When I arrive, I knock. My grandmother is surprised to see me when she opens the door. “Whale, Ree-gee-nuh,” she clucks, “I thought you were comin’ next week. Not this week.” Two calendars hang on opposite walls. One is still stuck on August but the other one is flipped to the October page. My name is written then scratched out this week, circled for next week. I fix the August page and make it October. Above that calendar is where the clock hangs. A gift from my dad, it governs this room and her life. Grandmother looks at it nearly the whole time she talks. It’s her grounding foot, her compass, her steadying rail; the walking cane she doesn’t physically have a need for.
She points at the clock. An owl is positioned where 12 should be. A different bird chirps on every hour. One time, she says, I heard that clock deep in the night and I got up, thinking your grandpaw had fixed that thing. Came out here into the kitchen, wondering how I was gonna shut that thing up so your grandpa could sleep and get up in the morning when I realized all that commotion was a real owl.
Listening to my grandmother talk is like watching her swim through memories. Sometimes she treads through calm waters, other times her head bobs underwater in a moment of forgetfulness and she’s grasping for the word, the image, the name, the place just like she’s gasping for air. Her mouth is open, her eyes are wide; she is incredulous at her own inability to retrieve that which is — was — just right there.
The birds stay in the same place, the minute hand moves. My grandmother keeps her eye on it — says the battery ran down last week and she was afraid she was going to miss her doctor’s appointment because she’d lost track of time. How easily time evades us, slips right past a weak battery when we’re not looking. Just like that, something is lost; unrecoverable.
My grandmother tells me she was convinced she was eighty-six up until my aunt told her otherwise. “Mamma,” she said my aunt Ginny said, “you’re eighty-EIGHT.”
I laugh and grandmother takes her eyes off the clock to look at me and smile. “Growin’ old,” Grandmother says in her thick, pronounced yet frail Mississippi accent, “is not for wimps. I tell ya. You’ll learn things you never knew.”
“Like what?” I ask.
“You start talkin to yourself,” she says laughing loudly before she’s deep water over her head into another memory again.
She relays the days before my grandfather’s death, talks about how he fell a few times. Talks about how he just wouldn’t give up. She still stares at the clock. The last time I was here in August my grandmother said she sometimes had to look at the newspaper to find out what day it was.
We talk or mostly she does. About the past, about the weather. We talk about the price of stamps.
“How much is a stamp these days anyway?” This is something I’ve been wanting to ask someone who would know but I keep forgetting to ask it because it’s not really that important. “I remember,” I say, sounding old even to myself, “they used to cost twenty-five cents. Then they cost thirty-nine and then I lost track.”
“I don’t know. I buy those FOREVER stamps. If they don’t have FOREVER on them, I send them back. I don’t want stamps that don’t say FOREVER because then you can’t use them whenever you want.”
She gets up, puts her glasses on which makes her look like a younger version of herself, a version I remember more vividly than the current version of her as though this one — not the woman without the glasses — is the real her. She rummages through her cabinet until she finds her stamps. “Here,” she hands the book to me. Firecracker fourth of July American flags. “Take one,” she says.
“I’m not going to take one of your stamps, grandmother, it’s okay.”
“Then you’ll know which kind to buy,” she insists, already trying to tear one off for me. She forgets stamps aren’t perforated anymore and for a second I’m right there with her until I remember it’s a sticker. “Don’t do that, Grandmother, really. You’ll end up giving me two because there’s another one on the back of that one.”
Talking her out of this takes quite awhile. It would have just been easier to take the stamp. But for some reason it feels important not to take one of these forever stamps from her. We continue to go back and forth until we reach the end — a place of understanding — of this senseless conversation.
After lunch we venture out into the back pasture, a place where she has been forbidden to brave alone since my grandfather died. “I’m not allowed to go past the barn,” she says. “Well, you’re with me so we can go wherever you want, Grandmother.” And we do. We walk through the barn, past grandpa’s shirt that still hangs on the hook near his new tractor which is parked next to his old tractor. We walk all the way to the back side of the property, past all the overgrown “Katrina piles” as they’ve been named. These are the bramble and bush covered mounds of rotted tree stumps and twigs and roots, now overtaken again by a near decade of nature. I joke with her and tell her we’re walking on the wild side of the barn. She hoots, in full awareness and acceptance of the ridiculous limitations that eighty-eight brings. When we come across a gigantic spider the size of my hand, holding court in the middle of three layers of webs hung like hammocks across the three foot wide path, Grandmother says let’s go another way. I would have preferred to bypass the spider rather than the confederate flag-flying neighbors, but she wanted to make sure they didn’t have anything of theirs touching her property. Wanted to make sure the fence has been left right where it’s always been.
Nearly an hour later we return to the house. We stop to smell the fragrant ginger in full bloom. I reminisce about how this whole place looked so different before Katrina. The way it is now has nothing to do now with the memories of my childhood. We laugh at the old above-ground pool that used to be there where the frogs took up residence at night and drove my mother crazy when we visited one summer.
My grandmother remembers the things I do. Is there any greater a comfort in life than to hold something inside yourself so tight, knowing a similar version is also alive in someone else? Right in that moment, walking with my grandmother feels like an other worldly kind of privilege. As though one of us is not really there, only an apparition. It is a dream I can’t translate. A deja vu cloud of reality you want to clutch and cling to and keep and as soon as that pang of impossibility seizes your heart, it’s gone. You’re so sure it took something of you with it as it left.
We return to the porch in a thick sweat, sit down in a huff in the wooden rocking chairs and we rock and talk, rock and talk. She forgets how old I am, she says. “Thirty-four, Grandmother,” I say and her jaw drops again. She looks at me like I’d been lying to her this whole time. Not just today but the other days I’ve been on this planet. “I thought you were gonna say twenty-eight at the worst!” I laugh then stop because she’s really not amused. “You better hurry up and find yourself a man who’s gonna take care of you if you ever wanna have babies.”
If anyone else had said this… But this is not just anyone. This is my eight-eight year old bible reading grandmother.
“I don’t so much need a man to take care of me as I need a man who’s in all this for the long haul,” I say.
We talk some more about marriage and about happiness. We rock and rock back and forth in this sap-thick heat and I don’t want to go but I have to.
“Aren’t you scared to drive back to New Orleans all by yourself?” she asks.
“What if something happens to you? You run off the side of the road or break down?” she asks, truly concerned.
“I’ve got my cell phone. I’ll be alright.” Then I pause, giving what she’s saying some thought. Deep down, I’m always a little scared of everything. I just never stop long enough to think about it. “Tell you the truth, Grandmother, if I sat around and thought about all the things that could happen to me I’d never get out of bed in the morning. I’d never go anywhere.”
“Well that’s true,” she says and dismisses herself. “I’ve just always liked to be home. You’re just like your deddy. He likes to go off,” she waves her hand, gestures up to the sky, “see what’s happening out there in the world.”
I envy her, in this quiet place, reading her bible. Two pair of her shoes sit loyally by the doorstep. They remind me of all the shoes I cleaned out of the old house where I lived in Italy. Leather, black, laceless, dust covered from being worn outside in the sandy silt-like stuff that acts as dirt here. So much of my life has taken place far away from this place. So much of where I’ve been comes from right here, this very place. The very dust on those shoes. I wonder if I’ll wear shoes like that when I’m old. I wonder if I’ll get old.
We hug goodbye and laugh at something or other because that’s how it’s done around here. I make a quick escape. No tears. I don’t know if or when I’ll get to see her again. But I don’t dwell on that for too long. I just do like my grandmother does. She just gets on with it. Growing old is not for wimps.