The thing about death is all the cliches that come with it. With all of the reading I've done in my short 30 years, I've come across a bunch. Mainly because I read too much. A 'bad habit' that grandma Dot was only too happy to encourage when I was a little kid and a teenager whenever I visited or spent the Summers with her and Grandpa James. So many cliches, the very thought of which honestly make me angry as I reflect on the life of and remember my Grandmother. Here's the funny thing. They're cliches because they're true, just overused. And if any ring true today, it's two; the one about how death makes you re-examine your life and the other about how it makes you regret things left unsaid or undone. Let's tackle the latter first. It's been an embarrassingly long time since I traveled to visit my grandmother and grandfather in NC and by extension all of the rest of the extended family-aunts, uncles, cousins, great-grandparents.
The last time was when I was still in my 20s and still in the military and not only was I there, my parents, brother, sister-n-law and young nephew too. Such a great time. All these people, crammed into every nook and cranny of Grandma's small, well-kept house. Greeted by her strong, warm hugs and many kisses on the cheek, I marveled at the warmth and love contained in this beautiful, gracious and petite woman. I always had, from my earliest memory. Even more wonderful was my Grandmother's laugh, loud, unrestrained, boisterous and warm. This from a woman who had enough pain and loss in her early years to break any man or woman I know. It was almost as if it was in defiance to any of that past darkness. Proof that she had survived and gone on to watch over a family that grew by leaps and bounds and gave her oodles of grandchildren and great-grandchildren!
I'm now 34. I live far away in Colorado, a place I love but a place that puts me far, far away from any of my immediate or even extended family. As a consequence I always made excuses-to myself, my parents, friends, girlfriends-as to why it had been so long since I'd been out to visit this woman who I clearly adored in telling funny stories about her. "It's far." "I'm broke." "Can't get off work." "I'm in school." And on and on and on. I always told myself-I have plenty of time, I can go next year. She's still young for a grandma. I'll wait for when the whole family is there again. One year turned into two, two turned into five and five quickly became ten and I still didn't go. I had grand plans. To sit at my grandma's kitchen counter, eating her untouchable homemade biscuits with butter and just ask her to tell me about her childhood, her teenage years, being a young mother to my mom and her sister and brothers. To just tell me stories about a generation receding far too quickly into the shadows of history. And I never did it. I never did. It haunts me. When my mother called to tell me about Grandma Dot dying my heart sunk. All those stories, all that shared laughter, all the twinkles in her eye from the pleasure she would surely take in me asking for her stories...none of it would happen now.
This amazing woman. I visited her for months at a time in Summers as a child, me and my older brother Douglas both at first and then as my brother got 'too old' for that, just me. Without batting an eye she handled two pain in the behind children and young teenagers. Feeding us. And by feeding us, let me tell you: scratch baked biscuits, steak and gravy, stewed apples that she made and canned herself, green beans from the garden out back, chow chow, Brunswick stew, pies...it was a plethora of southern cooking and perfectly, perfectly executed. My mother will tell you-her cooking was so good and every meal so homemade that at the end of one Summer I came home at least 20lbs heavier and my mother was on the phone to my grandmother as soon as she saw me! She and my grandfather took us to family reunions in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina-I met people one Summer I've never seen again but I was welcomed, the city boy from South Florida, with open arms, dozens and dozens, perhaps even more than a hundred people, all related to me by blood and marriage. I drank out of my first pure, delicious, so cold it numbed your throat, mountain spring at the reunion with my grandmother looking on. Never had water so perfect since.
Some of my best memories are with her and around her. I spent hours upon hours in the creek running through her backyard and neighborhood as a boy. Hardly a creek at all in most ways but still clean and unpolluted in those days and like another world for a 10 year old boy. And there were crawdads(or crawfish/crayfish if you prefer) to catch and make fight in gladiatorial battles on her back porch. Exploring and splashing and coming back home to grandma's house head-to-toe covered in mud. She would just laugh her special, deep laugh and point me into the bathroom to wash up before dinner.
And sense of humor to beat all! Grandma Dot loved telling funny stories and laughing until she cried and couldn't breathe, which was more often than not. A Southern woman who was not genteel nor did she care for formality or political correctness-before that was even a term in our society! She could make her daughter, my mother, Palma, blush at the drop of a hat telling stories about my mother as a girl or just telling us off-color stories that made us roll. I mean how cool is that, a grandmother who could make your own mother blush in embarrassment and not because she was the crazy lady with too many cats but because she was just so damn funny and inappropriate!
And practical jokes...well my grandmother loved those too. One Summer, one of the last with my older brother along, myself, my brother Doug and one of our cousins were down in Grandma's basement. The basement here was a cool, damp, dirt-floored place where the laundry was done, boxes upon boxes of old comic books where stacked and where canned food was stored. We had spent several days telling each other ghost stories and scaring the daylights out of each other and we decided what better place in the bright light of day to tell more stories, than in that dark basement. As we sat there telling stories, it slowly dawned on us that there was laughing coming from somewhere around us down there. A cackling, evil-sounding laughter and it was getting louder and we had no clue what it could be. The hair on my neck stood up and in silent agreement as we looked at each other, we ran as fast as we could out of that seemingly haunted basement and up the stairs to the house.
Scared speechless we tried to explain to my grandmother, standing in the living room with eyebrows raised, why we all three looked like we were sick. As we began to explain, she couldn't keep a straight face and burst into laughter. As we shut up and looked at her, astonished at this reaction to our immortal souls being endangered by an evil, laughing ghost in the basement, we quickly knew something was up. I followed her down the hall and caught her trying to hide something in the bathroom as she continued to laugh helplessly, tears streaming down her cheeks. Grabbing the object from her, it was a strange, wood-carved face of an old woman with a string hanging down. Confused, I pulled the string and as I watched the face's mouth opened and shut and a recording began playing the same demented sounding laughter we had heard in the basement. More digging led my still giggling Grandmother to admit that she knew we were telling ghost stories down there and she couldn't resist placing the head against one of the heating vents that led down directly into the basement in order to scare us. That story is one I've repeated again and again and one I know I'll always remember.
So, am I re-examining my life now you may wonder? Do I have enough life even to examine at only 34, not 79 like my beautiful grandmother? I'm not examining it in the way you might imagine. I'm still grateful and amazed every day I wake up in Boulder, CO. One of the most beautiful places in the world that I'm lucky enough to call home. I can't regret or examine that because you know what, anytime I spoke to my Grandmother on the phone in these years I made excuses for not going to see her, she would always, ALWAYS tell me how proud she was of me and how happy she was that I was happy where I was and how glad she was that I lived somewhere so beautiful. I only wished she would have had the means to come visit out here as I'm sure she would have loved it and I would have loved seeing the beauty of the mountains reflected in the beautiful eyes and smile of hers. I'm where I belong, out West and my grandmother knew that. What AM I re-examining? Time and excuses. Plans are plans and that's all. They're nothing if not acted upon. Action is what I need more of. I will visit my family more regularly. I will sit with my parents and ask them all the questions I've always wanted to and write down their answers and laugh with them over homemade biscuits with butter. I know they won't be anywhere near as good as my Grandma Dot's biscuits. But the stories just might be. And some of those stories, many of them, will be ones we tell each other...about her.
To my amazing, funny, warm, beautiful, delightful Grandmother, Dorothy C. Crowder. You were the quintessential southern lady. Brassy, loud, loving, strong, smart and resourceful and the kind of Grandmother I would wish on any young man. I love you. I will always love you. And I will miss you.
With All My Heart,
Matthew Brian McGee