We still call her “the nasty little Irish lady”. And we smile. She’s been gone decades, but it feels like she’s still here. She would dance little jigs which mostly involved swinging arms and moving feet just inches, sing naughty little songs, the sparkle never leaving her eyes. She would “saucer and blow” her coffee which to this day I regret I was never old enough to drink. I’ll bet you could stand a spoon up in it. She learned to drive at 75 years old and once cussed at a rude priest.
She lived a state away and I only got to see her maybe a dozen times a year, but she somehow maintained the position of the center of my world. My daddy was her baby and the three of us just sort of melded together.
She put out a kitchen fire by getting mad at it, fed the squirrels in her backyard, suffered with grace through a breast cancer diagnosis and a mastectomy when those were still arcane and almost criminal in their butchery, and crocheted rugs out of bread wrappers because she couldn’t bear waste.
She took care of “old people” younger than she was, always wore an over-the-head apron, and had a deep respect for any person “of the cloth” (including that aforementioned priest). Although she had a closet full of dresses (NO slacks), she had a favorite few she actually wore, including one we counted 40 safety pins holding together.
She wasn’t always goofy. After my family split up, she must have worried about me not having a mother’s guidance. So once when Dad and I were visiting, as the two of them were leaving for the store, she whispered to me, “There’s a black and red book on the top shelf of my closet. You might want to look at it.”
Well. Beautiful Womanhood Guide to Mental and Physical Development. Published in the year of our Lord 1905. I could fill 30 blog posts with the lovely tidbits in that tome. I still have it and nearly weep with love for that woman every time I look at it.
She sat always in the overstuffed rocker with the wooden swan-neck arms, an open newspaper covering her legs to keep them warm. I never saw her sit anywhere else in her house except the kitchen table. That chair is now in my home and rocking its fourth generation of babies.
She kept snippets from newspapers and magazines in her books of poetry along with handwritten quotes, parts of poems, and song lyrics. She played the organ with her eyes closed, to practice, she said, in case she ever went blind. I can still see her hands, wrinkled and spotted, the nails short, as they moved steadily across the keys. The hands on the computer keyboard in front of me visually echo the hands from my memory.
She would figure out tunes of songs she knew, writing her own code for notes and chords on pieces of paper she kept with her organ music. I never could make sense of them. Just a few weeks ago, I saw a piece of paper on our piano with Grandma’s coding on it. But it wasn’t hers. It turns out, her great-great granddaughter does the same thing in almost the exact same way. Without ever having seen Grandma’s “music”.
She knew personal pain on a level close to nuclear, yet one of her baby boy’s favorite memories is of lying in bed in the quiet of night and sharing jokes with her across the hallway. They would laugh uproariously (I come by this guffaw of mine honestly), followed by Dad’s big brother mumbling, “I don’t get it,” which would send them back into their peals of laughter.
She and a crossing guard once helped a caterpillar across the road. She could grow roses like nobody I’ve seen since, except her son. She would always stand out in the yard and wave goodbye, no matter how many times we told her it was too cold, just stay inside.
When thieves were known to steal the purses of the women in her neighborhood, she put her money into her belt and carried an empty purse. I thought that was wise until the rest of the story: She started walking with her shillelagh and was prepared to beat the devil out of anyone who tried to steal said empty purse.
She could – and did – cross her eyes. She loved to try to shock her son with stories of picking up strangers and hitting people with her shopping cart. She once told him she carried sand and a shovel in her car’s trunk in winter – not for traction on ice, but “to cover the bodies.”
She had a faith that was private but sure. Humor that was constant and multi-faceted. She loved to read and had an insatiable curiosity about the world.
I’ve tried to examine why her memory is so acute right now, her face ever before me.
I think it’s because of the face ever before me in the mirror. Although these are hazel and hers were blue, these are her eyes. Although this one is deep and hers was high, this is her voice. As I get older and engage with a new generation of babies in this thing called life, her stories are ever there, as they always were with my children, their parents. Only now I’m the grandma too and the truth and significance of that causes my heart to stutter.
She had the poor taste to leave me when I was just 18, a senior in high school. Hers was the first funeral I’d ever been to. Surrounded by a cloud of confusion, I sat in that room full of family strangers, listening to the speaker call her by an unfamiliar name, and tried to make sense of this new reality. I watched her as she lay sleeping at the front of the room. I stared at her chest, willing it to move.
Then it did, slowly up and down, the air filling her lungs again. I watched as she sat up, turned, smiled directly at me, and winked. I didn’t dare look around to see if anyone else was watching this, didn’t want to lose the moment. But then it was over and the chest was still again, the blue eyes forever closed.
I think that’s when I actually cried. But I was finally at peace, the confusion abated at least somewhat. Was it her or God? Or her convincing God (that’s where I’m putting my money)? Either way, an agreement was reached and a message sent: She is still here. She is not forever gone. In the mystery and wonder of Heaven, she is a true deposit.
I think about that when I sing naughty little songs, tell jokes with my kids and laugh too loud, and rock babies in that swan-armed chair. What stories will you tell, I wonder as I kiss those silky heads, about your nasty little Irish lady?
May I be worthy.