Ode to the Matriarch

First she was a daughter and a sister. Then, a wife to a hardworking blue-collar man for sixty-odd years. A mother to three children, one of whom left her arms far too early; two who live on, bearing their own stamps of her personality like badges of honor. An aunt. Each of these roles prepared her to fill the shoes I selfishly like to believe she loved most: Grandma.

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When we were small (enough that three of us could squeeze into the cab of the Blue Bomber alongside Dad), we loved traipsing along for chores in the mornings. Mom would fix up a hard-egg sandwich for each of us, which we’d scarf down at the table in our cowboy boots and t-shirts. Dad would fill a mug to the brim with coffee, seemingly in pursuit of some sort of daredevil quest to see just how much jostling and bumping his steady hand could withstand before a drop could slosh over the top and onto my leg (or his).

Without fail, minutes after breakfast each morning, Barrett wanted to know: “Is it time for snackies?!”

We’d drive the half mile to Grandma’s, each of us a Real Cowboy reporting for duty, and hop out of the bumbling old pickup and race to the front door, yelling the traditional “Knock! Knock!” before we were even within hearing range. As politely as snackie-minded children could manage, we’d burst through the doorway and into the kitchen that never changed even once in my lifetime. There, she waited: dark eyes glittering, soft wrinkles intersecting on her joy-mapped face, lips stretched upward in a teasing grin. In her soft hands, empty Ziploc baggies waited for each of us.

I’m not sure, anymore, who loved morning snackies more—us kids, or Grandma. She’d shovel fruit snacks and chocolate chips and Gushers and peanuts and orange slices into the baggies until Dad firmly said, “Okay, that’s enough, Mom,” for the second time—and with a wink, she’d drop in just one treat more. The price was all but free: a kiss or three and a tight hug before whoosh!—we were out the door, off to feed cows and check fences and revel in the dynasty that Grandpa and Dad had built: Simon Angus Ranch.

* * *

During summers, we wore the road thin between our house and Grandma’s, riding our bikes with squeals down the Big Hill (and groans up the Bigger Hill). It was there, in the comfort of her sunken living room, that we learned of Oklahoma! and Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz. She cherished these classic musicals and fostered a love of theater in the heart of my sister, who later became Grandma’s favorite actress. In this same space, I also learned to appreciate Dirty Dancing—though it didn’t strike me as odd that she allowed a 12-year-old to watch this until just a few years ago. It is here that Barrett spent an entire summer—nearly every single day—watching Miracle and discussing the Cold War and hockey plans with Grandma, who had never seen a game of hockey in her life. While we reveled in the classic films that came from the treasure trove that was Grandma’s TV cabinet, she’d perch in her armchair with a magnifying glass, reading some article or completing a puzzle; or she’d disappear into the kitchen for a while, from which savory fragrances would emanate later on.

Mom felt guilty sometimes, I think, for all the days we pestered Grandma; but I know Grandma loved these unsolicited visits. Sometimes we’d call (forced by Mom in an attempt to establish something resembling manners), but even when we didn’t, Grandma was somehow never caught unaware. I think it’s safe to say our daily visits were more valuable to her than gold.

* * *

Grandma is most often tied to memories of food and family in my mind, and with good reason: summers and school in-service days meant lunch at Grandma’s. We children would salivate with anticipation in the hours leading up to lunchtime, usually abstaining from breakfast in order to more fully appreciate the glory that would come at precisely 12:15.

In the small, dark wood-paneled dining room, a crowded table waited: decorative seasonal napkins on each plate; glasses filled to the brim with sweet tea any Southerner could appreciate; serving bowls piled high with corn on the cob and heavenly hash, roasted potatoes and her famous cherry Pepsi Jell-O. We learned self control at that table as we waited, squirming, for Grandma to bustle in with the main dish—if we were lucky, tater tot casserole; if we were luckier, pot roast—and beam at the faces that she so loved. Grandma’s table was a bit like those of the dining hall at Hogwarts: even when Tyler and Jacob and Barrett were all three present with their formidable appetites, food somehow continued to appear in dishes until all were stuffed to the gills.

Those who were fortunate enough to join family at that table (most often Jacob’s buddies, come to haul hay or fix fence in the summer) never left hungry—Grandma made sure of that. She made it her top priority on those beloved lunch days to ensure that we were fed like a troupe of the Queen’s finest soldiers, even if that meant we left to work cattle with our pants unbuttoned and pleasurable groans escaping from our lips. (We also may have learned a thing or two about Gluttony at that table. . . . )

* * *

We could all count on Grandma for a few certainties in life. First, her front door was always open to visitors—and you’d better yell “Knock! Knock!” on your way in. Second, she’d always have a pile of lemon crap prepared when Jacob visited from college (we used to think this meant he was the favorite, which I’m sure he’d love to believe, but I’m also sure is completely inaccurate). And third—the most certain and meaningful of all—Grandma could be depended upon to never miss a game.

She became something of a fixture at Flinthills High School, always arriving to games at least 45 minutes in advance (which became a bit of a running joke in the family), her cushioned #1 Fan! seat settled in prime viewing location for the activity at hand. During football, that seat could be found as far as possible from the “Ding-a-Lings,” whose cowbells were Grandma’s archnemises. During basketball games, her stark head of curly black hair could be spotted smack dab in the upper-middle section. I often marveled that she didn’t bring high-focus binoculars—all the better to see her grandchildren with, of course.

No matter the distance, Grandma was always there, decked out in red and black and gleaming saucer-pins from which our faces beamed outward. On weekends, she’d follow Courtney and Brianne’s volleyball teams to day-long tournaments, scribbling notes from the game in her program in that loopy calligraphy so unique to her. When the boys were in high school and lost most of their games by the 45 rule, Grandma didn’t care—she was still in the stands an hour before, watching warm-ups with her eagle eyes; often driving hours to watch forty-five abysmal minutes of football and offer a few hand-squeezes and whispers of tender encouragement before hopping back in the car for a long drive home. She braved long trips and ninety-degree afternoons on sun-baked golf courses for fifteen-minute cross country races, during which she was lucky to catch a few fleeting glimpses of me running.

Distance did not matter to this woman—only Family. Nothing was more important to her than ensuring each of us were adored to full capacity.

* * *

Grandma’s fridge is a testament to her greatest love. It is a collage in the truest sense, papered from top to bottom: newspaper clippings from Jacob’s college games, ticket stubs from Brianne’s performances, photographs of Seth’s matriculation and Courtney’s family (and Grandma’s first great grandchildren), Mother’s Day envelopes with Dad’s signature hidden “MOM” heading. Over the years, the collage changed to reflect her family’s newest accomplishments; the fridge eternally a billboard of all that she held dearest.

She is gone, now, and those words leave a hole in each of our hearts. Decades of matriarchal devotion to her children and grandchildren have come to a close, but she’s left each of us something far greater than material wealth or tangible objects.

Grandma never missed an opportunity to make it clear just how dearly she loved each of us. With each return home, she’d grasp us in a tight embrace, peppering our heads and cheeks and shoulders with kisses as she’d squeak out in that high-pitched, excited squeal of hers, “Grandpa and I have missed you so much! You’ll never know how much you mean to us . . . we think of you every single day.” Her soft, thin hands—surprisingly strong—squeezed ours tightly at every opportunity, as if she could somehow transmit this fierce passion to us through touch.

It worked. She is gone now, and there is a hole in each of our hearts. But over that aching gap, Grandma is already at work, papering a new collage of old memories to tide us over. A Christmas stocking here, a snackie bag there, and nearly-world-famous chocolate brownies filling in all the spaces between.

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A Reflection on Identity

In the third grade, my teacher was Mrs. Bagel*. She had pale blonde hair that curled at the ends and sharp angles at all of her corners; I remember thinking she was very birdlike. Her bones seemed frail and tiny, like a sparrow. Or a meadowlark. Something dainty like that.

Mrs. Bagel had a voice that could boom over the classroom like a football coach with a megaphone; but mostly, I remember her as quiet. She didn’t speak unless words were necessary. Most of the time, when she wasn’t using her Teacher Voice, her little bird mouth would open and she would softly chirp out some petite rebuke or encouragement or observation.

Mrs. Bagel and I were opposites.

My mouth could not stop opening like an out-of-control faucet that has no hose attached, only a gaping end where words splashed forth with vigor while onlookers watched in a sort of curious panic — Can this damn thing even be turned off?

Even when the faucet was tightly clamped shut, sound found its way out. Within the pockets of my soft round cheeks, I developed the ability to make crackling, croaking noises like a dolphin might make (or so I imagined). In what was likely a moment of silent boredom (compounded with rebellion), I also taught myself the art of making ripply near-farting noises by pushing bubbles of air through the space between my gums and upper lip. This not only made a pleasing sound, it also produced a tactile distraction for my mouth — and annoyed the ever-living wits out of Mrs. Bagel.

In the third grade, I became a Problem Student.

Initially, I think it’s safe to say I truly couldn’t shut the faucet off — as a younger-middle child, I had an innate need for attention that could only be achieved by running my mouth at the speed of light (so I thought). Over time, though, the inability to stop talking became a signature. It was my trademark. It was also my downfall that year of third grade.

At the time, my mother did not teach at the school that I went to. (That came later, when I was in 5th grade.) So the first that she learned of my Inappropriate Behavior was probably at parent-teacher conferences in the fall. I didn’t attend conferences with my parents, so I’m not really sure what was said, but I can imagine about how things went down.

Mrs. Bagel: So, I’ve noticed Renee is a bit of a talker.

There it is, talker: my main identifying noun.

Mom: *chuckles* Yeah, she’s our little chatter-bug! She’s quite the storyteller.

Mrs. B: *mouth tightens in a firm line* Well. She also likes to make noises.

MomNoises?

Mrs. B: *nodding firmly* Noises. With her mouth. All the time.

My mom came home that night and asked me to “recreate” some of the noises I regaled Mrs. Bagel’s classroom with. Beaming proudly, I puffed out my third grade chest and delivered a top-notch series of bubbly, nearly-farty noises and sharp, dolphin cheek-squeaks. It was my finest work.

My mom, a teacher, gazed at me with a burning sort of intensity while my dad stifled a chuckle at her side. I was sharply reminded of my obligation as an Honorable and Hardworking Student Representative of the Simon Family and sent on my way.

As the year played out, Mrs. Bagel and I remained amicable enough; as pleasant as Taciturn Teacher and Loquacious Learner can be, I suppose. . . . That is, until The Incident.

You see, I was standing at Mrs. Bagel’s desk, probably asking for her to look over my cursive or math sums, and the faucet had been pretty well-managed all day long. As with any weak pipe, there was bound to be an outburst at some time. (This probably followed a 24-hour pledge to Not Talk So Much.) I teetered on my tiptoes at the edge of Mrs. Bagel’s desk, where she sat perched in her chair looking down her sharp beak — I mean, nose — at the work I had submitted for review. It was at this crucial moment of silence (think Inside-an-Egyptian-Tomb Silent) that the dam broke. With a sudden desperate urgency, I began a series of dolphin squeaks — softly, at first, but crescendoing with every unchecked moment of noisy freedom.

The (bird)shit hit the fan.

I don’t think I’d ever been loudly reprimanded by a teacher before, and though this certainly didn’t classify as “yelling,” my cheeks burned with shame as Mrs. Bagel delivered the dressing-down of the century. (Okay, it wasn’t really that bad; but to a third grader . . . who never got in trouble . . . )

I vowed to be a Better Student. I did my work relatively quietly, sat in a sort of sulky silence, and visualized duct-taping my mouth shut whenever I had the urge to chime in. I was devestated when this resolve weakened and completely dissolved within a matter of days. I berated myself over and over.

Why couldn’t I be more like Jamie? She was quiet; she never spoke unless spoken to, and teachers seemed to prefer that.

Why couldn’t I be more like Bailey? She never made weird sounds . . .

Why couldn’t I be more like . . .

Every year, at many different junctures, I asked myself the same questions of myself. I compared myself to my much more meek and soft-spoken peers; you know, the ones who knew when (and how) to simply exist in peaceful reticence. As an adult, I sometimes still find myself longing for this piece of identity that does not belong to me.

Most of the time, though, when I am honest with myself, I can admit that softness and silence and serenity are not components of my identity. No, I am a faucet with the handle cranked wide open, a torrent of words and noises spilling forth without reservation.

I am the Bubbly Fart-Noise Maker. I am the Dolphin Cheek-Squeaker. I am my own Self.

*This name has been changed.

The Dream(s)

Last night I dreamed one thousand lies.

It started with the death of my brother. First he perished in a twisted ball of metal and fire. I wasn’t there, but it was in me — I felt it in the heart of me. My blind eyes saw the vacant black asphalt reflected in the glassy stare of his coffee-brown eyes. My sleeping arms started at the sudden sting of shattered windshield and we rolled and rolled and rolled together before resting downside up. I did not feel the flames but I watched as ribbons of brilliant yellow-orange devoured his coarse brown hair and freckle-spotted cheeks. This was his first death: quick but agonizing.

Next he died face-up in the basement of a new friend’s house: his lips a faint blue with the dried remains of vomit hidden just behind his teeth. He whispered to me slow, but my ears were asleep and I did not hear words; only incomplete sounds. At least his eyes were closed and guarded by thick black lashes from whatever came next.

Then he was whole, a perfect nuisance with his consciously relaxed posture and arrogant smirk — his stare both burning and jovial at the same time. He was whole, and then there was a hole, in his gut, just off to the side of his navel. From the hole a great scarlet flower bloomed, spreading its virulent leaves in hyperlapse fashion. The flower spread within him, too, and though I could not see at first I soon noticed a curled leaf eking its way out of the part between his lips: brilliant and garish against the dusty rose of his mouth. My phantom hand reached for this flower and instead brushed against the slick surface of a wall.

Painted eggshell and pocked with shallow dings here and there, the mostly-smooth surface seized my arm and led me away. I sat up abruptly, lungs grabbing desperately for real air (not that stuff of dream worlds), and I could finally see.

There were no scarlet flowers, there was no shattering of glass, there was no muffled murmur. Only the tepid air of the enclosed bedroom and the too-loud chirruping of crickets just beyond the narrow wall.