Friday, November 03, 2006

Our Tower
--for Mary Johnson 1.26.07-2.5.05

I’d like to start by reading from a series of sonnets written by the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. It is in memoriam to his mother. I saw Heaney read in Montana when I was student and he explained his reaction to losing his mother this way:

The metaphor behind the title, Clearances, was when a tree comes down, when a big tree is felled out of a cluster of trees, there’s that kind of wobble in the light for a moment and it seems that the volume of the light in the world has been kind of spasmodically increased, just for a moment. And at the same time, the volume of the world has been decreased by the fall of the tree.

The first sonnet is set at his mother’s bedside as she was passed away. The second is a more direct use of the tree metaphor, focusing on the sound, in particular. Heaney writes—

From Clearances #7

And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

From Clearances #8

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

In the days after Gran’s passing, I had several important conversations with my mom about Gran. In one, Mom said, Gran was a tower. And it’s true. Despite her physical stature, she has had a monumental influence on this family. So the space that we stand around today is vast. That’s what makes it so difficult. But, as Heaney suggest, that space has been emptied into us. It is a clearance, a pure change has happened.

I’d like to spend a few minutes discussing what I hope has penetrated each of us, what has been emptied into us to carry beyond today.

I’ll start with the little things and move to the larger. Things I’ll remember about Gran, especially as I she helped bring up her grandchildren, my brother, sisters and cousins.
When she tucked me into bed at night, instead of kissing me gently, she’d get right up to my ear and start growling. Like she was nibbling on my earlobe. It drove me crazy, but now, I do that all the time with Ella.

Gran often looked after us kids when mom and dad went on vacation.
One time in particular, I remember vividly, we played catch in the backyard. I remember it so vividly because even as a little kid, I knew it was pretty cool to play catch with my grandma. I also remember her arm. In fact, on the last throw of the day, Gran pegged me in the mouth with a heater and knocked out one of my baby teeth. Which of course was just great with me, it was one of the few ways I had to earn money, after all. But I also remember her tenderness that day, taking care of me and nursing my wound.

I remember her way to get me to stop crying, anytime, was to say, “I see a smile coming around the corner” or to ask the famous questions “Are you going to go out into the garden and eat some dirty worms?” Which always sort of confused me, but which always made me smile.

I remember her garden.

I remember how she told me about how she felt as the youngest.

How she knew what I was going through.

I remember her relationship with Heather, and their Christmas Eve dates.

About ten years ago, again when I was a student in Montana, near the time I heard Heaney speak, I took a class on Native American literature. We were assigned to tell a story about our families that we knew little about. I decided to ask Gran about my grandpa. So over a long weekend, I went to her house and looked at her photo albums with her and recorded the interview. I’m working on getting the tapes transferred, but I do have copies of the transcript, if any one is interested. I count those hours with Gran as among my favorite. The next year for her birthday, we all got together at Anthony’s in Seattle. Remember there was an earthquake? I wrote this piece for that occasion, and I hope it captures some of the little things I remember about growing up with Gran and also the special memories I have of interviewing her:

The Stairs to Gran's Root Cellar
For Mary Johnson on the occasion of her 88th birthday

Meatballs. French cut beans. Nilla Wafers. Small cartons of milk.
A dishwasher that hooks up to the faucet in the sink.
Down the narrow stairs to the root cellar.
In the next room, a pirate’s treasure chest—
my grandfather's tools
maybe even my great-grandfather's.
T-squares, hammers, planes.
And a small leather coin purse with two compartments.
One that holds lead weights, the other, hooks.
Genuine. Angular. Treasure.

I can see a rope swing on the maple in her backyard.
From the attic I watch my sister climb up and rest on the bottom knot.
Later, I make Sally and Mom and Gran watch me as I climb.

Gran does. And she watches me play baseball, and football and basketball and act.
And she watches me mow an uneven, hurried course across her backyard. It looks like
a blind-man's cross stitch she tells me.
The next week, I have learned something about work.

She lets me in after school. Takes the lid from her candy jar.
Stays with us when Mom and Dad are gone.
Plays catch with her grandson in his backyard.
Teaches me about commitment and love.

She shows me old, black-paged books, fading images.
Weakening glue. She takes her time and explains clearly
so that I can remember and tell my family:

This is your grandfather.
This is me.
Here we are together.
Look at that porkpie hat.
Oh dear, look at our car!

I see them all.
In each picture, her pose is genuine.
An angular treasure.

--January 28, 1995

So that’s something about the little things I remember about Gran, which leads me to the big things I learned from her. While I learned many, many things from Gran growing up so near her in Selah, I feel that the main lessons I received from her came when I was an adult, having returned from college to live again in Selah. I was given a chance to know her as a person. Here’s what I found—

Gran was honest and direct. She did not fall into the trap of nostalgia. She didn’t treat me like a child and she did not want to be treated like a child either. She didn’t sugar coat her words or live in the past. She saw the world as it was. Because of this, one of her most direct lessons to me was, Nothing much changes, Dan. That could be called fatalism, I guess, but Gran meant it as a reassurance, and it has been.

Gran wanted to be told the truth. She wanted to hear about her family. She did not want to be protected, she did not want to have anything filtered. She insisted on this point. And when hard times came to people she loved, as happens in any family, she had an incredible way of understanding without judging.

She was interested in the world of today. She was avid reader with an open mind. She read several newspapers, newsmagazines and wore out the shelves of the Selah Library where she also volunteered. She watched the news. Voted for Nader. Twice. And could talk as easily about Bess Truman as about the Seattle Mariner’s outfield.

But the two most important things I learned as an adult were the value of independence and the ability to persevere. While I can’t speak with much authority on Gran’s childhood, I’d guess that these two traits were always there, learned from her father, maybe. And I can only speculate that her sense of autonomy and will to fight-on was forged and solidified when she found herself in midlife, a single woman again with both her children grown and no obvious next move. That moment was perhaps what defined Gran. Filled with her own grief and uncertainty, she picked herself and her children up and carried on.

At a time when women were not exactly liberated, Gran started a new life. She sold the store, moved to a new town and went back to college to re-earn her teaching credentials. Whatever she learned during that difficult time stayed with her. The firm sense of willful independence never left.

As she came closer to the end of her time here, she sometimes said that no one should have to live this long. But her actions suggested a fierce determination. Her actions told all of us that she loved her life and wanted to see it continue.

Three years after her 88th birthday, I was home from college and living with Amy (a scandal Gran never said a word about). Amy and I often picked Gran up on Sunday nights and drove with her to Mom and Dad’s for dinner. It was a treasured task for both of us. We got to hear all the good Methodist gossip and even some things you mustn’t tell your mother. On the return home from one of those dinners, Gran said something that surprised us.

Gran Plans for her 91st Birthday

My plan for the week is to empty out my closets,
Gran tells us on our way down the hill to her place.
It sounds practical at first.
She has things she could give away. So do we.
Clothes she hasn’t worn for years.
Shoes or a lamp. Records.
Then she tells us,
I was there when we emptied out my sister’s place.
I know what a chore that was and I don’t want anyone to have to do it for me.
I try to laugh it off like she didn’t mean it.
I want to ask her questions about growing old.
I want to tell her,
Stay where you are, Gran. Stay in your home.

My grandma turns 91 next Monday.
She cooked dinner for us at Christmas. Her arms are wire twists.
She is as beautiful as she is strong.
Maybe it’s because her son called to tell her
he was selling their home on the island.
I guess his move started this talk.
Gran hardly ever says this stuff. But tonight,
she tells Amy and me that only two burners on her stove work and the broiler is out.
She won’t get a new one, she says.
There’s lots of things to be done,
Gran tells us as we turn on to her street,
but not now. It won’t be me who does them.
I’m 29. Gran has me scared.
I get out of the car to walk Gran to her door,
but she is already several steps ahead of me.
She climbs the wooden stairs
puts her key in the lock, turns it until it gives,
thanks me, flips on the light, waves at Amy
and watches to see that we don’t hit anything as we back up.
My headlights sweep cross her as I make the corner.
I want to tell her she’s a reason I came back to Selah.
So I could learn.
And I am.
Not by what she’s said tonight,
but by what she does every day.
She figured out a long time ago how to be comfortable
alone with herself. She’s showing me how.
Gran smiles and waves again.
She’s glad we’re ok, but even more so,
she’s glad we missed her sprinkler heads hidden in the snow.

I stop the car, shift into drive.
Gran’s green house brightens in the snow
as she crosses from her egg-shell kitchen
to the living room,
turning on all her lights.

January 20, 1998

I hope this poem captures some of her sometimes contradictory spirit—that is, what Gran said versus her desire to be independent and her strong desire to be stay with us.
See, she said she was ready to clean it all out, but deep inside, she was hoping I didn’t screw up her sprinklers. She was fragile, but she was thinking of spring.

Indeed, she didn’t relinquish her closets or her house, for two more years, remaining there until the incredible age of 94. In the four years since that move, she has again and again demonstrated a resolve, a will, a stubborn streak for loving life that amazed our family. She fought her way back from cancer, strokes, broken bones, and difficult living conditions. She fought to stay a part of the world. And that is a powerful lesson. Whenever she’d have to be taken to the hospital, which occurred with some frequency in the last two or so years, (as mom said last week, Her body was giving her fits) the standard line became, Never count Gran out. I said it several times last week.

Which is one reason I think this day is so difficult. Even though she was sick in the hospital and having difficulty breathing, I didn’t really believe it was time. She did. She knew. She smiled when she saw visitors, including Amy and me, and Gran opened her eyes really wide when Ella came in the room. But with mom, in quiet moments, she said she was ready to go home. She said she wanted to get up and walk out of there. In her final days with us, Gran sang.

She was a tower until the end. The space we stand around today, Gran’s space, now a bright nowhere, as Heaney says of his mother, is utterly empty, utterly a source.