“Rats? I hate rats. They drive me crazy. Crazy? I was crazy once. They locked me in a rubber room. I died in that rubber room. And they hurried me in the ground with all the spiders and rats. Rats? I hate rats. They drive me crazy …”
Of all the people I know who knew my grandmother, you either loved her or you couldn’t stand her. Or both. 😄 She was a colorful character, always up to something with that crooked, wonderfully playful smirk. Today is her birthday, and she’s tell you that being born on Halloween automatically makes her a witch and that she’s really older than dirt. May I never lose the sound of her voice. She had a strong voice, but always with a hint of a laugh or a ring to it that culture easily transition into a jovial song.
I hear from a lot of people that the 1st are the hardest after losing a loved one, and it’s been true this whole month. Because we weren’t really that close as I got older, as time and distance got away from us both, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel in the months after her passing. I wrote a blog right after her death and all the unfolding and healing that took place in my heart as a result.
She was more my mother in the first 8 years of my life, when she was raising me, than anyone else. She taught me so many things. My love of cooking and baking is a direct result of fond memories with her. She taught be about being a good steward of our planet and all of God’s creatures. She taught me that I have a voice to fight against injustice. She taught me the beauty of art and creativity and always encouraged my curiosity and imagination.
Papa died several years back, he had been in and out of cancer remission. The mixture of tobacco, motor grease, and Coca-Cola is still one of my favorite smells in the world, and I can almost smell it every him every time I think of him and Grammy and the house in The Ocala National forest where I grew up.
Jumping off cliff into the river, long days of fishing with Captain Tom, climbing trees, running around bare foot on the dirt roads, jumping in mud puddles, and stepping in cow patties. (I know that is gross, but Grammy loved it. I always wanted to do that because she did it, and I would try to sneak into the cow fields, though I wasn’t allowed to go by myself.) The huge tree in the front yard with the rope swing my uncles put up. The small pond surrounded by cattails in the backyard between the house and Papa’s garage. My uncles all teenagers and doing crazy stunts to scare an amaze me. And how bright the stars were at night. Oh how I go back there over and over again in my mind.
When they put that house up for sale, I created a petition (I was 7) and went around having everyone including potential buyers sign it. I will always picture them both there in the kitchen making breakfast. We always had toast with butter and strawberry preserves, and of course coffee. I had my own place at the table – a regular dinning chair with a stack of phone books as a booster seat. These images and memories are my safe place, my refuge.
Before Papa died, my aunt who I adore told me to think of everything I wanted to say to him, everything I wanted to ask and then say it. Ask it. So that when he goes, I won’t have any regrets or wonder. But the only thing I could think of at the time was: “Thank you. And I love you. You were like a father to me and I will never forget your love.” And he knew that very well. To me he was a quiet man and akin to Papa Surf with the bigger nose and full grey beard. But when he spoke his words had meaning.
I took my aunts advice into consideration when Grammy became ill and went to the hospital. I went to see her and wrote her a letter. I have no regrets or unresolved feelings except one and it’s so odd. While I was visiting she kept mentioning a drawer in the kitchen full of jewelry she had made and said that I could take whatever I wanted. I did want to look because I love all the jewelry she made, but I never did look. I didn’t want her to think or feel like I just came to get something from her.
Obviously that would never be my intention, ever. All I really wanted was time with her. But I was raised by people who seemed built that way, so I tend to be overly cautious and hyper aware of things like that. But it keeps kitting me again and again that I never looked in the drawer like she asked me to. Did she think me dismissive as a result?
The weekend of her memorial service my sweet uncle asked me if I wanted some pictures and some of her ashes. I kindly replied with a “Thank You” and planned to tell him in person that I wasn’t sure I wanted any ashes. Being honest it gives me the creeps, and I feel terrible that it does as I know how much it means to people.
But when I met up with my uncle, his eyes heavy with tears ready to spill over, he handed me an envelope of picture my dad asked him to pass on. Many I already had and several more that were pictures which actually documented some of the abuse I went through when I was younger. I don’t know if he or my dad realized that as they were going through Grammys things.
I wouldn’t put it passed my dad though to have done that intentionally as a reminder that he “saved” me from my mother and her abusive (ex)husband. They are from a time my other uncle took me to the park and took pictures. Grammy probably had hundreds of picture of me from my time with her as a young-in.
But I remember that day and I remember knowing why my uncle was taking the pictures but I didn’t say anything because I was happy to spend time with him. They catalog a giant hand-sized bruise across half my face that took several months to heal. I have no recollection of how I got it but it was there. It’s funny how memories hit you altogether vividly when you had entirely forgotten. Then bam! I feel the hand print even now.
Then came this simple white box, the size that would hold a bracelet from a jeweler. Looking my uncle in the eyes, I couldn’t say “No Thank You.” I just wanted to hug him and cry for him. He and Grammy were super close. And his loss added to my own. So a accepted the ashes. Put the box in a Russell Stover’s bag and the ashes sat in that bag in my car for months.
Every time I thought about them I’d burst into tears. Tears that this is what one of the most monumental people in my life has been reduced to. I am know the owner of a percentage of her person. And I know all about the sacred burial ground legends about disturbed spirits and all … from her to be exact. Grammy even told me a story about how she wound up with the remains of a Native Medicine Man and it haunted her until she had someone take them away and put them at rest. Then I’m supposed to bring a small part of her now decided up body into my home?
I just couldn’t deal. But the longer they stayed in my car, the more worried I got that something would happen and they’d spill everywhere. Trying to be helpful, as I shared that plaguing thought with Mike, he innocently said, “well then we can just vacu….”
“Justin Michael, DO NOT finish that sentence!” And a began to sob between bouts of hyperventilating and hysterical laughter. Not the kind when somethings actually funny, but the kind of hysteria hysterical laughter that comes on when something is far too much for your system to process. He didn’t mean it to be crass or unkind. He though it would resolve the issue. In my mind though, how morbid and inhumane to vacuum up what remained of my dearest grandma-ma. If she’s looking down on us, she was probably laughing hard at the thought, though, so That picture made me laugh for real.
This went on for an hour, as it had come on by such a surprise. But at the end of it, I asked God for the strength and the piece to bring her ashes inside. I prayed protection over the ashes, over our home, and over my heart. All I have of her is this small box of gray dust. What to do? It can’t just sit there. Do I make a trip up to the Oneida Mansion House and scatter them there? I remember her saying something about that a long, long time ago. Do I take them to Silver Springs? That was our stomping ground. Our favorite place.
After weeks of her little white box full of dust collected dust on a shelf in my home, I finally got the courage to call a friend. I barely got through the conversation, but I was finally able to talk about it without crying. You see, the husband of a dear friend is a glass artist, and I knew he had done work in the past with memorializing remains. I’d rather support a small business and local artist than a funeral home. Plus it was easier to talk with someone who knows me than a stranger because I’ve been extremely awkward about the whole thing.
Grammy loved to tell me the stories of the Iroquois passed down through the centuries. My favorite is the creation story and how the earth formed on the back of a turtle. She loved to tell stories, loved to be mischievous, and loved to say kooky things like the quote at the beginning. And a loved her. If I was going to have these ashes, I might as well does something with them so they would honor her and be protected. And it turned out beautifully.
Isn’t it beautiful?! I’ve wanted to post about this for a long time and couldn’t bring myself to do it. I always think of her when I see turtles. I see her in Grandmother Willow and Moana’s grandmother as well. I see her in the river and I see her in the moon. I see her in stacks of books and libraries as I also get my love of reading from her. I see her in homemade bread. I see her in dream catchers as she made beautiful dream catchers. She was an artist and loved to create. She was also an gifted amateur photographer. I see her in turquoise. She was always wearing turquoise jewelry. I think of her when I smell sage. I think of her when I play Tetris, and when I drink my coffee in the mornings.
I would give almost anything to rewind the clock and go back to The Forest as a little girl and sit at the breakfast table with her and Papa one last time. One last hug. One last picture of Papa reading the newspaper and Grammy toasting the bread. When you’re little, you don’t realize how precious these small moments really are and then they’re gone. I’m filled with grief that we weren’t able to be closer as I grew up. But that grief is matched with peace knowing that God used them to give me everything I needed and make me who I am today. And that’s how beauty comes out of ashes.
If you’ve lost a loved one, I am so sorry.
Lord, send Your angels to surround and comfort those who mourn. Though our sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning. Your love never fails. You are our comfort, our friend. You know our loss and You know our pain. You came that we may have ease. May we drink if Your living water. All who are thirsty. All who are hungry. Lord, let us receive. In Your preside name, Jesus, amen.