She used to be a runner. I remember seeing pictures of her doing races. More than the pictures, though, I remember how she’d take the race t-shirts and turn them into bric brac edged nightgowns for my sisters and I. They were such cool nightgowns. One of them was from a Schlotzky’s run and amidst all the sponsors it said: “Run Your Bunz Off.” I think I must have been six, and reading this aloud to our four- and three-year-old sisters was frowned upon, adding much to our general hilarity. I can easily imagine why my parents would prefer not to have four giggling small girls repeating that phrase at who knows what random awkward moment, even now it makes me want to giggle.
About that same age, I lost my first tooth. Grandmama happened to be visiting us, which was a really good thing because the dental loss turned out to be a traumatic event. My prized loose tooth got swallowed without me even realizing it while eating noodles for lunch. I was heartbroken. Grandmama and Maureen teamed up to assure me that the tooth fairy would not abandon me in spite of my inability to produce the goods. Grandmama cut a tiny tooth out of white cardstock, and Maureen wrote an explanatory note. The dollar arrived duly the next morning, and for several years Grandmama assured me that the tooth fairy put the paper article to good use.
We loved her visiting when we were little – she traveled a lot and she had this red case with all her makeup. She’d let us crowd in the doorway or perch on the counter and watch her get ready in the morning. I remember liking the smell of all her pretty things and the funny things she’d say to entertain us as we observed the great event.
She also let us help sort her vitamins – she had this fantastic vitamin container with a twisting top and we’d twist around to the different sections and she’d say, “Two greens. One tiny brown. Two white.” And so on until we collected the whole array, upon which she would swallow them all in one gulp. I was always deeply impressed by this strong-minded efficiency. I still can’t swallow more than two.
In the years before she died, Parkinson’s changed her hands. I remember when Mom told me Grandmama wouldn’t be able to do anything that required coordinating her hands movements together. I looked at Mom blankly and said,”But what is she going to do?” Because she was always doing something. She was a gardener, with the best tomatoes you ever tasted in your life. Even at our Farmer’s Market I can’t find tomatoes that taste “right” to me. She was a maker: blackberry jam from the bags full of foraged berries I brought her, cross-stitched masterpieces of angels in golden thread, a long medieval gown in drapey black fabric when I was thirteen and wanted to dress up as Eowyn for the Lord of the Rings premiere.
Always doing something with her hands, or showing me how to do something with mine. She’d put things in my hands – the papery skins of ground cherries, the bumpy boll of cotton from the side of the highway, the prickly giant sunflower head she hung in the trees so we could watch the birds eat the seeds out, the smooth pebbles of her driveway when she found one with a hole through it, the lavender satin of a pillowcase she embroidered with my initial, the piles of fabric she kept folded so carefully. She taught me to get the heft and feel of something and think about how to use as it lay there waiting in my fingers.
We used to take turns during the summer to go spend a week with her. “Bring me a list,” she’d say. We’d stop at the Wal-Mart before her house and get the necessary supplies: potato wedges, Klondike bars, and whatever caught our fancy in the craft section. We made pajamas, waffles, tea parties, expeditions to bookstores and museums and caves. I found a corner in the woods on her property and called it my hideout, she got me two ferns and some plastic furniture to dress it up. Whatever I currently wanted my future career to be, she found a way to encourage. When I wanted to be a journalist she got me a how-to book. When I wanted to be a florist she’d take me on long walks, help me find every different flower, and then cheer me on as I arranged blooms in every spare jar she had. I loved seeing how her collection of heirloom dolls grew with every visit. She let me assign names and remembered them. But she also helped me make my own dolls. Every summer I’d have a new one to try. The pioneer doll, the wooden spool doll, the fairy dolls, the sock doll, the mop doll, the corn husk doll.
When we were little, she’d read us the Wizard of Oz during her visits. My mom gave me that book a while back and as I turned the pages I could hear her voice saying the words. I loved the way she said “Kansas” and “Toto” and “Emerald.” They all sounded so round and real. The first summer I stayed with her she got me a giant book of fairy tales and wrote a note in it for me every summer I stayed with her after that. She’d read to me every night to help me fall asleep.
Our shared genes gave me her nose, her cheekbones, her stubbornness, and her inability to consistently use measuring utensils while cooking. (“Eyeballing” always works better.) I got her love of kombucha, though I told her in no uncertain terms that if my kombucha ever grew mushrooms like her kombucha, I was not eating them and I didn’t care how good for you they were. She just smirked.
Gardener. Maker of Things. Goer and Doer. Supporter. Cheerleader.