Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Tulips for Lily

When I was young, my cousins from Long Island and I played a hand game they taught me. The song went like this:

My little playmate
Come out and play with me
And bring your dollies three
Climb up my cherry tree
Look down my rain barrel
Slide down my cellar door
And we’ll be jolly friends
Forever more.

Oddly, whenever I heard that song, it was not my cousins I thought of, but my grandmother.

Growing up I never understood why grandma and grandpa always seemed to live in different houses, how their homes got smaller and closer to the city after each one of grandma’s visits to the hospital where she would sleep and sleep… sometimes for weeks.

I remember the house in Lima, and the cellar doors. We never went down to the cellar, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out where the grey painted doors set at a 45 degree angle could possibly lead to. There was actually a rain barrel by the cellar door, or that is an addition of my memory, having so closely associated the song with my grandmother. There were tulips. Impossibly, I remember there always being tulips.

Grandma always seemed a substantial woman to me, even though in retrospect she was only large to my young eyes. Or perhaps it was the size of her heart and lust for life that made her so big in my eyes. There was a bit of a mystery about grandma, too. Some uncertainty about who she was in the family, because back then little girls did not have three grandmothers, they had only two… and although I knew that she WAS in fact my mother’s mother, for some reason she seemed somehow beyond the family… someone who had obviously for many years marched to her own drum.

With my other grandmothers, I felt like I had intercession through my parents… like I could only come through them to reach my grandparents. It may have been an oddly Catholic thought for a little protestant girl, but there was always that feeling that my relationship with my other grandparents were merely by association with my parents. But with Grandma L I felt absolutely that her relationship with me was for my sake, not for my parents. She was one of the few people who have made me feel truly loved in my life.

Grandma used to wear these really ugly muumuus. She made them herself, and the colors were bright contrasting… One I recall in particular was red, orange and yellow with black trim. When grandma made her muumuus, she used the leftover fabric to make a muumuu for my big troll doll (remember when those were popular?) she always used a zig-zag trim on every one… brick-a-brack she called it.

She loved milk glass, and I recall in particular a chicken in the apartment that was her final home. I remember looking at the chicken the day grandpa said to her “Dear, your stockings have fallen down around your ankles” and she sharply replied “I’m not wearing stockings!” Mother was angry with grandma that day, as she was many days, for things that had happened when she was a little girl. Years later I’d hear what a wild woman Grandma had been. How she had many lovers. How she left without taking mom. How she had shamed her by divorcing. Grandma always seemed a little bit the gypsy the way mom told it, but looking back, it only adds to her mystery, and is solidly at odds with the woman who was so devoted to her second husband all the time I knew her.

Grandma always woke up when the doctors said she wouldn’t ever again, so when we were called to her home in the supervised living apartments, I was very surprised at how many people were coming in and out. After all, the cancer that was supposed to have killed grandma 15 years ago had not stopped her from living fully. The chemo, the hospital visits, even the comas seemed a small footnote in a life filled with real joy of living. It was hard to think of the cancer that had taken her breasts, invaded her internal organs, and her spine when her outward appearance was always one of love and joy. And in the end, while my mother vacuumed under the bed where my grandmother’s body lay, I went to the kitchen and looked at the milk glass chicken, remembering tulips, brightly colored muumuus and cellar doors.