When we last left my teenage self, I was in the back seat of my father’s car on the way to Grandmother McCord’s house in Alabama.
You have to remember that my husband has concluded I was the only person in my family with a sense of humor. I beg to differ, feebly. To his point, though, I was convinced growing up that I was some kind of genetic anomaly. Optimist, I think they call it.
We had crossed the Mississippi long ago and crossed the Tombigbee River, deep in the pines of Alabama when we arrived in the tiny town where Grandmother McCord lived. Dad had said the land where her duplex was had been a plantation, so I was expecting Tara with Grandmother standing outside as a stern, blue-haired Scarlet O’Hara. That was fairly inaccurate. We turned down a kudzu-infested road and then onto a dirt drive that wound around to a small white concrete-block single storey structure built in the 50’s. That’s 1950’s. There were large trees hung with Spanish moss and a small garden patch surrounded by a high wire fence on the left side of the structure.
We piled out of the car, relieved to be standing and walked the narrow walkway to the wooden screen door. I knocked. Grandmother opened the door. “The better to eat you with, My Dear,” echoed in my head. I had not worn red just in case. Grandmother looked me up and down.
“Oh,” she said, obviously disappointed. My smile froze. “Oh, even you are taller than me!”
I was relieved. At least if my reputation had preceded me, it was the “short one in the family” as opposed to, well, I could think of at least a dozen things that would send her into orbit, just from the letters we had exchanged for two years. I had attended Catholic school. Mother was an antiques dealer. My brother and I are part Gypsy (Rom) on my mother’s side. I shaved my legs (I wasn’t really sure that was an orbit-launching point but my mother had been so upset about it that I thought it might possibly be a Kansas thing, so I held it in reserve as a disqualifier). I was her youngest grandchild. I was the last child of her once-favorite son who had become the Black Sheep of his generation. I did not live and had not ever lived in Kansas. And dear heavens, there was the tarot, dreams and palms thing. My list was longer, but it was such a relief to be disappointing for my towering height, my 5’1” to Grandmother’s 4’11” that I relaxed immediately and hugged her. I think she was startled but she seemed to be pleased.
My father, brother and I came in to her small white living room. We sat and spoke politely as if I were being delivered to a boarding school, all hopeful that the trip was not wasted. Grandmother led us solemnly to the first bedroom down the hall, a cool, dark, white room with a dark Victorian bed, crisp white sheets and a white chenille bedspread. My brother left my suitcase in the corner. We stood a moment.
“Very nice,” I said with the extravert’s need to fill the gap of silence.
We returned to the living room. We accepted cold drinks, lemonade, I think. My father and Grandmother spoke a while. And then, my father and my brother left.
“And this is Peanut,” Grandmother said, indicating the tubby black and tan terrier in the low basket near the kitchen door. Peanut wagged his tail hopefully. I jumped at the chance to focus on someone easy to talk to. “Cute doggie!” Peanut and I were off to a good start at least. Grandmother set about preparing for dinner. She sliced some fresh tomatoes from her garden with an old knife, toasted some bread in an old-fashioned toaster and heated some cream-style corn from a can. We had sandwiches and Peanut wriggled hopefully at my feet while Grandmother explained what a naughty little doggie he was to beg at the table. I slipped him a treat.
Grandmother, it turned out, was thrilled to have me as an excuse not to go to her fellow mother-in-law Mrs. Owensby’s church the next morning. Grandmother thought that church was a bit too neon-sign, roll-and-foam for her and she preferred that God and His Creatures be just a little more dignified. Happy to provide a service, I followed her around, admiring her vegetable garden and flowers, cooing over the dog, dodging the fire ant hills and listening with profound interest of the time when Grandmother was attacked and nearly killed by ants. I helped her change the curtains in the living room. We looked through family photos, including my father’s mysterious first family, my seldom seen uncle and aunt and never-before-seen cousins and admired the family pieces in Grandmother’s china cabinet. We talked into the night.
Apparently satisfied that I had been exposed to etiquette sufficiently to display to others, the next day Grandmother set out with me to go shopping in the tiny downtown. I met my cousins’ cousins, delightful people who took to me immediately. They were the owners of the big grocery in town and were, thank heavens, optimistic, talkative, happy people. We made plans for a pool party. I pushed the grocery cart while Grandmother proudly led the way, each time a little louder and a little more confident than the next, “And this is my granddaughter.”
Back in the car, all the fears of not being accepted within my own family welled up in me. I fought back tears and at the same time relished this small time in a small town with my tiny and ferocious Grandmother. I said nothing, realizing that my point of view was so utterly foreign to this woman who had lived through so much. She had confessed that her main emotions when my Grandfather had killed himself were shame and anger. She was mortified when my father divorced his first wife, forever tarnishing her name in their Kansas town. She was helpless to convince my uncle to let her stay in Kansas, a prisoner of circumstances. Even later in my stay, she would hand me a fabulous cut glass bowl, a family piece, saying, “When I’m dead, your uncle and aunt will make sure you get nothing, so take this now.”
But at that moment, we drove through the bank’s drive through to get cash, our huge load of groceries in the back. The teller greeted my Grandmother’s familiar face. Grandmother smiled at her, turned to me and smiled, then said to the teller proudly, “And this is my granddaughter who is visiting me.” I smiled and waved. News apparently travels very fast in a small town. The teller sensed the importance of the visit.
Along with the cash and bank receipt in the drive through drawer was a cellophane-wrapped lollipop.
“Green,” I said. “My favorite flavor.”
And we laughed together at the nonsense of that, not Grandmother and Granddaughter for a moment, but just two girls together, bound by life. I unwrapped my treat and savored the grandchildhood I had missed, making up for it in one good lollipop. I sat a little taller, love towering over my family’s legacy of sad hearts for a moment that lasts forever.