Wednesday, March 19, 2008
It was Leap Year ninety-six years ago, in 1912. Scott reached the South Pole, Titanic took its maiden voyage and sank, the Beverly Hills Hotel opened for business. World War I was beginning its early peculations and New Mexico became the 47th state in the U.S. 1912, a year with an extra day, our slow-trodden Gregorian calendar's solution to keeping pace with a galaxy spinning a bit faster than our 365 day preference.
There was another event in 1912 that impacted a smaller number of people than the exploration of a southern ice shelf, was not as shocking as the collision of an iceberg with modern transportation, was not as famous as the opening of a luxury hotel. In a small farming community, a little girl named Gracie Mae was born, third of nine children born to her parents. She came of age during an amazing time in history, spanning two world wars with deadly feuds also marking Korea, Vietnam and ultimately the Persian Gulf region. Gracie Mae saw her country tattooed with the stripes of a national interstate system as the automobile culture came into full bloom. She kept house, helped run a grocery store with her husband, raised two daughters. She went to segregated country schools, saw the fiery initiation of desegregation in her adulthood, experienced as a grandmother the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy the year before men landed on the moon. As a great-grandmother, she saw our country go to war twice in Iraq, once for atrocities committed on its neighboring Kuwait, again at the turn of the century for atrocities against its own people and ours. She saw the Twin Towers rise and then she saw them fall, all in the autumn of her life. And then this Leap Year, 2008, she made the quantum leap for home, leaving this earthly coil on February 29, on purpose, I think, so we cannot commemorate her Homecoming date until 2012, the hundredth year anniversary of her birth.
I only came into her life when she was solidly in her seventies. Although I often feel some of her spunk and sass running through my veins, by blood she is my husband's grandmother, the mother of his mother. At my husband's birth, she was christened 'Grammy' and so she is forever named in my heart, the blend of the names given her at birth. The Grammy I knew was funny, sassy, smart, independent. I am told that she was a different version of herself while her husband was alive; she played the straight man to his hilarious antics, his bigger-than-life personality. I came into the family when he had already been gone four years; Grammy was in the process of carving out who she would be for the rest of her time on the planet without him to play to. Hair always in place, lipstick always on, Grammy kept her clothes current and her purses fashionable. She kept busy, she helped me with the great-grandbabies, she passed on novels to me that I sometimes found risque. She constantly knitted, crocheted, painted, beaded, anything to keep her hands in agreement with her mind that she was a busy, busy lady. She kept tabs on her neighbors, kept up with the latest gossip, kept up with the Joneses. She fascinated and she was fascinated. She read her Bible and always dressed up to go to church. She was a sassy, classy lady.
On our frequent trips home in the last few years, she would say to me, "I've really gone down hill. Can you tell?" I would always respond that, no, I couldn't tell. She accused me of being flattering, but I can say in all honestly that, no, I couldn't tell. Grammy remained for me always the archetype of the charming, fresh, saucy seventy-something year old I had first met and fallen in love with. When I edited the pictures for her memorial service, I was absolutely stunned to discover that she had aged significantly over the last few years, an image my heart had not seen but my camera had captured. And yet, that progression of aging did seem to give her unprecedented grace; pictorially, it is not until well past her big 90th birthday party that her gait seemed to slow to a shuffle, that her hair goes from a dark shade of gray to a cottony white.
Grammy never pretended that her life was going to change the world, that she was a major player in events that would have far-reaching effects. She was happy to read a good book, make a great dessert, keep busy with her hands, laugh long and loud. And perhaps this was part of the contentment she seemed to keep stored in a zipper pocket of her large handbag: she was satisfied to hand off the torch of this thing called living, with its attendent ambitions and stresses, to a younger generation she adored but did not envy. She enjoyed her life, enjoyed her little luxuries, enjoyed our little attentions. And in this way, she taught us a very great lesson. To qoute the poet Auden: "They die among us every day, those who were trying to do us some good and knew it was never enough but hoped to improve a little by living."