My Grandma loved watching Championship Wrestling on the 11-inch black-and-white television sitting in front of her “air-condition”. And she loved “doing” for us, making batches of rolls and messes of greens. But mostly, I think, she loved her garden, which covered about five acres of land around her house. She grew corn and beans and greens and potatoes, five different kinds of tomatoes, and things I had never heard of before, like okra.
When I was twelve, we lived with her in the little house built out of stray materials about a
quarter-mile from the river in a remote valley where the deer outnumbered the people. My father had lost his job for reasons never really explained to us, but it was just the latest in a very long line of job-related uprootings, and we were only kids, so what did it matter to us anyway?
We helped Grandma with her garden. At least we took credit for helping her. Grandpa would herd the whole lot of us out of the house and into the garden shortly after sun-up where my grandmother seemed to have been working for hours. We pulled weeds and
broke up the hot and dry ground and generally griped until she got tired of listening to us and shooed us away. We escaped to the river to swim or to the underbrush full of ticks and wild blackberries and strawberries, to gorge ourselves.
It was one of those dreamlike Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn environments and just a heck-of-a-lot of fun. I wish it had lasted forever. But nothing good ever does.
* * *
My father’s worked settled out eventually and we moved to town. Between the move and when Grandma died almost fifteen years later, we all graduated from high-school and fled the house, which had degenerated into the ring in which my parents fought nightly, a sort
of personal Championship Wrestling arena. My mother finally bailed on the marriage a few years later.
Most families, even close families, don’t get together more frequently than Christmas or Thanksgiving, weddings and funerals. Primarily weddings and funerals. My family isn’t close. Weddings are spotty; funerals somewhat better.
What happened is my mother was to be married to her fourth husband. My grandmother
died a few days before the event and my father scheduled the funeral at precisely the same time as the wedding and 150 miles away, making it impossible to attend both.
We had no good choices. Miss Mom’s wedding or grandma’s funeral. On one hand, our mother was our mother, but Grandma was the only stable adult we ever knew. In the end, we each chose our own event, irritating and hurting one or another parent, and each other.
My mother said “yes” at about the same time they closed the lid on my grandmother. Both were in white – a dress in one case and a satin lining in the other. White – the color of the Blessed Virgin, the bridal color in the West and the symbol for mourning in the East – is actually the combination of all colors which reflect back to our eyes something like a
maximum brightness. And it is in this combination of all things human we see in the color.
My father placed a white rose on the casket before we left the cemetery, a deserved symbol of helpful and virtuous people.
By the time those of us who had attended the funeral arrived at the reception held in the back yard of my mother’s shotgun house, her dress was spotted with grape juice stains. Dripping wine on the dress is considered by many to be a sign of bad luck for the marriage. I’m not sure if spilling ersatz wine means the same thing. What is synthetic bad luck? Perhaps it means the bad luck will attach to those in attendance. Her first bad-luck marriage – for which she wore a rose-colored dress – sure did.
“How could you miss our mother’s wedding?” Robert said when we walked in. He was drinking grape juice out of a Tupperware glass dotted with teeth marks from the dogs.
“Heck, Grandma didn’t even want to go, or she wouldn’t have died,” Dennis said, looking around for something stronger than unfermented wine.
“Well, I think mom’s happy now and you missed it,” he said with the undertone of ontempt
usually saved for my dad.
“You thought she was going to be happy with number three and that lasted until she wouldn’t mortgage the house so he could buy that Ostrich Farm.” Dennis and I had put the
kibosh on that deal and number three vanished into the wind, not even coming back to sign the divorce papers.
“It’s Dad’s fault for scheduling the funeral when he did.”
“Not my decision, besides, why do they want to celebrate the wedding – she broke up his marriage. I don’t see any of his kids here.”
“You all never liked Mom anyway.”
“Yeah, well, she didn’t much care for me either,” I said, unable to stay out of it. This really wasn’t true, at least I didn’t think so, but I often wondered if she blamed me for her marrying my dad. She was pregnant at the time and in the 40’s, you got married when that happened.
“And Grand ma hated her.” Now he was over the top. Grand ma hated no one.
“Where’s the real wine?”
And on and on it went. Personal hurts and resentments, created out of what were perceived as favoritism by one or the other parent, mixed with natural sibling in-fighting, seeping through the thin veneer of civility we were quickly scratching through, the veneer that allows families to gather together for their ceremonies in white and for holidays.
Dennis’ comment about grandma dying because she didn’t want to go to the wedding really bugged me. Still does. My whole life Grand ma was telling me she was going to live to see me graduate high school, get married, have a kid, and so on. A lot of old people are like that – they live for something specific, which is why so many die between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
So, was Dennis right? I still don’t know.
Last year I saw all my brothers and sisters for the first time since the wedding. Twenty-two years, and a couple of them were still arguing over who had done the right thing in the wedding/funeral choice.
Me, I went and planted some okra.