Monday, June 10, 2013
On Februrary 27, 2013, my Grandma Byrd went home. She was, as the obit reads in true obit form, surrounded by friends and family, and at home at her daughter's house where she'd been living for a couple of months. Until then she had always lived on her own.
But to say she lived on her own is not quite right. A mother of eight is bound to beget grandchildren by the dozens, and she did. There are 16 of us, and so many of us have had kids that there are 15 of them, and one of them (we're on great-grandchildren now) even had kids, which makes for two great-great-grandchildren. Some were near, and some were far, but all of us thought of grandma's house as home.
She is my kindred spirit and I think of her every day. Despite the very different trajectories of our lives, on the inside our journeys were similar, and our likes and loves similar too. An intelligent woman with a mind for history, she landed herself a job at National Geographic some forty years after she had left high school without a diploma to marry my Grandaddy. Her daughters saved the hand-written letter she wrote to accompany her humble resume (she hadn't worked since she was a teenager -- who could work with eight kids?), wherein she proudly recounts her path to a GED, and shows not by what she says but by how she writes it that she is deserving of a career at that magazine. Her "MARJORIE C. BYRD" nameplate still sits on the desk at her house, where my dad now lives. I wish I could have it, but I know the daughters wouldn't let it go.
She had to get that National Geographic job. Grandaddy died in 1964 when seven of the kids were still at home.
I have to start telling stories here -- but first I have to say why I am so full of stories I can't hold them in. It's not only because Grandma died, and now I have to unload what I know and feel about her. It's also because I didn't even have many of these stories in my catalog until the week of her funeral.
It's so strange. I always wanted to hear the stories. So I always sat and listened to her stories, and my dad's stories too. But there were eight kids. The other seven had to have stories too, I figured. No one ever told them to me. Not until she died. It's like suddenly everyone had things to say and share they wished they'd said and shared earlier. Not just her kids, but her son-in-laws, her cousins and friends and neighbors. So many stories came out. Maybe telling her stories seemed to keep her with us in the room even after the coffin was closed and her body wheeled away.
My dad had never told me the story of his father's death. Now that mother was gone too, it could come out. It was Thanksgiving 1964. The day before, Luther Ernest Byrd had had some pain in in his leg, where the doctor had told him there might be a blood clot. He wasn't about to go to the doctor the day before Thanksgiving. He'd go on Friday, he said. Well, after Thanksgiving dinner he got up and left the table. At the threshold to the kitchen he put one hand on the door jamb to steady himself from what looked like a dizzy spell. Down he slumped. The little ones started to cry.
One of the daughters' boyfriends propped Ernest up, and Mom tried to wake him but he was gone. The doctor said he went instantly.
Back in Illinois, after the funeral, I answered a call from my dad as I drove home from DeKalb on 88. He talked about his dad's death again. He said he wanted to go that way, boom! and done. He said the women in the family drag death out (the last one to go was Aunt Dory at 92) and the men just up and die, quick and painless. That's how I wanna go, he kept saying.
Grandma would not leave so easily. For the past three years or so she has had it rough. Two falls, one breaking her leg, the other her pelvis, diagnoses of COPD, blood disorders, and collapsed esophagus, to name a few. She and my aunt who has diabetes would compare the size of their pill bags at breakfast. Yes, Grandma had been mostly miserable for at least the last year. Finally in January they found two aggressive cancers at work on her. There was nothing to do but give her pain medication. Another one for the pill bag.
The last time I spoke to her was on her birthday, February 3. She was loopy. I wanted to cry. That woman had never had a day of senility in her life. She was the most lucid 88 year old you could imagine. To hear her disorientation and confusion was heartbreaking.
At the funerals (there were two -- I'll get to that in a minute) my Uncle Wayne (her son-in-law) read a service. It was really beautiful, and he even changed it up the second time. Anyway, there was a bit in there about how grandma never complained. She raised eight kids on her own, lost almost all of her brothers and sisters, never rose above poverty, and never, ever let it get her down. For the most part, that was true. For decades that was so very true. How that little woman had so much strength in her I can't know.
But last year when I visited in the summertime, I was very sick, sicker than I've ever been. My liver was crapping out. Grandma's everything was crapping out. We commiserated. One night when she couldn't sleep because she couldn't breathe, she came right out with it -- she was miserable, and was beginning to think "What in thuh world's the point? Let's get i'toverwith." To hear her say that hurt, but it was a shadow of her dark side that I'd never seen before. I was glad that she felt she could show it in my presence.
After a fall two years ago, Grandma found herself in the middle of the living room, talking to an EMT. "MRS. BYRD!" He called her back to waking life. "CAN YOU TELL ME SOMETHING MRS. BYRD?" She shook herself to make her eyes focus. "What's that?" she asked. He was smiling. He pointed to the landing of the stairs, where it seemed she'd fallen from. "Tell me -- how did you manage to throw yourself all the way over here in the middle of the room without breaking every bone in your body?" She smiled back, because she couldn't feel a thing. "I surprise even myself."
After an arrest forty-some years ago, Grandma (Mom) had to bail out a couple of kids, and a couple of neighbor kids. The neighbor kids' mom didn't find out about it until the funeral. Grandma could keep a secret.
My favorite eulogy given at the Dawsonville, Maryland service was from Grandma's neighbor, Katherine. I can't capture its poignancy here, but it bothered me that my Dad and aunts seemed to think she went overboard. Like "that's my mom you can't cry about her!" I guess as a granddaughter I don't feel that way. I feel like I want to share her as much as I can. I shared her with my best friend, with my kids and husband, with my cousins on my mom's side, with my writer's group (through words anyway). I loved that we could also share her with the neighbors. Kate had only lived in that house a few years, and said she would have given up on living in a new place if it hadn't been for Marjorie. I was so glad for Kate. And I was glad even to be reminded of the Bakers, who lived there before her, whose boys I'd play football with in fifty-degree evenings twenty years ago, and refuse to put on my jacket.
After the Dawsonville service, we ate in the church basement. I hadn't been down there in over 20 years. It was the same. It was great. After we buried her in Chilhowie, Virginia, we ate at the community center next to the river, where we've had family reunions for decades. It was the same too. And the food was such a comfort. Southern, buffet-style church food is my favorite menu. My sis and I overate puddings, meatballs, salads and casseroles you'd find in a '70s cookbook, and overdrank sweet tea and diet soda.
Another thing Grandma and I shared was books. She loved mysteries and she would pick them up at antique shops and yard sales all over the countryside. When she got them home, she would write inside the front cover where the book came from, and write the date. After she read it, she would write inside the front or back cover a brief review. She would write more than that too. She always had several journals going around the house. Some were devotional sorts of things, and others were about family, a place to record stories, births and deaths. Sometimes I would just find a scrap of a piece of notebook paper with a line from a hymn and some musings on it. I used to write compulsively like that, and thinking of her notebooks and scraps makes me want to get into the habit again.
Her love of learning made it onto the funerary card. At the Chilhowie, Virginia service, I had to stand up and say something about it. I have a big family, and most of them are proud of me for what I do. But they've all been asking "When are you done with school?" since college began for the first time, fifteen years ago. Well, Grandma never asked me that. She understood why I would always be in school, why I had to become a professor (which takes forever) so that I could stay in school forever. I love that she never asked me that.
Grandaddy was the one from Virginia. Grandma was from Tennessee. They both lived near the state line, where the tip of northeast Tennessee overlaps the tip of southwest Virginny. There were two funerals because sometime around 1950, Grandaddy bought a farm in Maryland and asked Grandma if she wanted to be a farmer's wife. And after she moved to Maryland, where she had six more children, she created quite the matriarchy. Scores of family and friends in both states wanted to say goodbye.
Here's a wild picture of Grandma stealing a bike from a boy when she was 14, in Shady Valley, TN.
This is getting long, and I will never run out of things to say about her. I'll end with my last new discovery, had by unprecedented the story-sharing by my aunts. Grandma could sing and play guitar. She would wake the kids up by singing and playing. She would sing little songs about how breakfast is ready. And before all that, she sang to her husband. And before that, to her brothers. My Aunt Ginnie (named Virginia, after the state) ended the letter she read to her mama with, "Now you can sing to Daddy all you want."
I've been sitting on this for a while, and it's time to let it go. It's an unrevised thought unloading, but it's on one of the most important people in my life, possibly the best human being I will ever know. (Some creative non-fiction about her will follow in later posts.)