Every day, I miss my Granny. She died of cancer on Mother’s Day two years ago.
Jean Barton, who was called “Granny” or “Granny Jean” by many children in Bay Minette, Alabama over the years, was not my blood relative. But I was just as close to her as if she were. It wasn’t until after she died that I realized how wonderful and unusual that was.
When Granny and I went to town together and ran into her acquaintances, she’d tell them my real lineage in the way you do in the south that is so reminiscient of the Old Testament’s begats, explaining, “This is Bobbie Weekley’s oldest daughter Laura’s little girl.” But she’d follow that statement by identifying me her granddaughter. “I raised her,” she’d say proudly. Sometimes she’d clarify that statement to ensure that the listener knew that my parents hadn’t actually abandoned me into Granny’s hands, and sometimes she didn’t. I didn’t care. All that mattered was that Granny was my Granny, and she loved me, and I loved her.
Granny, with the help of her husband, my Pa-paw, ran a small daycare out of her home. She fed us, changed our diapers, cleaned us, wiped snot off our faces, threw us birthday parties, and gave us more toys than we deserved. She walked us to the park or the neighborhood pool for picnics. She put us down for naps on line-dried blankets that smelled like fresh air and trees. She let us dig in the sandbox with her real spoons, even though she knew we’d lose them. She helped us with complex, messy craft projects that often took up way too much space in her home. She learned and remembered every child’s favorite foods and prepared them regularly, down to the tiniest, pickiest detail. She hung our school portraits and school dance photos on her living room walls, and whenever we gave her a new one she’d beam and say, “I’m so proud of that.” When we fussed and fought, griped and complained, whined and pitched fits, she’d correct us gently and say simply, “Be kind.” She loved every child who walked through her door, and each of us felt it. I felt it from the time I was two weeks old, when my mother had to go back to work and I had to stay at Granny’s house every weekday.
I loved going to Granny’s house. After I was old enough to go to school, I’d visit Granny just once per week, on Wednesdays, during the school year. In summer, I’d be there every weekday. Once I was old enough to drive, I’d visit Granny on weekends. We’d go to yard sales and visit her mother in the nursing home. We’d go to church and I’d “help” her teach a preschool Sunday school class. We’d cook together and she’d teach me how to make her signature brownies and Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies. I never asked her for the recipe for her spaghetti, my favorite meal, which she made for me at least once or twice a week. Even as she grew sicker, I refused to ask her for the recipe, because that would mean admitting to myself that she wouldn’t always be around to make it.
I didn’t want to believe that Granny was dying. I think she knew that. I wasn’t good at talking about it and she wasn’t going to make me talk about it. Towards the end, when I visited Granny, I made pathetic attempts to cheer her up. I tried to talk about happy things, about what was going on in my life, about the meals I was cooking to cook and the parties I was throwing. I avoided the deep, painful subjects because I wanted to believe that we could always talk about them later, once she was better again. She loved me and she let me be this way.
A few months before she passed away, I started a new job in Atlanta. I was nervous about this job. I was trying hard to make a positive initial impression on my boss, and I worked long hours during the week and on weekends. Bay Minette was far away, and my visits home became less frequent.
“When are you coming home?” Granny’s cancer-weakened voice asked.
“I don’t know, Granny,” I weakly admitted. “I want to come home, but I’m really busy with work. I’ll let you know.”
I called her almost every day, especially on weekdays on my way home from the office. Sometimes her phone wasn’t working properly and sometimes she wasn’t feeling well enough to talk. So when a few days went by and I couldn’t reach her, I didn’t worry – until her daughter Melinda answered the phone and told me that Granny had taken a turn for the worse, and seemed like she was about to go.
“What do I do?” I whimpered, trying not to cry too hard and ruin my vision. I was driving and talking on the phone, something my mother always told me not to do, and today she was right.
“Oh honey,” Melinda said, full of shared sympathy and sorrow, “there isn’t anything you can do…”
She was right. Mothers – both my mother and Melinda – always seem to be right in extremes, during the best and the worst of circumstances. There was nothing I could do to save Granny. But I wish I could have spent more time with her. I wish I had felt secure enough in my job to take time off to visit her more towards the very end.
I didn’t go to Granny’s funeral. I don’t exactly regret not going – Granny wasn’t there anymore, and going to her funeral wouldn’t help me grieve, and I would have cried all along the drive home and probably would have wrecked my car – but I do regret some of the reasons why I didn’t go. I was scared to ask to be let off from work. I was too scared to tell anyone that she had died. If I told them, if I went to the funeral, it would be real. Schrodinger’s box would be opened and there would be Granny, killed by my insistence. Instead, I closed the door to my office and sobbed silently. Over the next few months, I went through a lot of tissue boxes and eye drops.
I miss Granny every day. But she still teaches me things, even when she is gone. She teaches me to be brave in facing a loved one’s death and all the awkwardness, discomfort, and misery of loss. She teaches me to be unafraid of demanding the freedom to spend enough time with the people I love that I no longer have regrets. She teaches me to love, every day. She still teaches me to be kind.