Friday, May 17, 2013

A love born in firelight

Last night my dad called me. My boyfriend and our housemate and I were eating dinner and watching an old episode of "Arrested Development" on Netflix. While the two of them laughed at the awkward and deadpan capers of a dysfunctional family in our twinkle-lit living room, I ducked down the basement stairs into the dark with my cell phone in order to hear my dad better. 

I knew that my granny had gone into the hospital again, and that the reason was something to do with her gallbladder. 

I also knew that earlier that morning I had seen a big fat black crow, alone with me in the Metro parking garage, perched on a ledge and looking portentous as anything, even to my skeptical eyes. It freaked me out a little, because my granny is Appalachian and has always told me stories about uncanny premonitions and signs seen by my ancestors and relatives, dreams that came true in impossible-to-predict detail, pictures of loved ones crashing to the floor on the very day that the loved one turned out to have passed away.

My dad said he had some bad news about Granny. She had cancer, and the doctors felt she was too old to operate on. They were giving her two weeks. 

Her husband, my popaw, the love of her life (and she was the love of his), died a year and a half ago. Ever since then, my granny has talked openly -- but not self-pityingly, not even morbidly -- about wanting to join him in heaven. They were both deeply spiritual people (Pentecostal; it was at their church that I regularly witnessed, and once even came into physical contact with, people speaking in tongues). She truly believes that she will be with him again if she dies.

I'm an atheist, so of course I don't believe in things like this. And yet, as illogical as it might sound, she believes this so much that there are moments when I almost do. Or at least, I find myself trying to find ways to make it somehow true, even if just in some metaphorical way. A love like theirs shouldn't ever have to die.

Tomorrow I'll drive to the house she shared with my popaw -- "Popaw and Granny's house," a place I have known intimately since I was a child and played hide-and-go-seek there with gaggles of cousins, a home whose every nook and cranny and Jesus-adorned wall and country-food smell (my granny was the oldest girl in a farming family of 15 kids, and always cooked huge breakfasts -- biscuits with sausage gravy or apple butter, bacon, scrambled eggs, black coffee -- just out of habit) somehow felt more "homey" to me than my own parents' also warm but somehow more casual-seeming house in the chilly Northern Virginia suburbs. 

I'll drive down there in the morning, and park the car, and go inside, and my granny will be in bed, probably in the very same room where my popaw lay dying just a year and a half ago. Back then, there was a moment -- I wasn't there, but my sister told me about it -- when my popaw winced in pain, and my granny stroked his still-thick hair off his forehead and said, "You just close them perty blue eyes," urging him to rest, comforting him, still thinking he was handsome with his "perty blue eyes" after 76 years. 

Below is a long photo caption (to go with the photo at the top of this post) that I wrote out months ago about the first time I heard the story of how my granny and popaw first met. My granny is an amazing woman on her own, and there are many other stories I could share about her here that are just about her. But I choose to share this story right now because even she would agree that her best friend, her soul mate, her partner in life and even beyond it, is my popaw.


My Popaw and Granny were married for 66 years, until he died at the end of 2011, but he was madly and single-mindedly in love with her for 76 years. I knew that they'd met when she was 14 and he was 17. I knew that her family didn't at first allow her to date him, not just because she was so young but because he was from a family of alcoholics. The day her mother told him not to come around asking for her, he went to sit on a hillside facing her family's farm off in the distance and cried, he later told us without a trace of shame. Eventually he won them over, by showing them he was nothing like the rest of his people, who drank away whatever money he earned and mocked him when he said grace before meals.

I knew that he asked her to marry him before he went over to Europe during World War II (where he would be among the soldiers of the Normandy Invasion, survive the Battle of the Bulge, and later be given two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star), but she had at first said no, because she didn't want to "have a husband and then not have a husband." I knew that when they finally got married, 10 years after the first time he saw her, when she was 24 and he was 27, he had never wanted to be with anyone else. In order to support her and their future family (my mom and her two older brothers), he went into town one day and did not leave the office of the limestone-processing plant, the town's one big employer, until he'd been offered a job. (He wasn't obstinate, but so chatty and friendly and stayed so long that they offered him work almost more to get rid of him that day, or so the family lore goes.)

But what I didn't know until today was how exactly they had met, when precisely each had first been aware of the other. At my parents' kitchen table over a late-morning snack of strawberries from Costco and a bowl of sugar, my granny told me that her baby brother had just died. I knew that my granny's mother had given birth to a total of 17 children, and that one died as a baby and one as a toddler. She was talking about the baby now, about how in the old days out in the Appalachian mountains people would "sit up all night" with the person who had just died as the person lay in his or her coffin. The baby had lived just two or three weeks, and was now lying in a "tiny casket" in my granny's family's house. My granny, the oldest daughter in the family and de facto mom to many of her younger siblings, had spent all day and much of the night watching over the baby and talking with visitors, neighbors who stopped by to express their sympathies. Finally, she went upstairs to take a nap.

She awoke and walked downstairs to see that two young men who lived nearby had kindly taken over watching the baby and keeping the fire going while the family got some sleep. One of the men she saw down there in the firelight, watching over her baby brother in his coffin, was my Popaw.

This morning as my mom bagged up some extra strawberries for me to take home, my granny shuffled to the sliding-glass door and looked out at the bright sky and the clouds. She began talking, not quite praying, and my mom and I both knew she was talking to him. My mom and I paused for just a beat then continued with our casual exchange, about whether I wanted to take any more leftovers off their hands and when was the next time I might be able to stop by. We kept talking between ourselves so that they would have their privacy.

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