Rhonda M. Foote
I would gladly follow my Grandmother, Alice, anywhere. She was “my person” when I was growing up, and long after I should have grown up. My memories of her are so bountiful and joyous. How does one capture the soul of a person? How do I tell you about this woman who painted her house pink, who went to college in her fifties, who married more than once (oh, the scandal)? How do I share the flour-dusted memories of pie crust making, or the loud crooning of her voice beside me in a church pew? She left this world eighteen years ago, but is with me every day. When I hear “Amazing Grace” or “Rock of Ages,” I still burst into tears. The memory of her standing in her kitchen, or in our church, or riding in her car as she boomed these hymns is palpable. Her voice is in the air and wraps itself around my heart. I miss her so.
Alice was envelopes filled with cash on branches of the Christmas tree. She was a beauty salon on the side of her trailer, and several bad haircuts which I proclaimed to love. Gramma Alice was a poufy square dance skirt and bunions on toes. She was country fair concerts and too many sweet treats. Alice was mums planted in tidy rows of color in a window box and stories as colorful as her garden.
Summers were spent with her. Endless days of sun and long, pointless chats. Nights when thunderstorms rolled in, she rolled me out of bed and into the car, where we would be “safe.” Regardless of the hour, we drove around until that storm ended. I found out, years later, that Alice had lost her home to a bolt of lightning when she was a small child, and thus the summer eve outings. Often, she found someplace (miraculously) where they made us two butterscotch sundaes with a cherry on top. I still love a butterscotch sundae, but it doesn’t taste the same without her sitting on the stool beside me—both of us leaning on our elbows, held up by a fake-marble top counter—our toes skimming the just swept floor of an old ice cream parlor.
Gramma Alice did things. She joined groups and took classes. She had parties and made new friends. Alice was a force to be dealt with. To this day, my father will shake his head and tell me that I am “just like Alice.” I thank him - that is a tremendous compliment. One of the things I recall that Gram Alice did was take off to Alaska. She just decided she should go because she “always wanted to”—and so, she did. She came home after a month with photos we could spin and watch on a screen, and stories of black bears and salmon “as big as your imagination.” She talked about the weather and the scenery so vividly, I believed I had been there, too. Alice could weave a story from truth to make life as lovely as you wished. Many of her stories were grounded in her faith. She saw beauty in everyone and everything, and that beauty was grounded in her belief of something much bigger than us and our world. Her “big picture” was larger than I have ever been able to fathom.
My Gram had read the bible cover to cover twice and still listened to Bible on Tape as a leisure activity. She was a Real Christian. The kind of woman who lived on a dime and shared what was left with someone else. She had been widowed when I was a baby, and my mother never recovered. Mom was a Daddy’s Girl. I was a Gram’s Girl. Alice remarried. Twice. This never meant she loved my mother’s father less, it just meant she knew love was a gift to be found and shared. She tried at love again, first to a pipe smoking man who smelled like timber and alcohol. He was nice to us, but not so nice to Gram when drinking. He wasn’t around for long. My memories of him are wrapped in the swirl of smoke from his corncob pipe, and lie jumbled on the threads of notes he puffed from an old harmonica. He drifted off like the thin tune he played and the smoke that enveloped him.
Next came Walt. Shiny Walt-the-car-salesman in suits and with his a Manhattan in hand. He taught my little brother just how much vermouth was needed in his drinks, and he adored my Gram. My cousins and I spent summer weeks in a camper in their yard. Gramma and Walt took us to the amusement park every night to play skee ball, and ride the ferris wheel. We planted flowers, ate bar-b-que, and had many scoops of ice cream. Walt’s blue eyes sparkled when my Gram laughed. This man with squeaky clean loafers would gladly stoop to dig in the dirt and admire our lackluster gardening skills. He laughed at our pre-teen antics and hugged us like he was our real Grandpa. He was our real Grandpa. Just before I left for college, Walt suffered a sudden heart attack, and was gone from our lives as quickly as he had come. Gram hung up on her square dance skirt, left her garden untended, and decided it was time to grow old.
When I was a sophomore in college, Gram visited to tell me that she was having heart surgery. She was always honest with her grandchildren, and she told me that she feared she would not see me again. We didn’t cry. We just sat and chatted, holding hands on the porch steps of my sorority house. She survived that surgery—and many more.
I still laugh about the time she ate an entire bag of forbidden coconut, and admitted herself to the hospital, saying she was having “an attack,” but failing to share the reason. The family rushed to the local hospital to say our good-byes. She was taken in to surgery and we all held hands and our breath, and waited. Soon, her surgeon stood before us, shaking his head, and smirking. He had removed a huge ball of coconut from Gramma’s stomach. She would be fine. My mother was fuming. How could Alice have not told us the reason for her pain? Gram was sheepish, “I didn’t want you all to be upset with me,” was all she could muster. I can still recall her looking so small in that huge bed. I could not wait to take her home.
I have photos of Gram holding my daughter the day she was born. More photos at her first birthday bash. Gram is always the same in these pictures—unaware of the camera and smitten with my sweet baby. My baby girl faced physical struggles, and we were not sure she would walk. She did. And when she was just two, we took her to visit my Gram, who was in the hospital, and “just not herself.” My kiddo toddled into the room yelling “Grammy!” and Alice cried tears of joy. We talked as long as her self-propelled great-granddaughter would allow, and then I scooped up my sweet girl and went home.
I awoke the next day to the repeated ringing of my phone. It was my mom, and she was angry. Angry that I hadn’t picked up sooner. Angry that her mother had died. Angry that she had died alone. The nurses told us that Gram was whispering her favorite bible verses as she passed. I have no doubt that she was talking to her loved ones. Now, I am sure she is up there somewhere, square dancing, giving free haircuts, and belting “Rock of Ages.”
Thanks to Alice, I dream of pink houses and Alaska’s sunrise. I can make a mean pie crust, and know a great deal too much about old-time country music. I recall Bible verses I did not even know I knew, and I am able to roll with life’s punches. When I teeter near the edge of sleep on stifling warm summer evenings, and the air is filled with the promise of thunder and the tingle of possible lightning, I can feel Gram near me. Sometimes, I roll out of bed and go for a drive. I lean into the steering wheel, peel my eyes on the road ahead and whisper to the humid darkness, “Gram?... Alice, I will follow you—anywhere.”