Saturday, November 14, 2015

the greatest generation

I am in Bradenton, Florida, where my parents grew up and where my grandparents still live in the home they purchased in 1963. My grandmother turns 91 in December, and my grandfather turns 93 in March. They are still super sharp; the only way you can tell they are as old as they are is because you are hoarse after a conversation with them and because they are not particularly mobile. Not using hearing aids or walkers is a point of pride for them.

My grandmother has never been like other grandmothers. She's more like a Golden Girl. She is the happiest person I know. (This offsets my grandfather's predilection towards pessimism/grumpiness. The two of them together are hilarious.) She's the closest thing I have to a kindred spirit; I am most similar, or hope I am most similar, to her than to any other person in the world. She sees things romantically, with kindness, with hope. Her perspective is a bit more na├»ve than mine, but I do really believe that she has always strived to love her neighbors. She is one of those people who has never met a stranger; I know that I get my willingness/need to talk to people at the grocery store, on airplanes, in restaurants, anywhere from her. I also love that she treats all people, regardless of age or "class" or position (bellhop to billionaire) with the same level of respect. Everyone feels like s/he is the most
loved/important person in the world around my grandmother. It's just who she is.

She took writing classes when I was younger. She wrote stories, none of which I've ever read. She always encouraged my poetry. After I finished college, I perceived that she was incredibly sad that I didn't keep writing; at some point, my poetry would have been more difficult to share with her, because I stopped writing about happy things. It's much easier to write about pain: people will belittle your happiness, think you don't deserve it, begrudge you. Except for my grandmother. She thinks I deserve happiness even on my worst days.

Maybe because, even on her worst days, she finds happiness.

My grandparents are the only people from whom I've experienced unconditional love. They used to go to church every Sunday (mobility limitations), and I think they believe in the same kind of God that I do. One of their favorite sermons was one from a priest long gone onto larger parishes than Bradenton, but it was about how small we think God is. "Your God is too small. God is much bigger than you think."

My God is as big as I feel their love has been. I see love in them.

My grandmother and I spoke most regularly when my parents weren't speaking to me, Round 1. When I had pneumonia in 2009 (Round 2), Grandmother made me call every day with a report. She now tells me when I call, less frequently than I wish I did, that she gets homesick for my voice. I think it's the most bittersweet thing anyone has ever told me.

We finally convinced her to get hearing aids (she owns them, she just doesn’t wear them) when she could no longer hear me say “I love you” on the phone. I was inconsolable the first time it happened.

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One of my favorite stories about them is from right after they got married. Grandaddy was working at his father's funeral home, and Grandmother was taking the bus to Sarasota (a 30ish minute commute at the time) to a nursing job there. She hated it: the commute, the coworkers, the being away from my grandfather. One night at dinner, she was particularly cranky, and Grandaddy said, "well, Eileen, I'm making $45 a week. Why don't you just quit?" She said, "I'm so glad you think so. I quit today.

They lived above the funeral home until my mother was 8, when they bought the house they live in now: an acre on the Manatee River. They've since had to divide the land, because states that don’t have income taxes tend to have pretty stiff property taxes.

Their yard is amazing: trees to climb, trees to collect fruit from, trees that house birds and squirrels and flowers. They have a patio always set up for entertaining. It is the most lush place, an oasis for anyone's soul.

And it's right on the river, on a pier I have fished off of with my brother and father, watched one of two moonrises in my whole life, shared cuddles on with every extraordinary love I’ve had. That pier is a home/refuge I cannot explain. It’s self soothing to think about how quiet it is out there, watching stars and listening to fish jump and being a part of the earth's breath upon the shore.

I sleep in my mother's childhood room/bed when I'm here. It gives me space to dream; gives my soul space to stretch out; gives my heart room to try to love my mother better, to understand where she came from.

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After a visit to Bradenton in late 2011, I no longer wished to withhold my poetry from my grandmother, so I started this blog in 2012. I print out posts and mail them to her or bring them with me when I visit, since she never learned to use a computer. Never writing about anything I don’t want my grandmother to read is a fantastic gauge, and I often think about what part of my life I can share with her when I choose topics to write about or which poems to publish, since she won’t wear her damn hearing aids and therefore misses a lot of what I try to tell her on the phone.

I consider karma every time I offer to help an elderly person with bags or as they cross the street. I considered karma when I chose a Junior League assignment in my second year that required me to spend one day a month volunteering in an assisted living facility. I consider karma as I write this, wondering what I can do to be loved as dearly as I love them.


Tonight, I sat at a table I have eaten at with five generations, a table where my parents told my grandparents they were pregnant with me, a table that has hosted hundreds of celebrations… the biggest one of all, of course, being my grandparents’ testament to how to live your life, how to love, and why to laugh.

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