Note: There are many “facts” here but the people are conflations of two or more people, and the facts, such as they are, have been substantially rearranged to tell a larger Truth. So let’s think of this as fiction.
The days were getting short for my grandmother. All her family was there: her two sons, their families and two great grandchildren. Grandmother was dying and this might be her last day. I had my camera with me to try for that lasting image we would all come to identify with her in those last days.
It was unsettling to see her looking perfectly normal but knowing the disease could take her this morning or this afternoon or this evening or maybe tomorrow or the next day. Her mind had dimmed a few months ago and while she did acknowledge our presence and did smile from time to time, the smiles did not seem coordinated with the world the rest of us were living in. Her mind was elsewhere. But it was good to be there with her. This was my grandmother. I had plenty of film and it would not be wasted.
Grandmother was a farm girl. She had a lot to do with the annual butchering of the hog at my great grandfather’s farm when she was growing up. She also fed chickens, gathered eggs and killed and dressed the chickens for dinner. She milked cows and ran the milk through the separator, a magical device that separates the milk from the cream. I learned all this in family stories and by later watching how that separator worked.
Doc, my grandfather, also grew up on a farm. He went on in academics and became a professor of psychology and dean at the local college in Waynesburg, PA. Although he and Grandmother lived in town after they got married, the farming habits continued. For example, they had a chicken house and Doc delivered eggs. That was when I was part of it. While my mother, brother and I were living with our grandparents during World War II, the annual butchering continued. I remember clearly Grandmother making ice cream, churning butter and buttermilk on the back porch. And lye soap from what was left of the hog. I can still smell lye soap, that piercing odor that says “this is good for you”.
With a war going on, we gathered milkweed pods for the war effort. Kapok, a natural product that gives buoyancy to life jackets, was in short supply since the Japanese controlled its source. Milkweed, it turns out, is a pretty good substitute. So we, along with thousands of others, gathered milkweed. Being just 4 or 5 years old, I wasn’t big enough to carry the large burlap bags we used to gather them, but I was one of the pickers, out there with my teen-age aunts and uncles.
Grandmother smiled again. There were a lot of people in that small living room and Grandmother dozed off. I had been taking pictures all along and although I knew they were not the ones I really needed to get, they were good for backup. I would classify them as OK. The trick is to be patient and stay alert.
While we waited for Grandmother to wake up (hoping she would), we told family stories. One of my favorites showed her practical side. Puss, one of her cats, who went back and forth, indoors and outdoors, was in heat. Puss the cat was indoors that day and there was a gathering of male cats on the back porch wanting to make her acquaintance. They weren’t going to go away so Grandmother went outside, picked the male she wanted and put the male and Puss down in the basement for awhile. That helped a lot. And later there were kittens.
Practicality was one of Grandmother’s strengths, but so was a love of poetry. With my dad off to World War II, and my mother sometimes out in the evening, I would occasionally get in bed with Grandmother and she would read poetry to me. This preschooler liked that a lot. I can still hear her voice.
“OH there is blessing in this gentle breeze,
A visitant that while it fans my cheek
Doth seem half-conscious of the joy it brings…”
I didn’t know what most of the poems meant but it was good to be there next to Grandmother and hear her voice.
Paige, the last great grandchild she would know, was getting a little fussy and was ready to get down on the floor and play with a rattle. Grandmother woke up and smiled, smiled at Paige. As much reflex as anything else, her dad picked her up and put her in Grandmother’s arms. The smiling was going full tilt now, Grandmother smiling at Paige and Paige smiling at Grandmother.
This was the moment. I snapped off as many pictures as I could get without being too intrusive and interrupting that communion between grandmother and great grandchild. This was a holy moment.
Grandmother died later that night. She was relaxed, she had joined Doc and her parents. She was smiling. I’ll always remember that smile.