February 7, 2010

Mildred Cleo Jackson Harrison, 1916-2010

My family has no comfort food for vegetarians.

The dwindling numbers of our family were gathered in the Victorian dining room, around the long table that used to be filled to bursting with my huge uncles and my parents, my grandma and my great-grandparents during my early childhood Christmases.  My cousins and I nearly doubled the people in the room when the three of us walked in.  Their dad, his third wife, my great-grandfather and my grandma and my mother were uneasily placed around one end. 

"There's a meat tray in the fridge," someone said.  Wonder bread and plain, whole-wheat sandwich loaf sat in the middle of the table, tucked in and abandoned; paper plates were positioned to one side, and a plastic container of grocery-store chocolate chip cookies on the other. 

The pecking order was displaced: without Grandmother there, whom do we hug and kiss first?  GrandDad was an obvious choice but it felt wrong, like she would be slighted even though her absence was why we were here, together. 

The small talk was like any other small talk: inconsequential, the basic razzing of we, the newly arrived members, in particular my cousin Tiffany, whose long absence and wandering distance from our family gatherings made her a novelty.  I was surprised at how easy it was to laugh at one another, and the atmosphere held only a slight weight from what we were avoiding mentioning.  After twenty minutes or so, GrandDad got up and disappeared.  I watched him go out the side door, and when he hadn't reappeared in a few minutes I knew he was tired from having us all there, from the effort of holding his head up and listening to us not talk about Grandmother.  Finally, we left and let him be alone in the house.  I had a moment of worry, thinking about him alone, without her, but then I remembered that every night for the last few months she had been in the nursing home and it would have been him here, by himself, with the house and its partitioned rooms and musty carpets.
The next day was spent waiting.  I cleaned out my car, changed my expired license plates for the new ones, and read Jhumpa Lahiri short stories until it was time to get dressed for visitation.

Lahiri's stories are the pastime of my mourning periods: it was outside Gammy's house on a blanket in the sun that I lay and read Interpreter of Maladies and waited for my keening heart to scab.  Now it was Unaccustomed Earth, and the feeling was the same: the melancholy mood that stole over the stories, even when they seemed perfectly ordinary or the tales of how bittersweet it was to simply live your life and grow up to become alike and different from your parents.

Visitation was long: the family lined up, creating a whirlpool of mourners as friends of GrandDad and Grandmother filed in, chatted, and gazed upon my grandmother's face.  The palest rose lining complemented her taut, wrinkled skin, heavily made up but making her younger than her ninety-three years.  Endless introductions, my cousins and my brother and I standing awkwardly to one side, always identifying ourselves as the children of our parents.  There was no cheek pinching, but plenty of remarks on how grown-up we were now.

Afterward, my cousins and I sat in the back bedroom, drinking white wine while my brother played Xbox and the "real" adults watched TV in the living room.
The next day was the funeral.  Lunch first at the supper club where my grandparents ate three or four times weekly for years, where my grandmother played bridge with her equally-ancient friends.

The pastor was a woman who had never known Grandmother, who worked in the meager details that my uncle's wife had given her.  I found myself tuning out, thinking about what I would have said about Grandmother if I could.

"She was a spitfire.  A Southern Lady with a capital L, an antiques expert who could tell cut glass from crystal by the sound it makes when you flick it with a fingertip.  She was opinionated and wouldn't take no for an answer.  She was the queen of our family by any definition--better yet, an empress, a woman we all tried to impress but who was impossible to predict.  She could beat anyone at bridge and wouldn't hold back.  She loved to collect things and had a passion for animal prints that went beyond simple accessories.  She might have had favorites but we all knew she still loved all of us in different ways.  She was proud of our accomplishments and scandalized (or tickled) by our gauches.  She was stubborn and proud and dignified and crazy, sometimes, with notions about things she could and couldn't eat that were nonsense but catered to.  She was the one you kissed first and she was the one who had a plate first at Thanksgiving, and after dinner she had her coffee black and would hold court at the adults' table until everyone finally trickled to the living room, at which point she would be enthroned there instead.  She gave crazy gifts at Christmas, by turns ostentatious and ridiculous in an attempt to capture what she knew of us.  She gave me the history of Ralls county one year because she knew I liked books and she probably found it at an antiques shop.  She refused beyond the point of reason to use a wheelchair and capitulated only when it became evident that she would never leave the nursing home if she didn't use one.  She lived life on her terms and her terms only, and she did her best to see to it that you lived on her terms, too.  She could cuss like a sailor and rebuke GrandDad for his language in the same breath, and to really get her a good birthday or Christmas gift you need look no further than bronze, brown, or animal print clothes.  She was a spitfire, a Southern Lady with a capital L; she was Grandmother."
The graveside service was brief, a single scripture passage under a blue tarp, seated in folding chairs settled on astroturf with a blanket over our laps.  Afterward, Mom and I stood by the tent pole and lifted up the green plastic grass-carpet to find Dad.

All of the girl great-grandchildren took a rose or two, with a spray of baby's breath and a peacock feather, the feather more than the flowers the best representation of Grandmother.

Back at GrandDad's, we sat around the dining room table again and dug into the lunch leftovers with the urgency that comes after funereal brushes with death.  What I really craved was the fried chicken, the skin crispy and the flesh moist and succulent, supremely salty and dragged through a mountain of mashed potatoes.  Instead, I had salad and green beans and mashed potatoes and a roll, but none of the roast beef or ham or chicken: funeral baked meats.  Somehow it was harder to be a vegetarian in this moment than at any other, in this instant where not eating meat meant I was excluded from the experience of my family, where the very process of grieving seemed wrapped up in the plates of fried chicken and finished off with pie. 

1 comment:

pyjeon said...

I'm sorry for your loss.

My vegetarianism goes out the window if it gets in the way of human connection and/or happiness.