Tuesday, February 14, 2012

For Granny

Nearly 32 years ago, I was born. Granny, my dad's mom, named me.

My sisters and brother had been around for a while before that, so I've always imagined myself arriving on a boring, possibly rainy spring day to no fanfare. I see someone saying, "Another baby has been born," and no one feeling like bothering with a name until someone else decides they must call me something, at which point my dad walks out the hospital door, down a worn sidewalk with grass growing up through the cracks, and arrives at my granny's house. He knocks and she answers, having been waiting just behind the door, somehow knowing what he was coming for. "We need a name for the baby," he says. A brief pause. Granny answers, "Robin." And that's that. I'm in the world, and I'm a Robin.

Of course it was nothing like that. But Granny did name me. No one remembers why.

When I was old enough to look forward to seeing my cousins, Granny's house was just about the best place to be. There were lots of kids to play with, and there was plenty of good Southern cookin'. It was usually a holiday, so everyone was happy. Times at Granny's were good.

There are frozen moments that come to me, many when I was alone exploring Granny's house. There was the time when I stood in the backyard under the apple tree trying to choose the perfect piece of fruit. I'd been given permission to eat a single apple. Otherwise, I'd get an upset stomach. But those sour green things were so good, the devil didn't need to convince me. In the end, I was indeed wiser, but it was worth it. I'm sure someone watched from the kitchen window and laughed as I stuffed my face. The same probably hid a smile as I denied the stomachache that followed.

Then there was the time I ventured downstairs, slipping away from the adults and maneuvering the most treacherous basement stairs in the world. It was always dark down there and had that earthy smell. There was a room just ahead at the bottom of the steps. We weren't supposed to go messing around in there, so of course simply putting my hand on the doorknob was a thrill. But I went further, like you do, and turned it till something clicked and the door opened. Behind it was ... well it was just a bunch of junk really. Storage. Was there a metal bed with an old mattress? Were there boxes? Was there a shelf on the wall? ...I can't remember for sure. All I see is everything in smudged gray, like the photo in my memory missed a stage of development. Nothing is distinct in itself, but the place as a whole is distinctly eerie.

There was that autumn when the adults sat on the porch watching us kids play in the front yard. I guess the sliding rocker bench always squeaked but was still the most sought after seat. Someone had the brilliant idea of making a path through the leaves with a huge leaf pile at the end. I see myself hanging in the air over the pile--birds are singing, my cousins are laughing and screaming and playing around me, the adults are chatting and smoking and sitting in funny poses I don't yet understand, the air is perfect--warm with a cool breeze, and I never want to land.

Not too long ago, Granny started forgetting things, repeating herself. She seemed happy enough, but there was a distance. In the years leading up to forgetfulness, I came to the age at which one begins to notice things besides oneself, and realized upon seeing a picture of Granny and Papaw that Granny had been in love once. She'd had small children. She must have had aspirations and best friends. She probably laughed and told stories and had regrets and secret wishes and skills I knew nothing about. But at our gatherings, now full of cousins with screaming, laughing children of their own, and with Papaw long passed, Granny was often alone. She was pleasant and lovely and sweet. In fact, I have no memory of her ever being angry or speaking harshly. But she had become contemplative. She'd sit in that recliner beside the wall heater and smile at everyone and hold the new babies and have her picture made with them. She'd watch the news or a game show, whatever was on at the time. Those old pictures would hang on the walls around her like always.

Then one day, after more time passed than I'd realized, I went home for a visit. We were sitting in the living room, Granny in her recliner, and she told me the story of how she'd named me. "You were born, and Bobby came to the house and said, we need a name for her, and I said, Robin." She smiled as proud as can be, and we smiled right back. It was nice to hear her tell it, nice to see her energetic. Jonathan hadn't heard the story before, and people had gathered around to hear. But then a few minutes passed, and she started telling the story again. Then again. And again. Each time was new to her, and each time was more difficult to smile about.

This morning, I learned Granny is in hospice care. I guess that's the technical way of saying it's a matter of time. I know--it's always a matter of time. But it's down to days now for Granny. A while back, when it became clear that she wasn't able to take care of herself, she went to a nursing home. The family went through her house and took care of her things. And I haven't seen her since. Some have questioned my decision, but I chose my action for one simple reason: upon seeing me, there was a very high likelihood that Granny would feel uncomfortable, unsettled, confused, and possibly even scared because I'd likely be a stranger to her. On a good day, she might have told me the story of the naming again, but it was more likely that she'd be afraid, and I wasn't willing to take that chance. In my...perhaps stupid way, not visiting Granny has been my last gift to her. I've been trying to do my part to make sure she's comfortable and safe and calm. I even missed her 90th birthday party recently. In fact, I wasn't even told it was happening.

There are people in my family who are much closer to Granny than I am. They have years and years of memories--snapshots filling their minds to overwhelming. But she's granny to all of us, and we all have our special moments with her, our versions of her. Granny raised a good family. We're mountain folk at heart. We're tough and stubborn and opinionated and proud and can hold a grudge with the best of 'em. We're hard workers, we survive, we come together and take care of each other, and we grow and forgive and keep on trying.

When they went through Granny's things, someone saw a typewriter and brought it to me to remember her by. They figured with my love for writing, I'd want that most of all. But Granny gave me something to remember her by from the very first day when she opened that door, somehow knowing what Dad would ask, perhaps looking out into the field just behind him and seeing a little bird bouncing along happily. "Robin," she said, I imagine with all the hope in the world that I would be happy too. And I've kept the name close to me ever since.