You never know when you’ll be ready.
For instance, it’s July of 2014, and my grandmother died in February of 2009.
I’m sitting on a screened in porch at a house where I’m dog sitting, and it just occurred to me that I’m ready.
For the past five and a half years, I've grieved my grandmother’s death and celebrated her life. I've needed to write about it, and badly, but haven’t quite been able to do so. I haven’t been ready.
Because how can I even begin to put into words who my grandmother was to me? How can I describe the way I feel when I smell something that reminds me of her—a feeling that can only be described as her. It’s more than a feeling or a scent or a sight or anything tangible, this presence that she’s left here, imprinted on my life and on who I am and on everything I've ever been or will ever become.
But I do think her when I smell the aroma I now know is the scent of stale perfume mingling with even staler cigarette smoke. When I was younger, the smell didn't have a name or components. It was just the way my grandmother smelled, a smell that was so completely her and all the things I felt when I was with her. It’s ironic that the masked, fragranced cigarette smell I associate so closely with her is what eventually killed her. And yet, I can’t bring myself to hate that smell, for it brings with it the memories of all she meant to me.
And I realized while writing that how wrong it was, because all she meant to me was really all I meant to her. For that was the impression she made on me—that everything she was could be reflected in how she loved me, in how she loved others. That’s why when I smell perfume and cigarettes, I feel safe. I feel loved. I feel important. I feel all the things I was to her.
I remember the seemingly hundreds of feral cats and sweet old dogs lining the porch of her house. It was the house with the hollow concrete stairs leading up to the animal covered porch. I’d make sure and jump on that step, just for the satisfaction of hearing the low hollow thump. And those stairs eventually cracked (probably because I, and every other child in the family, jumped on them so much) and were replaced with something more substantial, and it’s all just a metaphor of how things never stay the same. And my childhood has been replaced with something more substantial, but I still listen for the hollow thump of that step. I still strive to breathe in a bit of her when I smell the perfumed cigarette smoke.
And at least my memories are good, for now. They’re not as hollow as they once seemed.
I remember Christmas. There isn't anything more to say on that, and still I know I have to try to describe something that can’t be described. For Christmas was always partially defined by her. Christmas was never complete until we had gone to grandma’s house. When most children longed for Santa to come, I’d anticipate along with them, but the anticipation carried on throughout the day. I knew more was to come, and more would include family, food, presents, joy, togetherness, love.
My grandmother lived for Christmas, and I take after her in that. But, oh. It was her show. She started her Christmas shopping in January, buying multiple gifts for everyone. The tree was perfect. In my childhood, I always thought it looked like the sort of Christmas tree one might find in a magical fairy forest, all white and shining. The tree we had at home was green and plastic and boring, covered in cheap ornaments containing pictures of me and my brother and sister. I knew those ornaments meant love, anyway.
But my grandmother’s Christmas tree was the most beautiful tree I’d ever seen. It was covered in magical snow that never melted. When I got old enough to know better, I realized the white tree wasn't really covered in snow, but rather, in cheap aerosol flocking. But there were pictures of me and the other grandkids in plastic ornaments scattered throughout. And when I got old enough to know better all over again, I realized there really was some magic in that tree.
Presents surrounded it, and everyone expressed a few words of guilt about how much we had compared to the less-fortunate before we ripped into those presents. And parents would complain about how much stuff they had to carry home, while the kids would revel in their new treasures. And grandma would sit in her chair and smile. Everyone gave her gifts, too, and she loved them. But the present she wanted most was one that she had given to herself—a family that surrounded her, a family she loved so much.
I got older and my grandmother got older. She was sick for a long time before she died. And I didn't always cope well with that, and she knew it. I wanted my grandmother to be young and beautiful, as I remembered. I wanted her to sit on the stool behind her kitchen counter and tell me stories about when my mother was a little girl, or about how much she hated it that time granddaddy grew a beard, or about silly things I did when I was really little.
I think back on it now and realize I should have asked her so much about her. I should have asked her about her childhood, about her own grandmother. I should have asked what it was like to grow up with so many siblings. I should have asked her about how she met granddaddy, or I should have asked to hear again how they had to wait a year to get married because the minister said they were too young. I should have asked how she felt when she became a mother, to my mother, for the first time, young and poor. I should have asked her how hard it was to work and raise six children. I should have asked her how hard it was to be a State Trooper’s wife, always on the move. I should have asked so many things, just so I could know her. Because it occurs to me that the only way I knew her was just as my grandmother, as the one who loved her family. As the one who loved her grandchildren.
As the one who loved me.
And on the last Christmas I ever saw her, the last day I ever saw her, she gave me a gift.
When I was a child, I’d get many gifts from her. I’d get dollar store trinkets that I thought were the greatest toys in the world. I’d get more expensive toys that I’d brag about. I’d get clothes and books and toys and music boxes and jewelry. When I was older, in my twenties, she gave me a diamond cluster ring. She had saved up and bought one for all her daughters, daughters-in-law, for all her granddaughters. And to this day, it’s one of my most valued possessions. It was something she wanted to do for those she loved.
But the gift she gave me that last Christmas was more valuable than the ring or any other gift she gave me. She was so weak. She didn't even look like herself. And I was shocked to see her like that. My mom had tried to prepare me, but nothing could have prepared me to see my beautiful, strong grandmother in such a frail condition. I don’t think I hid my shock well. But she was my grandmother, and I loved her. I took her hand. I told her Merry Christmas.
She said to me, “Ruth, I love you more than you’ll ever know.”
That was the last thing she ever said to me. She knew it would be the last thing she ever said to me. I was too much in denial to realize it. But she knew.
And that was her last Christmas present to me. It was the embodiment of every Christmas present she had ever given me. It was, pure and simple, her love.
My granddaddy remarried a few years ago. He had been married to my grandmother for 60 years (and almost 2 months). They celebrated their 60th anniversary on Christmas Eve. She died a few days after Valentine’s Day.
When my granddaddy told my mother, his first child, he was seeing another lady, a year or two after my grandmother had passed, he was so nervous. He had only ever loved my grandmother, and wasn't sure how the rest of the family would accept his new relationship.
He needn't have worried.
Because when my grandmother had an opportunity to accept someone into the family, when she had an opportunity to love someone, she took it. And we all followed her example. No one in the family had trouble accepting the precious lady who would become my granddaddy’s new wife.
As I was writing this on the screened in porch, thinking of Christmas while it’s the heat of July, the wind was blowing. Now it’s calm. And I’m calm, though there are tears of memories and love in my eyes. I’m waiting for a Christmas that will never come again, longing for a smell that I’ll never smell again, hoping to hear that hollow thump that I’ll never hear again.
And it’s all right. The change I wasn't ready for I’m still not ready for. And I think I've come to realize that I’ll never be ready for it. It’s all right. It’s just all right.
Because there’s always room for more. I can have the memories of the sounds and smells and feelings. I can have the wintry chill in the air that enhanced my excitement of going to grandma’s house. I can have this warm breeze that calms me now. I don’t have to lose anything in order to gain anything.
That’s love. There’s always room. And I don’t know if I’ll ever have a child of my own, let alone a grandchild. But I hope I do, and I hope that if I do, she knows me. She doesn't have to know that I’m insecure about everything or that I love Rich Mullins music. She doesn't have to know that I once had a cat named Bradley that was my best friend, or that I got my heart broken in college, or that I used to sit out on borrowed screened in porches and write.
Because, in a way, everyone we meet becomes a different person when we meet them. We have a version of who we know them to be in our minds, in our hearts, that is just a little bit different from what anyone else knows in their minds or hearts. And I don’t know who my grandmother was to everyone else. I just know she was my grandmother. I know she loved me. And partly because she loved me, I know how to love others.
That was her last Christmas gift.
I can’t wear it on my hand like a ring, nor can I play with it like a silly toy. But it’s in the memories—the perfumed smoke and the hollow steps. It’s in the summer breeze and the Christmas chill. It’s part of the present, part of all I do, all I say. Her love that always, always makes room.
The windchimes chime now, and I am ready. I’m ready to write. I’m ready to live. I’m ready to remember. I’m ready to love. I’m just ready.
I’m ready now.