this state seeps a trigger for memory. My son's friend Alex Thompson, who has written a screenplay about his Greek grandmother in which Olympia Dukakis has agreed to star, sends a tweet into the happy abyss of the internet: I've written about my yiayia -- send me stories about YOUR yiayias. Oh, memory: you rise to haunt me.

I'm back in a ranch house, the first built in the subdivision called Lake Knolls, sitting on the bend of a highway halfway between Chatham and Springfield, Illinois. My nana, the strongest, surest, finest woman that I have ever known, then or since, has been felled, slowed, bested, by a series of gruesome strokes. She stands in the living room, flanked by a worn recliner, a pale-colored sofa, and a console television, in this summer of my thirteenth year, one leg in a brace, her arm lifeless and withered by her side, and tries to tell me something. Ddddd-er, ddd-eer..she stammers, my Nana, the woman who taught me to always put my best foot forward, who bought me shoes that I could be proud to wear, who read to me summer, after summer, after scary summer, when my brother and I had been sent to the safe harbor of her Gillespie home. Dddeerrrrrr -- ddddeeerrrrr!!!, her urgent demand.

It wasn't fair that I should be tasked with trying to determine what Nana wanted that day. My grandfather had gone to work; I don't know where my brother had gone, possibly for a walk, down to the scraggly banks of the nearby creek, at the end of a dirt road beyond the cornfield next to our grandparents' home. I glanced around, desperate, worried, fearful. What does she want, I asked myself, a cold knot forming in my stomach. Still she stammered, stuttered, a frenzied look in her eyes, pleading with me to figure out the word that escaped her.

I couldn't. I turned, pretending that I didn't know, didn't understand, that Nana needed something. I'm going to my room, I told her, with a false, cold cheeriness. I went into the den in which I had been sleeping, where the fold-out couch had been restored to the guise of seating and my small suitcase held a handful of books brought from the public library at home. I grabbed one of them and curled into the farthest corner of the sofa, scrunched against the arm, under the window. I opened the book to a random page and held it resolutely against my bent knees, unable to read for the tears forming in my eyes.

I heard the painful steps of my grandmother pulling her ravaged body through the hallway to the bathroom. What followed could only be the sound of a person with just one functioning arm rummaging through a medicine cabinet. Grief stamped my face, dampened my cheeks, spilled to the surface of the book. I threw it across the room, my chest heaving with a terrible mix of self-righteousness and self-loathing.

When I went back out into the living room, Nana stood in the place where I had left her, holding a bottle from which she drank without benefit of spoon or dispenser. Her three-pronged cane discarded against the chair, she teetered, unstable, her internal resolve the only thing keeping her upright. I crossed to stand beside her, and put my own thin arms around her, lowering her heavy frame into a chair, easing the bottle from which she had drunk from the tight, frantic clutch of her one good hand. A brief glance at the bottle: castor oil. My disgust with my own obstinate unwillingness to help the woman who had given me so much rose in sickening waves. I sat on the arm of the chair, one arm across her shoulders. Neither of us spoke.

Late that night, with the cool summer air surrounding us on the patio, my grandfather calmed me with his deep, low, soothing voice. It's okay, little one, don't worry, he told me, holding me, petting my arm, singing the songs with which he had lulled me to sleep in the long-ago days of my babyhood. My Nana had gone to bed, her body ravaged and her bones weary, and my brother sat with us in the dark, having no words to help me forgive myself for failing our grandmother.

I remember the last time I saw Nana. My mother had come to retrieve me after my annual summer visit. I would have said it was 1973, though a quick search of the Social Security death records tells me otherwise. In any event, we left Nana and Grandpa's home while my grandfather was not there; I'm sure he was at work. Nana had cajoled my mother into cleaning her house, and sweeping the patio, and taking some leftovers to eat in the car. She stood at the door, waiving her one good arm, and my mother let the engine idle. Do you think she knows we are leaving? I asked, and my mother shook her head. She couldn't say; no one could. We waited, and Nana smiled, the sweet smile that I had always seen on her face, for all of my life, every time she had come to take care of us and every time she had taken us into her home. She knows something, my mother finally remarked, and we backed out of the driveway.

A short while after my grandmother died, my grandfather bought a new car. I had gone to stay in the dorm room to which I was assigned for that fall semester, a week or so early. We planned a family Sunday dinner for the next day, and my grandfather was to come down to St. Louis, the first visit since her death. I felt uneasy, unsettled, and I dreamed of my Nana. I saw her, sitting in the back of Grandpa's new vehicle, her face smooth, her arms strong, her eyes clear. Tell Lucy not to cry, she told me, in my dream, Tell her I'm just fine now. Lucy -- my mother.

The decades since my grandmother's strokes and her ultimate death sit heavy on my bones. I assume that by the time I am a grandmother, I will be older than my mother ever got, but younger than my Nana when she died. In that long heavy stretch of late middle-age, I will gather my memories around me, and weave them into a model of the best grandmother that a child could ever have, one who tells stories, dispenses advice, and buys the expensive shoes, and who lives in a brick home, with a cornfield, a patio, and a fold-out couch for a visiting grandchild.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

For more information on Alex Thompson's project:

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.