Dedicated to my Beloved Grandmother, Marie Ann Tingley, 1935-2013
“She loved.” The past tense is cruelly abrupt. There is no apparent beauty in the transition from the smooth, continuous sounds of the present to the hard stops of the past. “She loves” loses it infinite, unfettered s and replaces it with an uncaring, blunt d. You can’t hold the sound of a d. Try it. It’s impossible.
There is a little house tucked away in a grove of pines, far away from the road. Knick-knacks decorate the wood-walled living room, and there is always hard candy in the colorful porcelain box on the coffee table. We don’t go there very often, but when we do, there are usually lots of sweets and cable TV and relatives I’ve never met. We always go there on Christmas Eve, where we open presents around a fake pine tree with jewel toned glass balls. The living room is toasty, and I feel happy and full. The roaring vent at the foot of the plushy carpeted stairs is my favorite; I like to stand on it and feel it puff up my forest green dress like a hot air balloon. I don’t know her yet, not really.
The past tense is unacceptable. Mom and I walk by her car, and “her tires need air” slows into a little cry at the realization that we have to alter a lifelong grammar. “She is a wonderful- was a wonderful woman.” “She is- was so gentle.”
Grammie lives with us now, and I am nineteen. There is a little thrift store down the road, and it is our tradition to go out on weekends when I’m home, “messin’ around” as she calls it. We love to paw through piles of musty garments, determined to find a hidden treasure. When I’m not there, she likes to fill up her bags at Marshalls in thought of me. One time she brought me home a dress that had been marked down to 89 cents. We both know that that is a great victory. Most of my jewelry comes from her. Whenever I get a compliment on my black and white pearl necklace or on my chunky jeweled pendant, I proudly respond that my Grammie Tingley gave it to me. She has an eye for pretty things.
She complains about getting unwanted attention when we go out on the town. “Do you have guys starin’ at you all the time?” I smile and shake my head. “Well, I’ve got guys starin’ at me all the time! Golly! It’s the red hair…” She feigns annoyance, but I can see past it to the mischief in her light green eyes. When she is at home, in the little in-law apartment connected to our guest room, she plays with her big Persian cat, Caesar. “He’s just an old love bug,” she likes to repeat as she strokes her faithful pet of fifteen years. And when he jumps on the table or lets out the occasional snarl, the loving look remains on her face. “You little donkey!” she says as she wags her finger. In the summer, she sits with us on the deck and tells the story of how her mother had to hide the grapefruits from her father when she was a little girl. He loved grapefruits, and he always ate them up right away. It drove her mother crazy.
“Marie, who was a devoted wife, mother, grandmother and friend, will be remembered for her love of gardening, her sparkling green eyes, her flowing red hair and her gentle friendliness. She had a knack for making friends wherever she went. She loved with a generosity that is rare, lavishing gifts, time and kindness on her family and friends without a thought of receiving anything in return. Marie brought beauty and life wherever she went, and her quiet love will never be forgotten by the many people whose lives she touched.”
The obituary seems obsessed with persuading me that the present reality doesn’t line up with the present tense. The thing is, I wrote part of the obituary, but my own words still haven’t convinced me that my grandmother needs to be shoved into an ending that she is not yet ready for herself.
It is the February of my senior year, and Grammie has just gotten home from three months of cancer treatment. She still puts on vintage jewelry and a coat of red lipstick every morning, even though she is too weak to hang up the dozen dresses she bought in Florida. We talk about graduation, about how nice of a day we hope it will be, about how her arm hurts.
“This stuff, yuck!” She motions towards the potassium powder drink she is reluctantly sipping. “Your mother says I have to drink this stuff to get better, but yuck!” She makes a face. I laugh softly, and I believe her with all my heart.
She lets me go through her closet and I find a flowy, golden dress that is perfect for Gordon Globes. “Doesn’t it just look beautiful on her,” she says to Mom, then reminds us that her arm hurts. Grammie sits on her bed with me as I splay her antique jewelry on the coverlet, and I can’t choose between pearls and a golden pendant. “Why don’t you just wear both?” She suggests. I look in the mirror and see that she’s right.
Her arm hurts, and we’ve worn her out, and we pack up the jewelry. I hug her goodnight and I am shocked by her sudden frailness. Early Monday morning I go over to her place and give her a quick goodbye. “I love you Grammie. I’ll see you later.” She smiles softly, and I am sure that later will be soon.
The past tense is harsh in its reality, but hope tells me that it is malleable, somehow temporary. Hope urges me to press an ear to the wall and eagerly eavesdrop, waiting for the moment when а new language will flood the senses with an understanding that outshouts the tyranny of time. For now, the phantom pains of losing her strike at the most unexpected moments, in the most unexpected ways, but the understanding that I don’t truly understand gives me a gentle peace. So I will believe that “she loved” can turn to “she loves,” and then finally, to a heavenly form that I can’t yet articulate, but will someday roll off my lips with ease.