The culmination of events that lead to the day my world broke apart in November 2004 actually started in 2003. There were some typically stressful events going on at work, but name me one information technology department in a large corporation that isn’t akin to working in hell, and I’ll be duly impressed. I took my daughter to school one morning to have a chat with her teacher and when teacher asked me where I worked, I burst into tears right there in the 4th grade classroom. So we talked, and she told me about The Artist’s Way (AW) by Julia Cameron, and that her husband and a friend (who turned out to be the spouse of one of my stressed co-workers) were going to facilitate an AW group. I went.
About a month into the AW experience I had to pull an all-nighter at work, testing our business continuation procedures (that’s disaster recovery in reality). I came home and literally fell into bed, only to be awakened around mid-morning to the sound of my husband coming home from work to “check on me”. He was really coming home to tell me that my grandmother had died the night before, while I was trying to locate missing database structures and dummy unnecessary files, etc.
A few weeks after that we came to “show and tell” night at AW class. I couldn’t think of what to do since I’m basically a fair-to-middlin’ pianist and there was no piano in our AW facility. I was stumped, and still grieving for my grandmother. So I started writing, and this is what I wrote. It’s not historically accurate in spots, but it is the way I choose to remember my grandmother.
Artist’s Way Show and Tell
I have my grandmother’s hands. I never really noticed it until recently, when it started to get cold outside. I noticed the fine lines that have worked themselves into the spaces between my fingers, and in the way my skin becomes so dry it starts to look like the ‘leather britches’—green beans threaded together on a string and hung up to dry—that she used to put up every fall. Grandma’s hands were always busy.
I used to stay with Grandma when I was very young, while my mother worked at the Radford Army Ammunitions Plant, known by locals as the ‘Powder Plant’. Grandma would park me in a chair in her living room and tell me, very sternly, that I was not to get up out of that chair until she had finished her chores. While I waited in the chair, she would sweep the floors, dust the furniture, wash the dishes, finish the laundry, cook dinner for my Grandpa, who would be coming in from the grocery store he owned, or from the farm if he was working the evening shift, promptly at 12 noon. I did have one chore of my own: I emptied the ash trays. I remember watching dust motes float in the air, illuminated by the sunlight streaming through three little square windows at the top of the front door, and thinking to myself that her cleaning efforts were all for naught. Finally, she would let me out of the chair to eat and then we’d read while Grandpa napped on the sofa. She taught me the alphabet from the spines of the World Book Encyclopedia on the bookshelf next to the television in the living room. I remember her fingers, pointing at the letters and asking me what they were. Eventually she did teach me to read, so that by the time I was four years old, I was reading anything I could get my little hands on. I suppose my reading kept me quiet so as not to interrupt her afternoon ‘stories’. She was a CBS soap addict, a habit I learned from her and carried well into my 20’s.
I watched her hands as she’d drive the car, when we’d go on her bill-paying run or to the beauty shop for her Friday morning ‘do, or when we’d drive out to one of the farms to see what was happening with the cows or the sheep. She used to bottle feed the lambs who were abandoned by their mothers. I can still see her standing at the kitchen sink, mixing lamb formula and pouring it into Pepsi bottles, then stretching the rubber nipples over the bottle tops. She let me help her carry the bottles to the barn, and even feed the lambs sometimes. Although she’d claim that she never got attached to those little lambs, her hands gently stroking their heads as she fed them confessed her secret.
She kept a garden next to the barn, where she’d spend hours pulling weeds in the summer. Her hands would get so dirty from gardening, and her fingernails were always brown. But that garden produced some wonderful summer offerings: squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn. I didn’t really appreciate those vegetables as a child. I know better now. She used to can tomatoes and corn and green beans. I was always amazed at how she could reach into a pot of boiling water and remove the jars with her bare hands.
She would help my grandpa with hay in the summer, too. She would pick up bales of hay by the baling twine and toss them onto the back of a wagon as grandpa drove the tractor back and forth across the fields. When I got older, into my teen years, I was allowed to help with this particular summer activity. I couldn’t begin to pick up a bale of hay without gloves at first, but grandma did it for hours on end, bare-handed. Every now and then we’d come across a black snake or rat snake, lurking in the hay fields. My grandma could not abide a snake. If we had a hoe or rake handy, she’d use it to decapitate the poor critter. If not, she’d gingerly pick it up by the tail and beat it senseless.
In more recent years my grandma’s hands became occupied with babies—my children, my cousins’ children, her great-grandchildren. She would change diapers, dole out baby food to little bird mouths, play patty-cake, offer shiny quarters to grubby hands, and rock little ones to sleep, singing Bye-Lo Baby. When my grandpa got sick with cancer, the same caring hands performed those same rituals for him: changing bed sheets, doling out little bits of food to another little bird mouth that couldn’t keep much food in it, quietly stroking his brow until he fell asleep. After he died her hands didn’t have as much to do, and they spent a lot of time thumbing through the pages of an old Bible. As her own health faded, her hands became covered by the angry red welts of the rare genetic disease that eventually took her life.
This will be my first Christmas without my grandma. She loved Christmas. She used to have a silver Christmas tree that she would always decorate with blue glass ornaments. And she had one of those rotating color fans that sat on the floor in front of the tree and cast its light onto the shiny branches. We used to gather at her house for supper every year on Christmas Eve. She’d cook, but we grandkids had to wash the dishes. There were gifts spilling out from under the tree into the middle of the living room floor, sometimes even into the dining room. She loved practical jokes. There’s a story about her going to a covered dish supper, a common country affair. She took an empty covered dish, because it wasn’t specifically stated that said dish was to contain food. At Christmas we were sometimes a bit wary of gifts from grandma. When I was eight or nine she gave me a cigarette carton with five dollars in it. When I unwrapped the carton I couldn’t figure out why grandma would give me cigarettes! One year she gave my dad a box of junk from one of the farm out-buildings because that’s what he said he wanted, “just some junk.” And I’ll never forget the year she gave my grandpa a baby doll—an anatomically correct boy baby doll. She couldn’t get over the fact that you could actually buy one.
I have a small silver Christmas tree in my living room this year, decorated with blue glass ornaments. It seemed the right thing to do. I let my daughter decorate it. She doesn’t really know about the significance of the silver tree and the blue ornaments, but one day she will, because I’ll tell her. I’ll tell her about my grandma, about all the things I remember, so that my daughter will know more than just what she’s seen of grandma’s life—the last years, the difficult years. But for now, we’ll make Christmas cookies, my daughter and I, and our hands will be busy in the kitchen. We’ll wrap gifts together, and we’ll sing Christmas carols at the piano, my hands searching the keys for the right notes. Making memories, it’s called. My hands, reaching forward into my daughter’s life, and reaching backwards through my own and into what was my grandma’s, pulling the threads together into the fabric that is now.
I have my grandmother’s hands—at least they look like my grandmother’s hands