These words are often found in the colorful language of my Grandma Edith. I’ll never forget the look on my sister-in-law’s face when, at a family dinner, Gram blurted out to me, “You were thinking about adopting one of those chink babies, right?”
This is a photograph from the early 1970s of Grandma Edith and me. An organic gardener long before anyone was talking about it, she let me hold the hose to help her water the growing plants.
The rest of my formative years, according to Gram, were spent with my nose in a book and my head in the clouds. It’s a fairly true assessment. She always wished I would have been like my brother – playing beside her while she worked in the garden instead of reading in the crook of the branches of an apple tree.
Gram and I have never been as close as I would have liked. She is warm, funny, loving and generous. She can also be blunt, tactless and downright cruel – traits that are hard to take for my overly delicate being.
Still….when I sit, with a head that has remained in the clouds, it is her voice that infiltrates my thoughts. “This used to be a wop/portagee town….,” she’ll smile as she describes the changes in Rio Dell.
“One day I went up to the old place to kill a couple of rabbits for dinner,” she told Mark and me the last time we visited her. “Some little kid – I don’t know who it was, must’ve been someone visiting – followed me, and when he saw me bop a rabbit on the head with a stick, he started crying. We didn’t have rabbit that night.”
And it is images of a childhood spent on a hill above this town that come in flashes at the least expected times. The bottle of moonshine-soaked hard candy to be drunk at the first sign of a cough. Hundreds of white poppies – seeds brought from the old country – swaying in the gardens. Piles of fried chicken. Warm fresh milk squirting across a stable toward the giggling mouths of grandchildren. Deep black skies of a place with no streetlights. Fermenting crocks of sauerkraut. Mud-caked fingers.
Gram has had a most interesting life and is full of fascinating stories. Stories only she can tell, and stories that are fleeing from her mind little by little. At 90, she has begun to show signs of dementia.
She isn’t able to garden anymore, so Mark had the idea of approaching her about letting us plant some things there that we can’t grow in foggy Loleta. Gram readily agreed – she even seemed excited about it. Soon we will be spading and hoeing and planting and weeding.
My hope is that she’ll come outside to watch, laugh at us, point out all our mistakes and tell us stories. My dream is to be able to write them down. My fear is that I won’t be able to, or that it’s too late.
How will I get her to open up to me, especially when some of her life experiences have been harsh and painful? How will I combine her fragmented bits into cohesive tales? How will I be able to illustrate the life of this woman – with all of her beauty, all of her strength and some of her faults – with grace and truth? And how, especially, will I do this without angering, or worse yet, embarrassing, the rest of my family?
At this point, I have no idea. So my plan is to start with a grub hoe and some tomato plants.
Wish me luck.