In celebration of Mother’s Day, I am sharing some excerpts from my upcoming memoir–sort of a memoir within a memoir about my paternal grandmother. You can the first two parts here:
A whole year had passed since we’d left our home to camp on that dark night and it had been quite an adventure. We had camped at an abandoned sawmill, stayed with Aunt Margie and gone to California to get Nana. I’d thought life was good when I had my own bedroom and a toy chest to store my Barbie dolls, but now that I’d learned to live like Laura Ingalls, I decided it was worth it to have Nana for a neighbor and friend.
Because of Grandpa and Nana, we finally had our own plot of land so Daddy’s garden dream of moving to the country had finally come true. I’d never planted anything except for a pumpkin seed my teacher gave me in third grade. I tried to imagine what it would be like to see seeds sprouting and bearing fruit in our own version of the Garden of Eden.
That spring, when the wild rhododendron trees on the lower five acres began to bloom in various hues of pink and lavender, we knew it was time to plant a garden. One Sunday our whole family, including Nana jumped into the VW bus and drove to the Grange store in Oak Harbor. We came home with the back of the bus loaded down with fertilizer, seeds, garden tools and a wheel barrow and went out into the muddy field to plant our garden.
While Daddy and Mama were figuring out how to lay out our garden just right, Nana went right to work in hers. I got tired of waiting for them to figure out what to do and slipped over to Nana’s side to help her. Every once in a while Daddy would call for me to come back to help with the hoeing on our side, but hoeing long rows was hard work and Nana’s garden was more fun.
I enjoyed poking peas into the dirt with the sound of the birds singing above me. Crawling in the fertile soil, breathing in its delicious patchouli scent and cutting earthworms in half felt primal and holy. This earth and all we were planting on it–including my growing friendship with Nana, felt instinctive, like this had always been my destiny and I marveled how natural it felt considering I hadn’t even know Nana the year before.
After we finished planting her vegetable garden, I helped Nana lay out some rocks to make a border around Nana’s rose stock and gerbera daisies which were already starting to bloom. Daddy and Grandpa carried a bench over to the flower area so she could have a place to read her Bible when the weather was nice. Next to the bench, she stuck a plastic windmill in the ground and hung a humming bird feeder on a stake. Nana beamed when I marveled that it looked exactly like a park.
Most of our relatives were in the process of clearing land, so when we were all done planting our gardens, we had a huge bonfire that night and everyone in the neighborhood came to roast hotdogs and hear Daddy and Nana tell more stories.
As the summer went by, I discovered it was not quite as fun to weed as it was to plant, but whenever Nana and I did the weeding together, her stories passed the time. Nana also liked to sing in her garden which I thought was ironic since her favorite hymn was, “In the Garden.” I used to sing it with her, shouting out the rhythm of “And He walks with me, and talks with me, and He tells me I am His own.”
I couldn’t understand why Nana didn’t seem very close to her daughters-in-law or her daughter. I couldn’t find any reason to dislike her. People sometimes said she was moody, but I didn’t see her that way. I figured if they really listened to her, they might discover she was worried about Grandpa’s health and the rest of her time she just wanted to love her grandkids. One morning as we picked the green beans, Nana paused to pull her hat closer over her eyes and asked me a question.
“Cherie, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
By now I knew without thinking what I wanted to do. My two favorite shows were the Waltons and Little House on the Prairie. Both were based on true stories and both would not even be TV shows if someone hadn’t written down their stories.
“I’m gonna be a writer like Laura Ingalls Wilder or John Boy Walton. Or maybe write plays or at least be a person who tells good stories like you.”
Nana laughed, but it wasn’t like she was laughing at me. It seemed more like a happy laugh. Then she looked serious. “Have you ever tried to write a play?”
“When I was seven, I made a play of the little drummer boy for my mom and dad.”
Nana smiled. “I wish I could have seen that.”
“Now that I think about it, I don’t think it was a real play.”
Nana laughed again and I could tell playwriting was something she thought was cool. “You know what? We could write a play and invite everyone in the family to come watch it.”
So that’s how my summer project became writing a play about the Exodus. It was a quite a challenge to go through all the plagues and think of a way to act them out, but I had Nana to coach me. We spent hours imagining how to turn a stick into a snake or pretend the sun had stopped shining.
Once we figured out the scenes, Nana said we should make costumes. We ripped up a bunch of her old sheets to make headcoverings. We recruited my younger siblings and cousins to play the Egyptians and Israelites and Nana told me to ask my cousin Sam to play the Pharaoh. I wasn’t sure a girl like me could play Moses, but Nana reassured me it was possible.
Once the actors were set, we searched the beach until we found a piece of driftwood which could work as a staff for Moses. Everything was finally coming together. After we made some handwritten invitations, my sister and I went door to door to invite our neighbors and relatives.
When we got to Aunt Margie’s door, I handed her the invitation. She seemed irritated and told me she wasn’t going to make it. Just between us, I never did like Aunt Margie very much because she was mean to Mama. She didn’t like me because I was Mama’s daughter. I didn’t care if Aunt Margie didn’t come to our play, but Nana cared because Aunt Margie was her daughter. When I went back to tell Nana what Aunt Margie said, she immediately called her up on the phone. Even though I could only hear one side of the conversation, I could tell it was turning into an argument. When Nana hung up the phone, she let out a deep sigh and asked me to go home so she could think.
The next morning I woke up early. Mama was still sleeping. I went over to Nana’s because I knew she was an early riser. It was late August and we often went for a morning walk together to look for huckleberries or black caps along the trail. I was eager to see her and discuss our plans for the play. When I got there, she was sitting on her garden bench. As I got closer, I noticed her eyes were red like she’d been crying. I thought it was because of Aunt Margie and I ran to give her a hug. She hugged me tight and then held me at arm’s length like she’d never seen me before. Placing one hand on each side of my face, she earnestly stared into my eyes.
“Cherie, do you want to go to heaven?”
I was surprised by the serious tone of her voice. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Heaven, in my mind, was a million or two light years away and it barely registered in our lives at the moment. The birds were singing, the sun was shining and we had a play to put on, so I wondered what would make Nana say such a thing.
“Of course Nana.”
Nana seemed subdued like she was thinking hard, so I sat down on the bench beside her. I heard the whir of hummingbird wings buzz past us to get to the feeder. I took a deep breath of the cool morning air which smelled like alder smoke and roses. I notice how dark and hard the summer squash was getting and wondered why Nana had forgotten to harvest it. The entire earth seemed to be buzzing and whirling and singing with life. She was holding her Bible and opened the front cover. “Can you find your name in here?”
I scanned the page and found Cherilyn, which is my formal name. Then I noticed the names of my siblings and cousins.
Nana spoke gently almost like she was in a dream. “I’ve written the names of all of my children and grandchildren in my Bible and I’ve prayed for every one of you to make it to heaven. Will you promise to meet me in heaven?”
“Of course Nana, I promise.”
Nana set her Bible on the bench and wrapped her arms around me before whispering into my ear. “I pray no matter what happens to you in this life, you will always remember to trust Jesus.”
I thought it was strange she never mentioned the play or Aunt Margie, but I heard Daddy calling my name, so I ran back across the field to the cabin.
We never did have our play. I didn’t realize this would be my last memory of Nana. By the afternoon she was in so much pain, they took her to the hospital and she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and she never came home.
A month later, Daddy and his brothers came from the hospital together and I could tell the news was bad because they all looked very sad. When I ran to him, Daddy was crying. He hugged me and said, “Nana’s gone honey, but the next thing she will see is Jesus.”
I’d never known anyone who died before except for the cats we took to the pound. I wanted to cry, but when I looked at Mama, she wasn’t crying. Then I remembered Mama didn’t cry over the cats either. She just ate a box of popsicles. This time, after hearing the sad news, Mama went inside the cabin to make some unbaked oatmeal cookies.
As I stood in the autumn sun watching Daddy and his brothers walk over to Aunt Margie’s house, my eyes wandered to Nana’s garden. So this was how it would be from now on. No cheerful voice to greet me when I got off the bus. No loving hands to gently comb out the snarls on my tender head. No arms to hold me tight around the campfire or tell me stories until I fell asleep. No more Heritage Singers songs or sewing doll dresses. No more plans to write a play or make a park. Just an empty garden with over-ripe squash that no one had picked. I walked over to look at the fading roses. I had only known Nana for one year, but I might never have known her if we hadn’t become homeless. Nana was a part of me and I was a part of her. This had always been true, but I just hadn’t known it until she lived next door.
My tenderhearted, melancholy, Nana was gone without showing me how to mourn. I wanted to fling myself down in the dust of the garden. My mind was screaming at God that this was unfair and I would never be the same, but Mama had acted like everything was normal, so I went back into the cabin to eat cookies. I wondered if that was what Nana would do, but Nana was gone. It’s what Mama was doing and I was her daughter too.