[Despite many promises and false starts and stops, THE TOODLES will return on Monday. I have set aside this weekend to honour my grandmother and my recently deceased aunt's birthdays.]
This would have been my grandmother's 93rd birthday. Everyone that knew her fully expected her to be alive well into her nineties, but she used to always say "I hope I die in my sleep, peacefully, with no foreknowledge or warning." Four days before her 82nd birthday she did just that.
I had talked to her just a few days earlier. I was her "Scottish granddaughter" for a number of reasons, mostly ironic (I am very physically affectionate, always hugging people, and Scots are for the most part very stoic), but also because I was the only one that was really interested in our family history. In our last phone conversation she had reported her latest findings, somewhat sheepishly. We weren't, in fact, related to the Royal Stewarts. No, it seems that there were many "immigrant aristocrats" on the boats to Canada in the mid-1800's, and her grandmother had been one of them.
We laughed together, that we were not the last Jacobites, the last relations to Queen Mary and Bonnie Prince Charlie. I hung up, promising to call her for her birthday, and telling her again how much I had enjoyed visiting over Christmas. A strange visit, my hostile uncle and his wife absent for the first time in many holidays, and in their place my aunt and cousin, whom I had not seen since I was eleven, when we had gone to visit them at their Christian commune in Oregon.
My grandmother's work required attendence at a yearly conference in different cities around the U.S. She would usually take me or my sister with her, alternating to be fair. The one who was left behind would often end up staying with a family friend or foster family, because my mother was very severely manic-depressive when we were little. So, it was always preferable to go with Nonny. However, that summer, the conference was in Oregon, very near my aunt's small town. My grandmother decided to take the airfare money and use it for gas, and all of us-- me, my sister and my mother-- drove across the country.
My grandmother had planned plenty of time for us to make visits and detours. We stopped in Yellowstone and a number of other places, including all of the crazy musuems and mutant farm animal zoo's we passed. My mother was in good spirits and acted normal for most of the trip. Even more thrilling for my sister and me, she allowed us to eat whatever we wanted at Denny's, McDonald's, etc! White bread! French fries! Normal people food. We were even allowed to drink sodas!
And there was an uncommon moratorium on the screaming, fighting, blaming, and yelling that was a daily melody in our family life. We were too busy soaking up the scenery and delighting in discovery.
That summer was the swansong for my childhood. I wouldn't start my period until later that year, just around the time I started sixth grade, but I already had a C cup and fuller breasts than mother or grandmother. And though there had been no vacanies yet, I knew that we would be moving out of my grandmother's house soon, and into some publicly assisted housing in a different part of the city, far from all things familiar.
By the end of that year, in that new neighbourhood, I would be smoking cigarettes and pot, and drinking. I would know hallucinogens, speed, and methaqualone before the next summer. By October of that year I would be the target of a sixteen year old drug dealer who had become my boyfriend so that he could be the first to pop my cherry when I turned twelve. (He had principles after all. He waited until the weekend after my twelfth birthday to have sex with me.)
But on that trip I was still just an awkward, boy-crazy, eleven year old girl. Because it would have been "my" summer to go with my grandmother, before the conference was over, my sister and mother took the Greyhound to my Aunt's, and my grandmother and I were left with a free day to explore Portland and then drive down the coast together (we only took the "scenic routes" that summer).
Despite all of the anger and fighting, my grandmother was an amazing person. She was also the only stability in my life, right up until her death. I loved spending time with her and being the focus of her (benevolent) attention. We had plenty of time that sunny June morning to stop at any antique store or market that we passed. When we passed a "pick your own cherries" orchard around lunch time we agreed to stop without word between us. The orchard had regular black and red cherries and a kind I had never heard of-- a yellow kind that was very sweet. We picked bucketfuls and drove down the coast spitting out pits into a paper cup, thrilled with our discovery and anticipating the delight we would be able to pass on to my sister and mother. No cherries in the history of the world have been more enjoyed than the ones that we picked that morning.
I had never seen the ocean before and I was awed by its' beauty and power. We had been looking for a spot to pull over and eat our sandwiches. We drove past a crowded beach and noticed that everyone was standing and pointing out to sea. My grandmother stopped the car and before we could even get out I saw what everyone was looking at: Dolphins! A pod, not too far from shore, leaping and twisting and flashing silver in the sun!
I remember I was so excited I could hardly breathe! I was jumping up and down with excitement and shouting and pointing. Nonny's face was shining with same miracle as mine and she took my small hand in her large one-- knotty with bones and roped with veins, covered in brown spots from the sun and roughness from gardening; I miss her hands more than anything else-- and I calmed down, and we both just watched, hand in hand, at the miracle God had given us for our beautiful afternoon together, until the silver dancers disappeared into the endless horizon.
A perfect day.
Happy Birthday, Nonny!!! I love you and I miss you! Thank you for everything you gave me!!!