In memory of Dorothy Rose Kelly-Bird, 1920 - 2010
I often with I could time travel back into my childhood - not to change anything, but to be able to fully appreciate people and events, with my mature, "grown up" frame of mind. If I had known then how desperately I'd wish to relive those memories; and how I'd miss those people now, years and years later - I would have savored the time more.
But that's the thing about being a kid.... life is so carefree. You don't think about savoring. You think about living. And learning. And being loved and cared for ( hopefully).
And maybe that's what makes the memories sweeter, once childhood is passed and turbulent youth is done: you want to go back and savor it; relish it - truly appreciate it- but all you can do is treasure the memory.
When I embark on a journey down "memory lane" into my childhood, it's more like an interstate than a lane; and chief among the throngs of memories I encounter there are the ones involving my Grandma.
My Grandma lived a block from us, and going to her house was like a trip through the looking glass; or stumbling through the doors of an enchanted wardrobe. Grandma's house held exotic wonders and peculiarities that made home look dull.
She was, herself, exotic in many ways. She was an artist, a feminist, a liberal, and an environmentalist; she was creative, simple, down to earth - and regal, elegant, poised, and lovely. She was truly ahead of her time. She did all kinds of things that I thought were just odd, but today are considered current, and "mainstream". She had money, but hardly ever spent it; instead living very frugally and re purposing and reusing everything.
She rarely wore skirts, and made all her own clothing just the way she wanted it, in fabrics that were vibrant with color and texture. She always smelled lovely (some kind of old fashioned perfume, I'm sure), and she loved to wear goofy hats.
She was all for being silly and enjoying life... whether it was driving us through her yard in the open front of her canary yellow Volkswagen Bug, buying a family of life sized plastic ducks for our sand box, cranking up Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" record and dancing around the house singing along, or buying a giant, human-sized bubble wand and having a bubble party on summer afternoons with ice cream and fruit punch on her picnic table.
She took me to my dentist appointment, and immediately afterword, bought me a large mint chocolate chip milkshake.
She made her own paper, and gave us cards with brightly colored swirly patterns like tie dye.
She returned from wintering in Florida every spring with her VW Bug packed with treasure: trinkets from The Epcot center at Disney; shells and driftwood from her daily walks on Cocoa Beach; oranges and grapefruit from my great Uncle Pat's citrus grove on the Indian River, and quirky, odd things found at flea markets and thrift stores.
I wouldn't really have called my Grandma a devoutly religious woman; but when I spent the night at her house on occasion, she'd tuck me in bed, and we'd always recite the Lord's Prayer and the 23d Psalm. Of course I knew the Lord's prayer and the 23d Psalm by heart already; but hearing her say it was a totally different experience. Her voice was low and soothing; and took on a different tone from her regular speaking voice. She spoke each word emphatically, like they were an ancient, sacred chant:
"....Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me".
And I really believed that - as much as a child can deeply believe anything, I believed that if I did find myself in the valley of the shadow of death (wherever that was) I would fear no evil, because the Bible said so - and because Grandma believed it too, and said it with such confidence and assurance.
When I was about 11, Grandma had to move to back to Florida full time to take care of my Great-grandmother, who was ageing and ailing. I got sadder and sadder as Grandma packed her things in the weeks before her move. She gave me a small china figurine of a Chinese woman; something I treasure to this day. Lots of other things were donated to charities.
The morning she left was sunny and warm; her yellow VW Bug packed to the roof with her exotic treasures, art supplies, homemade clothing, and silly hats. She hugged us all and cried a little, but not too much, so no one got hysterical.
And away she drove, taking away the exciting possibilities for each day with her.
I ran away to the neighbor's pasture and buried my face in her horse's mane and cried my broken heart out.
What I didn't realize - at least, not right then - was that she hadn't taken all the exciting possibility for each day far away to Florida in her VW Bug. Life went on. I grew older. And I discovered that even though she wasn't a block away anymore, I could still create my own exciting possibility for each day. She had shown me this; and I already had the tools: a creative mind, confidence that being a little odd was really okay, and love and zest for making life fun - and perhaps a little zany - but above all, special.
I wrote her letters almost weekly and she wrote back, on her home made paper cards, or on recycled junk mail stationary she made. I gave her all our family and neighborhood news and she filled me in on all the things she was doing or making.
Grandma did eventually move back to North Carolina when I was in my teens, but those childhood play dates and arts and crafts explorations at her house never really resumed; though we still spent lots of time with her.
All too suddenly, the day came to say the final goodbye to Grandma. It's something you know has to happen eventually, but you're in denial; and when it's staring you in the face and you're forced to deal with it, it just feels so sudden - and too soon.
Standing by her bedside, looking so weak and frail - a whole different person from the Grandma of my childhood, it seemed. How could this be? How could this be happening? I was called to my parent's house on that rainy May morning, stunned by the news that it looked like she was not not long for this world. Just a few days earlier she seemed to be recovering from her recent illness. Now, it looked like she was giving up.
She seemed unconscious, but the hospice nurse said that though she was unresponsive, she probably was aware that we were there: my sisters, one of my brothers, and my Mom; all of us crying and talking to her though she could not respond.
I laid my hand on her chest in the last few moments, and felt the last weak flutters of her heart under my hand as she passed from this life. And her voice echoed in my heart:
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me".
And in my sorrow, I found peace.
I am almost daily reminded of my Grandma - even the tiniest things can bring on a flood of memories and smiles and yes - sometimes, tears: using her teacup. Anything to do with birds. Butter pecan ice cream. Pottery mugs.
Silly hats. Her homemade blouse in my closet - and putting it on.
And especially canary yellow Volkswagen Bugs.
My Grandma and me, in 1981.