©2013 1350 words
This is a decades-old photo of my paternal grandmother. She was in her early nineties and still living in her Central Florida home. That’s my daughter Devon she’s holding; I think Dev was about 18 months old at the time. Grandma’s name was Ada Narcissus Urquhart (nee Lovell).
When I was a child, I used to tease her about that middle name—used to try to impress her with my knowledge of mythology gleaned from the World Book Encyclopedia.
“Careful, Grandma,” I’d caution, sassing up to her while she was filling the washing machine or my plastic play pool. “There’s your reflection in the water. You don’t want to fall in and get drownded in a lake of love.”
Thing is, personal vanity was about the last thing my Grandma ever contemplated.
“No danger I’ll go to mooning over this big nose and squinty eyes,” she’d laugh.
I thought her eyes pretty. They were marble bright, as pale blue as my cleary shooters.
All the same, no lady ever primped less than Grandma. She never stopped to gaze in mirrors and plate-glass windows. Had not a bit of use for cosmetics other than the talcum she sprinkled in her terry cloth house slippers. Didn’t worry about fashion either. Grandma favored sensible water-resistant shoes with rubber soles and little eyelets in the canvas. She wore plain housedresses whipped up from a Simplicity pattern on her Singer sewing machine—frocks that hung on her five-foot frame like a sack.
The lady was strictly no frills.
No surprise, then, that Grandma lived in an unpretentious house—the house up on Lake Street that she and Grandpa built from cheap yellow pine. I’m told it was run down and shabby looking long before I was born. The two-story structure boasted a tin roof over hand-plastered walls and sagging linoleum floors; every window and wind-slamming door sheathed in rusting screen. It was a house that smelled of sooty fireplaces where tin-foil clad sweet potatoes were left to roast in the ashes, where the aromas of fried chicken, bacon, biscuits and coffee mingled with the musty scents of mildewed rag rugs and wet dogs. It was a beautiful, falling-down house. Ugly as sin.
That didn’t matter a bit to Grandma, who never cared a thing about appearances.
What she cared about was her gardens—the great zinnia beds she cultivated in the spring, her Formosa azaleas and French hydrangeas in whose vicinity my cousins and I were forbidden to play. She cared about her tomato plants and turnip greens, the pole beans she tended like royalty, guarding them the live long summer against caterpillars and raccoons, against murders of marauding crows.
She cared about her animals—the fat little Shetland collie she kept, replaced several times over the decades and always named ‘Lady’. She had a warm spot for the ragged-ear tomcats that found shelter and food on her kitchen stoop.
And Grandma cared about preserving the family history.
She was, by the time I came on the scene, the keeper of a trove of familial lore—the one who maintained scrapbooks and journals, photographs and mementos in a beat-up steamer trunk.
On rainy afternoons the past was reborn from that trunk.
Grandma told us stories about her Daddy, my Great Grandpa and namesake, who was the town barber—a man known to everyone as ‘Uncle Jack’ and whose idea of a haircut involved a bowl, a pair of scissors, and a bottle of Bay Rum. She told how he’d spent the last years of his life boarding with her and Grandpa and my aunts and uncles on Lake Street. The juiciest stories were about Great Grandpa and his liquor and how in his old age he’d taken to hiding pint bottles of Wild Turkey in the lavatory tank—“the one place where he knew it’d keep nice n’cool against the Florida heat”.
Sometimes the stories were about Grandma’s brother, Cleveland, who died at thirteen from a rupture sustained while chopping wood. Other times, we heard about a sister, Mattie, born two months early and five minutes after her mama, my Great Grandma, had expired in childbirth.
“Poor motherless Mattie,” Grandma would sigh in recounting the tale. “Had a head so small when she’s born, would fit in a teacup. Still does,” she’d crack.
Souvenirs came out of the trunk too.
Like the valentine carved from a piece of heartwood by my nine-year-old future father, the words, “I love you Mama” scrawled in faded red paint. This from the boy become-a-soldier, become-a-father, who by the time I could toddle was a living, breathing sphinx.
“All his soft sentiments went into hiding after his war-time in the Pacific,” Grandma tried to explain—which is perhaps why to this day I remain skeptical of the supposed glories of the battlefield.
Thing is, the stories Grandma pulled from her trunk—they threw open a window to that other softer person who would become my Dad, to all those aunts and uncles and great grandparents that I would never know any other way. Such wonderful stories.
Listening to them was pure pleasure.
But more to the point of these ramblings, those tales, that way of life, they were Grandma’s familiars, her age-old companions through the rearing of six children, and all the grandkids that came after. They were how she coped through decades of thick and thin—Grandpa’s long, fatal bout with the big ‘C,’ the scattering of her children to the four winds—right up to her ninety-eighth year. Which was when she broke her hip, when Ada Narcissus slipped and fell—not while gazing dreamily into a pool, but mopping the kitchen floor.
I was living in Colorado the year Grandma’s surviving children—my aunts and uncles, my father—thought it best she enter a nursing home. The ‘home’ where an attendant stole the wedding band off her finger while she slept. The ‘home’ where gradually the world slipped away from Grandma, the names of her children and grandchildren slowly dissolving into generic “Sugars” and “Sweethearts”—perfectly understandable in that environment where nothing must have seemed familiar.
My Grandma died seven months after turning one hundred. It was 1992 and early spring—just about the time she would have begun preparing her gardens for planting back on Lake Street. She left me a hand-written journal and a crocheted afghan. And her stories.
I’ve thought about Ada Narcissus a lot in these three years since returning to Florida—especially now that my mother, who still lives independently nearby, will soon embark upon her ninth decade. I’ve thought about how important it was for Grandma to keep her routines, about how much she enjoyed puttering around her gardens and that dilapidated house on Lake Street. Time and again, I’ve reflected on how much Ada Narcissus loved recounting the familial past.
Perhaps that is because sometimes it seems that my mother has begun retelling my Grandma’s story, albeit with notable variations. And the degree of separation this time is much less. A generation less.
Nowadays, it’s my mother who’s tending gardens, who’s collecting albums and mementos—boxes of them in every room of a too-large house. Nowadays it’s Mom who’s telling stories—stories I’ve never heard.
Stories of the maternal Grandma I met only a few times. Tales of a girl named Vivienne who stole away from the schoolyard at fourteen to marry; a girl who traded her sheltered life for first-time motherhood at sixteen, never guessing that there would be nine more babes to feed in the hard years to follow.
And more. Again and again, come the stories about my Dad, the minor league baseball player, dead these seventeen years. Stories about the gifted first baseman who paid for my birth by winning a home run derby.
These are stories that my Mom needs to recount. I can tell. As if before she forgets. As if before it’s too late. Only now the experience feels different to me. Now the listening isn’t always such a pleasure. Because I’m not a kid anymore. So I know what’s coming.
Because now I worry how I’ll handle it, if it comes to that—making the decisions that affect the customary, comfortable details of another person’s life?
Because now I wonder if I’ve the sense, the good grace to discharge the duty honorably—being the keeper of the familial? The keeper of that flame.