Monday, May 07, 2007

gravedigging with grama

I'm just a shadow of my former skeleton.


My grama said this to me, half-laughingly, the last time I saw her. That was the time before this last Saturday; that was the time when she was still aware that pieces of her were ebbing away.

This time the ebb was more severe, the awareness not as acute. Her mood was mostly blue -- she admitted to a depression -- and her mind was severely muddled.

On that previous occasion she told me again the story of her dear Aunt Anna -- her dear, slightly nutty Aunt Anna -- who lived with the family when she was small (by one count there were three children and four adults who lived in that Seattle household when she was a child and got by on the $10/week that her mother made at the laundry where she worked[1]).

Anna was exceedingly beautiful. And a little bit daft. The crazy part insinuated itself after a reckless carriage ride when she was young -- her beau rented a horse and carriage from a local livery stable and the carriage got away from him. To hear Grama tell it Anna was the only one in the carriage when the horse went wild and careened recklessly until somehow, unknown to her, it came to a stop again. Anna was never the same after that and lived at home, beautiful but unsuited for marriage, for most of the rest of her life.

I've always wondered if something a little more untoward didn't happen on that carriage ride. Maybe it was the driver who careened recklessly and not the horse, and maybe Anna was undone in ways girls could be undone in those days, which decided in and of itself that she was wrecked for marriage. But that may just be me being a drama queen, assuming that my grandmother was handed a euphemism when she was small, and carried it with her as the truth.

The end of the story about Anna involves the death of Grandma Ingeborg (my great-great-grandmother), who is buried now at Lakeview Cemetery[2] alongside Volunteer Park in Seattle, under a pauper's stone -- a pure slab of cement with her name and dates impressed upon it. Her granddaughter Corinne, my grandmother's sister, who played the violin with a preternatural talent and died of meningitis when she was 7, lies at the other far corner of the cemetery under another, similar slab.

I know this because it used to be that my grandmother and I would visit in the Spring and uncover their graves with a garden trowel – necessary because poor peoples’ graves are not on the list of graves to be maintained by the groundskeepers, and in the rain of the Pacific Northwest it doesn't take long for moss and turf to overtake them.

I usually brought a bottle of water along so that after we dug up the graves we could splash the dirt away to reveal their names, and almost always my grandmother would say, as Ingeborg came into view, "There you are, my grandmother." Followed by a few more words in Norwegian, the tenderness of which was all I could understand.

When Grandma Ingeborg died my Aunt Anna was distraught, and somehow secured the carcass of a little white mouse that she carried with her everywhere and revealed, to those who inquired, that it carried the soul of her dead mother. She whispered her secrets to the mouse; consulted with it on her problems. I didn't learn from Grama just how long this went on, but I did learn that soon after that Anna took to wandering.

She'd step out the door silently and wander her way from near Lake Union, where they lived, to the downtown streets of Seattle, intent on some imaginary task. Fortunately she was returned home again by strangers, but soon enough this became more than enough, and she was institutionalized.

There's no happy ending to Anna's story, but it matters to me as one of those family fragments that records the characters in the family tree. And it matters to me because I can hear it being told, still, in my grandmother's voice.

She's given me so many stories.

She told me a new one this last time that was more dreamscape than true[3], about a dear friend of hers named Ken who died not too long ago. Ken was my Bompa's best man at their wedding, and later the godfather of all their children, and later even still the father-in-law of their daughter, my aunt.

My grandmother's story was of a large party that Ken and his wife Margie threw recently, because they knew that Ken was going to die. She went on at some length, painting the picture of this event that she believed she attended, and described it for all the world like what a funeral would be like if the corpse waited until the end of the evening to take up his spot in the box.

I didn't interrupt or try to inject reason into the proceedings, I just let her run, as she spoke of all the friends who were there to say goodbye and about how "socially awkward" the whole affair was -- he was going to be dead shortly, after all, although he looked just fine that night. But he was resigned. And ready. And it was what they wanted to do.

She cried as she told the story. She wrapped it up tidy, like she always does. My Grama has always had a brilliant sense of an ending. She knows just the right mood to strike, just the right punch line to leave, just the right inflection to frame it, off-set it, make it whole.

But I sense this other ending of hers -- the one in which she goes wandering off by herself in the hallways and then forgetting why, when she's asked what she's wandering for -- I suspect this one has got her stumped.

I had no answers for her, of course, and could do nothing more than to sit by her side and listen to her strange, changing stories, hold her hand, and think, as her mind wandered into worlds I couldn't see except through her curious painted visions: There you are, my Grama. There you are.



[1] The men who worked in that same laundry, at the same tasks as my great-grandmother, made $20/week.

[2] Lakeview Cemetery is also home to Seattle denizens Denny, Yesler, Chief Seattle's daughter Princess Angeline, and Kung Fu wonder boys Bruce and Brandon Lee.

[3] Which makes me think of something I heard once -- that all stories are true, and some even happened.

2 comments:

anniemcq said...

you definitely inherited Grama's way with a story. What a gift she's given you.
This is just gorgeous, friend. Love you.

Lolabola said...

Sometimes I think you are psychic. I was just about to post about my grandparents and their graves.

I hope your grandmother can find a bit of piece of mind in all the dreamscape. I can see how that must be so frightening for the elderly to drift in and out of what we call reality. It's so fabulous that she told you that story.

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