If Grammy’s Not in the Garden…

Indian style on my white wicker love seat contributing to the annals of my passionate three-year affair with “Writing Nights” as my Google Calendar reminds me each Tuesday, I’m sitting still on the outside. Still, on the inside I’m bouncing between competing obligations to prioritize deadlines, courting time in the hopes she’ll favor my attempts to stay afloat amidst January’s moody flirtations. The bitter cold conquered by a freak thaw has my magnolias confused and budding. Quite frankly, I can empathize.

It was warm and sunny when I dashed out during my planning block around noon to switch out the VHS tapes that I’m frantically converting to digital files. At Christmas, I’d lugged home two heavy cases of VHS tapes, 8mm cassettes, and Mini DV’s; it’s the Palma Family Archive… or at least all the tapes my mother was willing to let me transport by car back to Virginia to convert. Charming and I dreamed up a Christmas gift of providing all our home videos to family members on stylish portable hard drives. With my labor and his funding, we’ll be able to express our gratitude for everyone’s role in our summer wedding with a meaningful, sentimental gift for generations to cherish in the future.

I’ll keep my mind from wandering to the efforts my own not-yet-conceived daughter’s children trying to figure out how to convert MP4’s to their current, yet again more advanced technology that makes those originals outdated. Accompanied by a maximum ten year shelf life for technical support or reasonable repair, camcorders evolved as I did. They were clunky in my toddler years, providing a bulk of support for those VHS tapes, and my parents rented a camera as often as possible to catalogue our childhood. While meeting Charming at the Thanksgiving Welcome my parents hosted, Kaitie and I browsed my parents’ shelves of home movies, reminiscing when we glimpsed titles where we knew we shared the screen. They went back as far as our friendship to our pre-school dances at DeWitt Community Church where my mom always envisioned me getting married.

During our Hampton snow days, it was easy to work wedding planning in without feeling like I was compromising on other important tasks. Semester exams were cancelled, half days turned to full, and we’re in full force now administering Critical Skills assessments in their stead, adapting and adopting the pace post-blizzard. Unfortunately, yearbook deadlines don’t build in any days for inclement weather. I was grateful when we returned to school last Friday for the simple fact that I knew I had students with whom I could share the burden. They’ve stepped up, and in three school days, we have knocked out more than half our deadline. My Editors-in-Chief are fulfilling their titles, delegating and following through, putting in extra hours, reminding me why I loved yearbook to begin with: moments like our working lunch today when we’re no longer rounding thirty-five and eighteen, but made equals by our singular devotion to meeting this deadline, every deadline, and getting that perfection certificate from Herff Jones again!

I digress, and nevertheless, this bouncing blog capitulates clearly my adjustment to this temporary thaw. I wanted to soak in the sun and sneak off to walk at Fort Monroe beach when I sensed heat on my exposed arms afterschool, but having knocked out the last VHS tape related to my current project with an unexpected deadline prioritizing itself above all else in my mind, I’d have to get the 8mm camcorder hooked up and recording, again in real time, so I could make progress while I hit the gym with Chuck. I balanced my tasks: this morning was devoted to yearbook, stolen moments to swapping tapes, the early to review sessions on colons and drama and poetry. Post school, I was unsuccessful at coaxing that old 8mm camcorder to life, so post gym, I ventured across the street to Goodwill for a chance encounter with one solitary camera that just so happened to meet my needs… and it worked.

While I attempted to wait for tapes to rewind after the gym and before dinner with my brother’s family, I used the unedited moments to type up the menus Charming and I prepared this weekend, finally crossing off sending quotes to potential caterer’s from my ever-growing wedding-specific to do list. Yes, I have separate lists now: school, life, grocery, and wedding. The tiny sticky notes on my smart phone screen function well to give me that boost I need to get my head above water and be productive despite the sea of suitors courting my attention, from yearbook to wedding plans to assessment reviews to wellness and family time. Add to that squeezing in MRI’s and X-rays for the month-long spinal pain that plagues my sleep, the daily frustration in avoiding the typical uses of my right shoulder, and beginning the process of bio feedback in attempts to alter my brain such that I could sleep without medicine.

Last week, when the snow was here, everything was still and quiet and I could think. After accepting the astronomical cost of the dress I’d fallen in love with in snow days past, I traversed to Blush Bridal and back during another blizzard on Wednesday that would keep us out of school two days. Christy fitted me for my gown, and now it’s ordered. The snow melted, and now it seems everything’s alive at once. Well, almost everything.

At ninety-four, Grams has experienced more authentic spring thaws than I could ever hope to accumulate. The thaw meant time to plant, time to labor in her garden. All summer long she’d nurture it, and late in autumn she’d tame it, putting it to rest for a long New York winter. It’s been several years since her body could have tended a garden, and even longer since she’s lived in the home where she’ll always live in my memory with the red shutters on Westvale Road in Solvay where there are lots of Italians (and I’m sure Dad could explain that bit of trivia while I cannot). Given the choice, I would obviously prefer to picture her peeking out the kitchen window enjoying her morning glories with her cheerful, chirping canary than half-watching pet parrot Ruby in the community room at her nursing home.

Last week, the doctors alerted Grams’ kin the end was near. Uncle Paul, Dad’s older brother, flew up immediately. She has a strong ticker, though, and it seems that even in days you can live without water, she prefers to die as she lived, savoring the sweetness of meeting every challenge head on and overcoming. A child of the Great Depression, Grams has been the perfect model of how to live frugally, and she’s not wasting a single day of life on Earth awarded by God even as establishes a new H20 record at the nursing home. When we visited Grams at Thanksgiving, I told Charming it might be the last time. When we visited Christmas morning, I knew that it was the last time.

Uncle Paul flew home to regroup, and I’ve taken on a memorial project compiling stills and videos featuring the Grammy I grew up with, the one that as I type is fading comfortably. In heaven, she’ll see Grandpa, and freed from the trappings of dementia, she’ll know him as the love of her life. Until then, every day she fights is another day I watch her come alive for every season of my life from birth. It’s a bittersweet undertaking, savoring tastes of her feistiness and frugality, her strength of spirit and dedication to ministry… I watched simply captivated as she goaded the pitcher at a family softball game on the Fourth of July with my Florida cousins, jumping in the game with her stylish black shades only to whiff in a grand 360 pirouette, then nail the next one in a solid drive to second base.

Charming tried to distract me this weekend, as any good fiancé would do. To pull me out of the Grammy grief, he took my on a surprise date to an unknown location. At every turn, he played the ham, covering up signs that would give away our destination, leading me through a series of seemingly random elevators catapulting us higher and higher until, “Ding!” and we were in the Sky Dome. It has a 360 view of DC from the Arlington side, rising high above a sprawling city hotel. The view was breathtaking. As the waiter seated us, I asked if Charming would like to take the seat on the left so he could have a view of his work, The Pentagon now a formidable building across a string of entangling highway headlights, steady streams of cars leaving and entering the District.

“That’s okay,” Charming replied as he took a seat across me. “I’ll have that view in about a half an hour.” We’d been in the room for only a minute, so I hadn’t yet taken note of the subtle hint of motion, a notion only confirmed by kneeling down to examine where the platform beside the circular floor seemed to rotating counter-clockwise. In reality, the full length windows encompassing the whole of the room along with the entry and the bar were still, steady, and grounded. We were inching forward, courting time in a clockwise direction. This creative distraction earned an authentic smile from both of us.

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Charming noted that it was difficult to focus on the things that were nearer as the slight rotation made us feel slightly off-balanced and shaky. It was easier to stare at the Washington monument in the distance because the visual effect of the rotation was minimized. Charming took me up there Saturday night to offer me a new perspective, and I’ve found in the days since that it was providential.

Everything is alive right now: yearbook and testing demands, wedding planning, shoulder surgery, undetermined spine issue, continued efforts to defeat my lingering insomnia foe. It’s all up close and in my face, and right now, all I want to gaze upon are the images depicting my grandmother as the woman she really is under the sagging, sallow skin across the distance of space and time spanning nearly a century. Yes, the video I hope will recreate that woman for us all, but I recognize that this process is what I need to make peace with her anticipated passing. Like writing nights, it’s in the process that I grow. Grams is in the distance, like a monument across the twisting stream of never ending lights, and when I’m lost staring at a screen bearing her likeness, it comes through still and in focus.

Let the rest of the world swirl around me. Two hours later, and I’m as still as this love seat. My Grams, Esther, lived the way she’s dying, sucking the marrow out of life as the poet would decree. It’s not personal gain, however, that she aimed for. What I see reemphasized, most recently while viewing footage of the advice she gave me on my fourteenth birthday just before I made a quick stop over to see the family. It made me late for dinner and late for writing night, but I was mesmerized by the familiar candor of her personality, the canter of her speech patterns, defining mannerisms unique to Grams.

I didn’t remember her advice or that this exchange had taken place. Every member of my family took a turn, and Grams used hers to sit beside me and encourage me that all my gifts should be used to glorify God, and that it was in service to Him that life would mean something.

Grams practiced what she preached, and when that dreadful call comes in that she’s taken her final breath, I’ll be ready for the euphemism. It will land squarely under the protection of my Grams’ shared strength of spirit, the secret to that strong ticker: an unwavering dedication to labor all her days in service to her Lord and savior. Her body will be still, never to experience another thaw or planting season because her days of planting are over. My brothers and our families… we’re a part of that harvest. We’ll live on and make memories, raising up our children in the way that they should go, passing on Gram’s ministry gene.

And someday maybe, when my non-existent grandchild converts MP4 footage of his grandfather Charming and me to the latest digital format to prepare for my memorial project, he’ll see a similar theme in the story God writes with our story. That would be a life well lived. Grams told me so a half a lifetime ago.

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